Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2016 > Prayer and Worship: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

JANUARY 18–25, 2016

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Memorial Homily
“Say Yes”

2016 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By The Rev. Nikki Mathis

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  (Acts 2:2-4, NRSV)

On the morning of that first Pentecost, why would the breath of God show up so forcefully? Why would the raw power of God be spread so visibly? Scripture doesn’t give us the reason, but it’s clear that the Divine determined that power, described in terms of wind and flame, was essential at that moment in the life of the infant church. The gift given to the disciples to aid them in spreading the gospel of love, was the Holy Spirit which pushes and empowers, rather than the one that counsels and comforts.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted that such power was indispensable in the action of love, “…power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

It is this kind of power that these few disciples, forming the whole of the church, required for the daunting task ahead. Not only were they to continue the work of Jesus by telling the good news to all, offering hope and healing to the whole world; they had to do it in languages that are not their own. This little tiny, baby church was pushed out of its safe little room, out into the wide, wide multicultural world that is Jerusalem at the time of a Jewish festival.

And even as they go out to do what God has given them to do, there is apparently so much chaos and confusion, so much that is unfamiliar and miraculous, that some people simply can’t accept it. While others are taking in the miracle, still others are ridiculing the believers, proclaiming them to be drunk.

But why couldn’t everything be done ‘decently and in order’?  Why wouldn’t God have the disciples engage in a way that’s organized and controlled, perhaps scheduling a conference, offering an introductory course, or at the very least, simply hiring some interpreters?  

You may remember some years ago when General Motors was trying to sell the Chevy Nova in South America.  Those sales didn’t go so well, because in Spanish “nova” means "it won't go".  A similar occurrence took place when Kentucky Fried Chicken opened restaurants in China, and discovered that, the translation of their signature slogan "finger lickin' good" actually read as "eat your fingers off."

When we choose not to step outside of ourselves to meet and understand the ‘other’ exactly where they are, there is so much that can be lost in translation. And apparently, for God, the stakes were too high…this was about life and death, after all,  and the need of the world was too great, so many were hurting…that I imagine there wasn’t room for those kind of mistakes in the delivery of the good news.  I believe it was vitally important that the Holy Spirit made it possible for this tiny, fledgling church to speak accurately and convincingly in the language of the ‘other,’ with all the attendant idioms and rhythms, and cultural overtones, of every listener’s very own language.

It makes sense to me that the Holy Spirit enables the church, to, as its first action, be a model for outreach, a  model for mission, a model for the church’s purpose of reconciling the world to God and one another, using the vehicle of difference.

And use of that vehicle isn’t easy. That’s why it required such a show of power through the life-giving breath of God and the all-consuming might of God. Sharing, connecting, loving in the vehicle of difference can be very uncomfortable, both for those who are doing the work, as well as those who are witness to the work. It’s uncomfortable for some who witness God’s work when it doesn’t look like what they think it should look like, or doesn’t fit the notion of a God they’ve imagined in their own image, so they call disciples drunk when they reach out to those who are different.

And it’s hard to deal with the discomfort of difference for us who are doing the work, because we are loving people who don’t want to do or say the wrong thing, we don’t want to hurt or offend, and we certainly don’t want to sound like we subscribe to any of those ugly words that end in ‘ism’ or ‘obia’. 

That’s exactly why we describe the openness and generosity of spirit in our children, by saying things like ‘they don’t see difference, they just see people.’ But children do see difference. It’s why they say things like, “Pete has two mommies…he’s so lucky!’ or “Rev. Martha, can you braid my hair like yours?” Children see all of the differences, and they are honest about it, these beautiful and God-given varieties in humanity, and like God, it would never occur to them to use any of those differences to make comparative determinations of a person’s worth. That’s what we actually mean when we say our children ‘just see people.’ And it’s what we’re actually trying to get to when we say things like “I don’t see sexual orientation or race or gender,” or some variation thereof.

Even though that phrasing may be well-intentioned, at best it sounds naïve and at worst, dishonest. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Unwittingly, we have just said to somebody, to the ‘other,’ whoever the other is, that we are choosing to, on some level, ignore their heritage, their same-sex partner, their physical or developmental challenges, and therefore exercise the privilege of disengaging from both the beauty and the struggle that this difference adds to an individual’s or group’s life because it is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Choosing, even unintentionally, to disavow the wide array of differences that display the glorious image of God is to cheat ourselves out of an adventure the Holy Spirit offered the disciples at the church’s first Pentecost, and the adventure that’s still offered us today.

As with all adventure, not only is there difficulty, but there is also danger in the journey. When we say yes to that adventure, that’s when the fire of the Spirit pries us away from the pressure of those who demand that we remain the same as they are or the same way we’ve always been, and it moves us toward the vulnerability of learning new ways of listening and understanding the world we see. It also when the wind of the Spirit pushes us to bring change into those hard places in people, and systems, and structures that are designed to maintain the status quo, to keep us comfortable and unaware. This can bring some very real loss to our lives…such as loss of friends and associates, loss of social standing, or even loss of financial or physical security.

But saying ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit, saying ‘yes’ to that adventure, is also when we can be who we were created to be in the kingdom, and there is no greater joy than that. As Dr. King tells us, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. “

And the reward can great, when we say ‘yes,’ to the adventure, to the challenge and controversy. Those disciples, empowered by the Spirit, were very effective on that first Pentecost.  They were so effective, in fact, that the brand new infant church grew by 3,000 that day. Not 30, not 300…3000! That day 3,000 heard the language of the love of God, and NOTHING was lost in translation.

There are still countless others, …in our world, in our nation, from Syria to Ferguson, who need to hear the same… the language of God’s fathomless acceptance and unconditional love in a world that practices the brutality of hate, the endless reach of God’s invitation in a world that rewards the cruelty of exclusion, and the almighty goodness of God’s power in a world where other powers perform acts of unimaginable evil. The good news is still a matter of life and death in places where refugees can be turned away, and where systemic sexism, racism, ableism, produce an uneven and often perilous playing field.

The Holy Spirit that came as a gift on that first Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that is given to us which each brand new day, so that we too may have the power to do what love requires us to do. Jesus is simply waiting on us to accept, to just say ‘yes’ to that wild wind and holy flame.

The Reverend Nikki Mathis is currently Associate Rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, in Rome, Ga. where she has served since October of 2013. Before this, she served as Associate Dean of Community Life at the School of Theology, Sewanee, University of the South, and as Associate Rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA. Prior to her ordination to the priesthood, she enjoyed a career in the field of clinical social work that spanned nearly twenty years. She is a graduate of Emory University, has received her Master of Divinity Degree at The School of Theology, Sewanee, University of the South, and has a Master of Social Work from the University of Georgia.  She has published articles in the Journal of Family Social Work, and Sewanee Theological Review. She has also served as faculty in the Episcopal Preaching Foundation’s Annual Preaching Excellence Program. She is married to Mr. Vincent Mathis, and they are proud parents of their adorable three year old son, Ethan Mathis.