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Monday, January 15, 2007

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

The Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand

Sunday, January 14, 2007
A Sermon preached by Jo Ann Bradley Jones
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ

Good Morning

Thanks to Reverend Kaeton for invitation and for her hospitality. I am grateful and humble to have been asked to preach to you today. Know that since receiving the invitation, Saint Paul has been and will continue to be part of my walk

Greetings from The African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas and from the rector, The Rev. Fr. Martini Shaw who also sends his my greetings on behalf St. Thomas to this congregation as you celebrate the life and ministry of a man certainly worthy of recognition and praise. And his hope that King’s dream will continue to be fulfilled.

Remarks about the weekend activities - viewing Traces of the Trade and other activities reflecting on restorative justice. Strong feelings have emerged, I am sure. Am glad that many parts of the Church have the courage to take on this work and am indebted to the Diocese of Newark for its witness and for bringing forward a resolution on slavery and restorative justice to the past GC.

Let us pray.
Holy God, you raise up prophets, praise and honor do we sing
For you faithful humble servant, Doctor Martin Luther King
Moral conscience of his nation,
Reconciling black and white,
Dreamed he of a just society, we must carry on his fight
Teacher of Christ-like nonviolence
To the outcast, poor and meek
Greater weapon ‘gainst oppression
It to turn the other cheek
Preacher of Christ’s love for neighbor
He won Nobel’s prize for peace
People beat your swords to ploughshares
Wars twixt nations all shall cease

Blessed Martin, pastor, prophet you the mountain top did see
Blessed Martin, holy martyr, pray that we may all be free.

It strikes me as extraordinarily providential that we come at this time to give thanks and praise for the life, ministry and witness of Martin Luther King. Just 7 weeks ago we celebrated the last Sunday of Pentecost, Christ the King. We proclaimed our total allegiance and loyalty to Christ and to his kingdom, which carries with it political overtones of a subversive nature, in that such a kingdom is an outright challenge to the political structures that we know. This allegiance calls us to turn away from the way things are to the way God intended them to be.

This is a radical shift in our thinking. For this kingdom is like a pearl of great value, a kingdom in which salvation is freedom from all captivity and healing in that all brokenness is made all, all barriers, broken down and all God’s children are one. There is righteousness and justice for the poor, prosperity for all people, deliverance for the needy and oppression is crushed. Peace abounds. In claiming that Christ is the King, we become part of a person who is not of this world and truth seekers at all cost because of our relationship to him.

Then we moved into Advent to prepare our hearts to receive Jesus the Christ –and for His coming again. Then in an abundance of joy we greeted Jesus in the celebration of his birth, God made man Emmanuel – God Be With Us and now we come to Epiphany as Christ is made manifest to the Gentiles, the intention of God that Christ be for all. What a season for us to celebrate Martin Luther King for so it frames the beginning of King’s ministry as prophet to his people.

On the surface it seems entirely unlikely that a civil rights movement should have evolved at all when it did and that Martin Luther King should lead it.

In post WWII Montgomery, more than half of the employed Negroes were laborers and domestic workers. Even the position of sales clerk was too good a job for Negroes. The Negro professional class was very small. The backbone of the Negro middle class was its educators, the faculty at Alabama State and the public school teachers, and they were dependent upon the good will of white politicians who paid their salaries. And bear in mind, Montgomery is the capital of Alabama. Montgomery had its history of violence and injustice towards Negroes.

On July 26, 1948 Pres. Truman issued an executive order ending segregation in the armed forces. This touched Montgomery in a sore spot. The regional economy was heavily dependent on 2 Air Force bases that poured nearly $50 million a year into the economy. While integration may have come to the Air Force bases, the City Council made sure it did not spread to the City.

It was against the law for a white person and a Negro to play checkers on public property or ride together in a taxi. The ordinances governing the buses were tougher in Montgomery than in other places. In Montgomery, bus drivers could impose a “floating line” between the races as they considered necessary to keep a Negro man’s legs from coming too close to a white woman’s knees. The driver could order Negroes to vacate an entire row of seats to make room for one white person or order them to stand up even if there were vacant seats.

