Sermon Archives

Sunday, January 20, 2019
The Second Sunday after the Ephiphany
The Right Rev’d Robert C. Wright, Bishop of Atlanta
Martin Luther King Jr's 90th Birthday

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Good morning.

I greet you this morning in the name of our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters in the Episcopal diocese of Atlanta. That is, the Episcopal church in middle and north Georgia. 75 and a half counties, 116 worshiping communities. 56,000 men, women and children, teenagers and feisty seniors. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Good morning again to you all.

I am very glad to be here with you, and off of that airplane last night. Father Ross said to me that it perhaps was one of the most prayed for Delta flights last night. I was comforted by that. I must say to you, I'm glad to be here with you, as a child of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to come among you at this degree, and this amount of snow, brings me right back home. I'll be happy to go back to Georgia where it's about 56 degrees.

Thank you, to Father Drew and Father Walter for inviting me here to be with you, as we celebrate what would have been the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's 90th birthday. His 90th birthday. Thank you for allowing me to come and be here with you, to get at least a glimpse of what Jesus is doing here in sunny Grosse Pointe.

You have asked me to help you celebrate the ministry of Dr. King, and I'm glad to do that. I'm also aware that like many of you, I am a student of Dr. King's life and work. His oration and his community mobilization, and his work, even that still bears fruit, because I could not have been here with you on the year of my birth, 1964.

We have inherited his good work and the good work of so many men, women, who fought the good fight and kept faith. With all of the good that Dr. King did, as far as I can tell, he had one flaw. Just one. He was not an Episcopalian. Doesn't get talked about much, but I'm going to talk about it. I'm comforted and perhaps you are also to know that at least as I read the trajectory of his thought and of his belief, that if he would not have been stolen from us on a balcony in Memphis, he may have come to the light, that is the Episcopal church. He would have become one of us, I do believe.

When I think about Dr. King and his work of operationalizing love, I think about you and me, and how we worship in this place, every Sunday. As far as I can tell, you help me now, every Sunday after the readings, after the sermon, the creed, the prayers, even the confession of absolution, men and women literally all over the globe say what? Walk in love. We know those words, right? We're Episcopalians. We say we don't know much Bible, but actually we do. We hear this piece of poetry every Sunday. Say it with me, why don't you?

Walk in love as Christ loved us, and gave himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Well done. Good job. Now, normally when we hear those words, things start to happen. First, the ushers start walking. Second, people start reaching for their wallets or their purses. Number three, people burst out into song. Four, someone, and this is the part I like, someone prepares a table and a meal, big enough for everyone.

Sometimes, we even take a piece of that meal to brothers and sisters who are not able to join us at church. Do you know what I'm talking about so far? Now, I come here from Atlanta. We think that preaching is a community enterprise. Work with me, why don't you? Then, when we hear walk in love, God, people start walking and reaching and singing, and preparing. Have I got that much right?

Oh, yes.

Thank you. Now, but not only that, when Paul says walk in love, it is first and foremost a declaration of purpose. God's purpose in Jesus of Nazareth was to walk in love among us. If that is so, then the purpose of Jesus' followers, that's me and you, is to imitate his example and teaching. We are, after all, God's beloved offspring.

Walking in love, which means practically taking up the ministry of reconciliation as individuals, and also, collectively. That is what Dr. King did. That is why he is worthy of consideration on his 90th birthday.

Now, we remember that the word purpose has its origins in the word, listen, fire. We remember that every time God wants to do something, there's fire. Consider your Bible, with a big bang and a fireball, the universes were born. Fire is how God got Moses' attention on a mountaintop and transformed him from a fleeing felon, into the father of a nation. And, fire is what we say happened to us on that Pentecost long ago. Fire got on us, fire got in us. Therefore, it is fire that binds us together. We walk in love, because that is our purpose. That is the essence of our partnership with each other. Love is at the center of the Jesus movement.

Our presiding bishop is right, isn't he? When he says, if it ain't about love, it ain't about God. I'm going to say that again, because that needs to sink into somebody. If it ain't about love, it ain't about God. We are about God in this place, isn't that right?

Yes.

Yes, we have to be. We have to be, because are you checking the news? Somebody's got to be about love in this time. We are about Jesus. Just to be clear, when I say the word love, of course, of course, I don't mean an insipid syrupy sentiment. I mean, the most durable substance in the universe. I mean, go to the end of the book, only love endures, love wins. The divine love showcased for us, in the love of Christ, even in spite of the suffering and the loss, and death.

I mean the love that pours itself out and toward God and neighbor. Listen, and though poured out this love, somehow, through its dispersal, it replenishes itself. It binds moons and makes wonders. I mean, a love that is the best measurement for us, the best measurement of our Christian maturity. To deliver that, to be that, increases, when we walk in love.

If what the Bible tells us about God's love is true, then I've got some good news this morning. To walk in God's love is to therefore be surrounded by God's love. Somebody needs to hear that this morning. You are thoroughly, entirely, enveloped in love. To walk I love is to be in something that has no bottom. Something infinite. Something encompassing and elastic. That's what God's love is. Even when we fall in God's love, we don't break. We bounce.

Even when our days are finished on earth, God's love is forever and ever. I like being an Episcopalian, say amen.

Amen.

What I'm trying to say to you is that even in our funeral office, are you paying attention to the words that we use? Even at our grave, we make our song, hallelujah.

Hallelujah.

Hallelujah. That's not just some sort of insipid poetry, friends. That's a description of reality. Of the trustworthiness of God. Yeah. Flip through the back of the book. Hate and division lose. Love wins. In God's love, there is no lack of love. Why is that so important? I'm glad you asked. If you and I are immersed in a love that has no borders, limitations, or litmus tests, then you and I have all that we need to go to the places that appear loveless. For Christ's sake.

Remember Paul said walk. Take the show on the road. Remember, Jesus never said, actually, wait and welcome. Jesus said, go and make. Hello somebody. As important as wait and welcome is, if you go back to the founder and pioneer of the whole enterprise, you know that startup 2000 years ago? Go back there, he said go and make, go and make. That's a word for our beloved Episcopal church right now, go and make.

Because we walk in love, you and I can walk into rooms, we can, walk into rooms that are rife with political rancor. Hello. Because baptized is our primary identity, we are therefore trans-political. That is, we are in politics, but we are not of politics. We are more than red or blue, more than liberal or conservative. We are ambassadors for Christ. Let that get down inside of you.

While we may differ on political personalities or policies, listen, this will calibrate your spine this morning. Our primary citizenship is with the saints in light. We hold fast to love and do the things that love demands, therefore, you remember. There is no republican or democrat heaven, right?

Right.

We ought to practice now. How to be what we are. Family. What we are, and that is, family.

We resist evil, we respect the dignity of every human being, we care for the immigrants, the indigent, and the ignorant. We figure out, because this is what great nations do, how to secure the borders and take care of people fleeing violence and destitution. That is what great nations do, they bring great imagination to great problems. We can do this. We support law enforcement while insisting they protect and serve every citizen equally. This is life for us, because we are fastened to the one's authority, knows no term limits.

We do this because Drew, we know that Dr. King is right, that justice is love overthrowing everything that is not love. Can I give you that again?

Yeah.

That was worth the drive this morning, I want to tell you right now. Think about it. Dr. King is so clear, he's painting with a broad brush, he's helping us understand that it's not just about sentimentality, that has nothing to say to the hard work of today, he's saying that justice is love, overthrowing everything, that is not love. That's the rocket fuel you and I need to interact with the hard stuff of real life.

This understanding for the baptized, is that we can engage the present political climate, we can, understanding that it's not just fodder from the 'ment, but understanding that this present political climate, as difficult as it is, is actually a useful precondition, for you and I to demonstrate to this world, what it means to walk in love, to show folks that there are some peculiar people over there in Grosse Pointe, who love the Lord more than they love the status quo.

