Sowing Seeds of Hope Susan Lea Smith Cedar Hills United Church of Christ January 20, 2013 (as preached on the occasion of Martin Luther King Sunday)
Today we remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who loved God and his neighbors with all his heart,might, soul and mind, who picked up his cross on his people’s behalf and behalf of all of us, and who sought to follow Jesus until the day he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet.
Dr. King led the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 60s and taking Gandhi’s approach of non-violent resistance to evil, he led boycotts, marches, sit-ins and protest of every sort. But he was more than a civil rights leader. He was a tireless advocate for peace, nuclear disarmament and an end to the war in Vietnam. And he fought for economic justice at every turn. Indeed, Dr. King was in Memphis fighting for economic justice, supporting the city’s garbage collectors strike when he was shot dead on that sad day in April.
Dr. King was not only an activist: he inspired us through his remarkable speeches and sermons. He was indeed a modern day prophet and an absolutely consummate preacher! Now prophets have two unique tasks. The first is speaking the truth in love – diagnosing the true ills of a people and then prescribing a cure even if that requires telling them uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. The second is sowing hope that these difficulties will be overcome. The emphasis prophets give each task depends upon the circumstances of their time and place: they proclaim what the people need to hear
In today’s Scripture, Isaiah, a prophet of long ago, spoke at a time when his people most needed hope. He spoke at a time of hardship, confusion, and despair. He assured them that by remaining true to the inclusive message of liberation and compassionate justice, their loving God would bring them honor among nations and prosperity. Through these words, Isaiah did his best to sow seeds of hope.
Likewise, Dr. King’s clarion call to justice and his hope-filled vision of the future gave courage and hope to those of us who fought beside him, facing arrest, fire hoses, police dogs, cross burnings and death. But he supplied hope not just to those who struggled along with him: he offered an inclusive hope of racial equality, peace, and economic justice for all. And he promised that one day we would achieve those dreams, we would indeed reach that mountaintop. And from that mountaintop, our whole society would see the gospel vision, the Kingdom of God that, with God’s help, would come to pass on earth. Quite simply, Dr. King sowed seeds of hope—far and wide.
Since the morning of December 14th, 2012, when I spent hours praying in this sanctuary…since December 14th, a day that like Pearl Harbor day will live in infamy, I’ve considered how Dr. King would have responded to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary and the larger problem of gun violence.
Dr. King abhorred violence in any form and, like Gandhi, was sorely disappointed on those occasions when his followers succumbed to that terrible…terrible temptation to use violence against evil. So there is no doubt in my mind that Dr. King would have been at the forefront of the battle against gun violence. But I am less certain which strategies he would have used to counter the power of the NRA with Congress and an antagonistic Supreme Court.
Perhaps Dr. King would have simply urged us to keep pressure on our legislators, writing letters, attending town meetings and talking to them at the legislature. I have it on impeachable authority that this strategy is very important right now.
Perhaps Dr. King would have led us in marching on Washington (and the state capitols of our great nation) to demand effective regulation of such weapons.
Perhaps Dr. King might even have urged us to commit non-violent civil disobedience, to do radical, risky things—things that I fear I lack the courage to do. I can imagine that he and his closest followers might have stormed into gun shows where semi-automatic weapons are sold to convicted felons and people suffering from dangerous mental illnesses – and, like Jesus, upset the tables of the merchants of death. But I think he would have refrained because, however tempting, that sort of action would exacerbate fear.
Though I am not certain about his strategies for direct action, I am certain he would have shared another dream – a dream that not one, single more American child will die by bullets from the barrel of a semi-automatic weapon. He would have shared that dream.
He also would have sought to sow seeds of hope for all Americans, seeking to create an inclusive vision even for those who grasp most tightly onto their semi-automatic weapons – suspicious of humanity and afraid of their government. For you see, the job of a prophet is more than telling people what they are doing is wrong or what they ought to be doing. A prophet must illuminate a vision of the kingdom of God and reassure us that we, with the help of God, can bring that kingdom to earth.
Forces of darkness are telling Americans that we need semi-automatic weapons to resist foreign invasion, crime, governmental tyranny, and social disorder when the apocalypse comes. They bombard our friends and neighbors with a message that our country is on its way to ruin and our government is somehow responsible for that ruin. They seek to have us desperately worship the false idol of those weapons, trusting in firepower, rather than our God. They truly are engaged in a battle for the American soul.
