January 18, 2015.
Second Sunday in Epiphany.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
1 Samuel 3:1-10.
The Rev. CECIL CHARLES PRESCOD, OCC
In the name of the Triune God. Amen.
Samuel was a small boy. His prospects were negligible. His mother was unable to conceive, she prayed and her prayers were answered. Samuel heard the voice calling him. He responded, and because of his response he helped usher in a new era of justice for his people.
Little Mike was a small boy. His prospects were negligible. His parents believed and prayed, and their prayers were answered. Little Mike heard the voice calling him. He responded, and because of his response he helped usher in a new era of justice for a nation and world.
Ainsworth United Church of Christ was a small church. Its prospects were negligible. The founders prayed and their prayers were answered. They heard the voice calling them. They responded, and because of their response they created a community that would herald and work to establish a new era of justice for a city.
Three stories. Three calls. Three responses.
On this day that we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, the scriptures tell a story about God’s call and the human response.
Thirty years ago, members of St. Andrews and Second United Church of Christ embarked upon a unique mission together. Two mono-racial congregations established a multiracial, multicultural community. As Samuel was an answer to his mother’s prayers, so too was Ainsworth UCC an answer to the prayers of many. Samuel was dedicated to God, so too was Ainsworth dedicated to God. Samuel was called by God to do a new thing, so too did God call Ainsworth to do a new thing. As Martin articulated and lived out the vision of the beloved community, so too did the founding members of Ainsworth UCC articulated and lived into a vision.
So where do we go from here?
The Call: The story of Samuel is one that resonates with all of us. The story of a dark silent night. So dark that one cannot see one’s hand in front of the face. All that is heard is your breath entering and leaving your body. Today was like yesterday, which was like the day before. You lay in your bed, twisting from one side to the other. The unresolved problems of today promise to become the unresolved problems of tomorrow. Tomorrow will probably be like today, which was like yesterday, which was like the day before that.
And then there was the voice. Whose voice is calling? How should I respond? Twice he rose certain that his elder was calling him. But that was not the voice of his elder. In fact, the wise older man counseled the young boy to return to his bed and listen with his ear and heart. There was nothing special about the boy, nothing about his birth or family which would lead one to believe he would be a mighty prophet. He was nothing more than a young boy when he heard the voice of God to engage in a mighty work.
So the boy went back to his bed and listened. The boy heard the voice of the divine calling him by name, “Samuel, Samuel.” The young boy could not have imagined what God was calling him to do. He did not know that the voice was calling him to a life that would challenge powerful evil forces. What he did know was that it was the voice of God so he responded, “Speak for your servant is listening” (I Samuel 3.10)
Motivated by seeking to do what was right, and not what was popular, the man who was known as Little Mike as a child often rejected the advice of his counselors and chose the more difficult path. His support of the sanitation workers, his mobilization of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign, his opposition to the War, all cost him support from many, and the toast of the establishment in1964, was on the outside with the poor in 1968. He was a man, and often had to be pushed to take actions. Young people in SNCC, and grassroots organizers such as Ella Baker, had little patience for what they saw was the calculating cautionary moves and decisions of the civil rights establishment and their leaders such as King. They advocated in words and deeds, for him and the movement to become more radical in their critique and methods.
What those who opposed him for being too radical, and those who opposed him for being too conservative, did not grasp was that throughout his lifetime, Martin King exhibited a unique ability to see what many could not see, to embark on campaigns that were thought of as doomed, to yes, I will say it, dream, what many could not imagine. He was called to be a prophet.
In a recent article about King’s focus on economic justice at the end of his life, Washington Post’s columnist Eugene Robinson writes:” King was a prophet. His role was to see clearly what others could not or would not recognize, and to challenge our consciences." That prophetic edge was evident throughout his life. He continued to challenge and question. He continued to call us to examine our lives and to think critically about where we are going. The title of King’s last book. written in 1967, was “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community” The title of the sermon he was to preached two days after his murder was “Why America May Go to Hell”
His prophetic call and response led to his arrest more than 20 times. Those who were committed to the movement knew that freedom would not come without paying a heavy price. The heavy price is something that we so easily forget. So as a reminder of the cost of freedom instead of hanging pictures of King standing at a pulpit, or addressing the crowd at the Washington DC Mall, perhaps we should adorn our walls and festivities tables with pictures of Dr. King in a jail cell or his mug shots, or pictures of the tortured bodies of freedom workers. Freedom ain’t free.
