A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
January 16, 2011
Text:   Isaiah 49:1-7                

Isaiah 49:1-7
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the sight of the Lord, and my God has become my strength— he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Thus says the Lord, the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One, to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations, the slave of rulers, “Kings shall see and stand up, princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

One was a judge with a reputation for thoughtful decisions. . . and a mean pitching arm in a local softball league.  Another was a great-grandmother who smiled patiently as her husband talked politics with anyone who would listen.  Phyllis Schneck was an active Presbyterian, known for her macaroni and cheese and the quilts she made for the church bazaar.  None of us can dismiss from our minds the fresh face of nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green, so full of delight and promise.   We might never have known these individuals except for the fact that their lives were lost in the tragic Tucson shootings last week.  Now they speak to us of trouble and dis-ease in our nation—whether of unaddressed mental illness, gun control, bitter partisanship and more.   Though they did not choose this role, now they are prophets, calling from their graves for change, for a different way, for a better way to live together in peace.

Today we remember the witness of America’s greatest 20th-century prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.     He emerged in our nation’s tumultuous struggle for racial equality as a leader of incomparable vision, a drum major for justice—not simply for African-Americans, but for a world divided and broken.  The light in Dr. King’s eye was a divine spark, a sense of connection with Transcendent purpose—-what he referred to as the “unconditional love and unarmed truth” that will have the last word in human history.   Though he too lost his life pursuing this dream, his words reach across the years and speak a prophetic word to us today, to the times in which we live, with their particular heartaches and hopes.  

Dr. King stood squarely in the tradition of the Biblical prophet Isaiah, whose words resound from our morning Scripture reading.  Isaiah, also, spoke in a time of national upheaval.  He called for sweeping changes in priorities, in behavior, in the way the people treated one another and others.   Today’s text reveals Isaiah’s discouragement in the way his message had been received . . .and largely ignored.   But we also discover here the Source of that light in his eyes, and the breathtaking scope of the vision it casts.   Listen for God’s Word to the Church in the reading from the prophet Isaiah in the 49th chapter, at the first verse.            ISAIAH 49:1-7

The prophet’s role begins in courageous assessment of reality.  The message is stripped bare of the pretty lies we tell ourselves to endure disappointment.  Hypocritical actions and false loyalties are identified so that there is no denial of responsibility.  No wonder Isaiah likened his mouth to a sharp sword; an arrow that would pierce the people’s soul.    During his lifetime, some of Dr. King’s severest critics were people of faith who resented the word of judgment he leveled against the church’s preservation of the status quo.   His Letter from a Birmingham Jail was specifically addressed to fellow clergy more intent on “keeping the peace” (and perhaps their positions in the leading churches) than in naming conditions that were not right and working to change them.  [AT 11:  I’m grateful to Peter Heggs, son of Sharon Milligan and the late Owen Heggs, for reading these excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches]   

I have been so greatly disappointed with the church and its leadership.  I do not say that as one of the negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church.  I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as I have breath.  Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.    The religious community has largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a tail-light behind other community agencies rather than a head-light leading the nation to higher levels of justice.   Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.    But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before.  If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club. 

The day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.    Dr. King risked offense because he believed the stakes were that high:  life or death; anything less than God’s truth was not worthy of the organization called “the body of Christ.”    Neutrality was not an option for the church; silence on such basic matters of human dignity meant complicity with the very forces trying to destroy it. 

The prophet’s sense of authority comes not from his or her own ego, but from a sense of God’s calling.  Of course we know of twisted minds that attribute violent deeds to divine orders.  But there is another way to evaluate the well from which the prophet’s words flow.  And that is by looking at the prophet’s actions.  Friends, there is no plainer, more compelling expression of God’s vision than a faith community which demonstrates love and justice and kindness and mercy.  St. Francis of Assisi got it just right, in a phrase I have hanging in my office so I don’t forget:  Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words. 

In a sermon he preached to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church just two months before he was killed, Dr. King described the role of the servant, the one who acts not out of self-interest or for self-glory, but in obedience to the true ruler. 

If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral.  I’d like somebody to mention that Martin Luther King Junior tried to give his life serving others.  I’d like for somebody to say that Martin Luther King Junior tried to love somebody.  I want you to say that I tried to be right on the war question.  I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry.  And I want you to be able to say that day, that I did try to clothe those who were naked.  I want you to say on that day that I did try to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.   Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness.  And that’s all I want to say. . . if I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a word or song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.  Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or your left side, not for any selfish reason, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.

Finally, the prophet lives by faith.   Even in Scripture, God’s call to men and women is amazingly sketchy on details.   There’s little about “why.”  Almost nothing about resolving the paradox of the presence of evil in a world ruled by a righteous God.   The prophet trusts that God has certain purposes for humanity, and those purposes are loving and gracious.  Even though they do not understand how or why, those who live by faith affirm that God’s purposes will prevail.  When Isaiah complained about how little the people of Israel appreciated his message or even listened to it, God responded with what can only be called a gigantic non sequitur.  No sympathy, no improved sermon strategy.  Instead God reminded him of the extent of divine concern.  There’s nothing parochial or narrow or tribal about it.  God intends to redeem the whole world; to transform its destructive ways and broken patterns into justice and peace and abundant life for all.     Though Dr. King will always be remembered as the Moses who led his people from slavery to freedom, his mission encompassed more.    The Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech leaves no doubt that the light in his eyes was ignited by hope that was universal.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of humanity.  I refuse to accept the idea that the “is-ness” of humanity’s present nature makes us morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal “ought-ness” that forever confronts us.     I refuse to accept the idea that humanity is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life which surrounds us.  I refuse to accept the view that humanity is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.     I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into a hell of thermonuclear destruction.  I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.  That is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.      I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.  I believe that what self-centered people have torn down other-centered people can build up.  I still believe that one day humanity will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land.  “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”  I still believe that we shall overcome.     This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future.  It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom.  When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.  

I hope you are stirred, as I am, by the power of Dr. King’s prophetic witness.  But it would be too light a thing if we came away from worship today only refreshed by inspiring memories of another time.  These words –both biblical and historical—call the church to prophetic ministry today!  The Holy One of Israel has chosen YOU, beloved Fairmount, to speak God’s Word and to show God’s love in our city, among people who are strangers and friends alike, here and now.    This has been part of your mission for some 95 years, and you have fulfilled this calling in many and various ways.   The Industrial Areas Foundation is simply the most recent expression of that calling and one that is effectively gathering the energies of congregations of multiple races and ethnicities, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, in city and suburb.   I think it is a good way to live into our calling to be a light.    Together we can address common concerns; together rise from the ashes of tragedy and rust of past glories; and by God’s grace build the City of God, the prophet’s dream reality at last.      AMEN. 

Now we go out into the new day and wonder what it will hold.  Dr. King reminded us that the measure of a person is not where we stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where we stand at times of challenge and change.  Go in peace; stand together; love one another; be God’s people.    And the love of God, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of God’s Spirit remain with you, now and always.  Alleluia!  Amen.