Marching from Selma to Madison Wisconsin: A Sermon Honoring the Life and Ministry of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on January 18, 2015,  is built around the lessons appointed for use on the Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr.  You can find those readings here.

Links to Dr. King’s writings quoted in the sermon are provided in the text of the sermon.

This morning we celebrate the life and ministry of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior  I hope that you will indulge me as I offer a short history lesson.

Born January 15th, 1929 The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which eliminated the unconstitutional barriers used to deny African Americans their right to vote across much of the South.

In the course of his career as a civil rights activist Dr. King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped to found and was first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led struggles against segregation in Albany Georgia and in Birmingham, Alabama and helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington where he gave his famous “I Have a Dream speech.

In 1965 Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, depicted in a movie that is showing in theaters today and which has been nominated for an academy award for best picture, that helped to secure passage of the voting rights act.

Killed by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis Tennessee on April 4th, 1968 Dr. King was the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize and was posthumously awarded The Presidential Medal of Honor in 1977 and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004.

It is no wonder that tomorrow, in this towns and across the nation, on a Federal Holiday established in his honor, Dr. King will be celebrated and honored in statehouses across the nation with speeches, stories, and song. Given the importance of his work it is no surprise that in all of those gatherings children will read their winning essays describing Dr. King’s influence and impact on their lives, adults will remember those painful and turbulent days and we will all give thanks for a life and work cut terribly short.

In the public square Dr. King stands tall among the great men of this nation.   In the public square… But why is it that we are talking about him here in church? Why is it that we are suspending our regularly scheduled program and readings to remember and honor him as we celebrate the Eucharist, The Great Thanksgiving, here today?

In answer to that question I would like to invite Dr. King to speak. This is an excerpt from his sermon   “Loving Your Enemies.”

“The Greek language comes out with another word for love. It is the word agape. And agape is more than eros; agape is more than philia; agape is something of the understanding, creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. It is a love that seeks nothing in return. It is an overflowing love; it’s what theologians would call the love of God working in the lives of men. And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love men, not because they are likeable, but because God loves them. You look at every man, and you love him because you know God loves him. And he might be the worst person you’ve ever seen.

And this is what Jesus means, I think, in this very passage when he says, “Love your enemy.” And it’s significant that he does not say, “Like your enemy.” Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don’t like what they do to me. I don’t like what they say about me and other people. I don’t like their attitudes. I don’t like some of the things they’re doing. I don’t like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them. You refuse to do anything that will defeat an individual, because you have agape in your soul. And here you come to the point that you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy.” This is the way to do it. When the opportunity presents itself when you can defeat your enemy, you must not do it.”

That sermon was delivered November 17, 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

Compare those words to something that we heard just a few minutes ago…

“Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.”

“But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”   (Luke 6:27-29, 6:35-36)

Here in the season of Epiphany we focus our attention on God’s presence in the world made manifest, tangible, real so that we might experience the light, grace and love that is ours for the claiming. The scriptures assigned for the season of Epiphany focus on God’s ability to affect and change the world and our lives through the work and teaching of Jesus Christ. What a lovely coincidence that Dr. King was born during this season so that we might remember him as an example of God’s grace, light and love, and ability to transform our lives and the world!

Why do we interrupt our regularly scheduled programming this morning to hear and remember Dr. King’s voice? Because Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and work manifested God’s light, love, and grave to the world for all of us to see. Because Dr. King’s voice has earned a place here with us, within these walls, among the people who seek to walk as a child of the light.

Listen again:

“We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force. There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Then, and only then, can you matriculate into the university of eternal life. That same voice cries out in terms lifted to cosmic proportions: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations that failed to follow this command. We must follow nonviolence and love.”

(“Give Us the Ballot” Address (1957) Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom (Call to Conscience) Washington, D.C.)

Tomorrow Dr. King’s voice will be taken up all across this nation. People will work to carry on his legacy, forwarding the cause to which he gave, and for which he lost his life. There is no doubt that his image will appear on the evening news, in newspapers and on magazine covers.   On one of those covers Dr. King’s voice will ring out loud and clear.

This from the Washington Post:

“The New Yorker on Friday afternoon released a look at the cover of its next issue. Barry Blitt’s drawing, which will adorn newsstands and coffee tables next week, evokes the famous photos of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

On this cover, King’s arms are linked with those of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who died after being placed in a police chokehold, and Wenjian Liu, the New York City police officer gunned down with Rafael Ramos as they sat in their squad car last month. They are joined on the cover by Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, who were shot and killed in Florida and Missouri, respectively.”

In the last few months our nation has been wracked with pain, drawn back into a conversation that many of us would like to believe was concluded by Dr. King’s work some fifty years ago. The similarities between the circumstances and the events that have spawned our current angst and the struggle in which Dr. King was engaged are to striking to be ignored.

Jimmie Lee Jackson was a civil rights activist and a deacon in the Baptist church. On February 18, 1965, he was beaten and shot by Alabama State Troopers while participating in a peaceful voting rights march. Jackson was unarmed; he died several days later in the hospital. A Grand Jury declined to indict the Trooper who killed him.

