Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An MLK Sermon: Dr. King and the Future of Our Church

“make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. . . .” Ephesians 6:19

The Reverend Luther Zeigler
Christ Church Cambridge
Sunday, January 19, 2014

Across our nation this weekend, millions of Americans will be celebrating, as we are this morning, the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  King’s name has become virtually synonymous with the major achievements of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, ranging from the Montgomery bus boycotts of 1955, which led to the integration of that city’s public transportation system; to the dramatic demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama, which exposed to the world the injustices of America’s most racially segregated city; to the March on Washington in 1963, which galvanized a nation, and played a pivotal role in leading to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Indeed, during the less than 13 years that King led the modern American Civil Rights Movement, from December 1955 until April 1968, Americans arguably achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in this country than the previous 350 years had produced.

It was King’s methods, of course, as much as his outcomes, that were his real gift to us. While others advocated for freedom by “any means necessary,” including violence, King resolutely refused the temptation to strike back with force, using instead the power of words and the embodiment of nonviolent resistance to achieve seemingly impossible goals.  Drawing on Gandhi and the gospels in equal measure, King demonstrated what today’s gospel teaching about loving one’s enemies really looks like, and the power such love has to transform even the darkest of hearts and the most pernicious forms of institutionalized hatred.

Yet, King was so much more than just a civil rights leader.  People tend to forget that in the last three years of his life, the focus of his work shifted from racial injustice to economic injustice more broadly considered. His work in these years culminated in the “Poor Peoples Campaign,” an ambitious effort to assemble a multiracial coalition of impoverished Americans to advocate for economic change.  In these years, too, he became an outspoken critic of the Viet Nam war in particular, and of our national obsession with military power and spending more generally.  Indeed, King’s visit to this Church in 1967 was an important part of that anti-war message.

As important as King’s legacy is in all of these areas – as a champion of racial equality, in solidarity with the poor, and in opposition to war making – my focus this morning lies somewhere else:  namely, King’s theology of the church and its role in society. 

When I served as a chaplain in elementary and secondary schools before I came to Harvard, I was always struck by how few of my students knew what King’s vocation was.  They could quote his “I have a dream” speech by heart, but only a handful of them would know that King’s first and primary calling was as a minister of the gospel.  As King puts it in his autobiography: “In the quiet recess of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.  This is my being and my heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher.”  Even near the end of his all too short life, with all the public exposure it brought, King would say that being a preacher “was [his] first calling and greatest commitment.”

My students can be forgiven perhaps for not knowing about King’s identity as a pastor because, when you think about it, nearly all of the iconic moments in King’s life story played out on a public stage rather than within the confines of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church or some other church sanctuary.  The images that we most remember are of King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, or sitting pensively in a Birmingham jail, or being arrested in Montgomery during the bus boycotts, or marching with other freedom fighters in Selma, or sitting at LBJ’s side in the White House as the President signed the landmark civil rights legislation of 1964.  So few of the really memorable photographs of King are in the pulpit or within the four walls of a church building.

This is no accident, I think.  For one of King’s core teachings is that the church is not a building, or some event that takes place on a Sunday morning. Rather, the church is you and me – the Body of Christ at work in the world.  King puts it bluntly in his autobiography when he writes:  “It is my conviction that any religion that professes concern for the souls of men [and women] and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried.”  (p. 18.)

King reminds us that our vitality as Christ’s church depends upon our willingness to engage meaningfully and consistently with the world and its problems.  To be sure, we gather here on Sundays to immerse ourselves in the Word that defines us and in the sacraments that feed us; but the real work of the Church happens on the other six days of the week.  Pope Francis could well have been quoting King when he wrote late last year: “I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Which is why it warms my heart to be able to share with you the news that the Episcopal Chaplaincy at Harvard is today one step closer to living into King’s legacy and becoming a truly vibrant center for social justice on Harvard Square.  This past Friday, seven young adults from our diocesan Life Together program moved into our house next door at Two Garden Street.  No longer will we be known as home to the Hasty Pudding Club.  Instead, young Christians committed to important work in the community will be in residence there, living in an intentional religious community, and sharing the house with our own Chaplaincy students. At the same time, we are moving our chaplaincy offices from the basement up to the main floor, and soon enough I hope you will see a steady stream of young people going in and out of the house as it becomes a place known both for its spiritual vitality and social engagement.

Give us a week or two to get settled, but then we welcome you to stop by, say hello, and check out what’s happening in our house.  Come meet Abigail Strait, our own Micah Fellow and Wisconsin native, who works with me in overseeing our Chaplaincy’s interfaith prisoner mentoring program at Norfolk Correctional Facility.  Or get to know Charlie Emple, a Bates College alumnus, who is dedicating his internship year to supporting our diocesan anti-violence “B-PEACE” project by nurturing school-church partnerships in low-income areas. Or Greg Johnston, a recent Harvard graduate and alumnus of our Chaplaincy, who is spending his year with Massachusetts Communities Action Network, working to raise the state minimum wage. Or Joe Sheeran, a fellow Oberlin grad, who works this year at Episcopal City Mission, helping with various urban ministry initiatives. Or Kacey Minnick, a young woman from Tennessee who is placed at St. James, Porter Square, working in that church’s young adult and food ministry programs.  Or Laura Shatzer, a recent Harvard Divinity School graduate, who is doing important ecumenical work with the Massachusetts Council of Churches.  Or Seth Woody, a Texan who last year interned over at the Monastery and now is working with Dorchester Bay Youth Force helping to form and support teen leaders, particularly those who live in economically disadvantaged areas.

These are the seven, extraordinary young adults who will be sharing their lives with us this year.  Most of them could have gone on to careers with investment banks or law firms or in other corporate contexts, but instead they chose to devote themselves to serving the needs of the forgotten or marginalized or those most hurting in our world. By housing these Life Together interns under one roof with the Chaplaincy and our Harvard students, my hope is to create myriad opportunities for fruitful mutual ministry between these two communities, as students and interns begin to worship together, share meals and conversation together, and learn what it means to integrate one’s spiritual convictions with a life of service.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the great prophets of our age in part because he had the imagination to dream and the courage to pursue that dream against all the odds.  On a much, much smaller scale, we have been inspired by his example to dream too; and our prayer this morning is that with the help of this great parish family and the support of our diocese, we might be given the grace to make that dream a reality.  Our dream is that through this exciting new partnership between a venerable campus ministry and a dynamic young adult ministry, the house at Two Garden Street – your house at Two Garden Street – will become what it was originally intended to be:  a spiritually alive, socially engaged, and profoundly welcoming center for Episcopal life at Harvard. In the words of St. Paul from today’s epistle reading, may God help us “to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.”  Amen. 

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