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Here Comes the Big Dreamer: Bishop Shannon’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Sermon

Bishop Shannon preached this sermon at St. Paul’s, White River Junction, on January 19 for the Commemoration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Here comes the big dreamer. Come on now, let’s kill him, and we’ll say he was an enemy of God and the state. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”

When it comes to being God’s dreamer, prophet, or son, one quite often becomes the subject of society’s hatred and violence.  It seems that for us humans, the known prison of dehumanizing systems, fear of the other, and the anxiety of scarcity is preferable to an unknown life of freedom, peace, and love.

And to this, Jesus says, to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. Offer, don’t withhold and give.

Who wants to love their enemy?

Once I was trying to board a plane where we had to walk downstairs to get on a tram that would take us to the terminal for the flight. Struggling down the stairs with my carry-on and big purse filled with a computer and knitting, a young MAGA hat-wearing man convicted me as he offered me help.

It is not unusual for me to extend kindness to people whose beliefs are challenging to me, but I wasn’t prepared to accept a kindness paid by someone whose political choices were an affront to my and other’s human dignity.

I’ll never know if he knew how hurtful the implications of the sentiment on his hat are for someone like me. Maybe he didn’t care.

His privilege did not require him to know how a simple hat could spit on the graves of people who lost their lives to ensure the inclusion of all Americans, or whose lives were cut short because they were not considered Americans, or even people.

Truthfully I was too stunned to be angry. Instead, I had a mix of incongruent feelings of resignation, conviction, bewilderment, and hope. I felt the grief of lives and integrity lost because of our nation’s refusal to once and for all deal with the sin of systemic racism.

At that moment, God also surprised me with a feeling of submission and commitment to my call to live the way of love.

My feelings are microscopic in comparison to what I imagine God must feel when contemplating and witnessing the human condition. 

Everyone has seen people endure shame, violence, injustice, and degradation. Which makes one wonder, how can humans act in such cruel, evil, and inhumane ways? Why do we allow it to go on by means of our silence, inaction, and participation in unjust systems? Why is it that human nature seems to be hell bent on being our lesser selves rather than our greater, authentic selves?

Why does the choice to be truly human have to be such a risky endeavor when that is our true nature and the Divine’s plan? Apparently, in this world, one cannot be truly human if one isn’t also profoundly vulnerable.

Loving my enemy makes me very vulnerable to the systemic evil of society and cruelty of others. God can’t reassure me this vulnerability will not cost me my life. And so of course, we’d rather have security in this world than closeness with God.

But my question is – If our enemies or evil control how we live, is that life? Are we free? There’s got to be a better way.

If you love those who love you, why should you be commended? Even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, why should you be commended? Even sinners do that.

Our world needs to be freed from the deadly cycle of violence and the injustice that enslaves us.

We catch glimpses of human greatness, which is proof that we have it in us to be more, to be just, to love compassionately, to be truly human, to live the truth and to be free.

Jesus’ invitation to love your enemies and do good to those who hate you does not mean that we will be passive and silent in the face of violence and injustice. 

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. began his public ministry of building beloved community, the day after Ms. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white person, he addressed a crowd of oppression weary protesters. “As you know my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong! If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to Earth! If we are wrong, justice is a lie!” he said.

King was a prophet and dreamer completely in tune with Jesus’ incarnational presence and commitment to nonviolence and love. This spiritual giant was only a giant because he turned to God when he faced the fear that always comes when one chooses to love and not hate.

There was one occasion in particular when King had a significant moment of doubt. One evening he got a phone call threatening him and his family. He told of how he began to pray, and God spoke to his fear and resignation.

He said, “Almost out of nowhere I heard a voice. ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’” This reassurance was not only what King needed to hear from God, but also a moment of complete surrender to God.

I wonder what would have happened if the church would have embraced King’s invitation to advocate for an alternative solution to the war in Vietnam? I wonder what would have happened if the church would have joined King as he began to bring together a coalition of diverse poor people and deepened the call for economic justice? 

I wonder what would have happened if the so called moderate white ministers who claimed to be supportive of equal rights, had sent a letter of support instead of chastisement for leading nonviolent demonstrations. Instead of telling him to stay in his place and accept and cosign the powers and principalities that controlled and furthered systemic injustice, what would have happened if these “men of good will,” as King called them, had used their white male privilege to voice their outrage at unjust laws?

What if these ministers of the Gospel hadn’t been “arch defenders of the status quo,” and instead had heeded Jesus’ call to love? King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail would have been quite different.

Here comes the big dreamer. Come on now, let’s kill him and we’ll say he was any enemy of God and the state. Then we will see what becomes of his dreams!”

The church has often missed King’s prophetic statement that the church would become irrelevant if it continued to have so little integrity as it participated in upholding the status quo through its silence and inaction. We are living with the aftermath of the church’s lack of integrity.

God’s reassurance that he would be with King until the end is the same reassurance he gave to the disciples and gives to us now.

As the church struggles with a shift in society that has left us trying to understand how to be the church today, we would do well if we heeded King’s warning. Though I fear it has already come to pass, it is not too late. The church can be relevant. Our world needs us now more than ever.

Jesus says, to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. offer, don’t withhold, and give.

God gave King a dream of beloved community, built on confession, action and love. Likewise, God calls us to be dreamers and prophets whose rule of life is the way of love.

We’ve seen it done.

God loves and redeems all because God is perfect. If God only cared for the good, what credit would that be to the Divine? Isn’t that what the forces of evil desire? Isn’t that just like the ways of the world? How would that make God different from us? How would that be God?

God’s way of abundant love is the only way to turn a person to being truly human. Living God’s love is the only way to freedom, the only way that we will come into our own as people, the only way God’s dream for all creation to be its fullest. Being people of love is the only way to build beloved community. Love is our true nature.

Listen to Dr. King’s encouragement to us, “I’m concerned about truth. And when one is worried about that, he can never advocate violence.

I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to humankind’s problems.

For I have seen too much hate. … and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.”

photo: Bishop Shannon with retired Bishop R. Stewart Wood of Michigan at St. Paul’s, White River Junction in January

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