It will come as no surprise to many of you that I have been a bleeding-heart liberal from my earliest days. A teenage rebellion, I am sure against my tastefully conservative Republican mom and dad. A straight A student, I rebelled in hippy dippy ways. I skipped school to protest the Vietnam war. I served — in name only — on the staff of an underground newspaper that never actually published a single issue. (Sister Mary Clare really clobbered me for that one!) Never a jock, I won awards with my words, my adolescent purple prose. I earned my high school letter at debates and speech contests. In one stellar outing, I gave a speech supporting birth control in the voice of a not yet fertilized egg at my Roman Catholic school. And from my secure, segregated suburban life, I railed against racism.
I loved the talk but I myself did not always walk the walk.
Thirty years later, this preacher woman was sitting at her desk on a Friday afternoon when an elderly African American gentleman paid me a call. His concern and complaint took me totally by surprise.
He wanted to know if our choir had participated in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Choir Festival. Proudly I told him yes that indeed both of our choirs had sung that day in honor of the slain civil rights leader. Well this gentleman was a contemporary of Dr. King and said for certain that he knew there were finer preachers whose names he rattled off. And worse than that did I know, he said, that MLK Jr. had been tom-catting around Atlanta. He and his wife claimed to know of the Rev. King’s comings and goings. And then he blamed bleeding heart liberals like me for canonizing this flawed leader.
Martin, he said, talked the talk. but he certainly did not always walk the walk.
Indeed, all of these years later many have measured the weight of Dr. King’s life differently. Younger African-Americans have criticized his passivity. And biographers have lingered over his personal life.
Sister Joan Chittister tells it well:
“The truth of the matter is that Martin Luther King Jr. was Martin Luther King Jr. till the day he died. Organizer, preacher, prophet, father, husband, cheater, lover and leader. He struggled with anger and depression and excess all his life. And like the rest of us in our own struggles, he never totally conquered any of them.”
Prophets you see are not always perfect. Seldom are they saints and even once sainted remain sinners.
But prophets speak truth. God’s truth.
“King was an unlikely leader, black in a white country, a preacher who led a political struggle, the son and grandson of ministers who held a privileged place in the black community. Proud of his family and home, he learned young that he lived in ‘n-word town’. He lost his two best friends in the first grade because their mother would not let them play with a ‘colored’ boy. When he was twelve, a society matron in a down town department store called him the n-word and slapped him across the face. The sting of it stayed with him for the rest of his life. He was with his father when a shoe salesman refused to wait on them unless they moved to the back room of the store. It was the first time he had seen his daddy so angry and he remembered his response. ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system. I am never going to accept it. I’ll oppose it till the day I die.’”
Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.
“And so, like his Daddy, he grew up to be pastor of a major black congregation in Montgomery, Alabama. It was 1955 and Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat on the bus. And for the first time, King stepped out of his pulpit and truly became a prophet. The first night of the bus boycott he addressed thousands who had gathered for a mass meeting. And he addressed them with the truth, with Gospel truth.”
“’Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. Love must be our regulating ideal. Once again, we must hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.’ If we fail to do this, our protest will end up as meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment we have confronted, we must not become bitter, and end up hating our white brothers and sisters. Let no one pull you so low as to make you hate them.’”
“’If you will protest courageously with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written the historians will have to pause and say. There lived a great people, a black people, who injected meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization’.” (A Passion for Life, Joan Chittister)
He talked the talk and he himself led the walk. And yes, he stumbled and he fell along the way. But the prophet Martin prophesied so that his black brothers and sisters. so that our brothers and sisters, might finally realize true equality in this Promised and Privileged Land.
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.
Now most of us, if we got the call to be such a prophet would hang up. Biblically speaking, prophets are not particularly attractive folk. They tend to push the envelope of society’s conventions and expectations. Frederick Beuchner says that, “Elisha would have been called cruel for turning bears loose on boys who taunted him. Jeremiah would be called crazy for literally eating the scroll on which sweetly written was the word of God. Amos would be called a carpetbagger for berating his southern neighbors to justice with a northern accent.”
Prophecy is not very desirable work, Buechner says. Telling the emperor he has no clothes is a thankless job. After his fairy tale like call to become a prophet, Samuel delivers some pretty bad news to his father in God. “’Eli, God is going to bring down your house.‘ These were not sweet nothings, but some very nasty news that God was whispering in Samuel’s ears.”
And the prophecy business is dangerous. With God hiding in the shadows, Buechner continues, people are likely to shoot the messenger. “Jeremiah was thrown into a cistern. Isaiah was rumored to be sawed in half. And Martin was stabbed, attacked, and his home bombed many times. And then cut down by an assassin’s bullet in April of 1968. Just thirty-nine years old.” Prophets pay a price that most of us do not have the stomach for.
But God whispers in our ears just the same. Niggling, annoying words, taunting us to rise up out of our beds. To witness and to speak up for our brothers and sisters marginalized now, even as we speak. We live in challenging times — an understatement, right? We live in a time where white supremacy has become mainstream. We live in a time where hate crimes have increased at an alarming rate. We live in a time where we barely know how to speak to people across the political divide.
So, God, help us to find some courage, some compassion and a few prophetic words that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. That we answer God’s call to be a “lower case “p” prophet — no matter how little, no matter how small.
And so let us pray the Collect for Saint Martin’s Day:
Almighty God, by the voice of your prophets, you have led your people out of slavery and into freedom; Grant that your Church, following the example of the prophet Martin, may resist oppression in the name of your love; and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog