The Very Rev. Kellly Brown Douglas is visiting Virginia Theological Seminary to observe the Feast of Dr. King on the 51st anniversary of his death. As the guest preacher, below is the sermon she will deliver on Thursday, April 4th at the Seminary’s community Eucharist.
By The Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas
Good Evening Virginia Theological Seminary community! Over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in response to President Kennedy’s assassination that “Our nation should do a great deal of soul-searching . . .” For, he went on to say, “While the question ‘Who killed President Kennedy?’ is important, the question ‘What killed him?’ is more important.”
On this evening that is 51 years to the day of King’s assassination, these words are prescient. For while we know who killed him, it is clear that we as a nation have never asked let alone confronted what killed King. To do so makes clear that the deadly bullet which struck Dr. King at 6:01 p.m on that 1968 April 4 Thursday in Memphis Tennessee, was a consequence of the violence that violence created and hence the cycle of violence that continues to define this nation even 51 years later. For this it is the very same violence that sustains the prison industrial complex in which black and brown bodies are unduly trapped. It is the same violence that perpetuates the school to prison pipeline that stifles the life options of far too many black girls and boys. It is the violence of inhumane poverty which disproportionately traps black and brown people—especially children—in a culture that promises death not life. It is the violence of the everyday realities of so-called “unconscious bias,” for make no mistake about it–no matter how unconscious this bias is or is not, it is violent—for anything that demeans, dismisses, degrades, or disrespects the sacred dignity of another human being is violent. And, it is the same violence that builds border walls and separates immigrant children from their parents leaving them to languish in tent encampments. This is the violence that is white supremacy—it is the violence that is “Making America Great Again.”
So this begs a question for us who sit here this evening commemorating not simply the death of King, but most significantly his life and legacy and that question is this: what does it mean for us to be Christians in such a time as this when the nation has yet to confront the very violence that took King’s life 51 years ago—indeed the very same violence that he fought to end. Put simply, what is it that we who claim to follow Jesus are called to do?
In answering this question we are instructed by King himself as he reflects on what compelled him to engage in the struggle for black freedom and to fight for a just future. He said this, “This is what we as Christians have pledged to do. . . , to be a Christian,” King explained, “one must take up [the] cross.” “The cross we bear always precedes the crown we wear,” he proclaimed. And so, what are we as Christians, those who follow Jesus, called to do in these violent times that are ours? We, like King, are called to bear the cross. Which of course begs another question, which is—what does that mean? What does that mean for us to bear the cross that was Jesus’?
It means first and foremost Claiming our creatureliness, as in not pretending to be other than we are creatures of God—which by the way is pretty darn good.
And so, to claim our creatureliness means letting go of those constructed pretensions of privilege that are race, religion, class, country of origin, gender-identity, sexual expression or any other privilege that tells us we are more valuable, more special, more important, more entitled than another human being. And here is the thing it is in freeing ourselves from the entitlements of our own sinful making that we discover that those whom we have othered, marginalized, victimized and crucified are just like us. That is, we are all as my sister would say just “dressed up dirt,” with bodies that can be hurt and need cared for, hearts that can be shattered and need love, and spirits that can be broken and need healed. It is no doubt for this reason that most major religions profess some version of the golden rule as Jesus gives it us as found in our gospel this evening, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And so it was that Jesus went to the cross, letting go of anything that would separate him from the crucified classes of his own day.
What does it mean go to bear the cross that was Jesus’? It means to claim our creatureliness and it means being Rebel for Righteousness.
“There is a time when silence is betrayal,” King said. Because he dreamed of a world when God’s justice would be a reality for all of God’s children, silence was not an option for King in a world filled with the violence of injustice. King’s very dream, therefore, compelled him to be a loud rebel for righteousness, the righteousness that is the justice of God, regardless of the cost. Thus, as he recognized that the triple evils of racism, poverty, and militarism were all a part of the same puzzle of violent injustice, he was compelled to break his silence and call the nation to account for the hypocrisy of war that was Vietnam. “I really feel,” he said to a trusted advisor, “that someone of influence has to say that the United States is wrong, and everybody is afraid to say it.” So, King said it—only to incur the wrath not just of his enemies and many religious leaders in the nation, but of also those he considered his trusted friends and colleagues. But this is what it means to be a rebel for righteousness.
And of course, there was no one more perfect rebel for righteousness than Jesus as he, for instance called out his disciples for their self-righteous hypocrisy, chastised the Pharisees for their blind injustice, and raged against temple leaders for turning God’s house into a den of robbers. He was an unrelenting rebel for righteousness even as it meant for him a crucifying death.
“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” To be a rebel for righteousness is to break the cruelty of silence in the face of injustice even when all others around us maintain theirs, even those who would call themselves Christian. This is what it means to bear the cross, and this leads to another aspect of bearing the cross which is to be Oppositional Opportunist.
