The writer of psalm 40 begins, “I waited patiently for the Lord” but how patient can you really be while waiting for rescue from a desolate pit, a miry bog? The original Hebrew is more accurately translated as, “…waited, I waited…” or “…waiting…I waited…” One Spanish Old Testament scholar actually translates these words as “I waited impatiently for the Lord.” Or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, “…we come here…to be saved from that patience that makes us patient with anything less than freedom and justice.”
Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King, who fought for justice and equality with nonviolence and holy impatience. Martin Luther King played a pivotal role in the end of legal segregation of African-American citizens, the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. His activism was deeply connected to his faith. His father, also a minister, fought against racial prejudice not just because his race suffered, but because he considered racism and segregation to be an affront to God's will. As a child Martin Jr. questioned religion and initially decided against entering the ministry, much to his father's dismay, but ultimately, God and Martin’s father prevailed. In his junior year of college, he took a Bible class which led to a renewal of his faith, and he began to envision a career in ministry.
The night Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery Alabama for refusing to give her seat to a white man on a city bus, the head of the local NAACP chapter met with Martin Luther King Jr. and other local civil rights leaders to plan a citywide bus boycott. Martin Luther King Jr.'s fresh voice and skillful rhetoric put a new energy into the civil rights struggle in Alabama. As the psalmist might say, “God drew him up, set his feet upon a rock, and put a new song in his mouth.” Like the author of Psalm 40, like Isaiah, like Samuel, Martin Luther King Jr. responded, “Here I am,” and he told the glad news of deliverance from discrimination and segregation to the great congregation of the world.
Enduring harassment, persecution, abuse, arrests, and death threats, he did not restrain his lips, but continued to speak out and organize against injustice with boycotts, marches, and acts of civil disobedience. Verse 11 of our psalm reads, “Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.” But where was God’s steadfast love and faithfulness on April 4th, 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down?
The rest of Psalm 40 continues the psalmist’s plea for help, adding, “For evils have encompassed me without number.” God doesn’t promise us a life untouched by evil - we all must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness we need fear no evil – we can stand up to evil; like the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can stare evil in the face, live and act with the courage of our convictions.
Martin Luther King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. A student of Ghandi’s strategies of nonviolence, King was a passionate advocate for peace and brotherhood, as well as justice. His dream included not just civil rights for African Americans, but little black boys and black girls joining hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers, as he wrote in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
God calls us not only to justice, but to just peace, to inclusiveness, sisterhood and brotherhood across divides of ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, ability and faith. Some of the most painful divisions and conflicts in human history have been conducted in the name of God – the crusades, slavery, jihad, witchcraft trials. Many of these divisions and conflicts occur between people of different faiths – Christians, Jews, Muslims, Pagans – but historically people of the same faith have also struggled with conflict amongst themselves, resulting in splits and schisms.
Even in the first century, Paul was concerned about conflict and dissention in the first church communities. In our reading today, he appeals to the Corinthians: Brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreement, and that there should be no divisions among you, but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose. He calls them out for their divisive allegiances to various teachers: “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided?” he asks in his letter.
In addition to celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Junior this week, Christians around the world will be observing the 2017 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Sponsored by the World Council of Churches, this worldwide ecumenical event brings millions of Christians together in prayer and worship services to end the painful divisions among us – between Protestants and Catholics, progressives and fundamentalists, those who baptize infants and those who baptize at the age of understanding, those whose communion table is open to all and those who reserve the sacrament for people who embrace only their church’s doctrines and beliefs.
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is: Reconciliation – The Love of Christ Compels Us. The love of Christ compels us to reconciliation. How do we respond to this call during such a divisive chapter in America’s political history? As President Barack Obama reminded us during his eloquent farewell speech last week:
"If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
"For blacks and other minority groups, it means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face -- not only the refugee, or the immigrant, or the rural poor, or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change. We have to pay attention, and listen.
"For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness. When they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our Founders promised.
"So regardless of the station that we occupy, we all have to try harder. We all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own."
True and powerful words – but as we strive to find common ground, understand and accept one another, how do we confront the very real challenges to freedom, equality, and fairness to all our country is facing? How do we protect the vulnerable, the powerless, the disenfranchised? How do we discern the difference between opposition and obstructionism? Between compromise and complicity?
We are called to just peace, to work towards inclusivity and equality, even as we seek not to demonize, but to understand, viewpoints that differ from our own. Maya Parthasarathy, who writes about diversity in the media, shared some ways that people are coming together after the election. She writes:
"Some may argue that the widespread anti-Trump protests following Trump's election are a sign that people are divided, but many of those exercising their First Amendment rights to demonstrate are coming together in an inspiring way. ‘No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!’ chanted protesters in Chicago on Nov. 9. They showed how public assembly can be peaceful and promote inclusivity.
"Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow that following the election ‘thousands of supporters around the country took to social media last night immediately; folks have been dropping off baked goods at our health centers.’ On November 12th Planned Parenthood tweeted: ‘Thank you so much! We've been blown away by the support we've received. Many people are donating in Clinton or Pence's name.’ Supporters of reproductive rights are making their intent to keep Planned Parenthood around known in concrete ways, such as donating and volunteering.
"Kayla Santosuosso, deputy director of the Arab American Association of New York, created a sign up sheet for New Yorkers to accompany members of vulnerable populations, after hearing about the harassment of a Muslim woman. ‘This form is for New Yorkers who are willing to accompany their neighbors on their commute in light of recent harassment and threats toward people of color, LGBTQ folks, and Muslims,’ Santosuosso wrote. She has received thousands of responses."
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity gives us the opportunity to stop and reflect that God, the Source of All, is bigger than our divisions of denomination and faith, bigger than any of our human limitations, interpretations and judgments about who God is and what God does. God’s covenant with us and our covenant with one another call us to autonomy and accountability, to freedom and unity, to justice and peace, to living in mutual respect and living our values. May our dreams and our prayers be impatient and extravagant enough to encompass them all. Amen.