Sermon by Bishop Dr. R. Guy Erwin for the Celebration and Commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 14, 2018
Westchester Lutheran Church, Los Angeles, CA
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors and Gentiles do the same?
How many times have we heard these words? How many times have we heard them and smiled and nodded and said to ourselves, “Yes, Lord; thank you, Lord – that’s just what we need to do!” -and then immediately forgot them and went about our business? Have you done what Jesus says is necessary? I’ll own up to it. I have failed to love my enemies. I have failed to pray with my whole heart for those who persecute me.
Part of this is that I have always been somewhat unwilling to believe that I even had enemies, and I used to think that I could get through life without actually hating anyone or being hated myself. You see, I was not brought up to see other people as possibly hostile or dangerous to me. I was born 60 years ago, a middle-class mostly-white boy in small-town Oklahoma, into a society designed for people just like me. Being Native American was not really an issue – where I was, we were part of the majority.
In that context, six decades ago, it seemed we all knew what to do and what to expect – mind our manners, learn our lessons, be respectful of our elders – and the world would magically open up to us, that we might become in life whatever our ambitions and talents allowed. Follow the rules and all will be well, we were told in a hundred ways. And when you live in a world that is designed for you, it’s hard to see beyond that – it’s hard to see into a society where some mothers have to fear for their sons’ lives every evening they’re out of the house, or where any traffic stop might be a life-ending encounter.
I didn’t grow up with anxieties like that. It wasn’t until much later in my life, when I came to terms with the fact that I was gay, that I learned to be afraid. I learned that the very existence of LGBT folk caused other people fear, not because of who we are as individuals, but because we represent something that made them uncomfortable. I learned what it meant to be hated without even being known, to be rejected without even being truly seen, and – most painful of all – that people thought that in order to be faithful to God they needed to hate people like me – even when they tried to hide the hate by saying it wasn’t about me, it was only “the sin” they hated. I couldn’t choose what I was – but at least my difference was not written into the color of my skin.
Race is a whole different matter. It can’t be overlooked. It is written on our faces and inscribed into our national history in fundamental ways. The story of race is the story of America. Our very existence as a nation rests on two great racial crimes: the displacement and elimination of Native Americans and the importation and enslavement of Africans. None of what we are today as the United States would be possible without those two painful historic injustices. And coming up on 400 years later, they still hurt – and most likely will continue to hurt.
The very land on which we stand was taken from those who had inhabited it, and sold by white Europeans to other white Europeans. The labor force they needed to make the land profitable here in Spanish California was created by enslaving the natives. In the American South a vast plantation culture was created and sustained by capturing and enslaving Africans in enormous numbers – a traffic in human bodies unlike anything else in world history – while the industrialization and globalization of trade created such demand for the cotton that the plantations could not produce without slavery, so that slavery got baked into our Constitution and our national fabric.
This is our story as a nation: born from dispossession and enslavement. The reality of this history is not up for debate. It is a fact. And yet there are those who refuse to see that it matters – that these centuries-old crimes still poison our relationships and divide us. I believe that until we come to terms as a nation with the human sacrifice that was necessary to us to exist, and until we learn to be honest about the past, we will never be able to move beyond our fear of one another. Guilt and fear hold us back: guilt about what we have done; fear that somehow the justice we seek will upset the white privilege so many enjoy.
The third leg of the stool, of course, is immigration. The United States is proud of being a nation of immigrants. We praise ourselves for having been able to absorb waves of migrants from various white European Christian countries, though even that wasn’t always easy. But we are not so proud of how we’ve treated people of other races and faiths: the laborers from China, the farmers from Japan, and the migrant workers from Mexico and Central America, just to name a few. Now, the whole world is here – right here on our doorstep in Los Angeles, the most diverse city in the world. Every one of the world’s religions is practiced by one of our neighbors; every language and culture is represented in our community and our neighborhoods.
Yet we still argue as a nation over who we’ll let in and who has the right to be here. We blame migrants for problems they did not create, and forget all the ways they make us better and stronger and richer. And we try to punish them for doing what we needed them to do, even demanding punishment into the next generation, the DREAMers. People talk about building walls to keep people out, when what they really want to do is wall off the bad memory of our guilt and build a protective fence around white privilege.
When I was young, that privilege was especially strong – even I knew I was better off than others. As a child I didn’t really question the fact that all the African Americans I knew were waiters or housekeepers; and I knew no Latino people or Asians at all. But Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement changed that for me even as a boy, and opened up to me questions my child’s mind had never thought to ask.
It was those pictures on the television screen that did it: those people drenched with fire hoses and with the dogs set on them by the police. No one, even a child, can fail to see that for the hate it was, and it broke into my innocence as the TV brought it into our home. I asked why this was, and was told by my open-minded and tolerant parents that black people were not treated fairly in our state and throughout the South and the nation as whole, and they were asking for equality – and I didn’t have to be told that those fire hoses and dogs and arrests were America’s answer. And I heard Dr. King speak on TV: the first African American I ever heard give a speech.
