Mass to Honor Martin Luther King – January 2007

Recently, I heard someone – in speaking of the quality of the sermons he was hearing – and mind you, this man did not come from anywhere near these parts – but in speaking of the quality of what he was hearing, he said that preaching seems to be about telling us to just be nice. And, I am sure he was not too far off the mark – especially, most of us who do preach don’t relish the possibility of being thrown off some cliff like those people in Nazareth wanted to do to Jesus, or being shot outside a hotel room in Memphis.

Nevertheless, while no one should take to a pulpit just to annoy his listeners, God’s servant will be called upon to speak the truth to power – and while we might enjoy hearing the powerful get their comeuppance, we cannot forget that God’s servant is called upon to speak the truth to our complacency as well.

Today, we honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..  We thank God for his courage and for his witness.  Like Jeremiah, in today’s first reading, when destiny called Dr. King, he stood up like a “fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass” and told all that the Lord commanded.  He was a preacher that spoke truth both to the powerful – and to the complacent.

A pulpit can be called the “table”.  It is the “table of the Word”, as the altar is the “table of sacrifice”. And from that table, Dr. King fed us. He fed us with solid food, the food of God’s Word– not the nice tasting, or nice sounding food that we sometimes call “fast food” or “junk food” that– but the satisfying, healthy food of the Truth.

Christian life is about more than being “nice”.  During those years of Jim Crow segregation, there were lots of “nice” Christians – respectable men and women, white and black, who were willing to let things be:  to live a lie and not to live in the truth.

Christian life is about conforming ourselves to the truth – the truth about God, about us and our relationship to God. It is about discovering the truth that makes us free – and that truth is a person who is Jesus – the truth, the way, and the life.

Of course, health food just does not seem as appealing as “junk food” – and here I am not just talking about what you might consume at a McDonalds.  I am talking about what we consume, not through our mouths but through our eyes and ears:  what we consume through T.V., movies, radio, magazines and newspapers. So much of it is “junk food”; and this junk food  of our popular culture seems at times more appealing than the “health food” of gospel truth.

It would seem that that’s always been the case. At the beginning of the gospel, we hear how Jesus’ hearers “were amazed at the gracious words that came from his month” – and yet by the end of this short reading, they were ready to throw him off the cliff.  We might be tempted to ask: Why didn’t Jesus quit when he was ahead?  Praise God, he didn’t – and neither can we.

Jesus’ words provoke. And if the Church speaks Jesus’ words, the Church will also provoke. One can tip-toe around diplomatically only for a while – eventually one will have to jump feet first into truth telling.

We however prefer to be nice than to tell the truth: just ask any husband whose wife asks him: “Does this dress make me look fat?” In our contemporary culture, the most esteemed virtue seems to be what? Honesty/ Integrity? Courage? No, tolerance. Heaven help us, if we use the language of our parents’ generation in describing two people who are living together without the benefit of marriage. We use to call it: living in sin – now, it’s an alternative life-style. And what would be called sinful sodomy is now considered a “domestic partnership” Our contemporary culture bids to us to tolerate all standards – but it is itself intolerant of us if we still hold on to our own standards, if we still hold that truth is not something “I create” – as if someone could create his or her own “truth” but is something that I receive and to which I must conform.

This prophetic speaking the truth is not an option if we are to be faithful to the Lord’s mandate. Today, this prophetic speaking of the truth calls us to affirm again the dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death.  Dr. King never lived to see the infamous Roe v. Wade decision that legalized elective abortion in this country but state laws were already become more permissive in his lifetime.  And let us recall his words:  “The Negro”, Dr. King said, “cannot win as long as he is willing to sacrifice the lives of his children for comfort and safety”.  Today, one of the most active members of the Pro-life movement is Dr. King’s niece, Alveda King.  She is taking her uncle’s civil rights work to its logical extension, fighting for the most basic civil right, the right to life.  “How can ‘Dream’ survive”, she asks, “if we murder the children?…Abortion is at the forefront of our destruction…By the taking the lives of our young, and wounding the wombs and lives of their mothers, we are flying in the face of God.”

As I said, this prophetic speaking of the truth calls us to affirm again the dignity of the human person, from conception to natural death.  We are called to defend the dignity of the migrant, poor and the marginalized, for that dignity is based not on what we have but on who we are, creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  And, in a world confused by the radical individualism of our society with and erroneous idea of freedom that holds that to be free means to do as one pleases, we must reaffirm the role of marriage and the family – and not only to defend marriage and family but to defend marriage and family against those who in the name of toleration of so called new forms and expressions of marriage and family would ultimately destroy the very possibility of a civilized society.

Today, our “junk food” culture is trying to sell us a morality based on desires and not on the truth of things. We have to witness to the truth.

But when we do however, don’t be surprised it we are told that we are not being nice, that we are intolerant. Don’t be surprised if we are told we have no right to speak, that religion is a “private matter”. “Who do they think they are?” And yet, that’s the same argument used against Jesus: “Who does he think he is. We know him; he’s the carpenter’s son, what does he know.”   Martin Luther King, Jr. heard all that too – but he paid it no mind.  Today, some of the same people who tell us to be quiet – and not to speak about the evil of abortion, or the need for just immigration reform; some of the same people who tell us that to defend marriage as a union of a man and a woman is just some churchy people trying to impose their will, some of those same people will stand and praise Dr. King; but they forget that he was a preacher, a Baptist preacher, and the movement he led began in churches, those people that march and faced down Bull Connor and so many others, were church people.  They didn’t try to impose anything – their creed was non violence.  But they made a proposition – and in doing so move the conscience of a nation.  And today, we can do no less.

Today, there’s really no way around it. In our culture – the Church will appear to be increasing provocative – but only because the gospel is. We must not shrink from being provocative – if this is what the gospels call us to. But – and for this reason, today’s second reading is of particular importance. St. Paul presents us with a beautiful canticle to love – which he calls “the path that surpasses everything else.” Everything else is insufficient – even giving our bodies to be burned. Without love, such martyrdom would not count for anything in God’s sight. When God uses Christ and his Church to provoke men, it is out of love that he does so. And those of us whom he entrusts with the task of living and proclaiming his love, his truth, in the world, provocatively must do so in love and out of love. Otherwise, we fail to speak for God but speak solely from ourselves, out of contempt for other people, or contempt for their failings their obsession with power, their misuse of power or abuse of nature. This “bitter zeal” so characteristic today of much public debate is beneath the standards of Christian witness, for love, as St. Paul says, “is not jealous, is not prone to anger, does not rejoice in injustice…”

Since the Lord came to call all to salvation, we must be really to embrace all. As Irish novelist, James Joyce, said: Catholic Church means, here comes everybody. For the sake of love, we welcome all to feast on the solid food of God’s word – but for the sake of love we also must call all to conversion to Christ. To fail to call to conversion would be a failure of love. And love sometimes to be truly love must be tough love. Nevertheless, our brothers and sisters must sense the love of God effectively at work in us even in the seemingly harshest words we utter in God’s name.

As Jesus tells us in the gospel today – he fulfills the words of Holy Scripture. Jesus fulfills the prophecies of the Old Testament. Jesus answers the hopes of the world. There is no other savior – for he is the truth, the way and the life.  As we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let our celebration signify our continued willingness and commitment to hear God’s Word, to be fed both at the table of the Word and the table of Sacrifice, so that we might be built up as a temple – alive in Christ – and witness to hope.