WEEK OF PRAYER FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
JANUARY 18–25, 2022
PRAYER / WORSHIP: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Homily Notes
Rev. Dr. David Latimore
Director for the Betsey Stockton Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary
We saw the star in the east, and we came to worship him.
The Rev. Dr. David Latimore serves as the Director for the Betsey Stockton Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has over twenty years of pastoral experience and is a PhD graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School.
We gather for this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, having adopted this Matthean pericope to frame this time of reflection. Within many religious traditions, both this text and the timing of our encounter with it are associated with periods of celebration. The light of the heavenly star pierces the darkness shrouding the journey of the wise men, illuminating the inaugural moments of the birth of the savior, which is an inflection point in the relentless love story of God's redemption of humanity.
Additionally, this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity arrives shortly after the dawning of the new year. The new beginning invites us to reflect on the wondrous possibilities of renewal and restoration that may lie before us. This is a time when many consider the addition of practices that might enrich their lives or the cessation of practical or spiritual habits that, upon reflection, add more darkness than joy to our lives. Gyms are filled, diets begun, spiritual practices reengaged, new commitments formed, with each driven by a simple presupposition – that the light and joy of this moment might be sustained against the perennial challenges that threaten to overwhelm our lives. Christmas and New Year's offer us a hope that shines a light into our tomorrow, that it might be brighter than our yesterday.
Such a light is needed at this moment more than ever. For many, our yesterdays live under communal, political, economic, and religious clouds that darken the horizon of our tomorrows and threaten to rob communities of faith of the hope that restoration and renewal will yield substantive change in our lives and our communities. We stand in this moment facing the growing storms of tribalism and the vilification of those different from us. We stand in the face of this darkness, much like the wise men, and find that the darkness is only deepened by political and economic clouds seeking to subsume the fragile lives of our communities’ men, women, and children. In the midst of this darkness, many ask communities of faith a question similar to the one posed to the wise men: Where is this child promising the hope of healing for the desperate conditions of brokenness in the lives of so many?
If we are not careful, the power of our proclamation of hope, grounded in the Jesus story, may be found impotent as our theology and worship succumbs to the warping of our religious thought and praxes under the darkness of yesterday’s unrelenting hermeneutic of individualism and tribalism, demonization of the other, and disconnection from the fullness of the human community. It does not take much to see yesterday’s darkness bleeding into our tomorrows, as the Christian church struggles to speak to the experiences of trauma (economic and physical) routinely encountered by marginalized communities. The poor, living within the shadows of our cathedrals and yearning for the restoration the new year offers, are unimpressed by the frequency or formality of our religious rituals. They live in the trauma of their impoverishment, sequestered in prisons of economic deprivation, and look upon the Christian church with concern and consternation, if not outright contempt. Why? Because they wonder, if the God so boldly professed is present when our congregations lift up their voices in this period of celebration; if the God declared listens so attentively to our petitions as we pray, why does this God appear so absent from our yesterday and tomorrow? While the church gathers amidst the residual fragments of broken communities, celebrating in barren fields of economic exploitation, poor and marginalized communities cry out, “Where is this God when another young life is taken, or when a child and their family go to bed with hungry bellies, or when men and women, through no fault of their own, fall to sleep with no more than heaven itself as shelter?” As ornate and overflowing churches offer worship and celebration, communities of the excluded, living in the midst of darkness, lift up their voices in lament and dismay while the church fiddles and cities burn.
We stand in the dimming light of yesterday’s midnight, but Martin Luther King’s life and words offer us hope. We may stand in midnight, our worlds shrouded in darkness, but the darkness is interrupted by God's knock at the door of our lives.1 That knock is the abiding hope that the birth of Jesus is a call to each of us to reach forward and grasp the light of a new day and a new year. Our hope is the story of the one born in the manger, which rejects the narrative normalized by any culture that suggests that the joy and happiness of our lives is the product of a zero-sum game where we only win at the expense of the other. Most importantly, the life and work of Dr. King remind us that our faith, our story, and our future lie beyond the narrow confines of our tribe and our self-interests. The inclusion of the far-traveling wise men into the gospel’s grand story of hope is the testimony that the light of the Christian of faith shines brightest with the inclusion of those who some might consider as other.
These wise men, strangers to Bethlehem, are part of this unfolding story of hope. Those who are different from what culture declares as normative represent the reality that all of humanity finds a place of welcome in God's story. This inclusion of others and the embrace of their gifts provide the light for our path out of the darkness. Such a light was also offered by the work of Dr. King. His life and his work remind us of the place and importance of the marginalized, the poor, and the downtrodden in the glorious story of the gospel. Dr. King's prophetic proclamation declared that when the least of humanity, the ignored, the marginalized, and the oppressed among us cannot grasp the promise of equality and dignity that is the human birthright from God, then none of us can enjoy its rich fruits. This is the rejection of the idea that the culture forces upon us: that our celebration of liberty and life is unimpeded by the reality of the oppression experienced by others. Instead, the Jesus story and the story of the Civil Rights Movement declare the indissoluble connection between us, particularly the connection between anyone professing faith in Jesus Christ and the lived experiences of the poor and the oppressed.
The diversity of the human community, so wonderfully incorporated into Matthew's birth narrative, stands in opposition to the clouds of tribalism and individualism hovering over us. We are invited at this moment to uncover the light of this ancient story, a light reflected and amplified in the work of the great theologians of the African American church. We are called to find where God is present and become partners in God's story, just as the wise men have done. We must hearken to the celestial call to seek out the place where Jesus is and worship there. We are called to go and take up residence in the manger of deprivation and exclusion. This may mean that we, like the wise men, leave the shadows of comfort and familiarity, exit the sacred prisons of religious ritual, and enter a world that is still captive to the constraints of culture. This may mean going to the outposts of hurt and pain and walking with the marginalized. Yet, the light and hope of our story of faith rest in the persistence of those wise human beings who go and stand with those different from us and, in their company and hospitality, worship God. It is only here that the strength of our story will overcome the darkness of yesterday and shine the light of God's joy boldly into our tomorrows.