To be an oppositional opportunists means taking advantage of every opportunity to be show forth at least a glimpse of the God in whom we believe—this is a God who cares about each hair on our very head—ours is a God with a heart (which is why the best synonym for God is love)—and so it is we must be opportunist in showing forth the heart of God thereby opposing the heartless injustice of our world. Put simply we must take every opportunity to oppose the indecency of our earthly realities by showing forth the decency of God’s heart.
“I have decided to stick to love….” King proclaimed. For, he said, “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” You see, King was clear that we should “let no man pull [us] into the “darkness” of hate.” Thus, even as rocks were hurled at him and his name was cursed and his body was beaten, King did not respond in kind. Instead, he took advantage of the opportunity to oppose such vile hated with the loving justice of God. For King, this meant meeting “physical force of white racist hate with the soul force” of God’s love by protest in the streets, challenges in the courts, and seizing the power of the ballot.
Indeed, I am struck by the fact that even as Jesus bore the cross of crucifixion, the greatest sign of human hatred, he did not respond in kind, even when he was spat upon and mocked as if the nails of crucifixion were not enough. Instead, he went so far as to show forth the love of God by asking forgiveness for his crucifiers.
It is the cross that in King’s words cries out to us across the vistas of time, compelling us to (as our gospel reminds us) “love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” This is what it means to be oppositional opportunist in a time like ours fueled by a politics and culture of hate And so, what does it mean for us to bear the cross, it means being oppositional opportunists and if we are this then we will be also Stonecatchers— to borrow from a story and the words of Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy.
In this world and nation that is ours, stones are constantly being cast, even from the highest offices in our land. These are stones of bigotry, stones of hatred, stones of intolerance, stones of disdain and stones of fear. To be a people who bear the cross, is to be not a people who cast stones, but rather a people who catch stones, a people who catch the stones that are hurled against the sacred dignity of our very humanity. And how are we to catch these stones of dehumanizing indignity—by showing up as witness against them, or by speaking up when they are being thrown in our presence, or by standing with those against whom they are thrown. VTS community, Jesus was a stone catcher for the woman who was attacked for adultery as he turned her attackers away—“you who are without sin,” he said, “cast the first stone”—indeed his ministry was defined by what it meant to be a stone-catcher for he was a stone catcher for Samaritans, lepers, the blind, the lame, all those whose sacred humanity was assaulted.
“We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” King proclaimed, “for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and I might add sisters.]” This is what it means to be stonecatchers.
And so, what does it mean to bear the cross? It means to yes claim our creatureliness, to be rebels for righteousness, oppositional opportunist, as well as stonecatchers, and if we are these things then, in the end, we will be nothing less than Signals of transcendence.
To be a signal of transcendence in this our violent world is to be nothing less than a glimpse of the peace of God that transcends all understanding. This is the peace that is God’s just future, a future where there first are last and the last are first, not because there is a reversal of power, penalty or privilege, but because there are no first, there are no last because everybody is treated as the equal children of God that they are. Practically speaking then to be a signal of transcendence means creating spaces that reflect not the world as it is but God’s future as it is going to be—beginning with the spaces that we inhabit as we move and live and have our being in the world. In other words, in the spaces that we inhabit there should never be a time in which anyone is not valued and respected as the sacred child of God that they are regardless of how they look, how they live, or how they love. Simply put, it means that we are to reach always beyond the standards, values and compromises of this world and even of our ecclesiastical Episcopal authorities, so to grasps the standards and values of God’s heaven where all are respected and welcomed—regardless. This is what it means to be a signal of transcendence. It is to be a glimpse of an eternal justice that surpasses all understanding. “Be not conformed to this world,” as Paul says.
I want to be remembered King said, “as a drum major for justice, . . . a drum major for peace . . . a drum major for righteousness.” It was in his efforts to be a drum major for righteousness that King was nothing less than a signal of transcendence.
So there you have it—the answer to our question of what it mean to bear the cross? It means Claiming our creatureliness, and being Rebels for righteousness, Oppositional opportunist, Stonecatchers and thus Signals of transcendence. And so what? What does all of this really mean?
King told us that if the nation was ever to come to terms with what killed Kennedy it would need to do a great deal of soul-searching. About he is right—not only when it comes to the nation but when it comes to those of us who claim to be Christian. For here is the thing—the soul of who are is that which connects us to God—the God made incarnate in the one who died on the cross. And so it is, to search our soul is for us to bear that cross in leading nation to not only confront the violence that killed King, but to stop it. To doing anything less would be a betrayal of our soul, a betrayal of the one we claim to follow.
And so the challenge is clear for us especially in this Lenten journey on the way to the cross. It is the challenge of not simply commemorating King, it is the challenge of confronting and stopping the very white supremacist violence that killed him and indeed is killing us. The challenge is for us to bear the cross.
“When I took up the cross, King said, “I recognized its meaning. . . The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on. . . but take up your cross, and just bear it.”
May it be so.