Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places plains,
and the crooked places will be made straight, and before them the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
(Martin Luther King, Speech at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963,
quoting Isaiah 40)
“God is either of supreme importance, or God is of no importance.” So said Rabbi Abraham Heschel, arguing that God must be understood as touching every aspect of our lives. Either you regard God as the cosmos you inhabit, the ground for everything that are and think and do—or you regard God as a kind of add-on to life, rather like a dentist or a chiropractor (good for addressing certain problems, but of no real importance otherwise).
The issue of God’s importance comes up for us today, because Martin Luther King was someone who saw clearly that God is of importance to everything. In his “I have a dream” oration given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963, he did not just deliver a speech on the political question of segregation: he linked the underlying issues of freedom and justice to the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Bible. His dream, that “every valley shall be exalted, and all flesh shall see it together,” is that of the prophet Isaiah. And like the prophet before him, King saw that if political equality was to be achieved, it would have to be driven by a deeply religious conviction that justice is ultimately derived from what God requires and motivates us to do, and is not of our own making.
Now, the question of whether politics has anything to do with religion, and vice versa, is a perennial one in our society. But on this day when we commemorate the legacy of one of the great prophets of our time, it seems worth revisiting that question—and especially at a time when our nation is again convulsed by competing claims of propriety and probity in the highest places of government.
Let’s start in a rather unexpected place: Christian mysticism. In his recent book, The Universal Christ, our local sage Richard Rohr tries to direct our attention away from the individualized religion of a personal relationship with Jesus (with which we are most familiar), to an awareness of the cosmic Christ who is the animating presence of God throughout all creation. “Everything visible,” Rohr observes, “without exception, is the outpouring of God” (13). Rohr’s worry is that “if we focus too much on the idea that Jesus’ main purpose is to provide a means of personal, individual salvation, then it is all too easy to think that he doesn’t have anything to do with human history” (18). No, Jesus is more than that: Jesus is but one manifestation of a reality that pervades all time and all place, what Rohr calls a “Christ-soaked” universe.
Seeing things that way, we might then see the meaning of the Eucharist that we celebrate here week by week rather differently than we often do. Instead of focusing on how Christ can become present to us through bread and wine, we might see it instead as focusing our attention on a larger mindfulness, which is that Christ is made present to us in every bit of reality—we just overlook that fact most of the time, and so need our awareness rekindled through simple means like the meal we share here today.
And if the Eucharist points us toward an awareness that Christ is already in all things, then it radically challenges any idea we have that there can be certain things that are outside of Christ’s purview. We must live as if Christ truly is the ground of all reality. The Eucharist then is not just a kind of spiritual fill-up, but a commissioning to live a certain kind of God-driven life.
And so, what of politics? Our society is shaped by a deep suspicion of coercively manipulating anyone into a particular religious conviction—and rightly so. But the bedrock of that suspicion—the prohibition against any institutionally established religion which we know as the “separation of church and state—often gets over-extended, it seems to me, to mean the separation of church and everything.
If I, as a Christian, hold the conviction that the Christ who animates all things is also the cosmic Word of freedom and justice, then I simply cannot withdraw that conviction from the arena in which society enacts or denies that justice—namely politics itself. Like Martin Luther King, who could not and would not square the racial inequality of America with the prophetic vision of Isaiah, we have to be able to name and resist those places where the authorities of this world substitute their own competing vision of power and corruption for the vision of a human community given to us in the Christ. As Rohr says, “There is no such thing as a nonpolitical Christianity,” because “to refuse to critique the system or the status quo is to fully support it—which is a political act well disguised” (94).
On the night before he died, Martin Luther King appealed perhaps more directly than ever before to the Biblical context in which he understood the Civil Rights Movement and his place in it—it was, after all, at its core a religious movement. At the head of its marches were not politicians but preachers, priests and rabbis—The Rev. Martin Luther King chief among them. The songs that sustained and inspired them were not political fight-songs, but hymns of the church (some of which we are singing here today): We Shall Overcome, Lift Every Voice and Sing, When Israel was in Egypt’s Land.
Saying that night in Memphis that he had been to the mountain top and seen the promised land (aligning himself with none other than Moses, the greatest of all prophets), King preached a word of hope and justice that for him came directly from God. He was there that night because of a very political cause—the strike of sanitation workers over unfair practices and wages. But he didn’t leave the issue at that level. He lifted it to being about nothing less than the archetypal struggle for freedom represented by the liberation of the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt.
Surveying the whole of human history, King nevertheless said that he was most happy living in his own day, despite all its challenges and heartache. “I'm happy to live in this period,” he said, “[because] we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men for years now have been talking about war and peace. But now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”
Are we, in these days that trouble our own souls, any less in need of the word of God at every level of a society that has lost its way—a word that will call us to a renewed concern for truth, for integrity, and for the common bonds that knit together humankind with one another and all creation?
Remember how King finished this, his last sermon: “Well, I don't know what will happen now; we've got some difficult days ahead. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Is that a vision we still share, or have we as a nation become so infected by the cynicism of a cynical age that we can no longer speak, much less hear, such a prophetic voice? Amen.