I’m going to begin my sermon this morning with a portion of an episode of the NPR program This American Life. The episode first aired about 20 years ago; I heard it way back then, and I’ve never forgotten it. Listen …
Well, it all began at Christmas two years ago when my daughter was four years old. And it was the first time that she had ever asked about …what did this holiday mean? And so I explained to her that this was celebrating the birth of Jesus. And she wanted to know more about that, and we went out and bought a kid’s Bible and had these readings at night. She loved them—wanted to know everything about Jesus.
So we read a lot about his birth and about his teaching. And she would ask constantly what that phrase was. And I would explain to her that it was: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what that all meant.
And then one day we were driving past a big church, and out front was an enormous crucifix. She said, “Who is that?” And I guess I’d never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of, yeah, well, that’s Jesus, and I forgot to tell you the ending. Yeah. Well, you know, he ran afoul of the Roman government. This message that he had was so radical and unnerving to the prevailing authorities of the time that they had to kill him. They came to the conclusion that he would have to die. That message was too troublesome.
It was about a month later after that Christmas. We’d gone through the whole story of what Christmas meant. It was mid-January, and her preschool celebrates the same holidays as the local schools, so Martin Luther King Day was off. So I knocked off work that day and I decided we’d play, and I’d take her out to lunch. And we were sitting in there and right on the table where we happened to plop down was the art section of the local newspaper.
And there, big as life, was a huge drawing by, like, a 10-year-old kid from the local schools, of Martin Luther King. And she said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “Well, as it happens, that’s Martin Luther King, and he’s why you’re not in school today. ’Cause we’re celebrating his birthday. This is the day we celebrate his life.” And she said, “So who was he?” I said, “Well, he was a preacher.” And she looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah. Yeah, actually he was, but there was another thing that he was really famous for, which is that he had a message.”
And you’re trying to say this to a four-year-old. This is the first time they ever hear anything so you’re just very careful about how you phrase everything. So I said, “Well, yeah, he was a preacher and he had a message.” She said, “What was his message?” And I said, “Well, he said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.” She thought about that for a minute, and she said, “Well, that’s what Jesus said … did they kill him, too?”
Well. “Did they kill him, too?” Yes, my child—of course they did. That’s what happens to prophets. Yet today is not the day of violence, but the Day of Resurrection. It is also the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Americans celebrate this modern-day saint on his birthday in January. But in the church, we hold to a different tradition: we celebrate the day a saint entered fully into eternal life. For Martin Luther King, that day was April 4. So if this were not Easter morning—an occasion admittedly of more importance—we would mark today as Dr. King’s feast day.
Now, this day has fallen on Easter Sunday only a couple times before, and it won’t happen again until the year 2083. I don’t think I’ll be preaching anymore then. So we can celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the same day in this year, of all years! This is the year when a whole bunch of white folks finally woke up to his message.
Last Easter, we were just starting to admit that the pandemic was only beginning. Yet the events of the rest of the year showed that there were issues of justice that couldn’t wait. George Floyd was murdered before the eyes of the whole world just days before Pentecost. And this past week, Holy Week, the man who killed George Floyd has been on trial.
We don’t yet know whether justice will prevail. But we’ve seen this script play out way too many times, to deeply disappointing results. Justice was not served on behalf of Breonna Taylor. Or Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Eric Garner, or Tamir Rice, or Freddie Gray, or Philando Castile, or Stephon Clark. The list goes on—say their names. Hold their lives up against 400 years of trauma and it’s easy to conclude that in America, black lives don’t matter. And that’s why people marched all last summer and fall, the largest peaceful protest movement in American history, to insist that Black Lives Matter.
Some stood on the sidelines disapprovingly. Some noticed a couple incidents of property damage and said, “Well then, all these protests are now invalid.” Some didn’t notice, given the scale of the movement, just how little property damage actually resulted, or the fact that most of it was committed by racist agitators seeking to discredit the movement, or more importantly, that property damage means nothing in comparison with the lives of human beings. So little has changed. Martin Luther King himself observed how a few broken windows so easily make white people squeamish about pursuing justice.
And now we see laws being proposed in 43 states, but most visibly in Georgia, designed specifically to suppress voting in precincts that lean Black and poor. Like the actions taken in the 1960s by such deplorable elected officials as George Wallace and Bull Connor, this new form of Jim Crow hides under a veneer of respectability: “Stop voter fraud!” Only there is so little voter fraud in our nation that it can barely be measured. The real fraud is being legislated by states, and now only federal legislation can ensure that all Americans are able to vote conveniently, safely, and securely. I certainly support such legislation.
If you feel that what I just said doesn’t belong in a sermon, Martin Luther King would have something to say in response. Listen to what he wrote in 1963 to white clergy people as he sat in jail in Birmingham, Alabama:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I think Dr. King would have been overjoyed at the scope of the Black Lives Matter protests over the past year. And I offer you his words on this Easter morning not because the man is dead, but because he is alive. Martin Luther King, Jr. is risen because Alleluia! Christ is risen! The stone is rolled back, the tomb is empty, the feast is now spread! And I believe that all the fearful machinations of those who would divide us from one another will ultimately fail.
But Christ’s resurrection is no reason for us to neglect the work God has given us to do. Human history, though ultimately redeemed, is still being written. Suffering goes on—shall we not stop it? White supremacy is a virus that keeps evolving, always aided in its virulence by white folks who don’t stay ahead of its subtle, infectious mutations. White supremacy still exists because even the most well-meaning white folks participate in it without even noticing.
Well, at Good Shepherd we’re specifically learning how to vaccinate against this virus. These are our Sacred Ground circles. Every several weeks since last fall, we have been learning together about the history of American racism so we can fight it proactively. We’re eager to sign up new groups in the fall.
I say frequently that the church must never affiliate with a specific political party, because party platforms lack imagination and dedication to the gospel of Christ. So we must resist such labels as Democrat or Republican. But we must be political, because politics led to Easter, and Easter leads to politics. Easter gives us the faith to turn our anger not toward rage but toward the righting of injustice and the joy that results. Dr. King said it himself the very day before he was killed. Listen:
Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones. And whenever injustice is around, he must tell it … Somehow the preacher must say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me,” and he’s anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor.
Toward the end of his life, Dr. King spoke not only about race, but also about chronic poverty. And today we see the revival of his Poor People’s Campaign under the leadership of Rev. Dr. William Barber and others. Our own Episcopal ministry called Chaplains on the Harbor in Aberdeen and Grays Harbor County is firmly involved with the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. I wonder about the application of some of this work in Good Shepherd’s own neighborhood.
Is this Easter message too troublesome? Is it not, rather, the work that we must all be engaged in, simply because we know God loves us and is saving us all? You know, Representative John Lewis died last summer. He marched with Dr. King and was badly injured on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, and he called this kind of work “good trouble.” We Christians need to make good trouble.
Dr. King concluded his final speech in Memphis with these words:
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!
The next morning, he was dead. But today, Martin is risen! And our loved ones who have suffered are risen. And our whole creation is risen. Why? Because Christ is risen. Christ has descended to the uttermost depths because wherever there is sin, Christ shows up to transform it and redeem it. Christ has descended into death, only to rise again, bearing all of creation up on his back to ascend to the heights of love God has always intended for us! And we shall all be changed.
How can we keep from singing? How can we not shout for joy? And how can we not rush to Christ’s side to help bear the cosmos upward? Easter means joy, and then Easter means living our lives every day with a resurrection focus, because Christ keeps bringing life out of death, not just for some of us, but for all of us. Indeed, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!” Happy Easter—and a joyful fifty-day Easter season—to all of you. Amen.