The Hero of the Story

This is the sermon I preached at the early, 8:30, worship service at First Church Simsbury on January 27, 2019. We were observing “Mission Sunday” at our 10:30 service with speakers form the community sharing their testimony in lieu of a sermon.

Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

As I said, the 10 o’clock service will be observing Mission Sunday by bringing in speakers from two community organizations in lieu of a sermon. These speakers were unable to be present at this early service, so you get me! We will still reflect on mission, not so much by lifting up the church’s work in our community, but by turning to this morning’s Bible readings.

The passage from Luke that I read is often referred to as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.

Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth where he unrolls the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins to read.

Anyone who has been to a service in a synagogue knows that the Hebrew Bible is read from a scroll. Over time, each book of the Bible is read from beginning to end, each week’s reading picks up where last week’s left off.

So Jesus does not enter the synagogue and search for the particular passage he wants to read, rather he opens the scroll to that day’s assigned passage; who knows, maybe he was the designated reader that day. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 61, verse 1:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”

When Isaiah says, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he is speaking of himself, and he is speaking to the exiled people of Israel of their coming return to Israel, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and reestablishment of the temple as the home of God and locus of worship. This is the good news Isaiah proclaims, to Jews held captive by the Assyrian empire.

Over five hundred years later, Jesus reads Isaiah’s words, not to Jews oppressed by the Assyrian Empire, but to Jews oppressed by the Roman Empire. Oppression by empire is the backdrop for everything in the Bible, from Exodus in the Old Testament to Revelation in our New Testament.

So to this point in the story Jesus has just done what any scripture reader would have done in the synagogue on the Sabbath, read the day’s text. But then Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that these are not just words of Isaiah that apply to the exiled Jews, but even as I read them, Jesus says, these words are fulfilled in your life, in your context, today. We might even hear Jesus saying, I, Jesus, am the fulfillment of this good news, I am the embodiment of God’s promised deliverance from suffering.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! Powerful words written in one context, applied in a new context, brought to life through Jesus.

I had an opportunity to think about the power of words and their contexts on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Here, the “text” is the well-known story of First Church and Martin Luther King, Jr.

For two summers in the 1940’s, African-American students from Morehouse College traveled to Simsbury to work in the tobacco fields here to earn money for their schooling.

One Sunday morning in 1947, a beautiful baritone voice carried up to the balcony of First Church where Garland Martin was directing the summer choir. When he inquired about the one who possessed that remarkable voice, he was told it belonged to one of the African American tobacco workers who sometimes worshipped in the church. Though members of the choir protested, Garland insisted that the man be invited up to the balcony to sing with the choir, saying, “I don’t care about the color of his skin, as long as he can sing.” That man, of course, was Martin Luther King, Jr.

King would later write letters home about his time in Connecticut, remarking upon the difference between the ways blacks were treated in the North versus the South. Some go so far as to suggest that King’s time in Connecticut contributed to his call as a prophet, one anointed by God to bring good news to the oppressed and proclaim liberty to the captives.

I was invited to bring this story to two different contexts on Martin Luther King Day. At the first, the annual Martin Luther King Celebration at the State Capital, I was invited to give the invocation. The invitation was extended, of course, because of the First Church-MLK story. Other than politicians, I was the only White person who had a part in the program, and very few White people were present among the hundred or so people in the audience.

I was introduced simply as the pastor whose Simsbury church has a connection to Martin Luther King. I anticipated this, so came prepared to “tell the story.” I had also pondered how the story would be received in this setting. I “unrolled the scroll,” told the story, then continued:

Frankly, I have mixed feelings about telling this story on this day. Yes, it is an inspiring example of someone rejecting racist values to embrace equality and acceptance.

But who is the hero of the First Church story? If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury. If I may be so bold, white people like me love stories that make us the hero, right? When we can identify with the white hero in a story about racism, then we don’t have to confront our own privilege and biases. When we are the hero, we don’t have to own the ways white people like me continue to perpetuate racial injustice by not speaking and acting out more strongly against it.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course. King was the one who, in spite of a racist system that conspired against him, went to college. King was the one who travelled hundreds of miles to a strange land where he would labor long days in the hot sun picking tobacco, work most white people wouldn’t touch. King was the one who ventured into an unfamiliar white church because he knew that he too was a beloved child of God. And King was the one who boldly lifted his voice in praise of the God who leads all oppressed and enslaved to freedom.

Note, recognizing King as the hero in no way diminishes Garland Martin. Martin played his modest role in King’s story well; perhaps he deserves a best supporting actor nod. And this story of King reminds us that we all have a role to play in confronting racism. But make no mistake, Martin Luther King, Jr. is this story’s hero.

And it is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whom we gather to remember, honor and celebrate today. With his words, let us pray:

I then prayed a prayer that Martin Luther King had written.

As soon as the celebration at the Capital ended, I returned to Simsbury for the eighth annual Martin Luther King Community Celebration hosted right here at First Church. Here, it was my responsibility to welcome people and again, “tell the story.”  Not surprisingly, the demographics of our Simsbury celebration were the opposite of those in Hartford. Except for a few politicians, and our keynote speaker, Joelle A. Murchison, ours was a celebration mostly led and attended by White people.

Just as Jesus applied Isaiah’s words of justice in his new context, so I now brought the same story, told in the same words to Simsbury:

If we are not careful, we could tell this story in a way that makes Garland Martin the hero of the story, and by association, members of First Church, and the town of Simsbury.

But who is really the hero of the First Church story? Martin Luther King Jr., of course.

Isaiah’s words confronted the power of empire in both contexts. Similarly, in both Hartford and Simsbury, the story of the prophet Martin Luther King, when properly told with King as the story’s anointed one, confronts racism and the power of White supremacy.

Great stuff! Radical stuff! A powerful story, birthed in one context, applied in new contexts, brought to life through Jesus.

In the second reading, Paul writes: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Jesus says, “Today this story has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning that ours is not just a story about Marin Luther King and Garland Martin that has meaning in Hartford and Simsbury, this story of confronting racism and white supremacy is brought to life, is embodied in our lives, through this body of Christ, the church, and we each have a necessary role to play. May it be so.

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