In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
We don’t often use the term “saint” in the Episcopal Church; we are, after all, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, not the Roman Catholic Church. But the term “saint” is used often by St. Paul, and is used to describe all followers of Jesus Christ. All of us. Our Lutheran brothers and sisters still use the term in this way.
But we tend to reserve it, in the old Catholic meaning, for followers of Jesus Christ who have demonstrated heroic virtue in the living of their lives in Christ.
Today we honor the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. And I don’t think we will go far wrong if we think of him as St. Martin, in either definition.
You have to remember what a young man he was. Thirty-nine, when he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support African American sanitary public works employees, members of AFSCME Local 1733.
St. Martin was only six years older than Jesus was when the Romans executed him as a troublemaker. In Dr. King’s last speech, on April 3, 1968, he talked about the bomb threats and other threats that had been made on his life. He said:
We've got some difficult days ahead, but that it didn’t matter with [him] now. Because [he’d] been to the mountaintop. . . Like anybody, he said, he would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But [he wasn’t] concerned about that now. [he] just want[ed] to do God's will. And, St. Martin said, [God allowed him ] to go up to the mountain. And that [he had ] looked over. And …seen the promised land. He warned that he may not get there with [us], [and added that he wanted] those with him that night, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So he was happy that last night, not worried about anything. He affirmed that he was not fearing any man. And ended, quoting, that Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.The next day, April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray, shot him dead. According to his biographer, Taylor Branch, the autopsy revealed that Dr. King had the heart of a 60 year old. Branch suggests that the stress of his 13 years leading the civil rights movement accounted for the condition of his heart.
They were perilous years, years in which he was arrested twenty-nine times, confronted by angry and often violent white supremacists. Spied on by the FBI, targeted by its all-powerful Director, J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to strip away his legitimacy by probing into his personal life. Branch’s three volume biography, America in the King Years, portrays King in his times, and captures in a way no short list of dangers faced, of successful protests, of standing up for equality, can
They couldn’t intimidate him, or silence him, or coopt him. But they were wearing him, and that great heart, out.
I can’t help but think of Byron’s lines:
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
But despite the wear, Dr. King kept on keeping on.
Until the bullets found him.
Like Joseph’s brothers in today’s reading from Genesis, his brothers—his “sick white brothers” heard their brother Martin’s dream, and decided to kill him. “Here comes this dreamer,” they said, “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
They thought that by killing the man, they could kill the dream.
They were wrong.
The dreamer had caught the soul of the Nation, had stirred what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our natures,” and a Nation felt a stirring of shame.
Dr. King’s campaigns were permeated by the teachings of Jesus. His strategy of non-violent protest was sparked by Ghandi’s, but in fact was centered on the Gospel. You can hear it in Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and under Dr. King’s leadership pursued justice, peace, and love.
That’s why, despite all the hostility and violence he faced—even in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a woman and was hospitalized for weeks—he could, on that last day in Memphis, sincerely refer to those who were threatening his life as his “sick white brothers.” Just as Joseph never stopped loving his brothers despite their betrayal of him, Dr. King never gave up on love. Like Moses, he didn’t get to the promised land, but he got to the mountaintop.
I’ll be 54 this year, which means I only lived in a world with Dr. King for two years. He will have been gone for 52 years in April.
“We shall see what will become of his dreams.”
That dreamer, America’s own Joseph, African-Americans’ Moses, was one of those who brought about a wholesale change in this country, still trying to shed the evils of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation. Not alone—and he’d be the first to agree—but with his colleagues in the SCLC, brave individuals like Rosa Parks, courtroom warriors like Thurgood Marshall—we began as a Nation to slowly, partially, start trying to do better.
Far from unanimously—massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional continued well into the 1980s, and sometimes still flares up. Even here in New York City, we have heavily segregated schools and massive disparities between resources for schools. Only now, two decades into the Twenty-first Century, are we in New York beginning to try to effectively grapple with these problems by making school funding uniform throughout the State and by eliminating programs that tend to exclude African American and Hispanic students.
Labor rights in New York State have been extended to farmworkers, predominantly people of color, for the first time. Those rights were extended to most other employees in 1937.
But if New York is straggling, but trying to change, much of the country is falling back into the bad old ways.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court has turned a blind eye to the 14th and 15th Amendment’s guarantees of racial equality and of equal voting. The Court upheld gerrymandering and allowed states to pass laws aimed at making voting harder, especially in African American districts.
According to a 2018 report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights—an independent panel made up of Democrats, Republicans, and independents—“at least 23 states have enacted newly restrictive statewide voter laws" since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, with moves like closing polling places, cutting early voting, purging voter rolls and imposing voter ID laws.
Things have not improved since.
What has become of his dreams, indeed?
I’ve often preached of the polarization and the division that are tearing our body politic, but is It’s a mistake to view our own St. Martin—as someone who stood for unity above all else. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that:
[he had] almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season.” Nearly three years ago, Bishop Dietsche reminded us that “we have been given two parallel charges by which to make our Christian witness: On the one hand, to never flag in our advocacy for the little ones of God, to make no peace with injustice, and to never fail to face down the unjust policy of uncaring power, and on the other hand to cultivate by the Spirit within us a more expansive generosity toward those whose convictions we hold reprehensible than we ever imagined ourselves capable.
He also reminded us that it can be done, and it has been done. He quoted St. Martin, who “was that generous.” Who “after the beatings and firehoses and spitting and humiliations and martyrdoms, and just one year after Bloody Sunday, preached from [our cathedral pulpit] and said to the Diocese of New York, “Love is the greatest of all the virtues. This is the meaning of the cross, . . . It is an eternal reminder of the power of love over hate.”
He never gave up, did St. Martin. And neither can we. I know, it’s winter, you’re cold, the division and anger have been going on too long.
And the sword outwears its sheath,But not today.
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
And not tomorrow.
Not until we can look ourselves in the mirror, meet our reflected eyes, and say that we have not flagged in our advocacy for the little ones of God, have not made peace with injustice, and have done it all in the spirit of love, for friend and adversary alike.
Not til we have made it to our own mountaintop, and seen the Promised Land.
In the Name of God, Creator Redeemer, Sustainer.
 570 U.S. 529 (2013).
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access in the United States (2018), https://www.usccr.gov/pubs/2018/Minority_Voting_Access_2018.pdf (visited on January 18, 2020).
 M. L. King, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, archived at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/letter-birmingham-jail (visited on January 18, 2010).
 “Bishop Dietsche’s Holy Tuesday Sermon,” April 11, 2017, archived at https://www.dioceseny.org/bishop-dietsches-holy-tuesday-sermon/ (visited January 18, 2019).