So what was the voice that called Samuel saying to the Dr. King? Martin, the reluctant prophet, was unexpectedly called to take on a leadership role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. David Garrow in his book, “Bearing The Cross”, writes about King’s struggle. One powerful incident took place late at night on Friday, January 27, 1956. He had returned home from a long strategic planning meeting. His wife was asleep but he was unable to rest. He got up made a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. He pondered about the role he that was forced upon him. A role he did not seek. A role as a leader when he was not prepared to lead. In “Stride Towards Freedom” Dr. King writes:
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. "I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone." At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever." Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
Three days later his house was fire bombed and his family nearly killed. One year later the King family woke up and found twelve sticks of dynamite on their front porch, fortunately the fuse had smoldered out. King prayed,
"You gave me a vision in the kitchen of my house and I am thankful for it....So I am not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting and I'm going to stand up to them. Tell Montgomery they can keep bombing and I'm going to stand up to them. If I had to die tomorrow morning, I would die happy because I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the promised land and it's going to be here in Montgomery.
Throughout his ministry, even the night before he was murdered, he would remind himself and those who shared in the struggle about this hope, this mountain top experience, the vision of the Promised Land, the beloved community.
Danger stalks those who advocate for justice. Violence and the threat of death is ever present.
More than thirty years ago parishioners at St. Andrews and Second United Church of Christ congregations believed that God was calling them to work together in unknown territory. Two congregations with two different histories and cultures, heard the voice of God calling them strive to create a multicultural, multiracial church. This year members of this congregation are embarking on mission that will preserve on video the stories of some of the older members of this church. We call it the “The Legacy Project”. Young people will interview older members of the congregation. The interviewees will share the reasons why they are committed to living into the beloved community. These stories will inspire new generations.
Just as Samuel did not rest with the knowledge that God had spoken to him once, and Dr. King did not rest with the accolades he received for his work, neither must Ainsworth rest on what we did in the past. The Sacred Conversation on Race Team (SCORE- don’t you love acronyms?) is embarking on engaging our church to examine who we are and where we are going in regards to racial justice. One question we will ask you to ponder in coming weeks is: Are there any actions or values Ainsworth should adopt, drop, or adjust to more effectively manifest itself as a multiracial congregation?
The United Church of Christ’s identity campaign proclaim “God is still speaking”A natural response to that assertion is if God is still speaking how and when do we here God’s voice? If we are honest we might acknowledge we know what God is saying, but do not want to heed the divine call. Our statement of faith proclaim “You call us into your church to accept the cost and joy of discipleship to be your servants in the service of other, to proclaim the gospel to all the word and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”
Our heritage as a faith community in the United Church of Christ testify to our commitment to struggle for racial justice. Our commitment was evident in the solidarity and support given to the enslaved Africans on the ship Amistad in their freedom struggle in 1839. Our commitment was evident when we established and establishing the first anti-slavery society with multiracial leadership, the American Missionary Society, in 1846. When Southern television stations impose a news blackout on the growing civil rights movement Martin Luther King Jr. asks the UCC to intervene. Everett Parker of the UCC's Office of Communication (who recently celebrated his 102nd birthday) organized churches and won in Federal court a ruling that the airwaves are public, not private property. The church’s unswerving commitment to freedom of the civil rights activists, the Wilmington Ten, the first report on environmental racism and thus pioneering the work for environmental justice, are evidence that the UCC has a rich history of advocating for racial justice.
The prophets Samuel and Martin did not rest on the laurels of their past accomplishments. Neither can Ainsworth or our denomination rest on noble efforts in the past. We may have seen from the mountain top the beloved community, but we must continue, to paraphrase Dr. King’s last speech, until we as a people get to the Promised Land.
Last week the national officers of the United Church of Christ issued a statement to the 5000 churches in our denomination. In this document, called, “The Pastoral Letter On Racism: A New Awakening”, our national United Church of Christ leaders remind us about our history and calling:
Born in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and having deep roots in the 19th century struggle to abolish slavery, the United Church of Christ has a lasting engagement in the struggle for racial justice. The 1991 Pastoral Letter on Contemporary Racism emphasized the Seventeenth General Synod declaration that “[r]acism is a sin and an evil that stands as an affront to the Christian faith.” The 2008 Pastoral Letter that accompanies Sacred Conversations on Race pointed out, “Racism remains a wound at the heart of our nation that cannot be wished away or treated carelessly.” These writings from our leaders during those years remind us that acknowledging and challenging racism is not new for the United Church of Christ. They also remind us that we are theologically and spiritually compelled to seek the elimination of racism within ourselves, in the church and in society.
They conclude their pastoral letter with:
In the 2015 season of Epiphany and beyond, may the Spirit of God embolden us to recognize and resist the evolving virus of racism in our social body, encourage us through our hope in Jesus the Christ to repair the breach, and embrace us all as we move into the brave spaces of interracial church relationships, more just communities, and active engagement to put an end to the evil of racism.
Let not our inaction be an affront to God. Let our actions be a sign of the healing love of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
God is still speaking. God is still calling.