Homily for Ecumenical Service Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination St. Rita of Cascia High School
Our Scripture readings this night summon us to have the courage to walk together, but also to turn around and follow a new path opened by God. Just looking out over this assembly with leaders from other faith communities gives me that God-inspired courage and fills me with joy. We share the conviction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that each of our faith traditions must be ever ready to purify whatever holds us back from pursuing justice. For as he reminded us:
“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.”
This Gospel from Luke speaks of an opening and a purification of our eyes, ears and hearts as God’s word is opened and as God walks with us. His word and presence leave our hearts burning for more of all that God has ever wanted for all humanity.
Notice that the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, witnesses of a remarkable death and a great mystery, were leaving the scene of the crime. It was too much for them. Their first impulse was to go back to the way life used to be, not to get involved — we have all been on that road at one time or another, haven’t we?
Yet, as those two on the road let the word and presence of God in their midst pierce their fearful hearts, they are put in touch with their deepest longing, and so they are compelled to go back to Jerusalem. Compelled to let go of the safety of non-involvement and take up the road to a new life of non-violence.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew that road to Emmaus well, that temptation to scurry away to non-involvement, but also the summons of God to turn around and take up the road to a new life of non-violence. He is remembered today not for the way in which he died, but for the way in which he lived, for the way he preached the importance of living this new life. As one who had chosen the path of involvement, he challenged this country, all people of good will, to take up a new road, a new life where former enemies become new friends. As one whose heart had been moved by God, he knew that “we are less prone to hate our enemies” when we discover the truth that “there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us.”
He allowed God to speak to his heart, to set him on that righteous road, so that his words would be filled not with hate and contempt, but rather with the hope and life God gives. His eyes were opened by God so that he could see more than an impossible dream, more than an unreachable goal or unsolvable problem. His eyes were opened so that he could return to Jerusalem, and dream bigger dreams, make visible the invisible and believe the unbelievable.
We continue to be blessed by a man touched and formed by a God who repeatedly shared that dream, inspiring so many, as he did with the march he led from Selma to Montgomery as part of the campaign to fulfill his “dream” of full civil and political rights for African Americans. Pope Francis recognized the power of that dream when he spoke to the U.S. Congress three years ago: “That dream continues to inspire us all,” he said. “I am happy that America continues to be, for many, a land of ‘dreams.’ Dreams which lead to action, to participation, to commitment. Dreams which awaken what is deepest and truest in the life of a people.”
Tonight, Dr. King continues to awaken that dream in each of us, calling us back to a faith that is able to hew from the mountain of despair the rock of hope. He tells us once again to reject the despairing view that we are “so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” And so we must trust “that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”
Yes, Dr. King summons us this night, as he himself was summoned, to transform the still jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood, by working together, praying together, struggling together, going to jail together and standing up for justice together, knowing that one day, if we heed the voice of God, then by God all shall be free, not solely because of our fight, but because of our God-given rights, rights that should be as plain to all as good, old fashioned, common sense, tried and true.
He summons us to turn around and leave behind our non-involvement and take up the path of nonviolence, because
- nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people;
- nonviolence is a way of life that seeks to defeat injustice, not people;
- nonviolence is a life that is proactive, not reactive;
- nonviolence is a way of life that seeks reconciliation through mutual respect and cooperative communities;
- nonviolence is a way of life that understands the relationship between suffering, redemption and transformation;
- nonviolence is a way of life that actively chooses to love and actively avoids the choice to hate;
- nonviolence is a way of life that believes our God is a God who walks with us and that God is a God of justice.
Yes, this night we remember Dr. King as a man of deep and committed faith. But, as one who had been on the road of non-involvement, he tells us tonight as we gather here together fifty years later: Turn around, turn from non-involvement to non-violence and take up the pathway God opens up for us.
Like those on the road back to Jerusalem, like those gathered in Washington, D.C., in August of 1963 to demand jobs and freedom, like those meeting in Memphis in April of 1968 to march for the right to work in a safe environment for a living wage, like those gathered in remembrance in Chicago on this night, Dr. King turned around to embrace a better future and called us to work for it, and to work for it together, to keep our courage strong: “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear,” he told us.
On the evening before his violent death, he told a group of striking sanitation workers that “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point…”
Should we not hear those words as if they were directed to us this night, words that come from a man who reminded us by his life and death that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live?”
Yes, he speaks these words to us, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, summoning us to have the faith and the heart to let freedom ring, to see this work through to the very end.
And, friends, there is much work to be done.
- Freedom cannot ring in a nation where people of color are vastly more likely to be unemployed, imprisoned, and impoverished.
- Freedom cannot ring in neighborhoods blighted by gun violence, by poverty—the worst form of violence.
- Freedom cannot ring in segregated cities.
- Freedom cannot ring in deserts devoid of hope.
But as Dr. King reminds us, we can build up the kingdom. We can lay down our weapons. We can set aside words that demean, policies that deepen discord, actions that perpetuate the lie that there is an “us” and a “them.” We can do this when we know the truth that we are all part of one family, the human family. As he would often say, relying on an age-old quote: “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
By God we must believe that we can be the light of courage on the path to righteousness. that we can do this work, and that it is for this work that we exist in this place at this time.
Let us be clear. We gather not to give a belated eulogy. This is not a victory rally. It is not a stroll down memory lane. This is a prayer of thanksgiving for all those who have done so very much, but it is also a summons by God to make that turn in the road, to embrace a new life, a life, which five centuries ago Martin Luther said “is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”