Sermon: Christianity’s Goodness

1.18.2015      Preaching Text: “And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’” (1 Samuel 3:10)

If you’re keeping score at home (and I’m sure you are!), you know that we are progressing through the season of Epiphany – on the heels of Christmas now past. Epiphany’s theme is the revealing of God’s light to the world.

Of course, at root, Christmas is about the incarnation, of eternity breaking into time in the form of a newborn babe. Into the dark a light has come, though singular, vulnerable, and imperiled.

Then, on the day of Epiphany, always January 6th (once the twelve days of Christmas are complete), we celebrate the Wise Men paying their respects to this divine presence. The liturgical symbolism is clear: the world, represented by the Wise Men, is introduced to the new reality God has brought forth in Jesus.

Last week the lectionary emphasized Jesus’ baptism – as well as that of others’ – and the concomitant giving of the Holy Spirit. Again liturgically, the symbolism is that the light is moving out into the world, to save the world.

In today’s readings we are reminded that God often calls unlikely, unsuspecting people to do this work, to become bearers of the light, imbued with spiritual gifts and spiritual powers. This is in keeping with the longstanding tradition found within both the Old and New Testaments where God names and calls unlikely people into servanthood.

Tomorrow, as you know, our nation will commemorate the Civil Rights struggle of the 50’s and 60’s embodied in the ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr. You might say his role within this movement fits quite neatly into these larger biblical “call narratives.”

Which is to say that in some ways King was an unlikely candidate to lead the Civil Rights movement. That he even came to Montgomery, Alabama is itself a bit of an anomaly.

King was, as historian David Halberstam once put it, “a black Baptist Brahmin, a symbol of the new, more confident, better educated black leaders now just beginning to appear in the postwar South.”

His maternal grandfather had been founder of the highly influential Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where his father (and later he himself) would serve. From early childhood, he was groomed to be among this black elite.

After he completed his Ph.D. at Boston University, he was called to his first church, Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, against his father’s adamant objections. Taking a church in such a non-prestigious locale was certainly not what his family had had in mind.

Then, shortly after he had arrived, in December 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a city bus. After her arrest, a boycott by the black community took hold. An unlikely leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., emerged. He came to be the right man at the right time, as it were.

Over the years, as we know, and after many struggles (not least having his house riddled with bullets during the Montgomery bus boycott) he successfully championed the idea of non-violent confrontation, an approach informed not just by Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (turning the other cheek) but by Mahatma Gandhi’s principled, non-violent fight for India’s independence from Great Britain.

His enormous courage and determination, his inspiring rhetoric, and his thoughtful, faith-based appeal to the conscience of a nation led to the eventual dissolution of the Jim Crow laws in the South and to the landmark Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1965.

Yet, as with all biblical call narratives, those God calls are rarely perfect. King, later history would reveal, plagiarized significant parts of his Ph.D. thesis at B.U. And in early 60’s then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy enlisted J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to wiretap King’s doings, revealing serial extramarital affairs.

God had called this talented, courageous, albeit imperfect human being to the great work of gaining equal rights for all citizens and confirming the inherent dignity of all people as enshrined in the Constitution (and the biblical warrant upon which it was based).

To me this says something profound about Christianity, about the good it has bequeathed to our world.

On the other hand, it’s de rigueur today to denounce or diminish Christianity’s role throughout history, despite the fact that both Christmas and Epiphany presume a new, divine reality has entered into time. We today are more prone to ask: what difference has Jesus’ coming made in our world? And our answer far too often is: not much.

Yet I would argue that Christianity has had far more influence that we commonly assume, even if its grand influence has become all but invisible to us moderns.

Consider the work of both Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. In both cases, their strategy of non-violent resistance depended entirely on the moral appeal to a principled populace, to a refined conscience and a shared sense of decency.

By starkly highlighting the cruelty and evil of racial and political oppression, they were able to mobilize a deep-seated sense of right and wrong within the majority of the public, without whose moral outrage nothing would have changed.

What is forgotten, in other words, is the central role Christian conscience played in both instances. For Gandhi, without the moral conscience of the British people, informed by centuries of Judeo-Christian Western Civilization, success likely would not have occurred.

In the same vain, without the informed conscience of the American people, itself steeped in biblical values and morals, King’s efforts would not have worked.

It is unlikely, for instance, that Gandhi’s or King’s non-violent resistance would have had any effect in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union, or Mao’s China. Nor would such an approach likely succeed today in Putin’s Russia, in the Syria of ISIS, among Nigeria’s Boko Haram, or in Castro’s Cuba.

No, it is the cumulative and beneficent effect of generations of Christian thought, word, and deed, taught, lived, and woven into the very fabric of our conscience (and even our sub-conscience) that made Martin Luther King, Jr. and his efforts even conceivable.

The goodness of the gospel we so often take for granted turns out to be far greater, far more pervasive, and far more powerful than what we normally presume. Amen.