Listen to the words Dr. King spoke in his eulogy of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

“So in his death Jimmy Jackson says to us that we must be concerned not merely about WHO murdered him, but about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers. His death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American ream a reality.”

WHO murdered Eric Garner, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos? WHO murdered Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown? We know WHO used the chokehold. We know WHO pulled the trigger. We know which ethnic group each of them belonged to.   We know how old they are and where they grew up. We know their history and their mental health status. We know which of them were police officers and which of them were not. And we have spent hours and hours, page upon page expounding on the guilt of the WHO in each of these cases.

But Dr. King’s voice has earned a place here with us, with the people who want to walk as children of the light, and he calls to us, imploring us to be concerned

“about the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

Here is what we know about that system:

In Dane County the unemployment rate for white citizens of this country is 4.8%.  The national unemployment rate for African Americans is 18%.  And in Dane County the unemployment rate for African Americans is 25.2%, five times that of their white neighbors!

In Dane County the Median Income for whites is $63,673

Nationally the median income for African Americans is $33,233.  In the state of Wisconsin the median income for African Americans is $24,399.  And in Dane County it is $20,664, less than one third that of their white neighbors.

In Dane County 8.7% of our white citizens live below the poverty line.  While 54% of our African American neighbors live in poverty.  54%!  That is 1.5 times greater than the national statistics!  That means that in Dane County African Americans are 5 -6 times more likely to live in poverty than their white neighbors.

What do we know about the “system that produced the murders”?  We know that it is out of balance, unfair, and dysfunctional.

What do we know about the way of life and the philosophy that have produced the murders?

We know that across the country for every 1 white youth arrested 2.1 African American youth are arrested by the police.In the state of Wisconsin the statistics are 3.4 to 1.

In Dane County the arrest ration of black to white youth is 6.1 to 1!

In Dane County African American youth are arrested at a rate of 102/thousand while their white neighbors are arrested at a rate of 5.8/thousand.  That makes the detention ratio of African American to White youth 15.3 to 1!

Black Youths in Dane County make up 10% of the population age 12 – 17.  They make up 64% of the detention population for that age range.

In Dane County adult African Americans are incarcerated at a rate 15 times higher than whites in this county.

In Dane County Black people make up 4.8 % of the population aged 18-54.  They make up 44% of the detention population for that age demographic!

(Stats taken from The Race to Equity Report)

There is a strong temptation to look at these statistics and focus our attention on the WHO, to criticize and condemn the police whom we trust to protect our streets and defend our rights.   I need to tell you that when Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were shot while sitting inside their patrol car in New York City Pastor Alex Gee of Fountain of Life Covenant Church called for a prayer gathering so that together we could pray for reconciliation. There were several of us from Saint Andrew’s in attendance that day and everyone there as pleased that Madison Police Chief Mike Koval was there too. Chief Koval is pulling officers off the line to institute additional training so that the kind of tragedies that have occurred elsewhere in this country do not happen here. But focusing on the WHO is a mistake. Once again we must listen to Dr. King’s voice and recognize that the policing statistics for Dane County speak more to who we are as a society than we are comfortable admitting.

The actions of the police today, much as they were in Birmingham and Selma serve to hold up a mirror to our own fears, prejudices, and complacency. These statistics represent a philosophy, a world view which either hasn’t moved much or has reverted to the repugnant attitudes and prejudices of the 1950s and 60s.

Today, tomorrow, all week, here in the season of Epiphany Dr. King’s manifestation of the teachings of Jesus Christ call upon us to listen, to take stock, and to

“work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American Dream a reality.”

We have made a start in this place; partnering with Dr. Alex Gee, Fountain of Life Covenant Church, and the Nehemiah Project we have given $5,500 to help support the BROTHER Program, working to provide African American boys with positive role models and mentoring, to work with their families to break the chain of violence, oppression and despair that surrounds them in this place.

It is now time to take the next step. We are working to address the immediate need; to address the acute symptoms of the illness witch infects our nation. We need to turn our attention to the root of the evil which has caused these wounds

“…the system, the way of life and the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

In the season of Epiphany and Lent we will be working to engage in conversations about our own place in this system; about the privilege that we take for granted, the suffering that happens all around us to which we are blind or indifferent. We will be working to acquire the tools and the understanding that will allow is to move the systems and shift the philosophy of the people who can intervene at a systemic level to move us closer to the realization of the American Dream for all of our people.

I ask you to be courageous, to respond to the call, to be willing to enter into difficult and challenging conversations with our brothers and sisters in the African American Community, to hear their stories, to embrace their reality, and to work to put an end to this stain on our nation.

Manifestations of God to the world, epiphanies, are meant to point to a reality beyond the details o the events themselves. And they are meant to cal us to change, to live lives that reflect the reality of God among us, Emmanuel. We are the church, the Body of Christ in the world. We cannot sit idly by as our brothers and sisters are dying.

I leave you this morning with a portion of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, written in response to the criticism of Birmingham’s white clergy who were urging him to be quiet and to stand down.

Dr. King tells us that…

“…the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”

Heaven forbid!

Amen.

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