Earlier this week, leaving Henrico Doctors Hospital, I read that sign at a school near the hospital which boldly proclaimed January 18th as “Lee, Jackson, King Day.” I couldn’t help but think of the irony of that triumvirate. Now there were three different heroes.
I had five uncles who fought in the Civil War, or the War of Southern Independence, or whatever name you call it by. Two were killed. One was fourteen and killed by a sniper while on picket duty at Petersburg. One was killed by Bedford Forest’s men in Alabama. Three survived Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, the Wilderness and a lot of other battles. They were part of my family lore.
There may be some small saving grace for me here in Richmond, though–despite my Yankee heritage. When I was a boy and we used to play soldiers, I always wanted to be a Confederate. They were more romantic and had more personality than those Union generals, even though the Confederates eventually lose in the play war. I have a great respect for those men and women on both sides who sacrificed for what they believed to be the truth.
Martin Luther King, Jr. remains a controversial person in our national consciousness. To many white people, he was the ringleader of a social change that ruined part of the fabric of the society we once knew and loved. Some people still object to his inclusion on the list of national holidays, and there are some Episcopalians who remain unhappy with his inclusion on the calendar of Saint’s Days. Most often these objections are focused on the accusations that King did not lead a saintly personal life. This may be true, but what we have forgotten is that many of our other saints were also renowned sinners. I am certain that King was not a man unblemished by sin, or ego, or selfishness. His status is not based on his perfection.
Of course, we are more broad-minded in the nineties about heroes; even the late great hero of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, had his peccadilloes. If the truth were known about each of us, there are things that we have done that we are sorry for, or times we have cheated in one way or another. This is not said as an excuse for such behavior, but to remind us that we are sinners and we all make mistakes. I may be wrong, but whenever I read the Bible, I still pick up the message that God loves us sinners. The Bible is full of unlikely candidates for sainthood.
What makes King a notable national hero is simply this, that despite years of injustice and racism perpetrated upon American blacks by our governments, court systems and even churches, King believed in the creed of this nation, “that all men and women are created equal.” Moreover, he believed that the hearts and minds of people could be turned to that truth.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a believer in the idealism of Christian people–white and black–and therefore a believer in you and me. He staked his life on the hope that people in the majority would ultimately do what was right.
One month before the historic Supreme Court Decision, Brown versus the Board of Education, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a new graduate of Boston University’s Divinity School. He accepted a pastorate at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. The year was 1955; the same year that a fourteen-year-old black youth from Chicago named Emmett Till would be murdered in Greenwood, Mississippi for the supposed crime of whistling at a white woman. He was tossed in the Talahatchie River weighed down by a 75lb. cotton gin fan tied to his neck with barbed wire.
Most of us, if we are honest, look with disdain upon the black culture, its poverty, its values-in everything from music to athletics we see them as different from us. Because we are the majority, we do not have a clue to what black people have experienced.
Remember Rosa Parks, who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus? As a result Martin Luther King, Jr. became the leader of the newly-formed Montgomery Improvement Association, which called for bus drivers to be courteous to all passengers, all riders to be seated on a first-come basis, black drivers to be employed. City officials saw these demands as a threat that would destroy the fabric of their community and King ended up in jail until released by a Federal Court. Looking back from where we are today, it seems impossible that we as a nation perpetrated such injustice and prejudice.
One reason King is seen as a national figure is because he refused the pressure from his own people to opt for violence. If you and I were subjected to what the blacks suffered in this country, I wonder if we would have had that much courage to stand for non-violence. The rage, anger, and fear you feel when your children are mistreated can drive anyone to violence. Yet King held firm and controlled those elements that would have chosen to kill or be killed. King believed in the validity of the American system and in the inescapable responsibility of Christian people to do what Jesus would have us do. His objective was not to coerce but to correct, not to break bodies but to move hearts.
King was a brave man and faithful Christian. He believed in the power of Jesus to turn Christian hearts to justice and compassion. He believed in you and me to do just that, and he staked and gave his life for that belief. He is on the list of Saints in our Church not because he was a man without blemish, but because he trusted in the end in Jesus and in the rest of us.
King was murdered in 1968. In his last sermon he said, “I have been to the mountain top and I have seen the promised land…I may not get there with you but we as people will get there…so tonight I am a happy man. I am not fearing any man.”
Faith in Jesus is not a science; it is an art form. If it were a science then we could like General Motors in Detroit figure out a diagram: how much steel, how much plastic, how much energy and we could turn out assembly-line Christians. But faith requires the touch of the individual soul. Some say Martin Luther King, Jr. was like a Biblical prophet. He did have that knack for speaking in poetic rhetoric. Isaiah is probably the most famous of all the Biblical prophets, and he, too, had a way of putting words together that even 3000 years later reaches deep into our hearts: “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth sharp like a sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow in his quiver and hid me away.”
I wonder how many of us feel that we are a polished arrow in God’s quiver. What a great image! And its true we are. So many centuries ago Isaiah grasped this intimate relationship with God. We are intimately bound up with God in our mother’s womb, perhaps far more intimately than we are after we are born. We are sent into this world with something of the holy buried in our hearts, and religious life is nothing more than the choice for God. This is the secret of religion. Isaiah knew it almost 3000 years ago, and it is as new and fresh today as it was then. God intended each of us to be an arrow in God’s quiver. Our purpose in being is not to raise a family, not be successful, not to have a good reputation, not to be rich, our reason for being is to choose God in all and every circumstance of our life. Most of the time there is no mystery for us in how to make that choice, though often it is the harder choice.
I can remember a day talking to Dean Reid, who is the former Dean at Virginia Seminary, soon after I arrived at Immanuel on the Hill in Alexandria. He wanted to know what I heard around campus from the students. What were their criticisms? I told him the only consistent complaint I heard was about the food. He nodded his head as if he already knew and named the dietician. He said, “that woman has had one year’s experience eight times.”
So often it is the same with us. Again and again we have an opportunity to align ourselves with God, and we say the next time we will do it, but not this time, this time there is too much at stake. It is hard for us to let ourselves see how radical Christian faith is. It’s pathetic for a person like me to get in the pulpit and tell you God is love when at least 50% are not having that experience, and you are thinking to yourself, “the hell God is.” Maybe you are in a bad marriage, maybe your mother-in-law came for a weekend and stayed forty years, maybe you have cancer, or maybe you have lost your job. We expect God to reward us for being good. Goodness and love are their own rewards. The people who choose God do not escape pain, suffering and death. The difference is that we know that pain suffering and death are part of love, and we are willing to go where God calls.
There is a story about St. Paul’s Church down the street. I don’t know if it’s true or apocryphal. I hope it’s true. General Robert E. Lee was attending services there soon after his surrender at Appomattox. The Union army still occupied Richmond. The black population was a little bolder than before the war, and now some sat in regular seats at St. Paul’s. It was a Communion Sunday. Up to the altar came a black man, a former slave, and knelt to receive communion. For a long time not a soul stirred in the church, including the priest. The man was left there to kneel alone. Suddenly General Lee got up from his pew and walked to the altar and knelt beside him. In the scope of the history of the war and reconstruction or our national history, it is hardly an action worth remembering. But in the church it made all the difference. “Don’t be afraid,” say all the Angels to all the people they visit. And Jesus says the same thing to us: “Don’t be afraid to follow me.”
Nathaniel asked Andrew if anything good could come out of Nazareth. You and I are living proof that a lot of good did come out of Nazareth.