January 15, 2023, The 2nd Sunday After Epiphany. Sermon preached by Rev. Carolyn H. Eklund

Year A; Second Sunday After the Epiphany.FB; 1.15.2023

Isaiah 49:1-7; Birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

            I started seventh grade in 1967 at Northwest Junior High School. We were the Tigers. My brother had gone there four years ahead of me and played basketball. Northwest Junior High School was a predominately black public school located several neighborhoods away from where I grew up. My neighborhood was white and my parents didn’t want their daughter going to Northwest Junior High School.

I look back on my parents in their frantic, what was called “white flight” desire to move away from the “black school.”  I remember in 1966 Mom and Dad trying to find a way NOT to send me to that “black” school. They went to talk to the nuns at an all-white private Catholic girl’s school. They looked for houses to move to in another county nearby that had very few black students in their schools.

Eventually, Mom and Dad decided that they couldn’t afford to do either, and when it was time for me to enter seventh grade, we organized a car pool of neighborhood kids and we all went to Northwest Junior High School.

            In my first days of classes, I met some really fun girls my age. Vanessa Rosenthal, Robin Ragsdale and Bernice Thomas. We were in many classes together I think, because somehow the administration knew we were the smart kids. I didn’t know that at the time. But I sure enjoyed being in class with these kids. They were my very first black friends.

            Soon, one of the girls, Bernice Thomas and I recognized in each other an affinity for friendship that reminded us of a sibling relationship. She was tall, smart and chubby. I was tall, not as smart, but chubby. She had a delightful smile like mine and our friendship was made of instant chemistry.  

I can’t remember that we ever talked about our skin color or race. But we knew at our core, the humor of calling each other “sister” OUT LOUD. We’d wink a little bit at each other when we’d say, “hello, sister” for people to hear. We might have thought it would be funny if friends and teachers were confused to hear a white and black girl call each other “sister.”

            Over the years, as high school and college took us to our respective groups: mine was the social climbing white culture of my mother’s. Hers was hard working, hard studying graduate school of social work. Mine was sorority at the University of Kansas. Hers was with a black group of friends who were active in justice-seeking. We lost contact. But I’ve thought about Bernice now and then.

Last week as I read much of the rich wisdom of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bernice and our “sister” friendship came to mind. In his speech at the March on Washington in 1963, Dr. King famously set before a hurting country this vision, “I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.”

The image of Dr. King’s dream in this speech brought my friend, my “sister” Bernice back into focus and I wanted to find her and catch up with her.

I called Bernice and we had a wonderful conversation. She told me about her 40 years as a social worker mostly spent at the Veteran’s Hospitals in Leavenworth and Topeka. She shared with me how fulfilling and sorrowful her work was with people who had spinal injuries and ALS. She described the journey to the end she walked with each of these patients as she loved them. Even before I brought up our calling each other “sister,” she brought it up. She really saw me as a sister. And I was able to tell her that I saw her as a sister.

What I discovered is that the little 13-year-old girls at Northwest Junior High School instinctively had love in their hearts, love as siblings. There was plenty of hate being thrown around in those days, as in today. But for us, hate was nowhere on the horizon. We entered into the prophetic call of sisterhood, and I am just now understanding that the call was from God from the beginning.

Could it be that God plants “sibling love” in every soul before birth?  And if that’s true, then it must be our life’s work to nurture it for a higher purpose of love, not hate.

From the prophet Isaiah we read about the Servant being called to be a messenger of salvation to the nations and that this call comes before birth. “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” 

Scripture informs us in several places that God has an idea for each prophet, for you and for me even before we are born.  We hear this truth in Isaiah 44 verse 2, “Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you…” And in the prophet Jeremiah’s call, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” And in one of my favorite psalms, palms 139 God is present “…knitting together my inmost parts,” “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

My friends, God has an idea for each one of us long before we enter junior high school! And what a joy it is for our life’s purpose to nurture it!

If we ever doubted that God created us with a purpose in mind, be convinced of it today.  Theologian Stephanie Paulsell confirms this for us in her commentary when she writes about Isaiah 49,

“The call of God about which the Servant [in Isaiah] sings is a call, [a purpose] that comes to the beloved people of Israel, to the earth itself, and to each of us, in the specificity of our own lives.” (Feasting. Theology Year A; 2 Epiphany). That call is to compassionate justice, a creation of God that seeks the wholeness of the universe. Our prophets are the ones who remind us of this noble and holy call. And it is for all, not just a select few.

Tomorrow our nation remembers the birth of an inspiring modern Servant Prophet, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow, the Maine Council of Churches and Bangor Theological Seminary are sponsoring a full reading of “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It is one of the most forceful and beautifully written ethical calls to justice I’ve ever read. King relied on his God-given calling to Christ’s justice, love and salvation to land in the hearts of the good Southern white ministers. He forcefully, even tearfully called them to recognize their God-given call to help him fight for the freedom that black folks lacked in this country. I’m really looking forward to joining that webinar!

King saw that hate was just as detrimental to the hater as it was to the hated. In 1965 he preached, “Hate is just as injurious to the hater as it is to the hated. Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity. Many of our inner conflicts are rooted in hate. This is why the psychiatrists say, ‘Love or perish.’ Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

God puts it in each one of us to be a sibling to one another.  I look back on that time and rejoice in my years spent in Northwest Junior High School and the friends I made. I wonder, if my parents had just trusted what God had in store, what God had planted in their inmost being, love, friendship, compassion and justice, if they might have been happier, less frantic and anxious parents as their children went to school with black people.  

King preached, “We must all learn to live together as brothers [nowadays I say, “siblings”] or we will all perish together as fools.” Imagine if we all lived as siblings!