Episcopal Diocese of Quincy Reorganizing Synod, Morning Prayer
April 4, 2009 Martin Luther King, Jr.
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Peoria, IL, 10 am
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
The Episcopal Church
In a few minutes, we’re going to pray: Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; etc.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born in January 1929 and died on this date in 1968. He would have been 80 this year – and like Moses, he led his people a long way out of slavery. Like Moses, he didn’t live to see the promised land – he only got to see it from the mountain top across the river. When you climb up a high building around here, what do you see across the water? The reality is that that journey from slavery to freedom isn’t finished for any of us. It’s a life-long process, not something that’s achieved in one event or time or through the leadership of one mere human being.
At the same time, the season we’re in reminds us that freedom has been achieved for us all, through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that possibility of freedom has to be repeatedly engaged and claimed – that is why we call it “practicing” our faith. We never arrive all the way in the promised land to stay. We aren’t yet completely free.
This diocese is in a similar state, and I imagine it feels, or has felt, a great deal like wandering in the wilderness. What will happen to us? Will we have enough of that sacred food to eat? Who will care for us? Life was a lot more predictable “before,” and I’m sure that some are pining for the watermelons and leeks of Egypt. Yet you have courageous leaders among you who have been willing to stand up and say “no more.” It’s not pretty, it’s not easy, and it’s challenging to say that one powerfully emotionally loaded issue is not the whole of the gospel. It’s hard to stand up to those who insist they have the fullness of God’s truth and it isn’t open to question. But as Paul says, we work out the freedom of our salvation in “fear and trembling.” We won’t see completely clearly until we meet God in that promised land, face to face. Meanwhile we have to muddle along as best we can, trusting in the power of the spirit and the discernment of the Christian community we know best – and sometimes they seem to say different things. Muddling, or even mud-wrestling, may be a good image. Jacob did it, down in the dirt with an angel all night long, and eventually he got a blessing for his trouble, but he was also wounded – he left that struggle with a limp. You will be changed by your wrestling in this place, and God will turn it to blessing.
America and the world have been changed by the wrestling that Martin Luther King did. The liberation of Americans in which he played such a strong part didn’t just set black people free. That journey has brought greater freedom to us all – but we haven’t yet arrived in the promised land. It was a lot easier to leave Bull Connor behind, and his firehoses and dogs, as we were helped along by laws that require us to treat each other as equals. It has been far harder to eliminate racism and prejudice. We may have a black president, but poor children of color, in the inner city and in rural areas, still have worse outcomes and fewer life opportunities. The disadvantages of prejudice still permeate most of our social systems. There are some immediate examples – a long investigative story in the news yesterday about immigrants in customs detention who are dying of acute and chronic diseases, uncared for, ignored, and forgotten. It has taken significant effort to even get ICE to acknowledge that they don’t know how many have died, who they are, or why they haven’t received basic medical attention. Prejudice and racism are not dead in this land. The shooting in Binghamton, NY yesterday happened at the American Civic Association – a center dedicated to helping immigrants take their full place in this society. We don’t know the precise reasons for that violence, but it certainly seems to have something to do with prejudice and hate.
The struggle you’re going through in this diocese has some parallels, because at its root, the struggle is about the freedom to choose how and where you will worship. At some level, Jim Crow persisted in this country because one class of people wanted to control the lives of another class of people. Immigrants are still discriminated against because Americans who have been here longer sometimes fear those who come here later, speaking other languages and practicing different customs. We do it in the church, too – we’re not quite certain even about Episcopalians who raise their hands in worship, or sing hymns and songs we’re not familiar with, or stand when we kneel.
The greater parallel between liberation from racism and the journey in this diocese, however, has to do with forgiveness and the search for reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission that Abp Desmond Tutu began in South Africa eventually led people to examine how their actions caused pain and even death to others. It was the necessary foundation for building a more just society in that place. Forgiveness and reconciliation here will be achieved when each group once again has a clear identity and has the freedom to choose what sort of relationships they will have with the others. Forgiveness and reconciliation will not happen as long as one group is identified only in opposition to the other. That kind of negative identity only divides, it doesn’t build up.
Forgiveness begins when you no longer let the pain and anger control your actions. You will still have to make hard decisions, but they should not be loaded with vengeance. You still have to stand up for what you believe is right, but the aim shouldn’t be destruction of the other. Our current difficulty appears to have something to do with difference of theological position. There is abundant room in this Church for a wide variety of theological positions. The boundary we have agreed on is that we won’t throw others out because they disagree with us. God never intended us all to think the same way. If we did, we’d never have started to do any theology. Why are there four gospels in the Bible? Because they don’t agree on everything, and no one of them is fully adequate.
As that most appropriate collect puts it, we pray that this church will resist oppression in the name of God’s love [and you can read that two different ways: that we will resist anything that attempts to oppress others by demanding a particular view of God; or that, for the sake of God’s love of us, we will resist oppression wherever we find it], and that this church will secure the blessed freedom of the gospel for all God’s children – black and white, young and old, recent immigrant or descendant of immigrants, conservative or progressive, Republican or Democrat… We are all your children, Lord, and we’re all seeking your promised land. Keep us non-violent in our wrestling, in the ways that Jesus taught us. Let us be your servants, not your warlords.