Martin Luther King was the grandson of a Baptist minister, Reverend A.D. Williams, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, community leader and first President of Atlanta’s chapter of the NAACP and son of Martin Luther King, Sr. who succeeded his father-in-law as pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church.

While it may seem that King was destined for the ministry, and certainly it was what his father desired, King at one time thought about becoming a lawyer. He certainly gratified his father’s desire that he attend Morehouse College and yet, was not caught up in the campus activity brought on by the returning WWII veterans who were demanding the rights for which they had fought in the war.

Whites resisted their efforts and, in fact, six veterans were lynched in Monroe, reenergizing the NAACP. But King was not involved in this either. What was new for King at Morehouse was a willingness to question the fear that surrounded the race question. His father did not discuss race.

For “Daddy” King, he was right segregation was wrong, and the hatefulness of white people was a mystery best left to God. At Morehouse, people freely took on solving this mystery and King had his first frank discussions on race there. By the time King was 18, he was preaching at Ebenezer.

During King’s senior year at Morehouse Truman became the first President to speak at a NAACP convention. The commission that Truman called upon to investigate the rioting in the south issued its report entitled “To Secure these Rights” introducing the phrase “civil rights” into political parlance and replacing the phrase the “Negro question.”

In contrast, King, who had always been fascinated by words, desired to elevate his ministry beyond fundamentalism. He wanted big ideas for his big words.

King would go on to Crozier Theological Seminary, known as an institution of unorthodox freethinking. In 1948 it was a racial gamble in an isolated pocket of history. There were 11 Negro students out of 33 in King’s class, with 3 Chinese students, one Japanese and a few Indians. There was racial integration and security.

At Crozier King became absorbed in his course work because he wanted to distinguish himself in white culture and as his response to his sense of racial duty. King felt his “twoness: in the DuBois sense: two souls, tow thoughts, two unreconciled stirrings.

Even in graduate school at Boston University, while embracing the school of Personalists, the teaching that there is a rich, empirical meaning in the religious experience, King did not become engaged in anything political, even avoiding race-related topics for papers, theses as if to do so might cheapen their work in the eyes of influential Negroes, as well as whites.

In January 1954 R. D. Nesbitt, chair of the pulpit selection committee at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama approached King about becoming the pastor. In 1867 Negroes left First Baptist Church of Montgomery to found First Baptist Colored. Later, in 1877 a dissident group broke away from First Baptist Colored over renovations desired by the “higher elements” and founded Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.

Now, in 1954, Dexter was the only remaining piece of Negro-owned real estate on the main thoroughfare of Montgomery, just down the street from the state capitol. The pulpit had become vacant at the resignation of Vernon Johns, a brilliant, outspoken preacher, who had challenged the congregation at Dexter on matters of decorum. Dexter wanted an educated and trained pastor, one conventional in dress, manner and behavior and certainly less controversial.

They wanted Martin Luther King, Jr.

On April 14, 1954 Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the call to become the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. On May 17, 1954, two weeks after King’s first sermon as Pastor designate, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education. There were no celebrations of this landmark decision in the Negro community. Eisenhower informed D.C. that the capitol should set an example. Southern politicians announced they would obey, and then changed their minds.

On March 2, 1955, a few white people boarded a Montgomery bus going up Dexter Avenue. The white section was full and the Negro section and the no man’s land were full of Negroes. The driver demanded that the seats in the middle section in which 4 Negro women sat. Two moved and two ignored the bus driver. One young Negro woman, a high school student, was arrested.

Negroes felt the arrest was humiliating and an injustice to the student and to those who witnessed it. A group of local leaders considered mounting a defense of the student as a means of attacking segregation.

King was drawn into negotiations with police commissioner, but the group abandoned its defense of the student because she did not present the ideal person. The same was true in the second bus incident, but restlessness was growing.

Then, on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks a seamstress and the secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP was seated in the no man’s land section of a bus, refused to yield her seat and was arrested. Despite the huge risk of disgrace her arrest posed, she bravely agreed to allow her case to be the one to take on the challenge to segregation.

