Let Justice Flow

I couldn’t help noting the symbolic coincidence of Martin Luther King Day and the public inauguration of President Obama.  Here was today’s sermon.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany
January 20, 2013
Pittsfield, MA

Scripture:   1 Cor. 12:1-11
John 2:1-12

August 1963.  The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of the most memorable speeches in American history, “I Have a Dream.”  When Dr. King gave that speech he would have gazed across a long reflecting pool ending at the Washington Monument and beyond that the Mall.  The Mall ends at the United States Capitol Building where tomorrow on its steps facing the Mall the 44th President of United States, Barack Obama, will take the public oath of office again.

Dr. King invoked several dreams that afternoon.  A black President, however, was not one of them.  I doubt anyone in that crowd who heard that speech would have dreamt it either.  Even among us gathered in this sanctuary today, I would say that even 10 years ago most of us probably would have been hard-pressed to believe that we would see a black person elected as President of United States in our lifetimes.

This weekend we mark Dr. King’s birth.  That we have a national holiday in his honor indicates his stature in our nation’s history.  Although almost all Americans will see him as a great civil rights leader, we should not forget that he was first a Baptist preacher.  His work for civil rights was a ministry rooted in Christian discipleship.

When I was in Atlanta, GA several years ago, I visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Dr. King was baptized and where he served as co-pastor with his father from 1960 to his death.  Sitting in the pews, you see the pulpit and hear his familiar cadence from a recording of one of his sermons.  It was a relatively modest church, not exceptionally large or very ornate.

The Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL called the Rev. King to its pulpit in 1954 while he was finishing his doctorate in ministry at Boston University.  His civil rights ministry began in that city with the bus boycott in December 1955, shortly after his graduation.  His successful leadership during the boycott at the outset of his ministry was a sign that set his trajectory and established his ministry for the rest of his life.

In John’s gospel, turning water into wine was Jesus first act of ministry.  It set a trajectory and established him and his ministry.

When we read this story we need to look beyond the miracle.  When we let this miracle define the story for us, we don’t allow for its rich layers of meaning to penetrate us and dwell in us.  If all we know is the miracle, Jesus becomes for us a man of miracles – a magician of sorts.  Scripture is not mere words for the astute reader and listener.  The astute reader and listener will note the rich symbolism and will come to understand this story as promises of hope, not unlike the words Dr. King spoke in August 1963.

Wedding banquets in Jesus’ time were long affairs, sometimes lasting for seven days.  We can probably tell that the celebration was characterized by excess based upon the steward’s comment to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (20b)

The third day implied resurrection to the early Christian community.  John was saying that the ways of the past were dead and that the new way of life was in Christ.  It signaled to them that Jesus was a break from their past.  Symbolically, the wedding feast would have been understood as God’s banquet, the messianic feast, God’s meal of celebration in the reign of peace and justice.  This banquet might trigger for them the words of the prophet Isaiah, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isa. 25:6-8) Turning water into wine echoed the prophet Amos when spoke about the coming reign of peace and justice, “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.” (Amos 9:13-15)

John established Jesus’ theological legitimacy.  Its message was powerfully attractive for people in the first century who were poor or who received no dignity.  It spoke to those who were told they were unfit by telling them that they were worthy to receive God’s grace.  They heard that they could partake of the messianic banquet and that even the good wine would not be withheld from them.  This story gave them hope.  It promised them that their liberation from oppression was in Jesus.  It told them that the new life in Jesus was not based upon fear, but grounded in love.

When we stop marveling at the miracle and look beneath the text, this story is a call to us as Christian disciples to do as Jesus did.  We offer hope to the hopeless.  We work to liberate the oppressed.  We promote a world organized by love rather than ruled by fear.  And they come not from miracles, but through our spiritual gifts and hard work, the fundamentals of discipleship.

John’s message was the same message which defined and sustained Dr. King’s ministry.  Just as Dr. King used his gifts to pursue peace and justice rooted in radical, inclusive love, we should do as well.  We should know Dr. King’s work by more than just those words we seem to quote this weekend every year.  Earlier that year he wrote his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.”  It was a document of immense importance to this nation and civil rights.  I believe its significance outweighs the “I Have a Dream” speech.  In that letter he admonished several white clergymen for advocating restraint in pursuing civil rights. Early in the letter he wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[1]  The Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights hatred and bigotry and seeks justice for the most vulnerable members of society, reported that hate groups have increased by 69% since 2000.[2]  Today, we see wide disparities in income and wealth not seen in this country since the Gilded Age, the late 1800s.  And if we don’t think that matters, today’s Berkshire Eagle reported a lack of affordable housing in Berkshire County,[3] a spillover effect of the huge income disparity which already exists in this county.

The wedding at Cana and King’s words can inspire us.  But inspiration should be the beginning not the end.  That story and his words should provoke us.

Exactly one year before his untimely death, Dr. King spoke at The Riverside Church in New York City.  In that address he linked civil rights to opposing the Vietnam War.  Early in the speech he said, “I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.”  He specifically noted that the Vietnam War undermined the war on poverty.  He devoted the middle section to a historical summary of this nation’s involvement in that war.  Towards the end he broadened its themes, making them more universal.  At one point he said:

“I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. … A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”[4]

Fifty years ago, a preacher from a modest church proclaimed a dream based upon the life and ministry of an itinerant rabbi.  Today, we need to understand that that rabbi was a lot more than a sort-of magician who turned water into wine, and we cannot let that preacher’s dreams remain frozen in history.

Tomorrow’s inauguration is symbolically auspicious, but it is not the end.  It is not the culmination of the wedding feast or a sign that this nation has arrived.  There is more work to do.  Our discipleship calls upon us to use our spiritual gifts to ensure God’s peace and justice for all.

Towards the end of his letter Dr. King wrote, “So here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail light behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading men to higher levels of justice…In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the Church.  But be assured that my tears have been tears of love.  There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.  Yes, I love the Church; I love her sacred walls.  How could I do otherwise?  I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, the great grandson of preachers.  Yes, I see the Church as the body of Christ.  But oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformist.”[5]

Dr. King continued the work begun by Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana.  And we’re reminded of that feast in a small way each time we gather at the welcome table.  The auspicious coincidence of tomorrow’s inauguration would not have happened had Dr. King not used his spiritual gifts to pursue the radical, inclusive love of Jesus.  Let us resolve not to let Dr. King’s work remain frozen in time.  Let us refuse to believe that we cannot be God’s instruments of peace and justice.  We have been given gifts of the spirit which demand that we not be tail lights, but headlights to lead this community, this nation, and this world to a higher level of justice so that all may truly feast on God’s holy mountain.

[1] Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  April 1963

[3] Therrien, Jim.  County Housing Woes PersistThe Berkshire Eagle.  January 20, 2013.  Page A1

[4] Breaking Silence.  April 4, 1967

[5] Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  April 1963



About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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