Come and See Hope – The Rev. Michelle Meech
January 17, 2021
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, in celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Read the scripture here. Click the play button above to listen.
I was re-reading the Letter from a Birmingham Jail – the open letter that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to several white clergy in the city of Birmingham, Alabama after he was arrested for being a part of the non-violent demonstration against segregationist practices and policies on Good Friday in 1963. This demonstration was organized by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I highly recommend it to you, if you’ve never read it before. The letter is almost 60 years old but so much of it still applies today.
After the demonstrators were arrested and thrown in jail, 7 white clergy in Birmingham, many of whom were seen as progressive at the time, published a letter in the newspaper which they entitled “A Call for Unity.” This letter condemned the demonstrations, calling them “unwise and untimely,” and attempted to undermine those who led it, calling them outsiders. In short, the so-called unity these 7 men sought was a false peace, an effort to reduce tension and keep the status quo.
This now-famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, was written by the Rev. Dr. King in his jail cell during his incarceration to respond to these white leaders. And, as I re-read his letter, I was reminded of a time in my own life when I voiced a similar concern as these white leaders. A fear that the disruption of the status quo would lead to breaking a precarious peace and, therefore, wasn’t worth the cost. And it was over the confirmation of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion.
I was new to the Episcopal Church, had been going to Trinity Episcopal Church in Bend, OR for a few years and was getting more involved in the life of the church. This was 2003 and the General Convention was scheduled to meet that summer and one of the items on the agenda was a vote on whether the consecration of Gene Robinson would move forward. Our priest, Bill Ellis, was going to represent our diocese as a deputy, which means he would have been one of the people voting.
He and I were discussing the controversy surrounding the election of Bishop Robinson in the parish hall. You see, in 2003, the gay rights movement had done a lot of work in the effort to destigmatize the LGBTQ community. Many Episcopalian leaders had been a part of that work and we had been ordaining openly gay and lesbian priests for a while. But the consecration of a gay bishop was different because the office of “bishop” is a significant one amongst the churches of the larger Anglican Communion. For us to assent to his consecration would put us at odds with our sister churches all over the world who were not the beneficiaries of a gay rights movement, their societies still thinking of gay and lesbian people as illegal or even evil – deserving of death.
I was still identifying as straight but had always understood myself to be an advocate of gay rights. So, perhaps it was because of the privilege I had, of never knowing what it was really like to have a part of who I was, something so core to who I am, be seen as a problem… Perhaps it was my privilege that led me to say to Bill: “I don’t understand why we can’t just wait until the rest of the world is ready for something like this. Isn’t it better to stay together and move forward slowly rather than risking unity?”
And Bill’s response to me was kind but straight-forward. He said, “Michelle, you can never have real unity on the backs of others’ oppression.”
I was surprised by this gentle soul’s kind admonition of me but I’ve never forgotten this lesson. Because, as I would come to learn in the study of scripture during seminary, as I would come to learn after being tossed out of a job search because the parish wasn’t ready for a gay priest, and as I would come to learn through the continued painful unveiling of deeply entrenched racism of our own society… I would come to learn that none of us are liberated until we are all liberated. Because, inevitably, we are all bound by the oppression, the violence we wage on others.
In fact, if we are not working towards liberation, we are inevitably a part of the system of violence.
And when we learn that, whenever we learn that, if we actually allow ourselves to open our hearts and learn that… what we come to understand is that we have a sacred duty, as human beings, as creatures of God, beloved by God, to work towards the liberation of all. And as we do, we come to learn that God is with us in this work.
Scripture echoes across time the call for liberation:
- In the words of the prophet Micah who told us that our duty was… to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
- In the words of the liberator of Israel Moses… Let my people go, Pharaoh. (Exodus 5:1)
- In the words of Mary in the Magnificat… you have scattered the proud in their conceit and has lifted up the lowly. (Luke 1:51-52)
- And in the words of Jesus the Christ… the Spirit of God is upon me because he anointed me to proclaim release to the captives, to set free those who are oppressed. (Luke 4:18)
Scripture is telling us that when we decide to give up this false peace and step into the work of liberation, God is at work with us.
It’s essentially the same question in today’s story from John’s Gospel: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus comes along and invites Philip to follow him – the invitation to walk in love, the invitation to a new life, in fact. And Philip, all excited by this, goes to Nathanael saying – this is the one we’ve been waiting for. This is the teacher who will lead us, who will liberate us.
And Nathanael counters with: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come out of the non-violent protests? Can anything good come out of the consecration of a gay bishop?
The answer is, “Come and see.”
Come and see what God is doing. Come and see what liberation looks like. Come and see how light shines in the darkness.
Because, as Jesus tells us in this passage from John’s Gospel, you will see greater things than simply someone with great ability and insight. You will come to know the true miracle of liberation.
The work of justice, the work of liberation requires that let go of what we of our false sense of peace and be willing to live into the tension long enough to trust that God is doing something new – in our lives and in the lives of others. The work of liberation asks us to let go of our expectations of what will happen and “Come and see” how I may be called by God to participate in the inbreaking of God’s Reign on earth.
It’s never about keeping the status quo, agreeing to disagree with those who believe that hate speech is their right, that oppressive ideas and policy are just a difference of opinion. It’s never about tolerating the forces of intolerance for the sake of keeping the peace because in the end that’s a false peace.
Intolerance always ends in physical violence because intolerance is violence, it is a violation of the soul, a violation of the dignity of others, a violation of God’s creation. Intolerance is in direct opposition with the liberating, life-giving God of love that our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry always talks about.
I know it sounds paradoxical but we cannot tolerate intolerance.
We cannot tolerate hate. We cannot tolerate oppression.
For these forces are so much more than a difference of opinion, they are antithetical and damaging to life itself.
And so, on this weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a person who not only understood the invitation to “come and see,” but moved thousands and thousands of people with the same invitation – “come and see” what we can do when we work together to overturn the “negative peace which is the absence of tension” and create instead a “positive peace which is the presence of justice…” On this Sunday, during a time of such great anxiety and division in our nation, a time of deep grief over the ongoing pandemic… let us take up Philip’s invitation to “come and see.” Because in this invitation, is hope.
Hope in the realization that we are not bound to the forces of intolerance and hate. Hope in the sure knowledge that God is with us as we take up the work of racial justice. Hope in the vision that is God’s Reign of Love so that we, too, may follow our savior in the narrow way of Love and participate in the inbreaking of God’s love into this world – a world that sorely needs Love.
Let us hear this invitation as one of Hope and, in honor of the Rev. Dr. King, work to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world.