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Sunday, January 14, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Judith L. Watt
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail”
1 Samuel 3:1–18
We will find that when we look at the life of the Bible, and the life of the world in which it is to be found, we discover that the heart of its public dimension, and indeed the source of its dynamism, is the principle of inclusion by which all of the exclusive divisions of this world
are transcended and transformed.
I’d like to open with prayer, using a prayer written by Martin Luther King Jr. Please join me:
Our God, our gracious heavenly Father, we thank thee for all of the insights of the ages, and we thank thee for the privilege of having fellowship with thee. Help us to discover ourselves, to discover our neighbors, and to discover thee, and to make all part of our life. Grant that we will go now with grim and bold determination to live the complete life. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen. (Martin Luther King Jr., The Measure of a Man)
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from the Birmingham City Jail was directed toward eight prominent, liberal Alabama clergymen. All eight were white. Earlier in the same year—1963—they had published an open letter that called on Dr. King to leave the battle for integration in the hands of the local and federal courts and to stop “agitating.” In other words, to take the battle out of the church. In their letter, they warned that Dr. King’s nonviolent resistance movement would have the effect of inciting civil disturbances. They were worried about unrest and increased violence. Dr. King’s letter, written from jail, the result of his own arrest, was written so that Christian ministers, like these eight, would see that the meaning of Christian discipleship was at the heart of the African American struggle for freedom, justice, and equality (A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington).
Looking back on that history, almost fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, there were many watershed moments. His letter was just one writing in the midst of all sorts of events and writings during a grand watershed movement, a movement that was a turning point. At least we thought it was.
Dr. King’s letter was an attempt to speak the truth to those who had power—a few white clergymen, liberal though they were, and to white churches—trying their best to hold on to the status quo, worried likely about the separation of church and state, uneasy about the social upheaval that was erupting, and most likely uneasy about a future they couldn’t predict or control. Ultimately his letter had significance for all Christian churches. It was a call to Christian discipleship, which always has been to seek freedom and justice and equality, not only for ourselves but for everyone.
We’re in the midst of a watershed time again. It’s as though the underside, the dark side, of absolutely everything is being exposed. That’s good if it leads to justice and equality and healthy community. It’s not good if the purpose is hate and derision. But I’m the first to admit that the anxiety of it all is hard to endure. It is an anxiety intensified by (1) a news cycle that doesn’t stop, (2) a social media platform that seeps in everywhere, (3) the tendency that we as human beings have to stereotype and to scapegoat and to polarize, and (4) the way social media lends to our stereotyping and our tribalistic tendencies. The anxiety is stomach wrenching and blood-pressure raising. So sometimes I feel I might be like those eight white clergymen who wrote the open letter advising King to let the courts handle the battle for equality and integration: worried and scared about where all the disruption will lead. That’s an admission. It’s a confession, because the anxiety that is created by injustice and inequality, by oppression and violent acts or hateful and dismissive words, is far more harmful to the fabric of our society.
Samuel, in this great old story, was experiencing his own watershed moments. He was a young boy, serving in the temple. More specifically, he was serving an old, almost blind priest whose name was Eli. The scripture tells us that the word of God was rare in those days. One translation more properly says that the word of God was precious in those days. In other words, the word of God was so rare that when it was heard, it was precious, precious in a way that made a person who was hungry for the word of God just simply want to hold on to it and treasure it.
The historical time in which the story was told was during the time of the judges. That was a system of government that they thought would work, but it turned out to be a failure, because everyone just started doing what they wanted to do without much regard for anyone else. Eli’s sons, also priests, had corrupted the priesthood completely. The temple culture was in shambles. Society itself wasn’t doing so well.
As the story goes, Eli and Samuel are asleep, Eli in his room and Samuel, this young boy, in the sanctuary. A voice calls out, “Samuel, Samuel.” Samuel thinks it’s Eli calling, runs to Eli, and says, “Here I am, Eli. You called me.” Eli responds each time, “No, I didn’t call. Go back to sleep.” Finally, about the fourth time, when Samuel runs into Eli’s chamber thinking Eli has called him, Eli tells Samuel that if it happens again, say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” As old and as infirm as Eli is, he discerns that God is calling Samuel, and he tells Samuel what to do: to say to the Lord, “Speak to me, because now I’m listening.”
It’s a watershed moment in Samuel’s life, but it’s not the only one, because then God tells Samuel that he’s going to have to do something that will be very hard. God tells Samuel, “I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle,” and Samuel is going to be part of that movement on God’s behalf.
It’s a great image. Ears tingling. Something so significant that everyone’s ears will tingle. Does that mean everyone will take note? Or does that mean that everyone’s ears will tingle because what they hear or witness will make them cringe in anxiety or disgust or worry or fear? I love the phrase, because I wonder if all the underside of everything that is surfacing in these days is God’s way of making our own ears tingle.
