Read Luke 4:14-30
In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus walk up into his hometown with all his mojo workin’. He’s got his Holy Spirit swagger going. He’s got people coming down from the hillsides to hear him preach. He’s got it goin’ on, that is until he rolls into Nazareth. His hometown. He goes into a local synagogue, and despite not having the sort of credentials the powers-that-be recognize, he reads from the Book of Isaiah. And then he has the audacity to say that the words of the prophet are fulfilled in everyone’s presence. It is the first century equivalent of a mic drop. I mean, say what you will about Jesus, but brother knows how to make an entrance!
This is not unlike the story of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who arrived in Montgomery to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1954 with his dissertation defense freshly behind him. He had credentials that mattered in the ecclesial and academic worlds, but neither the titles of Rev. nor Dr. would stop people from calling him Martin Coon. And worse. He rolled up in Montgomery knowing intellectually that he was prepared; he was filled with the Spirit, not just of God but of Boston University also. He soon began to feel pangs of doubt, which stayed with him his whole life. He wondered if he was strong enough; he wondered if people were ready for that train to Jordan Curtis Mayfield sang about. He listened to charges that he was an outside agitator for the whole of his career and it took its toll. The sermon he was schedule to give before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 was titled: “Why America May Go to Hell.” In 1955 Montgomery, with the bus boycott, King experienced the disappointment that comes in working with people: “[T]he forces of good will failed to come through,” he writes in Stride Toward Freedom. “Other forces of justice also failed to act.” He had been depending on the moral shame of America to carry them through and to make good on the bill of sale, that promise that all human beings are equal. He was a prophet and his hometown was the entire country; he wrote in the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” that “Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
If only everyone knew that to be true. Dr. King–and really, every person of color in this country–sees early and often that it is very easy to turn a blind eye to a suffering that is not your own.
Today’s passage in Luke should be seen as an act of nonviolent resistance. Jesus claims that God is at work in the proclamation of a good news that goes to the downtrodden first. A call to release those who are bound and captive. To provide sight and freedom to those whom very few people think to give priority; Jesus walks into the equivalent of city hall and declares that God wants the busses desegregated. This point needs to be heard because too many people are getting it twisted: both Jesus and MLK worked for God. They used the tools of the world, but they were animated by the Holy Spirit. Both Jesus and Martin knew that people were being angered, to such an extent that their lives would be lost. Both of them knew it, but they kept on working. In our story world, Jesus leaves Nazareth soon, just like Martin left Montgomery. And they both found that the forces of good will and justice failed to act. As a result, people continued to suffer.
It is easy to romanticize them both, Jesus and Martin. It seems that many prefer a Jesus on earth who does not stir the pot, but a Jesus in heaven who condemns people to hell with glee. We have created a Jesus who wants us to be wealthy, but who doesn’t require us to feed the hungry. We prefer a Martin who would never stop traffic or take a knee or interrupt a football game, but we forget his words:
Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. It is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the [person] who wields it. It is a sword that heals. Both a practical and a moral answer to the negro’s cry for justice, nonviolent direct action proved that it could win victories without losing wars, and so became the triumphant tactic of the Negro revolution of 1963. (Why We Can’t Wait)
As we look at the state of race relations in the United States today, I am now seeing what many in the congregation witnessed the first time around. We are hearing the same attacks: “professional protestors” cause the problems, a charge levied at Rosa Parks. At the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. At the Congress on Racial Equality. Today, it is Black Lives Matter. We hear that blame is on President Obama for stirring up racism; 60 years ago it was on King. Any attempts to speak to how such a claim has no basis in reality is met with willful, and oftentimes vitriolic, resistance. As the good doctor wrote in Where Do We Go From Here, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that white people in America believe they have so little to learn.” We hear that riots and and acts that cause destruction are why people don’t support protestors or those who agitate for justice. As King noted, “Cries of Black Power and riots are not the causes of white resistance, they are the consequences of it.”
When Jesus goes into the synagogue the response becomes about his audacity. About how he is not qualified to read; it is about his chutzpah in saying that God acts through him. We don’t hear the voices talking about the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the blind. We don’t hear any celebration, or hear any questions about how others can help. We don’t witness any self-reflection regarding how one might have been culpable in setting up a society that sees blinded, oppressed people left alone to their own devices. We see and hear anger because Jesus points out that the history of humanity is filled with examples of people being indifferent; it is filled with untaken opportunities to practice what we preach. The silence regarding justice is too often accompanied by chastising of those who are oppressed. That’s often what we still hear in primarily white spaces today: a stubborn unwillingness to listen to masses of others speak about their own experiences. We argue over language and word choice more than we address the systems that cause people to scream, to act out, to feel hopeless, or angry, or left alone. We continue to perpetuate a society in which we need a King. We need people who are willing to literally lay down their lives because they cannot continue to participate in a society that knowingly and willfully keeps others down and then blames them for their own condition. That is a sad statement on who we are as children of God.
If these words bother us and make us angry, we must henceforth stop saying we admire Dr. King. If these words upset us, we should ask who we think Jesus is, what he asks from us. If these words upset us, we need to seek the source of the upset. There is a persistent problem with racism in this country and it is time to stop saying that hatred is heritage, or that there are two sides to an argument about whether another person is a human being deserving of equal rights. We must stop accepting prejudice because it is cloaked in civility or codified in a political platform, and we must halt the rewriting of history to make revolutionaries like Jesus and King nonthreatening to us. I know that this is uncomfortable for some to hear and it is uncomfortable for me to say; that’s why I know it is the right thing to do.
On this MLK Sunday–as many of us prepare to have a “day off” tomorrow–I ask everyone to take some time and read from King’s collected works. For those of you who lived through the events, perhaps doing your own part, seek out young people whom you can influence. Write your story down and ask to share it somewhere online or in print. Because we owe it to you to know your story, to hear your voice, to know what you did to bring good news to the poor, liberation to the captive, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. We owe it to you to know so that we may in turn act. As King remarked,
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”