Sadly, Dr. King is not here to fight the battle against gun violence. Only you and I can fight this battle. But the same Spirit of loving compassion and justice that nurtured, called and guided Dr. King, the voice of God that spoke so clearly and strongly to him, remains. That Spirit now calls us to do our part to assure America is no longer a society where deeply disturbed people have ready access to weapons of mass destruction.
In her sermons over the last few months, beginning with the one before Sandy Hook when she read a list of recent mass shootings, the Rev. Mary Sue Evers has provided a prophetic voice about gun violence. Have we been listening? Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear? I hope and believe we do.
But today I ask even more of you, of us, than she has asked. For we must address not just the symptoms, but the disease that makes people hold onto their guns so tightly: their profound fear of our society and our government. Dr. King taught us that the antidotes to fear are self-awareness, courage, love, and faith. So, to combat the disease of fear that grips those who cling onto semi-automatic rifles, to help them fight their fear– each of us must serve as a prophetic voice, intentionally, consciously, sowing seeds of love, of faith, of hope among our friends and neighbors.
To be such a voice, we must be careful about how we address the various flaws of our society. Whenever we talk about problems in apocalyptic terms, whenever we use rhetoric more extreme than our positions, and whenever we blame the flaws of our society on corrupt government and mindless bureaucrats, we play into the hands of darkness and we foster more fear, cynicism, and despair.
I confess that I’ve said such things, I’ve used that sort of dark rhetoric— and I suspect that many of you have as well. We ought to be more careful.
We ought to take care not to feed apocalyptic nightmares by suggesting that somehow the sky is falling: the global economy poised on the brink of collapse or that any other problem from nukes in Iran to global warming is about to destroy life as we know it.
We ought to take care not to act, or overstate our position, in ways that create more fear instead of less. If we moderate our actions and our rhetoric, we can foster dialogue: if our issue is with death-dealing semi-automatic weapons, it is good to reassure owners of ordinary hunting rifles that we do not support banning their weapons.
We ought to take care not to foster contempt for our government by suggesting that our democratically-elected government is somehow illegitimate. Each time we engage in such dark rhetoric, we reinforce the darkness. Leave the darkness to the darkness.
So, what should we say? What might Isaiah or Dr. King say in these confusing and troubling times. Preach the good news and sow seeds of Gospel faith: trust in God’s abundance, mercy, and justice, and foster that trust in others. Lift up the victories and sow seeds of hope—celebrate the states that are acting on this issue and celebrate that our President is prepared to lead the battle against gun violence even through it carries political risks. Tell stories of compassion, justice, and love. Let me share just one little story—an almost unbelievable story—right now.
In my last sermon, I recounted how directly experiencing God, the Spirit that is love, during my stay in India has led me to experience the same exquisite joy whenever I serve as a conduit of that love to others. I gave one small example – my Wal-Mart moment, when the Spirit moved me to pay the bill of a woman at the checkout counter at Wal-Mart who had her credit card declined. Her plight flooded me with compassion in part because I’m sure her teenage daughter was absolutely mortified!!! My Wal-Mart moment indeed freed me to share God’s abundance with others whether they just need an ear to listen, money for gas or groceries, or a hot home-made meal.
Well, today I’d like to finish that story. About two years ago, I found the tables turned. One night, I was standing at the Safeway checkout counter with my son Nathanial, who had just returned from college. He still eats like a teenager –those of you who have had teenagers can imagine what my grocery bills are like when he’s home! That night, when I zipped my debit card through and punched in my PIN, the system declined it. I was embarrassed and anxious about Nathanial finding out how tight money was. As I turned to talk with him, the woman behind me in line just handed her card to the clerk and paid my bill – more than $240. When I asked where to send the money to repay her, she smiled and told me not to worry about that – she had enough money. That woman’s loving act was a simple, vivid illustration of how God’s love indeed fills the entire world and how trust in God enlivens, enriches, and simplifies one’s life.
The truth that we can proclaim to our friends and neighbors is that amazing things happen when we act out of loving compassion and when we trust in God’s abundance, mercy and justice. If Dr. King were here today, I believe he’d remind us that we are all called to act with loving compassion. We are all called, in whatever way we can find, to light a candle, to be a force of light chasing away the darkness. Quite simply, we are all called to be prophets and to take on the task of sowing seeds of hope. I pray that each of us will respond to that call. Amen.