Year A; Epiphany 2; 1.19.2020

Isaiah 49:1-7; Martin Luther King, Jr.


During my trip to Atlanta after Christmas to see my sister, we visited the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. On the lower level there is an exhibit of some of the documents of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.’s life from the Morehouse College archives. Posted on the wall was a copy of the newspaper article that announced King’s assassination. My sister read the first paragraph and gasped, “I had no idea he was 39! So young!” We wondered out loud if he had known his life was in danger.

Years before, Dr. King’s home had been bombed. He had been almost mortally stabbed in New York City. I wonder what it is like to live as a prophet, doing the will of God with integrity. He knew that he was a marked man and he said so in his last speech which was in Memphis during the Sanitation Workers strike.

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…”

Dr. King was called to do God’s will and to be the voice “crying in the wilderness.” At the end, he seemed to not be sure at all if he was having any effect. But despite the outcome, he knew HE had been true to calling for justice and righteousness for God’s sake and the sake of the sanitation workers, for the sake of Rosa Parks, the sake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sake of the victims of the voting rights suppression, the sake of the Freedom Riders, those suffering under racism, all who are poor and finally, for the sake of the young people being drafted into the unjust war in Viet Nam War.

Dr. King was immersed in the scriptural voice of the prophets for justice and righteousness. We know by heart the words that he invoked over and over again from the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a never-ending stream.”

The prophets in the time of ancient Israel spoke on behalf of God, risked their lives as they used their prophetic voice for God’s will and wondered if any of the risk and hardship would ever introduce change. Listen to the voice of the writer of Isaiah in this morning’s lesson, giving a teensy hint of despair,

“But I said, ‘I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…’”

Can we, as people of faith ever be sure that doing God’s will give us any peace, positive ethical change or relief of the people we are called to help?

Over a year ago, I listed on the back page of my journal the current issues I was passionate about then. I was determined to participate in helping to solve them. “Gun Violence” was at the top of the list. I was incensed by the shooting in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. Nothing had been done after the Newtown shooting. Nothing had been done after the shootings of so many people since.

On the list, too were the detention of children and separation of families at the border, the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, increasing racism, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the concern I had about the effects of climate change.

Right now, there is so much more to distract us, that the rest of my list seems light years ago. The only issue that is front and center is the increasing worry about the care of the earth, and that’s because the non-stop video footage that came from Australia.

My list of issues that are important to me haunt me for my inaction, for not raising my voice. I don’t believe I’m a prophet. But I do believe that God has called me to give voice to the suffering and against the evil I see in the world.

God is calling each of us to do something, to say something. God calls us to stand in the mirror and take account every now and then. I have a wonderful relationship with God who asks me kindly, “What do you see in that mirror, Carolyn? Can you live with yourself today? I call you to love your neighbor as I love you. I call you to deal with people justly and righteously, to work to relieve the poor and suffering, to care for Creation and to speak against evil when you encounter it.”

Maybe I’m not called to be a prophet. But as a person of faith, a leader in my faith, I can’t just say, “It’s all in vain, it’s nothing, my voice means nothing.” I have to live with myself today.

In my study of the brave Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights era, I learned about a group of white student advocates who trained with their black student counterparts in non-violent direct action to prepare themselves for the Freedom Rides. The Freedom Rides were designed to test the Federal laws against discrimination in the South. Several young Jewish women from the north joined the Freedom rides.

Trudy Weissman Orris was a Jewish Freedom Rider. Born in Greenwich Village in 1916, growing up, she was only one of two Jewish students in her school. Both students suffered terrible ant-Semitism. After she married, she joined her husband, a military doctor, in Germany, at the end of World War II. Even after the war, she recounts that it was a very uncomfortable experience for her as a Jew.

Orris tells her story in a recording for the Civil Rights living history. She said, “Whenever I met anybody German, I would say to them, ‘What did you do during the war?’ One evening, a German musician said to her, ‘If you’re asking me if I was a coward, I was a coward. I knew what was happening, but I couldn’t do anything about it. My best friend was taken away. What are you going to do when your turn comes?’ Orris recalled, ‘I stopped, I couldn’t answer him. I was really stunned. I said I didn’t know what I would do but I would hope that I would do the right thing.’ The man said, ‘What you hope and what you do are two different things.’ When I came back to the United States I was a different person. I felt that the most important thing that I could do is to work in the black movement. If anything happened, then somebody didn’t have to say to me, what did you do?” (Lilith magazine. Fall 1999)

In the passage from the prophet Isaiah this morning, all is not in vain, after all. God responds in the most loving way by promising, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant…I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” God called the people of God then, not to despair. God promised that they would indeed shine a light on the nations.

God’s light shines in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It shines in Trudy Orris’s story. It shines in us. Raising our voices against injustice might indeed seem in vain in this divided country and this dangerous world.

We are the faithful, hoping, loving people of God, standing in front of the mirror and answering God’s question, “What did you do during this dangerous time?”

Dr. King’s last public words are the perfect answer, “I just want to do God’s will.”