Throughout the month of February, I've been reading a book titled
Parting the Waters
, by Taylor Branch. It is a chronicle of America during the years 1954-1963, when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King rose to prominence along with the emergence of the civil rights movement.
It is a massive work - 922 pages. Even more amazing, it is one of a trilogy of books that the author has dedicated to the subject. Branch followed up his Pulitzer Prize-winning work with
Pillar of Fire (1963-1965), and
At Canaan's Edge (1965-1968). In all, Branch devotes more than 3,000 pages to the life of the man who helped change the face of America and the events that shaped him.
All three volumes have languished on my shelf for nearly 25 years. I can't really pinpoint what moved me to launch into this colossal reading venture at this period in my life when my days are overcommitted, and a torrent of obligations limit my leisure hours. Certainly, there are less wordy written accounts of the civil rights movement and Dr. King, but I would argue that none is as thorough as this one.
King is a fascinating figure in American history. An outstanding orator, a social reformer, an activist, a politician; but above all, he always considered himself first and foremost a preacher of the gospel. His message of personal and social transformation was rooted in the prophets and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King came to mind as I pondered two of the readings for this coming Sunday, namely, Psalm 19 and Paul's first letter to the Corinthian Christians.
I habitually open my sermon with a prayer. That prayer usually ends with the final verse of Psalm 19, asking that the words of my mouth be acceptable in God's sight (cited above).
King's power was in his words, both written and proclaimed. If you read nothing else from King, read his "
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
." The letter, written in 1963, was a response to a public statement of concern and caution issued by eight white religious leaders of the South. It is a classic document that defends the strategy of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance to racism and injustice.
King would often say that what he wanted to be remembered primarily as one who lived out the teachings of Jesus. He was committed to the power of Christ's teaching to change the world. If we would allow the love of God to enter and dwell within our hearts, he concluded, it would transform our practices and attitudes toward each other. This was his dream. This was his gospel message.
As Christians, during the weeks of Lent we consider what it means to follow Jesus, or to walk the way of the cross: "foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." [1 Corinthians 1:18]
For King, one defining encounter with this truth came during the time of the Montgomery bus boycott. Up to that moment, King, though a pastor, surprisingly still hadn't had a firsthand experience of God. He had received numerous threats on his life. His house had been bombed. The relentless pressure made him question whether he was the right person to lead the movement. He wanted out. Then, he prayed aloud one night, admitting that he was afraid. He couldn't face this challenge alone. And he recalled hearing a voice calling him to stand up for righteousness, justice, and truth.
In his most vulnerable moment, King heard the voice of God. A voice that moves us beyond any regard for self-interest, a voice that gives us life, that keeps us from failing in our consciousness of duty.
It is essential to keep that in mind in the wake of these critical last few weeks, when many worry about the safety of their children, our nerves still raw with grief from the tragedy at Parkland, Florida. The cross reminds us that we have a Savior who walks the road of pain and grief with us. At our baptism, we were marked with the cross of Christ to show that the crucified has redeemed us.
King never wavered from his sense of call, for which he paid the ultimate price. His life was cut short by an assassin's bullet at the age of 39. But his words, acceptable in God's sight, still live to remind us that we serve a God who loves us and through his Son, Jesus, has saved us from our sin and given us eternal life - a God who sends us into the world to share that love with others, to overcome evil and injustice, no matter the cost.
April 4, 2018, marks 50 years since the assassination of Dr. King. In commemoration of that national tragedy, the National Council of Churches will gather in Washington, D.C. from April 3-5, for an historic event to launch its Truth and Racial Justice Initiative. The ELCA is one of many religious organizations that will be represented at the three day event, which will be highlighted by a rally on April 4 at the National Mall. You are invited to join in the gathering. The Ohio Council of Churches is sponsoring buses from Cleveland to Washington. Deadline for registration is March 1. You can learn more by clicking
From Thursday, March 1, until Tuesday, March 6, I will be in Chicago at the Conference of Bishops. We will gather under the theme, "To Claim and Test Our Heritage." Among the numerous topics we will be discussing and deliberating will be the issue of ethnic and racial diversity. Our church has struggled with how to become a more diverse body here in the United States, though on a global scale, Lutherans of color are far greater in number.
I have been invited to serve on an anti-racism working group among our bishops to begin at least a conversation about if and how to address racism in and through the Conference of Bishops; and in partnership with Churchwide staff, consider how to equip and support bishops as we address racism in the synods we serve.
I have also been appointed to serve as co-convener of a task force to aid in moving the ELCA Toward Authentic Diversity. This group was formed as a result of the action called for by Church Council in response to a resolution that was accepted at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans. The hope is to present a strategy by the next Churchwide Assembly in 2019.
I ask your prayers for these efforts and the people that will take part in all the conversations, that our church may strive toward becoming that great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, that glorify and worship the God of all peoples.
the Rev. Julianne DiRocco Smith
, who today begins her call as Director for Evangelical Mission and Assistant to the Bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod. Please click on her name for the official announcement and her role in the office of DEM.
This week and always, may the words
of your mouth and the meditation of your heart, be acceptable in God's sight.
+Bishop Abraham Allende