Love Tracked Me Down and Set Me Free

A sermon preached 8-25-13 @ Grace Church (Episcopal) Great Barrington, MA Lee Cheek, Licensed Lay Preacher
Pentecost 14, Proper 16C
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“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

So began the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago August 28. Valerie and Howard Smith were there that day, not very far from where Dr. King was speaking. They listened as he continued to note that even though the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued, not much had changed:

“100 years later, the Negro is not free;
100 years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination;
100 years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity;
100 years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.
So we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Oh, how I wish I could hear Dr King preach on today’s gospel! For what he and so many other courageous, self-sacrificing men and women had been doing in the southern states before they arrived in Washington that day was what Jesus was doing in the synagogue that sabbath two thousand years ago: dramatizing a shameful condition so that everyone can be set free.

Let me set the scene with a few of its elements: a public place, a synagogue where a crowd is gathered to listen to Jesus teach.

A woman in crippled, bent over and in need of healing remains unseen by the leaders of her synagogue, curiously unseen for 18 years.

Jesus sees her before she sees him. He calls to her: “woman you are set free!” He lays his hands on her. She immediately stands up straight and begins to praise God.

The synagogue leaders justify their distance from the bent-over woman by indignantly pointing out that a sabbath work rule should not be broken for any reason!

But Jesus is using this spontaneous work of healing on purpose as an opportunity to dramatize that God is still at work on creation, not having finshed it until all people have been made whole and redeemed.

Jesus—who according to Luke actually dines with these folks from time to time—points out their hypocrisy of compassion for animals above this “daughter of Abraham.” Pointedly so, for not only is he restoring her dignity and blessedness, he is reminding them that they are her brothers, and they are all blessed and covenanted children of God, their creator.

Then Jesus shatters the sound barrier when he names Satan as the one who has bound her. Satan—the all-too-human power to be blind to the suffering of another human being and justify it with a label. Or a fist, a whip, a gun. Or a law that privileges the high and mighty.

The truth of this leads to the shameful recognition that those who exploit the weak for their meager resources, strip them of their dignity for economic convenience, and imperil their health are themselves bent over and spiritually crippled by Satan’s bondage.

They are crippled and bent as surely the woman they refuse to recognize as sister. They will refuse to admit it then, but they, too, are in need of healing and it is Love which has come to set them free.

Jesus is always showing us that God is Love, and that day as on other occasions he is showing us that Love does not rest on the Sabbath, nor any other day of the week. This Spirit of Love, this Holy Hound of Heaveniv, will chase us down at work, in our homes, on our streets—even inside a synagogue or a church—to touch us and heal us, un-blind us and redeem us back into the family of humanity as equal and diverse children of God.

This Love dreams to free us from having to hate anyone. This Love dreams to set us free from a never-ending chain of revenge. This Love dreams to give us the strength to love and stand tall for justice.

Tracked down himself by this Spirit of God, Jesus boldly picked up the golden thread of his people’s prophetic ethic of justice and love, and refused any contradiction of it. Even to the end of being lynched on a cross, caught in the crosshairs of corrupt politics of empire and accommodation.

But what seemed like the end then, became a new beginning for the human family when this Holy-Spirit-of-Love-in-History was given to the world by Jesus, the Forgiving Victim.

Unlike our lectionary selection today, Jesus did not leave his auditors without some hope for their redemption from their shameful state of being conveniently blind to suffering. He continued with two parables about how the Kingdom of God works:

(v. 18.) He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
And again he said, “To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Isn’t that full of hope? It means that little things count for a lot in God’s Kingdom: One tiny, barely visible act of love can grow into something that can support a whole flock of people. And barely visible acts of love can change a batch of human society into something greater than it was.

On August 28, 1963 over 200,000 people (twice as many as expected) arrived in Washington to make visible the magnificent and hopeful effects of all the collective small acts of love that got them there by those who walked their faith and prayed with their feet in the southern boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides and voter drives.

John Lewis, the congressman from Georgia, was then 23 years old—the youngest and, now, sole surviving speaker from that day. A veteran demonstrator and one of the first freedom riders, he recalled in an interview that, in fact, never once in the history of the whole movement was there an incident of any protester hitting anyone back, no matter what the provocation. He writes in his book, Across That Bridge:

“We were actors dramatizing our faith … What we were communicating through nonviolent protest, what we demonstrating by being willing to put our bodies on the line, was that love had already overcome hate.

Our poise was not founded on money, breeding, or education, but rather on our spiritual lineage and unbreakable connection to the divine. What we could not muster was added through a grace that never failed …

I am here to tell you that among those of us who were at the heart of the movement … for those of us who accepted [non-violence] not simply as a tactic but as a way of authenticaly living our lives—our sole purpose was, in fact, love …

With yeast like that in the dough, we can see how the anticipated violence at the March for Jobs and Freedom never materialized. On view to the country and the world that day was the beauty of humanity bound “in a single garment of destiny”.

Eight year old Loretta Bowens—daughter of our Marena Bowens, who was with us a few weeks ago on her annual summer visit—was there that day, too. Marena had nervously put her on an NAACP bus under the charge of their good friends, the pastor, and his wife, of the Great Barrington AME Zion church.

Loretta remembers how happy and friendly everyone was. She said there was a picnic-like atmosphere throughout all the speeches. But when Dr. King, the last speaker of the day, began to speak, she remembered a great hush over the crowd, “because we wanted to hear every word he said.”

As I noted before, Dr. King began his speech by opening with a description of the shameful conditions for Negros in America one hundred years after the Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. He continued with cautions to guard against bitterness and violence until the demands for justice are fulfilled.

He was about to wrap up his planned four-minute speech, but as his adviser and speech- writer Clarence B. Jones recalls, Mahalia Jackson called out behind him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!”

King looked up from his papers on the podium and swung into the now familiar but unprogrammed “I have a Dream” cadences. Mr. Jones, who had heard bits of these on another occasion, at that point turned to the person beside him and said, “These people don’t know it, but they are about to go to church!”

The work of justice was far from finished and King knew he could not let his auditors— oppressor and oppressed alike—leave Washington without hope, for he loved them all.

So he shared his dream—God’s dream—to a whole nation that all of God’s children “will be able to sing ‘Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.’”

And we say AMEN. AMEN to you, Brother Martin! Your unwavering faith that the end is reconciliation and redemption—that the end is Love!—has shown us the truth that we have already been given a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let us give thanks to God for the Spirit of Love that is ready to set us free!