We walk on. We walk on. As we walk, love takes us to unfamiliar places. Watch Paul on his missionary journeys, notice Jesus wearing out the bottoms of his sandals. Watch Martin and Coretta leave their hometowns, and walk all over this nation. Drew told me this morning that Dr. King walked right in here in Grosse Pointe in 1968. To do what? To do what? I have a hunch. To expand the notion of neighborliness. That is our word, to increase friendship.

Finally, this, this is our privilege, C.S. Lewis says. Our privilege to contribute to the divine happiness. Which is to say, to make God smile. To make God smile is our privilege, love is a walking thing, is what I'm talking about.

Here's the question, as you can see, I'm a troublemaker. Here's the question for you. What makes this more than church talk? This question, where do you go? Where do you go for the sole reason that Jesus' love compels you to be there? Where do you go? Just because you're bid to go, because of the love of God, that has touched you and blessed you, and calls you forward, where do you go?

What we do know is when we go in these enterprises, these journeys, we find ourselves among all kinds of people. We find ourselves with people from different faiths, not as adversaries or competitors for religious market share, but as humans on a God journey. If we are in love, then we know love, and we recognize love, when we see and hear it, even in different contexts from those familiar to us. In love, we can sit with the Muslim or the Jew or the non-believer, secure in having met God in the face of Jesus Christ, you can I can yet be open to how God is revealing God's self to others. We can do that.

Why must we be so insecure when we have God conversations? Why can't we hold in balance the fact that I have met God in the face of Jesus Christ in this wonderful, wacky Episcopal church, and that God is about the business of revealing God's self to all kinds of people in other contexts. Why can't we just be a little bit more rooted in that? Stand a little more steady in that, as we interact with other people. We can do that. If love is a walking thing, then our church is going to have to more intentionally walk toward young people, yes we do, we have to.

From everything I read, and from my experience, young people are interested in the same things that we are. They are wrestling with the big questions, why does, what does forgiveness require. That's a question. How do I live a life of meaning. Is there a God and how can I know. Am I a fool for having hope in a broken world. Why should I care about my neighbor. These are their questions. They are our questions as well.

Because of Jesus Christ and his church, we have something to say, thank God about these questions. We've got 2000 years of trying to have these conversations. We can extend that to the world, wherever we are. We've got to partner together and walk in love toward these young people, both as individuals and as an Episcopal church. Why? Because God left the gated community called heaven to walk towards all kinds of persons. Young and old alike, people of different faith, understandings and experiences, he did that.

The very best evidence that we can offer that you and I actually grasp what Jesus did, is to do what he did, to walk in love toward others. Now, there is one more thing to this walking in love business. It's an entirely experimental enterprise. It's actually more art than it is science. When Paul sat down to write his first letter to a ragtag group of believers, there wasn't any precedent. He was building a bridge with others, as he was crossing it. Walking in love is about learning to love.

I have the good fortune, Drew and I were talking about this this morning, I have the good fortune of knowing Andrew Young, Ambassador Andrew Young, who was a great friend and co-conspirator with Dr. King. These people actually take my phone call, it blows my mind. He was with Dr. King and others at all the major intersections of our country's life, for the last 60 years. Imagine. Just imagine, that they both married women from Marion, Alabama, and this is just a little shade for Walter, and they both pledged the right fraternity. That's just a little ... Just a little shade for Walter, all right? Not a lot, just a little.

You might be. You might be edified to know, that all that Andrew Young's work and walking, was guided by his faith in Jesus Christ. Now, the first time I met him, we were doing a fancy society wedding at the cathedral in Atlanta. You know the kind. Fortunately, for me, the bride was late. Which means, he and I, Andy and I were locked in a room for about an hour. Can you imagine? Locked in a room for an hour, with the great grandpa of the faith. Who had been down to the boiler room of our republic, at critical intersections.

Now, I just thought it was fantastic, that I was there. Here's the point of all of that. Given that my undergraduate degree is in American history, now was the time for me to learn the secret strategic plan from the oracle, you know what I mean? The backtalk, the backstage pass, that he and Dr. King and so many other's names you and I would recognize.