The Women’s Political Council, a Negro organization gives its support to Parks and asks Negroes not to use buses on the day of Parks’ trial. They decided to spread the work by producing leaflets on the mimeograph machine at Alabama State that would be distributed at churches in Montgomery.

King agrees after a bit to support this effort and an organizing meeting takes place at Dexter the next day. The leaflet calling for the bus boycott also announced a mass meeting for the evening of the boycott.

The morning of the bus boycott saw MLK and Coretta awake before dawn, watching for the first morning bus. The bus was empty, as were all the morning buses on the South Jackson route that customarily transported Negro domestics to their places of employment. Montgomery Negroes had turned the buses into a ghost fleet.

Rosa Parks was convicted that day and when her attorney entered her appeal there were 500 Negroes in the courthouse in support. At the next planning meeting, King arrived late, but at a moment of tension, when the clergy members had been attacked for not assuming leadership and allowing women to bear the responsibility. Declaring that he was not a coward, King then found himself elected president of what would be called the Montgomery Improvement Association.

At this point the thinking was to suspend the boycott, pending negotiations with the bus company. King had a scant hour before addressing the evening mass meeting. He wondered how he could compose an important speech in such a short period of time when his normal sermon preparation could take 15 hours.

A friend drove him to Holt Street Baptist Church and King and King had a few minutes to think, but as they approached the church there was a terrific traffic jam. The church was surrounded by a crowd of 5,000 people. It took Martin Luther King 15 minutes to push through the crowd. Shortly thereafter, the Holt Street pastor called MLK to the pulpit.

And what took place during those 15 minutes in passing through the crowd to the pulpit? I believe that this word of God came to Martin Luther King, proclaiming to him that the kingdom of heaven is at hand… is near, is imminent, for King gave such a stirring speech that night to thunderous applause and this launched the Montgomery bus boycott, and with it the civil rights movement, leading to sit-ins, demonstrations, Freedom Riders, SCLC, James Meredith, police dogs and hoses, jail, church bombing in Birmingham, the deaths of Medger Evers, Chaney. Goodman and Schwerner, the march in Selma and ultimately the March on Washington.

This powerful movement for justice unleashed and new disciples given the message as Jesus so commissioned his disciples And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And this movement, gave life to other movements on behalf of other ethnic groups, women and gay and lesbian people

So, here we are in the midst of Epiphany, to celebrate what would be King’s 79th birthday, looking to make manifest Christ in the world today, in world where now 37 million people live in poverty in this country, more than the entire population of the state of California; where we debate raising the minimum wage, but instituted tax breaks to leave no millionaire behind; where a war now almost three years old has claimed over 3,000 lives and requires the building of a new hospital for amputees and the cost of healthcare the 22,000 wounded veterans is estimated to be $350 billion.

We seen for ourselves through the days of coverage the ravage of Katrina and that race and class still bitterly divide this country, that the quaint phrase vestiges of slavery are really still forms of oppression. In our own church this week the ministry of women undermined in the Panel of Reference and a questionable process underway for the formation of an Anglican Covenant.

Yet, I say to you I don’t feel no ways tired!

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

Let me close with some words from Evelyn Underhill who wrote, The coming of the kingdom is perpetual. Again and again, freshness, novelty, power from beyond the world break in by unexpected paths bringing unexpected change. Those who cling to tradition and fear all novelty in God’s relation to the world deny the creative authority of the Holy Spirit and forget that what is now tradition was once innovation; that the real Christian is always a revolutionary, belongs to a new race, and has been given a new name and a new song.

We must sing an old song with new words, that we shall overcome, not someday, but in 15 minutes. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, in your hands and in mine.


Saint Pat said...

This is great. It's easy to forget the past, but remembering the past puts a lot of today's stuff in context, doesn't it?

Thanks for posting it.

May we ALL walk hand in hand, in the next 15 minutes!

Ann said...

Thanks for this - energizing and convicting.