Sermon for January 15, 2017: Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr. – Let no one pull you so low (Preached at the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin)

Listen here:

Pray…for me that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel…Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.” Amen.

Like all other citizens, I am occasionally called for jury duty.  But unlike many people, I have very little hope of actually serving on a jury.  That’s because I used to work as an expert witness – and part of my job was to make jurors understand things and, if you asked the lawyers who worked with me, convince them of the “rightness” of the “side” I was testifying for.

That’s a bad way to think of it, because the minute you become invested in “winning” a case, you lose your ethical lens.  A psychological expert’s job is to help a judge or jury understand what is happening in the mind of a person who has committed a crime and apply that information to the law.  My job was to evaluate people and offer opinions – not to convince people to make judgments based on what I told them.  But, truthfully, it’s hard not to desire a certain outcome in a trial – not to care how it turns out. Because, quite simply, for the majority of human beings, caring is what we do.

And that’s a good thing.  Because there are people who don’t care.  In forensic psychology, we call these people “psychopaths” – individuals whose behavior is characterized by a consistent inability to care about anything but themselves.  These people behave in tremendously destructive ways – simply by failing to see other people as human beings.  They simply don’t care.

          Lately, I have been answering a lot of questions about whether or not I think Dylan Roof is one of those people.  On Tuesday, Roof was sentenced to death after being convicted of 33 counts in connection with the shooting deaths of nine people in an African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina in 2015.  Roof has demonstrated no remorse for the killings, freely admitting that his victims were innocent and that his only motive for his actions was hatred based on racial prejudice.  Roof was evaluated by a psychologist in order to be found competent to represent himself, but doesn’t appear to have cooperated in a full psychological evaluation.  Acting as his own attorney, Roof chose not to introduce any evidence about his mental state– so there’s no way to know whether he suffers from a serious mental disorder that impairs his thinking.  But as someone who has a lot of experience in these matters, I can tell you one thing: it’s quite possible that Dylan Roof is not mentally ill.  It may be that there is nothing wrong with Dylan Roof’s thinking; it may just be that it’s his heart that is sick.

Because hate is a sickness – and it is extremely contagious.  And, like the common cold, I would wager that every person in this room has suffered from it at one time or another – and that many of us are trying to fight it off right now. All we have to do is to glance at a newspaper headline to know this.   The words of Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrate that he knew this.  And scripture tell us that God knows this – that’s why he sent Jesus Christ into this hateful world to help us fight against it.

If there was ever a clear acknowledgment that God knows that we struggle with hatred in our hearts, it is today’s gospel.  “Listen,” Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.  Bless those who curse you.  Pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you.”  This passage, known to many of us as the “Golden Rule,” actually predates Christianity by millennia.  In fact, some version of the Golden Rule appears in almost every significant social, ethical and religious philosophy we know of, including Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam.

This saying is the crux – the cross – of what makes it hard to be a Christian.  Our religion is based on a very simple idea – which also happens to be the very hardest behavior to enact – to love one another as we would be loved.  This is the most potentially impossible thing a human being can be asked to do.  Living together in love – not in civility – not in restraint – but in honest, painful, intense, exultant, despairing, daring, hopeful, complicated love – is – if you do it right – a constant struggle.  It is the emotional equivalent of pushing an enormous boulder uphill for your entire life, of running on a treadmill that never stops – of watching “Old Yeller” a thousand times in a row.  It is, for most of us, simply a dream.

It is a dream that Martin Luther King famously shared.  Tomorrow, on the national holiday that celebrates that dream there will be much talk about its components – about racial equality that has still not been achieved – about justice that remains out of reach – about the kind of understanding among people that would have prevented the violence demonstrated by Dylan Roof.

That is tomorrow.  Today, as Christians, we need to remember something different.  We need to remember that Martin Luther King’s dream was not just about civil liberties or political equality; it was about spiritual love.  It was a dream not just that all people will be truly created equal, but that “the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  Martin Luther King’s dream was a Christian dream.

It was a dream that Jesus taught us to dream – and a dream for which Jesus – like King – was killed.  It is the dream that it is at the root of all Christian belief.  It is the dream for which dreamers from the dawn of time have been murdered.  It is a dream for which we should all, as Christians, be willing to die.

It seems impossible – that we could be strong enough to die for that belief.  God knows, we are often not strong enough to even live for it.  It is so hard not to hate, especially when we believe that others have given us the right to do so.  But we must not allow ourselves to be, as King put it, “pull[ed]…so low as to hate.”  We must, at the very least, fight the hate that is inside of us.  And we may not be strong enough to fight that pull on our own, but I believe we are strong enough to take the hand of Jesus – and the hand of our neighbor – and to try.  I believe we are strong enough to listen to the word of Jesus – strong enough to put on the armor of God –strong enough to stand firm against the evil that is in the world –strong enough to struggle against the powers of darkness –strong enough to “press on, to move along the highway of freedom toward the city of equality,” strong enough to take up not the sword of hate, but the shield of faith – and to proclaim the gospel of peace.

We are, like Dylan Roof, only human beings, predisposed to judge, compete, fear, and hate.  But we are also children of God, redeemed and imbued with the power of God’s love – the power of God’s grace – the power of God’s amazing grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that save a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now I’m found – was blind but now I see.

AMEN.

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