A Martin Luther King Sunday Sermon
by the Reverend Robin Bartlett
preached on January 15, 2017
at the First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard than read. You can hear this sermon here.
I love the story of the children’s march, because it is usually the children who are brave enough to give us our marching orders.
One of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle Melton, talks about a conversation her children had as they were watching old films of the Civil Rights era in their home one night.
One of her daughters said to her: “Mama, we would have marched with them, right?”
And before Glennon could answer in the affirmative, her other daughter said: “I don’t know. I mean, We’re not marching now.”
Glennon’s conversation with her children has haunted me ever since I read about it. This country right now is so far from the dream that the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for, sat down for, got arrested for. It is so far from the kingdom of God I preach about on Sunday mornings. It is so far from earth as it is in heaven that Jesus taught us to pray about.
And yet, I don’t know. I mean, my children and I are not marching now.
Martin Luther King’s birthday is my favorite un-official high holy day of the church. There is something about this day that gives me hope for the Church’s impact on our broken world, and my own ability as a flawed human to do something to heal it. It is the day that we, together as a nation, remember King’s dream, which is really God’s dream for a world made whole:
…That one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain be made low, the rough places made plain, and the crooked places made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together……..that we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood (and sisterhood).
We need that hope right now. And so I love Martin Luther King day because it is a festival of audacious, outlandish, nonsensical hope in a hot mess time. We have been given our marching orders by God. The marching orders come through the children, and through the legacy of Dr. King, whose blood is crying out from the ground saying “you are your brother and sister’s keeper.”
Martin Luther King used to quote Theodore Parker when he said: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like Jesus, he was killed for his unwavering belief that we humans have a role in bending the arc. King had no proof that this sentiment was true, but he trusted the fidelity of God enough to believe it.
That’s hope. That’s audacious hope.
In our reading from the psalms, it’s author, David, talks about a God whose promises he can trust. David has faith in a God who has pulled him out of the desolate pit, the miry bog, and set his feet on solid ground. Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, he says. Who do not turn to the proud, or to false Gods.
“Here I am,” David calls out in praise. “You have required nothing of me, and I delight to do your will.”
That’s hope. That’s audacious hope.
And then David says: “I have told the glad news of deliverance--I have preached about this audacious hope that I have--in the Great Congregation.” As I read this passage over and over again this week, that’s the phrase that jumped out at me. Who and what is the Great Congregation. “I have a great congregation,” I thought. Is that what David means?
When I close my eyes, I imagine the Great Congregation to be all of humanity in concert with the earth. I imagine the Great Congregation to be what the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community, or what Jesus called the Kingdom of God. The Reverend Doctor Jacqui Lewis calls the Great Congregation “A world waiting to see.”
Beloved, we are a fractured world waiting to see. A world fallen short of what we dream for it. And right now I see the Great Congregation divided into tribes of who’s in and who’s out. Those tribes are doing a lot of talking and yelling and lecturing and posturing and not a lot of listening. We have failed to hear our marching orders from God amid the noise of so much division.
Here's an old Emo Phillips joke:
"Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump.
I said, 'Don't do it!'
He said, 'Nobody loves me.'
I said, 'God loves you. Do you believe in God?'
He said, 'Yes.'
I said, 'Are you a Christian or a Jew?'
He said, 'A Christian.'
I said, 'Me, too!
Protestant or Catholic?'
He said, 'Protestant.'
I said, 'Me, too! What franchise?'
He said, 'Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?'
He said, 'Northern Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.'
I said, 'Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?'
He said, 'Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.'
I said, 'Die, heretic!' And I pushed him over."
Our job is to preach the news of deliverance to the Great Congregation, not parse who has the right to be in it. Everybody’s in. That’s what God’s kingdom will look like. That’s David’s hope that he clings to. That’s Martin’s dream.
My colleague Jake Morrill says: “It's not a time in our country for wishful thinking and handholding. But neither is it a time for infighting and purity tests. Liberty and justice for all takes a broad coalition.
He says: “The Civil Rights movement took Malcom X on the prophetic edge, Martin Luther King at the negotiating table, Whitney Young going to work every day and leading inside the system, Fannie Lou Hamer in the grassroots, The Highlander Center training people for the fight, Selma school teachers willing to stick their necks out, sluggish white people finally waking up to the horror of Jim Crow, and so many more.”
It took the children marching in Montgomery.
It takes the children, asking us why we’re not marching now.
And it will take all of us—Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, black and white, Christian and Muslim, gay and straight, US citizen and non—to heal the wounds of division we have created. For all are one in God. All are one.
In 1 Corinthians, talking about interdependence in the Body of Christ, Paul says, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!'"
We need one another. And thankfully, we have each other and this community. The church gives us many chances to say, “Here I am.” The church gives us opportunities to march. The church gives us so many chances to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
Last Saturday, we served free lunch to the hungry and the lonely at our first monthly Saturday lunch. Since all of us our hungry and lonely on some level, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Sunday and Wednesday we took part in listening circles, as we prayerfully heard what it meant to each participant to be an open and affirming congregation. Imagine if all of the people of the world sat and listened to each other before speaking. Since listening for God’s voice in each other’s is what is required of us, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Wednesday, we will learn together about what hope looks like in the face of the opioid crisis at Eat, Pray, Learn at 6:00 pm in our parish hall. We will fight fear and disdain for our brothers and sisters with love and understanding of the problem of addiction. Since healing the ill and welcoming the stranger is what Jesus modeled for us, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Thursday, Wendy Campbell will host a sign-making party here at church for the Boston Women’s March. On Friday, there will be an inauguration day interfaith service for unity and love at the synagogue in Leominster that we will attend. On Saturday, members of our church and our community will meet here at 9:00 am to carpool to the Boston Women’s march. Bring your children…they lead the way. We will march for unity despite difference, we will march for each other’s lives. Since we are called to Love one another, this is a good way to love the hell out of the world. This is how we march.
On Saturday night, we will participate in a fundraiser for our 20 year long medical mission in La Romana Dominican Republic at our Caribbean dinner. This congregation has been working to provide clean water and medical care in this forgotten part of the empire for decades. Since healing the sick is the ministry of Jesus, supporting this mission is a good way to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
On Sunday, we will vote as a congregation to become officially a sanctuary of radical welcome to ALL people--making it as clear as humanly possible that God is love and love is love. We will do that with our vote to become Open and Affirming to the LGBTQ community and remove that final barrier to welcome. Since each and all are made in God’s image, I can think of no better way to love the hell out of this world. This is how we march.
Our marching orders are clear this Martin Luther King day weekend, and in the days and months and years ahead. Don’t ask yourselves if you would have marched for Love. March. Become vessels for audacious hope. Proclaim to a broken world that despite fear and division, God is and God can and God will. Become the dream for the Great Congregation that David spoke to. Become the dream for the kingdom of God Jesus called us to. Become the dream for the beloved community Martin Luther King pointed us toward. In the words of Dr. King: “Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved country to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.”
Love the hell out of this world.
 From Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org