Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Our brother Martin had a dream, a dream born in the story of a people led out of slavery and oppression. He labored mightily to bring that dream to reality, to liberate a people still in chains and shackles 100 years after their legal deliverance. You and I know that nearly 40 years after his death we still have not fully achieved that dream. Some still live in oppression because of the color of their skin. Some still live in oppression because of their national origin and heritage. Some have arrived on these shores to work because we want their labor, but they live in oppression because we are not willing to allow them to become free and equal citizens.
The gospel is about the love God has for all of us. Week by week, we promise to show that love to the world by the way we live and act. Dr. King was a powerful witness to the ability of love to change the world – that radically non-violent form of gospel love. It means loving yourself and recognizing the image of God in yourself, and then doing the same with others. It’s not rolling over and playing dead, it’s not going along to get along. It is expecting the best of yourself and other people, but doing it in a way that builds up that image of God, that insists that we and others can grow up into the full stature of Christ.
Non-violent loving is not necessarily easy, but it can change the world. The gospel this morning offers three concrete examples of how to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.
Turn the other cheek. We’ve usually understood that to mean don’t retaliate when you’re offended. It’s more. In the ancient world when a master hit a slave, or a superior struck an inferior, it was always with the back of the hand. Jesus’ invitation is a subversive one. It is an “in your face” kind of response to turn the head and offer the other cheek, because it catches the offender off guard. If the offender wants to continue, it will have to be by dealing with an equal. Dr. King taught people to live in a way that says, “even if you disregard me, I am a full human being and your equal.” It led to taking a seat at lunch counters and on buses. Sometimes that assertion drew a violent response, like the firehoses that were used on peaceful demonstrators. But that out of proportion response began to change public opinion, and began to change the system that permitted oppression to continue.
If anyone takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. This, too, is more than it seems on the surface. It’s the kind of response St. Francis chose. If your loan is called and “the man” comes and asks for what you’ve offered as security, don’t stop with giving your coat. Give him all your clothes, and stand there naked. In the ancient world, more so than in our own, it was extremely shameful for the person who looked on another person’s nakedness. But it’s not a tactic that is dead. In the Nigerian Delta, ongoing oil exploration and development is causing untold environmental damage and illness among the people who live there. Several years ago, after repeated attempts to negotiate with the oil companies, a large group of women marched down to the corporate offices and took off their shirts. Their action began to open the door to conversation and change.
Give to everyone who begs from you, and lend, expecting nothing in return. This is probably the most challenging. Give and lend, because none of what we have is really ours – it belongs to God and we are only stewards. And don’t expect a return, don’t charge interest, don’t ask to get it back later on. Don’t give anything with strings attached, for those strings are a kind of shackle that bind the receiver and the giver. Give freely, and set the other free in turn. Generosity is disarming – whether it’s giving money, or our talent and time, or risking our lives in the service of others. When Dr. King’s house was bombed, he began to understand that his life would probably be forfeit, but he continued to love nonetheless. Two weeks ago Wesley Autrey offered his life to save another’s under a subway train. You and I can love with abandon, we can keep on loving folks who disagree with us or hate us, and we can change the world.
Dr. King offered a life lived with that kind of freedom. His dream began in setting his own people free. His dream continued to enlarge, to setting free those in poverty, those who suffered under systems of injustice, those who were sent to war and those who were warred upon. The fullest expression of loving our neighbors as ourselves is being able to see the whole world as sister or brother. That is what it means to be merciful as God is merciful.
Nearly forty years have passed since Martin King was assassinated. Like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, like the threat Jesus posed to the governments of his day, like the prophets of the ages since, Martin threatened the structures of oppression and domination. The systems of domination in this world strike out when their poverty is revealed, when their selfishness and shame is exposed for the world to see. That exposing of evil is the work God asks of us all. May we be tireless lovers of our enemies, ever-hopeful of seeing them in the completeness for which God created them. As long as anyone is in bondage, none of us will ever be free.
God asks us to dream dreams, love the unlovable, and have mercy on the merciless. When we do, we will join Martin in worshiping God on the mountaintop.