This sermon was deleived by The Rev. Chuck Currie at a special joint service of Sunnyside Church and University Park Church in Portland, Ore. on Sunday, January 20, 2013. Our Scripture readings were Amos 5:21-24 and Isaiah 11: 1-9.
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The text is below:
This Sunday – this special day when we celebrate the life and ministry of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – we have cause to celebrate.
Tomorrow our nation will witness the inauguration of Barack Obama to a second term as President of the United States of America, the first African-American to hold that position. He lives in the White House, a grand symbol of freedom, but a building created with slave labor. How far we have come.
What political party Barack Obama and Tina Kotek represent is unimportant to us this morning.
It is unimportant what political party Tim Scott of South Carolina belongs to. What is important is that this month he becomes the first African-American to represent a Southern state since Reconstruction in the United States Senate.
The walls of injustice are tumbling down. Frances and Katherine, my daughters, can dream any dream thanks to Harriett Tubman, Susan B. Antony, Hilary Clinton and Tina Kotek. Our children have opportunities that once seemed impossible because of discrimination of all kinds. Change has come.
We read in Scripture today that what impresses God is not the grandness of our buildings or the pomp and circumstance of worship but the boldness of our vision, and the focus of our actions in building up the Kingdom of God, which Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
Whatever progress we have made has been hard won and while we have every reason to celebrate we also have every responsibility as the church to bring light to dark places and there is still too much darkness in this world.
Dr. King was more than just a civil rights leader. That would by itself be an honorable legacy. But he was a Christian minister, a prophet even, who challenged the church to build up the Kingdom of God. That's radical. That's transformational. And for those of power and privilege it was terrifying because in the Kingdom the last come first. The Holy Spirit worked through King to break-up the evil of white supremacy and to lift up the needs of those oppressed by economic systems that failed to address the condition of poverty. The task of the church, in this day, is to continue that ministry in new ways and to continue -- as Jesus did himself -- to confront oppression wherever we find it: to set the captives free.
The Civil Rights Movement was grounded in the teachings of the Hebrew Prophets who remembered when the people were slaves in Pharaoh’s land, and both their escape from captivity and deliverance to the Promised Land.
When Africans were ripped from their homeland and brought into the colonies, and later the United States, their masters often forced them to convert to Christianity. We have in our history books a copy of a baptismal rite used for slaves in South Carolina that shows slaves were forced to vow obedience to God but told not to take the stories of God’s liberation from captivity seriously. But it is impossible not to hear the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and the promises of Jesus and not be transformed. The Holy Spirit worked in the hearts of slaves and within the Christian faith they found hope and promise – a hope that sustained and guided them through the Civil War - and their decedents into the great Civil Rights Movement. This was not what the slave owners of South Carolina, my ancestors, assumed would happen but God is more powerful than any human system of oppression.
In what is commonly called Jesus’ inaugural sermon he quoted from the Prophet Isaiah:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (Luke 4 NRSV)
That is still the task of the church today.
Too many people live in captivity: caught up in on-going systems of racial oppression that still exist despite our progress, kept down by gender discrimination that allows us to place limits on what women earn or what jobs they might hold, trapped in broken immigration systems that don’t “welcome the stranger” but imprison and deport.
Children are captives of underfunded schools that ought to be cathedrals. Sick people are captives of a system that puts profits before people. All of us are captives of human caused climate change, gun violence and violence of every kind, along with oppressive poverty that stains our land. And if we truly believe that war is contrary to the will of God we need to be peacemakers in our time.
We are still not the Beloved Community that Dr. King dreamed of.
The church universal is not doing enough to build up the Kingdom.
This isn’t new.
Dr. King preached just a year before he died that:
"... when the church is true to its guidelines, it sets out to preach deliverance to them that are captive. This is the role of the church: to free people. This merely means to free those who are slaves. Now if you notice some churches, they never read this part. Some churches aren't concerned about freeing anybody. Some white churches face the fact Sunday after Sunday that their members are slaves to prejudice, slaves to fear. You got a third of them, or a half of them or more, slaves to their prejudices. And the preacher does nothing to free them from their prejudice so often. Then you have another group sitting up there who would really like to do something about racial injustice, but they are afraid of social, political, and economic reprisals, so they end up silent. And the preacher never says anything to lift their souls and free them from that fear. And so they end up captive.”
He went on to preach:
You know this often happens in the Negro church. You know, there are some Negro preachers that have never opened their mouths about the freedom movement. And not only have they not opened their mouths, they haven’t done anything about it. And every now and then you get a few members: 'They talk too much about civil rights in that church.' I was talking with a preacher the other day and he said a few of his members were saying that. I said, 'Don't pay any attention to them. Because number one, the members didn't anoint you to preach. And any preacher who allows members to tell him what to preach isn't much of a preacher.'
If we want to be true to our calling as Christians we need to address the challenges of our time with courage and conviction, unafraid of whether or not we are winning any popularity contest.
So we have to say to those in power that it is morally unacceptable that 20,000 children were homeless in our school system last year. No one should live a third world life in a first world nation.
We need to stand up to the NRA and rouge sheriffs doing their best Bull Connor imitations by saying that federal laws don’t apply to them when we need laws that protect us from gun violence.
Our political leaders need to know that growth cannot come at the expense of our health – and so as people of faith we must challenge policies that will negatively impact our environment, including those that disproportionally impact communities of color.
And I want Sunnyside Church and University Park Church to be leaders in the fight for marriage equality in Oregon because until everyone has their civil rights protected none of us is truly free.
Dr. King said:
"More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
What was true then is true now. We are the inheritors of the dream. But the dream is not yet fulfilled. So God calls us to action. Dr. King died the year before I was born. But his words are for every generation. As we leave this place let it be in a spirit of social action that keeps the building of the Kingdom front and center in our lives. Faith without action is empty. Faith combined with action can transform the world.