I asked him, listen, I asked him to tell me the strategic plan. How did you accomplish it all? Montgomery and desegregation and Civil Rights, and what was it like to deal with the Kennedy's? J. Edgar Hoover, and all of that. Voting rights, you know the deal. Tell me oh great one, I positioned myself, tell me, like a baby bird, pour into me. Yeah?

I can't repeat his answer to you, because this company is way too polite for his answer. You should know, he used a particular word. Plan, he said, there was no plan. He said, it was love. Every day, we rose, we kissed our wives, and tried again. We ran experiments. We exercised a portion of faith we had, and walked in love. In Albany, Georgia and Cicero, Illinois, we got our tails kicked, but we kept learning. Kept experimenting. Kept walking in love. Friends, ours is the ministry of reconciliation.

What Ambassador Young knew, what the apostle Paul knew, is that for the church to be her truest and best self, she has to commit to learning to love bigger and better. We know that the best growing comes from going, yes it does. If we're going to walk in love, we're going to have to disassemble together the culture of fear and failure, that exists too much in the church and in the world. We're going to have to pivot to planning, trying, and running experiments in evangelism and hospitality and teaching and fellowship, we're got to try some new stuff.

We've got to be converted to the mindset that there is no failure in Christ Jesus. Only new learning, that's all. There's no failure. In Christ Jesus, the Bible says, there is no condemnation. Why don't you try? Why don't you try something different? All these learnings accrue to the glory of God, after all, walking in love means, truly and profoundly, that we walk by faith. Listen to what the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. He said, there is, blows my mind, he said it's not wickedness, he says, that he fears in the church, as much as woodenness.

What experiment is God calling us to run in the world? What group of people is God sending you to? Yes, when last you heard from headquarters, how is the spirit prompting you?

Lastly, let me say that walking in love presupposes generosity. I suppose this is why we use the phrases of offertory sentences, walk in love. When we say that phrase on Sunday, God, people start walking and reaching and singing and preparing, each action is an expression of generosity in its own right. Generosity, we know, is best born of gratitude. What an immense, want you to think with me just a second, what an immense privilege it is, to be baptized. What a gift it is to be set aside in this world, in this moment, to increase the celebrity of Jesus Christ.

What a great compliment God has paid each of us here, to do God's work, in the world, now. What gratitude should well up in us, grateful for life and the portion of health that we enjoy right now. Grateful for our common life together, grateful that our hands are on a plow, designed by God almighty, and so we walk in love.

Remember what Paul said in another place, and this is one of my favorite offertory sentences I use, that everyone should give as they have their mind made up to give, not because of guilt and obligation, but because God loves a cheerful giver. Paul knew that as we walk, our sharing has to be purged of any guilt or obligation, or shaming, Paul's a genius. He bet everything on this, this one idea, that if you and I could connect with our gratitude to God, really, really connect to it, then the church and the world would have what they need.

That the world could indeed be a better place, all of this, all of this by our walking, by our leaning into love, the world would know something of this wonderful God, who has caused us to walk.

Brothers and sisters, you have invited me to join in your celebration of Dr. King's 90th birthday, and I'm grateful to you. Let us leave this place today, pledging not only to venerate Dr. King, but to replicate him. Not only that, let us replicate the man King devoted his life to, Jesus of Nazareth. As I go to my seat, I'm reminded of a couple last things. I'm reminded that Myrlie Evers stepped out on the world stage in the National Mall some years ago, and her address to the country, she could've said anything. Anything, given the nightmare that she had experienced at the hand of other American citizens. She said some old words then, some true words. She said, "There's something in me that holds the reins, there's something in me that banishes the pain. There's something in me I just can't explain, but thank God there's something in me."

Then my mind runs to that old Muslim Sufi, Rumi, who said this, "I was dead, then alive. I was weeping, then laughing. Love came into me," he says, "and I became fierce like a lion, but gentle like an evening star." Let the last word be from the old anglican, who punctuates our time together when he says, "Oh, for a 1000 tongues to sing my great redeemer's praise, the glory of my God and king, the triumphs of his grace."

Brothers and sisters, walk in love. Amen.

Amen.