Rev. F. Robert Tafel Readings: John 1:43-51 January 20, 2002
This Gospel passage, telling how Jesus calls us in much the same way as he did the original disciples is very appropriate for us to consider on the national holiday celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We can consider this passage in the context of looking at how one individual¹s effort to apply his concept of Christian discipleship has made a difference. It is also an opportunity to realize Jesus calls us to follow him and help bring others into a knowledge of himself and his unceasing effort to liberate each of us individually both in our social realm and in our daily living.
The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and he found Philip and said to him, "follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "we have found him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote -- Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph. And Nathanael said to him, "can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, and said of him, "behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!" Nathanael said to him, "how do you know me?" Jesus answered and said to him, "before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered and said to him, "rabbi, you are the son of God! You are the king of Israel!" Jesus answered, and said to him, "because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And he said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the son of man."
One remarkable attribute of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his ability to take the concerns and values of the Church to the State and also bring the politics of the State to the light of the Church. And to do so in a manner which did not compromise the essential and appropriate separation of Church and State. His doing so achieved a creative challenge to the amoral conduct of business as usual. His leadership was a gift left to us as a model and as a legacy. We are all a little bit freer as a result of the work of Dr. King. Of course there still remains much to be done, both as a nation and as a community of nations. But an important beginning has been made and continues.
We are freer, as a nation, from many evils, thanks to Dr. King and to those who joined in his efforts and to those who continue to meet the challenge of the work remaining.
Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King¹s birthday is an opportunity to observe his gradual encounter with his calling and to remember that he like ourselves went through a process of discovery and education to becoming an effective disciple of the Lord. It is further an opportunity to educate ourselves about the work remaining to bring about actual equality and justice. Such a lofty goal is often elusive and takes concerted effort in an on-going process to eradicate entrenched social evils. And the work has spread to endeavoring to bring about, as Dr. King had hoped, a time when African Americans, Catholics, Jews and Gentiles -- men and women of every sort can sit at the table of brother and sisterhood with actual equality and justice. This dream and effort is another legacy of Dr. King.
Personally, I enjoy this annual opportunity to learn more about Dr. King's work. It is an opportunity for every Christian to try to see bridges of contact to their own religious heritage. As a Swededenborgian, one bridge I see is that between Swedenborg, Emerson, the transcendental poets and authors such as Thoreau.
While in his third year of studies at Morehouse College, a class assignment brought Dr. King into contact with Henry D. Thoreau¹s essay on "civil disobedience." This was a provocative thesis upon which Dr. King would soon elaborate and refine most eloquently.
We can also see a direct connection with Swedenborgian concepts, for Swedenborg has much to say about recognizing evils, rejecting them mentally and then abstaining from them as sins against the lord. And further. That in proportion as one shuns evils, one does goods (Arcana Celestia #825). For Thoreau, civil disobedience; namely, refusing to obey a law which is unjust, would be the same as shunning evils.
In Thoreau¹s words: "we can no longer lend our cooperation to an evil system;" "he who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with evil." Thoreau had influenced Gandhi who in turn influenced King by demonstrating specific strategies of refusing to cooperate with evil; such as, powerful yet nonviolent activities such as boycott. And protest marches. Methods which King would use to dramatize evils on a societal level.
Dr. King¹s legacy; that is, everything which has resulted from his work, cannot be summed up easily, for so much good has branched forth from those initial efforts. What does stand out for me is the reminder that we must not rest merely with shunning personal evils. We are called in Christian discipleship to take responsibility for social evil as well. We may not be the direct cause of evil; however, we can do our part to help end it.
I was, and am, impressed and moved by a letter Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from a prison cell. Jailed during a series of sit-ins at lunch counters concluding with a silent march toward city hall, king learned of a newspaper statement published by eight leading clergy condemning his actions as "unwise and untimely." His reply, "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (published in his book Why We Can't Wait) is superbly eloquent:
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.... I hope you are able to see the distinction I am trying to point out. In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist, that would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law. ................ I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the south is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened up with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Do we not see here an eloquent expression and direct application of Swedenborg¹s expression of the law of divine providence that evils must be seen in order to be removed?
There is a way that we can truly celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther king, jr. And that is to share his dream and Help to bring it about the dream that his:
Four little children will one day live; in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
The dream that:
. . . One day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
Such was the hope and faith Dr.. King declared in his speech given At the Lincoln memorial during the 1963 march on Washington. Dr. King leaves us with this legacy, stated in that speech:
. . . That we will be free one day.
This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.''
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black... and white..., Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
This is our legacy. This is our hope. Building upon the efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., It is beginning to become reality.
Let us pray.
Copyright 2002 by Rev. F. Robert Tafel