Tag Archives: Martin Luther King

Enfleshing God’s love for the poor

Today is a strange confluence of events and feasts which, for me, show God’s ongoing love for the poor.

Since March 25, the feast of the Annunciation, fell on Good Friday this year, it is celebrated today.

Yes, the Word became Flesh on a specific day; but He continues being made flesh every day – in those who are marginalized, rejected, denied love and life.

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Mosaic in the Filipino style in Nazareth

Today is also the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968. I clearly remember the night, staying with my parents. I especially remember the phone call from a former classmate who knew of my concern for civil rights.

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Benedict the Black

Today Franciscans celebrate the death in 1589 of a saint I have revered since grade school – St. Benedict the Moor (il moro), as he was known then.

The son of African parents who had been slaves, St. Benedict was raised in Sicily. After being freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits and was eventually chosen their superior.

When the pope disbanded all the small groups of hermits, Benedict joined the Franciscans, where he served as cook. He was chosen superior, even though he was illiterate. He was later chosen novice master but he asked to be allowed to return to the kitchen.

His simplicity, his willingness to do whatever for the glory of God, reminds me of this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“Whatever is your life’s work, do it well. A man should do his job so well that the living, the dead, and the unborn could do it no better. If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, like Beethoven composed music; sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, “Here lived a great street sweeper, who swept his job well.”

Today is also the feast of St. Isidore of Seville, an encyclopedic bishop and teacher, who died in 636. He once wrote these words that reflect God’s love for the poor and mistrust of riches:

“The greater our love for the things we possess, the greater our pain when we lose them.
“Greed is insatiable. The person who is afflicted with it always needs something else; the more he has, the more he wants.
“The powerful are nearly all so inflamed with a mad lust for possessions that they stay well clear of the poor. Small wonder that when they come to die that are condemned to the flames of hell, since they did nothing to put out the flames of greed during their lifetime.”

Strong words that challenge all of us.

The challenge is how to be poor like Jesus, giving ourselves for others; how to be drum majors for justice like Martin Luther King; how to be humble servants like St. Benedict the Black; and how to use our gifts for the poor.

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Image at St. Francis of Assisi Church, 31st Street, NYC

A heart full of grace

In today’s Gospel, Matthew 20: 17-28, James and John ask Jesus for positions of power in his Kingdom.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just dismiss them as being power-hungry, but he doesn’t.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., noted in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” Jesus recognized in them the drive that is in all of us, the drive to be recognized, the drive to be important.

This morning, after reading the Gospel, I sat, listened to, and read King’s sermon, available here.

I had heard it first in the mid-eighties and been struck by its call to the greatness we are all capable of – the greatness of love and of service.

Here are a few excerpts that touch me:

[Jesus] said in substance, “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But he reordered priorities. And he said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

…Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Take some time today to read or listen to this sermon. It changed my life. What is important is to love, to serve. And so today I want to recall these important words of King and carry them with me all day:

You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

Solidarity with the victims

The terrorist attacks in the city of Paris have stirred up feelings of solidarity and concern – which is right and good. We are called to feel and respond to the suffering of all people.

But for me it is paradoxical that a single terrorist attack evokes so much concern and news, while every month more than 300 people are killed here in Honduras, while each day, while, according to the World Food Program, “Poor nutrition causes nearly half (45%) of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.” I recall the thousands killed in Gaza last year, the tens of thousands fleeing Syria, those feeling hunger and gang violence from Central America. The list goes on and on.

The deaths in Paris ought to open us to wider compassion, a compassion a which embraces all the victims of violence, including all the victims of structural violence which leaves so many powerless and hungry.

The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., from June 1961, can help us open our hearts in this time of pain and sorrow:

“This is to say that all life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. As long as there is poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars. as long as diseases are rampant and millions of people cannot expect to live more than twenty or thirty years, no man can be totally healthy, even if he just got a clean bill of health from the finest clinic in America. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way the world is made. I didn’t make it that way, but this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it a few centuries ago and could cry out, ‘No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’ If we are to realize the American dream we must realize this world perspective.”

May our solidarity embrace all people.

Dreaming

Here comes the dreamer.
Genesis 37:19

Joseph may have been a little imprudent telling his brothers about his dream that seemed to indicate that one day they would bow down before him.

But dreams – real dreams – often provoke resistance since they propose a different world, a different arrangement of life and society.

I think of Martin Luther King’s dream as well as the dreams of Monseñor Oscar Romero. They dreamed of a world in which love and justice reigned.

Martin Luther King’s dream, expressed in his speech at the August 28, 1963 March on Washington, is well known:

…I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream… that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream… that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream… that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they sill not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…

I have a dream… [that] one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers….

I have a dream… that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight, and glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

In his July 17, 1977, Monseñor Romero expressed his dream:

The true protagonists of history are those who are most united with God, because with God’s viewpoint they can best attend to the signs of the times, the ways of Providence, the building of history. Oh, if we only had persons of prayer among those who oversee the fate of the nation and the fate of the economy! If, instead of relying on human devices, people would rely on God and on his devices, we would have a world like the one the church dreams of, a world without injustices, a world with respect for rights, a world with generous participation by all, a world without repression, a world without torture.

Dreamers threaten our security, our complacency. Both King and Romero were martyred.