God tells Samuel that he will undo the status quo, completely undo Eli’s house, the priesthood his sons have corrupted. The old social order will be demolished, and even though Eli has been a relatively good guy, not directly responsible for the corrosive activity of his sons, he will be included in the destruction, because he knew what his sons were doing, and he didn’t restrain them. He was complicit.
This passage is always described as one of the many “call” passages found in scripture: stories that detail how a biblical hero or prophet was called and changed by God, how God got their attention, what transpired after that first intervention, what God asked them to do.
So I wonder how you or I are being called in these days.
And I ask, “How can we hear God when it seems the word of God is rare in these days also, when the word of God isn’t even agreed upon within the world of Christianity?” Yet I don’t really believe the word of God is rare these days. I just think it’s really hard to hear because there is so much chatter and interference.
I believe God is calling us as Christians to listen for the voice of God and to reclaim again the discipleship Jesus calls us to, the discipleship Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized to those fellow clergymen. That discipleship is simply to follow Jesus as best we can, to listen to his life and how he lived and to keep trying to align our lives with those values. Jesus didn’t draw borders around who could follow him, based on color or ethnicity or gender. Jesus broke down barriers rather than setting them up. Jesus practiced nonviolent resistance to the powers of his day, and he spoke truth to power systems that were unjust. But he didn’t speak hate.
Jesus knew himself. He knew himself because he was so connected to God and because he listened for God’s leading. Jesus prayed. Jesus went away to think, to be in solitude, to be restored. Jesus shared fellowship and food with his disciples, which were a ragtag bunch of people, none of whom were perfect or holier than thou, none of whom pretended to know all the answers. Jesus ministered to the poor and to the rich, but he never endorsed building up riches to the exclusion of caring about what the kingdom of God was supposed to be. Jesus didn’t invest much thought in national boundaries. Jesus rose above stereotyping any group of people. Jesus wasn’t a racist.
I think we are called to listen to Jesus’ life, and I think we are called in these days to dig really deep into our heart of hearts and to listen for how we judge and how we stereotype and how we make assumptions based on race or class or gender. How we are part of a system that keeps racism going. I think we are all called to do this. It’s what Dr. King’s prayer named as the act of discovering ourselves.
In another church I once served, a woman told me that she thought I was a racist. I was surprised and confused and defensive and angry. I couldn’t understand what I’d done to make her think this. Was it that I confessed to her a new awakening I’d had about race when I read Paul Robeson’s biography? Or was it because I’d been curious—maybe too invasive—about her journey? Entitled. Or was it something I’d done without any consciousness? I’ve puzzled over her statement for years. It rings in my ears.
That staff, along with this staff, has engaged in numerous discussions about race and about systemic racism. In conferences on race and in trainings I have continued to learn how I was a racist or if I was a racist, and over and over again I find myself understanding and admitting some of my complicity sometimes, and at other times I am resistant or defensive or just confused. I read Waking up White, and I didn’t like the book, because the author had come from a wealthy all-white suburb and spoke of an environment and level of privilege that wasn’t mine. She spoke for all white people in a way that dismissed my experience, because I grew up in a diverse working-class mill town. My white life was different from hers.
My mother and her four siblings were born in this country but to immigrant Eastern European parents who had come here through Ellis Island in the early 1900s. During the few years their family had lived in Oklahoma, when my mother was a child, my Serbian grandfather’s little grocery store there was visited by the Ku Klux Klan, a sign scrawled on the grocery store window, because their Eastern European family with foreign-born Serbian-speaking parents wasn’t welcome in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. That story made me feel I knew discrimination. But then last year I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, the story of the black migration north from the early 1900s until 1970. The author describes the stories of the people in her study as people having left the old country—the rural South—for the new world, the urban North. Everything was different for them when they arrived.
There were so many descriptions and phrases in that book that were similar to what I knew of my grandparents having journeyed from their old country to this new world, but it was in the reading of those similarities that I realized that no matter how strong the discrimination my Eastern European ancestors had experienced in this country, people of color experienced it in ways so much worse, because discrimination based on color was baked into our system and our laws.
I worry that telling this story is just another entitled thing for me to do, but I tell it because I think we must keep digging deep within ourselves to ask how the system of discrimination has co-opted us, how we have been part of it, how we keep it going. Our outrage and judgment and speaking out against hateful, racist remarks has no authenticity unless we also keep looking at our own complicity at the same time.
Listening to Jesus’ life. Listening to our own. Discovering ourselves and deciding who we want to be. We are being called. The word of God might be rare in these days, or it simply might be hard to hear amidst all the interference, but God is speaking.
God is speaking. Let us keep straining to hear. Amen.