Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51
In 1968 the Episcopal Church declared Martin Luther King a saint of the Church. Given the present intensification of racist vitriol and actions, and the continuing systemic oppression of people of color, as well as the emergence of the BLM Movement it is most timely that we once again raise up the legacy of this holy man of God.
As we begin this new year, with our commemoration of Blessed Martin, let us be mindful that 2021 will be blessed and new, if it is marked by a renewal of our minds, hearts and wills in the direction of those choices that define us as human beings. Human beings who strive to live our lives from a place of deep integrity and as authentic disciples of those inspiring prophets who have gone before. Like Samuel, Philip and Nathaniel, whose calls are remembered in this morning’s scriptures, the God who knows us, calls each of us as he called Samuel, Philip, Nathaniel and Martin.
We must be renewed and, in our renewal, be strengthened and galvanized to face the many continuing challenges to justice. And I say justice because, even as we remain so focused on the pandemic and its relief, we are mindful that the pandemic has compelled us to recognize that even a deadly virus respects the structures of injustice we embrace as our normal. It is the poor and people of color who have been left in a place of greater vulnerable than the rest.
When I think of Blessed Martin, I think of the prophets. Prophets – not in the guise of those who foretell the future, but rather as those who look deeply into the goings on in the present moment and discern and address where God is acting, and where He would have us join Him in action, that we might co-create a different future.
Martin’s life was fueled by and bore witness to a powerful prophetic legacy that spanned the ages between Isaiah and John the Baptist. These prophetic voices, and most especially the voice of Jesus, who Blessed Martin believed to be both a prophet and more than a prophet, captured his heart, formed his conscience, and animated his spirit. From his prophetic faith roots Blessed Martin rose up and stood among us with nobility and humility, strength and gentleness, power and vulnerability.
God called Martin to be a prophet in our generation and laid upon his shoulders the very same mantle as those prophets who preceded him. Martin spoke with passion and conviction about the priority of justice within the mystery of God as it relates to the very core of our humanity.
Martin’s God is a God of justice. He is a God whose will it is to rectify what is unjust. Martin embodied the admonition of the Prophet Amos, who said, “This is what the Lord requires, that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
For Martin there was no possibility of authentic worship and of an authentic relationship with God that is not informed by, or that does not participate in, this over aching moral directive and imperative of sacred scripture. We remember his words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice”.
We can remain deaf and blind to what is going on around us. We can rely upon our tremendous psychological capacity for denial. We can distract ourselves with meaningless preoccupations that have no ultimacy attached to them. We can fill our lives with all that is shallow and hollow. Worst of all, we can be active or passive co-operators in the machinery of injustice that is always tearing human beings apart and grinding them into the dust. Or we can face and confront the reality of EVIL in our day and in our time.
And that is what we are talking about. We are talking about EVIL. This is a stretch for those who live the experience of insolated privilege based on the color of their skin or the leverage that their wealth affords them, and for those raised in a society that bathes itself in the rhetoric of self-appreciation and self-congratulation – in other words, for those of us for whom the world works just as it is.
But the EVIL that is injustice, is very real and is very cruel. Its punishing and killing ways touch the lives of far too many, for men and women of good will to allow themselves to remain untroubled by it and unresponsive to it, even if we have to be dragged to that place.
When we talk any justice related issue, we are not just talking about alternative strategies and policies, different reasoned approaches to issues, or competing opinions about possible viable solutions to problems. We are talking about human suffering, in most cases unnecessary, unwarranted and even contrived human suffering, and, most certainly an absence of compassion.
To call out evil, to resist it with every fiber of one’s being, and to engage the possibility of becoming its victim as one strives to enter into and identify with the lived experience of those who suffer oppression was, for Martin, his sacred duty as a man of Judeo-Christian faith.
For the prophets it is all about justice and judgment—next to, and not behind, mercy and compassion. The God of the prophets isn’t concerned with whether people are following all the rites and rituals, or obeying rules and regulations. He wants to see them put their hearts into their actions and behave with devotion and sincerity.
The God of the prophets isn’t excoriating people for failing to say their prayers. He’s taking them to task them for only offering Him lip-service, and for failing to treat the most vulnerable among us, particularly, widows and orphans, refugees and sojourners in our land with compassion – for failing to make a sacrificial offering of their lives.
The Prophet Isaiah said, “Wash yourselves and make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow, care for the orphan and welcome and love the sojourner among you, giving him food, clothing and shelter.”
When she became aware of her pregnancy, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, echoed the prophets and cried out, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior. He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts and has put down the mighty from their thrones; he has raised up those of low degree; and has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.”
When He preached his first sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus picked up the scroll and read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, the lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed”.
The Judeo-Christian scriptures are riven with God’s outrage at the oppression of the most vulnerable, and with directives that we embrace and suffer that outrage with God and act on behalf of His great work of restoring justice.
We have too long indulged ourselves in religious expressions that can allow us to feel coddled by God. Yes, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us and we are to delight and find our peace in that blessed assurance, but it cannot and must not end there. We must love our neighbor, the other, and especially the different other, as ourselves. God continues to demand and require justice between and among us, as the sign of our sincerity in our worship of Him.
This week we will be rid of an administration that has assaulted the poor, nurtured the greed of the rich, and violated the demands and requirements of justice. As a rioting mob storming the capital is rightly judged as treason in this nation, such embodiments of moral degeneracy are rightly judged as treason in the Kingdom of God. The departing administration has fostered and served injustice by design.
As the next administration presents itself as more middle of the road than progressive, it will need the passion and the prophetic voice that only we can bring to bear that tomorrow might actually be significantly different than yesterday. We need a paradigm shift and not merely a cosmetic shift.
The prophets preached that God lives in the poor. And that God empowers the poor to demand and require justice in His name. Our worship is sincere if we genuinely want God’s kingdom to come and His will to be done. And we want this to happen first of all in our hearts, in our lives, in our imaginations and in our dreams. Remember Martin who declared, “I have a dream.” Well, Martin’s worship was sincere.
Martin will always be remembered for his non-violent campaign to secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act. But we also want to remember that his dream went beyond racial equality and harmony. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and until he was murdered, Martin devoted himself to being a voice for all the poor, the majority of whom were white.
It belongs to us to share in the great work of bringing forth justice, God’s will for the poor and those who are oppressed.
We stare on a daily basis into the face of evil. And there can only ever be one response to evil, and that response must be resistance, through any and every non-violent means at our disposal. To fail to resist is to be complicit. To pretend it is not our problem is to deceive ourselves.
Yes, to resist evil is to go to the edge and to put ourselves at risk. But is this not the very place where God is most present? When we risk becoming vulnerable with those who are most vulnerable, we enter the Holy of Holies.
We enter that sacred space of self-giving love that alone is able to transform us into those bearers of light, like Blessed Martin, that God intends all of us to be. We are indeed our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers and advocates. We best honor the memory of the righteous prophets who have preceded us, and grow into the depth of our humanity, by making those very choices that put ourselves at risk.
The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
January 17, 2021