But if we let ourselves listen to their dreams we may begin to dream and, even more, begin to work together to make their dreams a reality.

There is a quote attributed to Dom Helder Camara, the saintly and prophetic Brazilian bishop, another dreamer:

When we are dreaming alone, it is only a dream. When we are dreaming with others, it is the beginning of reality.

What am I dreaming these days? Am I dreaming with others? Am I dreaming the dreams of God for all God’s people here on earth?

Dream on!

Driving forces for service

Two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached a sermon on Mark’s version of today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28). He based it on a 1952 sermon of the Methodist preacher J. Wallace Hamilton.

In the 1980s two fellow campus ministers and I ran across a recording of that sermon, The Drum Major Instinct. You can read it and listen to it here. We found that it offered a vision that could appeal to our human desire to be outstanding and our calling by God to serve.

King does not despise the desire for greatness but situates that desire in the call to serve.

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important — wonderful. If you want to be recognized — wonderful. If you want to be great — wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

That new definition of greatness undercuts our usual ways of looking at greatness – being greater than others, lording it over them by our wisdom or power or wealth. But, as King went on to preach,

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

To be great, to serve, as the Lord asks we need “a heart full of grace” and a “soul generated by love.”

I have been reading a lot about the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church the past few months. What I find most intriguing is that the diaconate really is about the service of charity. Yes the deacon reads the Gospel; he can preach; he serves at the altar. But he is called to make the connection between what we do at the altar and what we do with those at the margins of society. He is called, in the words of Pope Paul VI, to be the “animator of service” in the community.

That’s what all of us are called to be – to be driving forces of service to witness a church that serves.

This is the greatness to which we are all called.

Cesar Chávez and servanthood

Twenty years ago today, Cesar Chávez died. A founding organizer of the United  Farm Workers, he did much to improve the lot of migrant farm workers. He was also a man of deep faith and simplicity as well as an advocate of nonviolence.

He loved the Church and challenged the church to be what it should be – a sign of God’s Kingdom and an advocate of the poor.

He once said:

What do we want the Church to do? We don’t ask for more cathedrals. We don’t ask for bigger churches of fine gifts. We ask for its presence with us, beside us, as Christ among us. We ask the Church to sacrifice with the people for social change, for justice, and for love of brother. We don’t ask for words. We ask for deeds. We don’t ask for paternalism. We ask for servanthood.

This is a theme that, I believe, is central to our mission as followers of Jesus.

At his inaugural Mass, Pope Francis noted:

Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross.

It was also at the heart of Martin Luther King’s vision, which was well stated in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon:

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness.

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.

I know a man—and I just want to talk about him a minute, and maybe you will discover who I’m talking about as I go down the way because he was a great one. And he just went about serving.

May we be servants, also, serving God and all God’s people, especially the poor.

 

The drum major instinct

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 20: 17-28) the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give them a privileged position in his Reign. The other apostles get upset. Jesus responds by calling them to be servants, not like the rulers of this world who love to lord it over others.

On February 4, 1968, two months before he was killed, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave an incredible sermon on the parallel passage in Mark (10: 35-45), on “The Drum Major Instinct.” It is well worth reading, or listening to, and can be found here.

I have loved this sermon since I first heard it because it acknowledges that all people are called to be servants and we don’t need to be doctors or Ph.D.s or big shots. What is important is to serve.

Today looking at the sermon I found that King also had strong words for the US. Since I have been rather disturbed by the US vice-president’s visit here as you can read on my other blog here, I decided to share King’s very strong words:

I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy….

But this is why we are drifting. And we are drifting there because nations are caught up with the drum major instinct. “I must be first.” “I must be supreme.” “Our nation must rule the world.” … And I am sad to say that the nation in which we live is the supreme culprit. And I’m going to continue to say it to America, because I love this country too much to see the drift that it has taken.

God didn’t call America to do what she’s doing in the world now….God didn’t call America to engage in a senseless, unjust war as the war in Vietnam. And we are criminals in that war. We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.

But God has a way of even putting nations in their place…. The God that I worship has a way of saying, “Don’t play with me.”… He has a way of saying, as the God of the Old Testament used to say to the Hebrews, “Don’t play with me, Israel. Don’t play with me, Babylon.… Be still and know that I’m God. And if you don’t stop your reckless course, I’ll rise up and break the backbone of your power.” … And that can happen to America. …

And thus, for these and other words, and for his prophetic words against racism and militarism,  people plotted against Martin Luther King, Jr., as they did against Jeremiah (18:18).

Will we listen to the prophets and to Jesus and serve, or will we seek to lord it over others?

That’s a critical question for us and for our country this Lent.

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Last year I also wrote a blog entry on this text and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech. You can read it here.

 

Martin Luther King’s prophetic words

Today the US celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. He was born on January 15, 1929.

Most of us think of King as the leader of the civil rights movement for African-Americans. Yet he was a strong advocate for non-violence, having been influenced by the Christian scriptures as well as the example of Gandhi.

Many forget that King was also a major critic of US foreign policy – in particular, the Viet Nam war.  Though advised by many to keep quiet he spoke out boldly against the war, especially in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech (transcript here) which he gave exactly a year before he was killed.

Here is an extract that still challenges the nations of the world, especially the US:

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.