The following sermon by the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, Bishop of Virginia, was delivered at St. Paul’s Church, Alexandria, on Sunday, April 6, 2018.
Today, as we continue the great celebration of Easter, we solemnly mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination—indeed, the martyrdom—of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.
We are doing so on the first Sunday after the date of his death.
Following ancient custom, the actual date of a martyrdom (as can be best determined) or either the date of burial or the removal of remains to a shrine, is the Church’s preferred day of commemoration of extraordinary, heroic Christian witness.
However, in the case of Dr. King, our Episcopal Church provides for the alternative date of January 15 to commemorate his life, out of respect for, and in solidarity with, the African American community’s custom of celebrating his life and achievements on his birthday.
As bishop, I felt that this milestone anniversary is of such importance that I authorized and encouraged all congregations in our diocese to use the propers appointed for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. rather than the ones customary for the Second Sunday of Easter.
Given that the Great Fifty Days of Easter are of such supreme “rank” on our Church calendar, and thus would rightly take precedence over any other occasion or theme, why would I take such an unprecedented step?
Absolutely not: I am very suspicious of that phenomenon.
Hardly! If that were to be a trumping criterion, we (especially here in history-ridden Virginia) would always be finding worthy occasions and personages to supplant the order of the liturgical calendar.
Well, that’s closer to my heart, but in my mind there’s got to be more to it than celebrating human greatness.
After all, the sheer scale of examples would be paralyzing, and, anyway, the standards for choosing our worthies would be virtually impossible to establish, being inherently too subjective: “greatness is in the mind and eye of the beholder.”
But, at least, that is closer to clearing the bar.
For, in fact, the Church does have an established set of criteria, “standards” if you will, considerations that come as close to respectable objectivity as we’re likely to be able to achieve. These are all spelled out plainly in the 2006 edition of our devotional book Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
But rather than take the time (and try your patience!) by enumerating and discussing these standards, allow me to characterize them generally.
Our worship must always be about lifting up the will, the ways, and the purposes of the Triune God, offering praise and gratitude to God through the Church of Jesus Christ.
Notably, there are appointed times when we give thanks for—and receive inspiration from—followers of the Lord Jesus whose lives have shown a truly surpassing devotion to the will of God, and who, over succeeding generations, have brought strength and clarity to our own personal faith, and to our witness, through extraordinary examples of personal sanctity, singular sacrifice, and/or prophetic ministry.
The Episcopal Church is clear that that life, ministry and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one such example. But why “replace” a Sunday’s duly appointed worship (again, especially within the supreme season of Easter) by transferring our commemoration of Dr. King from April 4 to now?
That question is more simply answered: the simple truth is because more people will engage it on a Sunday. And it is a milestone anniversary which claims a special place for our remembrance.
But for all of that—as good and right as all of this may be—I strongly believe that there is still an even more important reason for our diocese to remember Dr. King today, and that is that it seems that his famous “DREAM," which over these decades can be said to have seen some significant degree of realization, is now very much under threat.
Racial tensions are rising again across this country. For example, we see these tensions flaring with fatal consequences between communities of color and law enforcement.
The strain is being felt in urban, suburban and rural settings alike. Groups espousing new brands of White supremacy, Neo-Nazis, and so-called “New Confederates” once again feel emboldened (for a variety of reasons) and are more visible and more vocal now than at any time since the violence, strife and division of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Here in Virginia, we have had our own terrible display of this very real phenomenon in Charlottesville, and—make no mistake—these hate-mongers are on the move in more and more places and pose very explicit threats to ALL people of color, and to ALL ethnicities and national origins which they perceive as somehow “different.”
THIS is why it is so crucial that we look once again to the Dreamer, the Prophet, the Peace-Seeker that was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This means that today is not a time to preach his “biography” or to eulogize him in some sort of nostalgic and whitewashed way.
He must not be reduced to the proverbial “plaster saint.” No, I’m convinced that Dr. King would have us preach, proclaim and dream about the Kingdom of God. He would tell us to be co-workers with God in the creation of the Beloved Community in which EVERYONE has a place, where EVERYONE is esteemed simply for the fact of his and her humanity, and where EVERYONE works together for the human rights and the good of all.
Obviously, the best place to look for inspiration, wisdom, and answers is in Dr. King’s own words. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is an indispensable masterpiece.
Published on April 16, 1963, this magnificent document has long been a true classic of a Christian’s religious, social, and moral responsibilities. I have made it a pointed spiritual discipline of my own to read it at least once a year.
In his letter, Dr. King addresses—by name—eight leading Alabama clergymen (including the much-revered and long-tenured Episcopal Bishop C.C.J. Carpenter) who had written and signed a statement opposing the marches and protests organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, not only characterizing the protestors as “unwelcome” but also calling the protests themselves “unwise and untimely.”
It is true that some among the group of clergy addressed were, in fact, regarded as “moderates” at the time.
In putting his case to them, Dr. King had something of great importance to say to many---perhaps most—of us here in this very place: people who would embrace the identity of a “white moderate” in this day and time.
I’ll quote Dr. King at length not simply for the substance of his argument, but also for the surprising conclusion he reaches:
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Councilor 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.”
Dr. King’s views here are redolent of the oft-spoken mantra (both back in the 1960’s and in this very time) that “the Church shouldn’t get involved in political issues.”
I heard that a lot back in the 60’s and 70’s in Alabama under the arch-segregationist Gov. George Wallace.
That was wrong then and it is wrong today, because it ends up being tacit support of a status-quo, even when that status-quo promotes laws and practices that are in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Church and are even in opposition to Gospel of Jesus Christ.
No, surely, the Church has its rightful place in the market-place ideas and political order; we must speak up for ourselves, we must speak up for those who have no voice, we must speak up for our Lord’s Gospel.
Finally, allow me to quote again from the “Letter,” taken from a passage in which Dr. King addresses what he terms as the “white church”:
“I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership. Of course, there are some notable exceptions. I am not unmindful of the fact that each of you has taken some significant stands on this issue . . . But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church . . . When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders . . . and too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”
Thus speaks our history. Thus can our history easily repeat. Today, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that terrible day when a sniper’s bullet cut him down for daring to speak and act out of the vision of God’s will for all people, let us be very sure that we never sit silent behind that ‘anesthetizing security” of stained glass or that we merely bask in the comfort of beautiful liturgy.
The world, aware of it or not, depends on the Church to keep the vision alive and to do the right things at the right times. The world needs a Church with the courage of its convictions. May we be such worthy disciples of a Lord who is called “Prince of Peace.”