We didn’t talk about civil rights too much in the family, but when I got my first record player as a Christmas gift in 1965, one of the 2 or 3 records I got with it was an LP of President Johnson’s speech to Congress on the Voting Rights Act earlier that year. I wonder now what my parents were thinking, giving a record of a 45-minute presidential speech to a seven-year-old. I was, frankly, far more interested in the Beatles than LBJ and Dr. King. But I listened to that record until some of its best phrases were burned into my mind: “There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”
And I listened and watched as things began to change. Dr. King filled the television screen with a strong, solid dignity and a determined expression. And to hear his voice was even better. You can hear it in your ear even now: the familiar, rhythmic cadence, beautiful, carefully chosen words calling out with sonorous beauty and drawing a nation’s attention back to its ideals and best dreams. You don’t have to have been alive then to hear it – it is so embedded in our hearts. And until that voice was silenced, in April of 1968, it was the conscience of our nation.
Now today, 50 years since Dr. King’s assassination, we still need to hear that voice. Much, to be sure, has changed – most of it for the better. In fits and starts, sometimes more, sometimes less, we have pushed the arc of justice forward in this half-century. And we have folded more people into our great national dream of equality: other races, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community – all these have joined African Americans in our common struggle for justice. We elected an African American president. And we have made progress. At least it seemed like we had.
Today things do feel different. It’s no longer so hard for me to see enemies in the world. Hate doesn’t even seem to want to hide behind some kind of respectability any more, but has come out into the open. There doesn’t seem any shame in open racism. Major public figures work without shame, in the light of day, to make it harder for people of color to vote, as though 1965 and the Voting Rights Act never happened.
And worst of all, encouraged and goaded by an echo chamber of constantly reinforcing disinformation, amplified by constant repetition, a reality-show ex-salesman sits in the highest office in the land and says whatever the hell he wants, angry and vulgar and antagonistic, and without any concern for anyone else. Have we learned nothing? I am appalled by the bigotry and staggered by the sheer shamelessness. As my grandmother would say, it makes me want to spit.
But Jesus tells us to love our enemies. It’s easier to love your enemies when they aren’t in your face – on your smartphone, in the news – every single day. It’s easier to love them when they aren’t causing real harm to people you love: to immigrants and refugees, to relatives and friends. It’s easier to love your enemies when they are not your neighbors – living, breathing people who live next door or sit one pew over. The call to love is always hard to follow, but now, in the face of all this open hatred – sometimes the best we can do from day to day is just not to answer hate with more hate.
What would Martin Luther King do? He would ask us not to look to him, but to Jesus, from whom his hope came and from whom our hope comes, and I believe he would tell us to rely on our faith to give us the strength to do what we need to do to help bring greater justice in our world. The church of Jesus Christ acts in love toward justice when its members are watchful, strong, active, and empowered, when Christians are united in deep solidarity with those who suffer. But the church must not forget that Jesus calls us to love even those who hate us, and to pray for those who oppose us.
True justice is rooted in in love. And I don’t mean the mushy, sentimental kind of love, but the actual experience of mutual regard and care. Looking out for one another’s welfare. Love visible in action. Concern for our neighbor’s good is the heart of what Jesus taught on the hillside. It’s what the original Martin Luther taught us in the Small Catechism about life together in the world as Christians. Neighbor-love is our faith’s response to God’s mercy. But again, it isn’t easy when our neighbors seem unloveable and their actions make us angry.
I, for one, am tired of being angry. I am tired of being goaded by cable news and social media and even the President of the United States. I am tired of the anxiety about what fresh insult to my ideas of equality and decency will come forward today. I am tired of my friends being threatened with deportation. I am tired of fearmongering. I am tired of our gun culture. I am tired of shouting and marching. But I am not done. We are not done. As tired as we are, as angry as we get, we are not done. We are in this to the end.
I believe it is the church’s duty in this moment in our history to remind us that our lives belong to God—and that belonging to God, they are lent to us for this time, to do what we can to help our neighbor. I believe that a Christian life that does not engage all the tools we have to help our neighbor is not fully a Christian life. We cannot love our neighbor (or our enemy) without helping them. Salvation is not our problem – God has that under control – but our neighbor’s suffering is both our problem and our responsibility.
I believe the church is here to help us remember that our enemies are God’s children too, and even though we may not be able to see the Christ in them right now, Jesus became human – and lived and died – for them as much as for us. This is hard, and we must not let it keep us from calling out ideas and actions we believe to be wrong. But we should remember that God alone is the ultimate judge of each of us.
I believe the church can show us by its example what it means to resist and what it means to persist: we must push back against what hurts others even when it hurts us to do so, and we must cultivate the strength we need to continue a struggle we will not live to see resolved, and even through days when it might seem we are losing ground. We need focus, and we need lasting strength. We can find both here, in Jesus as the Word of God for us. It is Jesus who we rely on, and in whom we trust.
I believe the church is here to help us do together what it is hard for us to do alone: to give us strong relationships rooted in our love of God and our experience of Jesus – to form us into the body of Christ in this time and place – and to empower us to act with our hands and our feet and our voices and our votes to do everything we can to overcome injustice and create peace. Washed and fed with Word and Sacrament, we are a royal priesthood, a chosen people, and God gives us strength and power and unity. And it is God who will bring this struggle to fruition some day.
We cannot lose. We cannot be defeated. For – as Dr. King always reminded his marchers – we seek justice and reconciliation, not victory. Victory has already been won, by Jesus, whose resurrection has conquered death and leaves us nothing more to fear. May that promise of life sustain us in now and in the days ahead, and fill us with the love that serves our neighbor.
May God bless you all. Amen.