Human Relations Day Tribute

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>The following tribute was given at Reconciliation UMC on Sunday, January 18th, in commemoration of Human Relations Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and the upcoming historic Inauguration on January 20, 2009.


In two days, our nation will experience something that is unprecedented in the 233 years of our history since the Declaration of Independence in 1776; something that has for most people remained unimaginable for citizens of the United States, especially when one reflects on the sea of white, male presidents succeeding each other – one after the other – not once, not twice, not three times … but 43 consecutive times since George Washington first took office in 1789. In two days, the nation, whose economy grew so rapidly in its early years, in large part because it was carried on the backs of black slaves, will become the nation that is lead by the first black president whose first priority, ironically enough, will be to address an economic recession, sky-rocking unemployment, and tenets of exploitation and oppression that have made their way into our policies and our post-terrorism approaches to national security. In two days – count them – two days – less then 48 hours – don’t miss the irony – a BLACK family will step for the very first time in history into what has been a very WHITE house for over 200 years.

I say that today, and I say it IN CHURCH, because the church can and should have something to say about such things. The church should have something to say about such things if it still seeks to be faithful to the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ – whom Luke describes as the One who came to bring release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed, announcing that the time of salvation had come to all people.

I say that today, and I say it IN CHURCH, not because I am “political,” nor because RUMC is “political” – but because Jesus is political. And please also hear what I am not saying. I am not saying Jesus is a Democrat. I am not saying Jesus is a Republican. I am not saying that Barrack Obama is God’s answer to all of the problems in the U.S. I am not saying that a vote for Obama this past fall was a vote for good and a vote for McCain was a vote for evil. I am not saying that God’s kingdom has now come to earth because we now have a black president, though such a reality does represent a new day in a nation that was founded on the enslavement of displaced people from Africa and the extermination of native people already living in the Americas.

What I am saying is this – thanks be to God for small signs of the kingdom that point to a new day beyond slavery, beyond our sordid history of Jim Crow segregation and prejudice, beyond the old, tired (and they are OLD and they are TIRED) categories of race and class that have been barriers to God’s truth and justice for too long. And remember this Church – before there was an “audacity of hope” there was a “Living Hope that came into the world” to free us from sin, from racism, from hatred, and from any and all barriers that would separate us from loving God and our neighbor as God intended from the beginning.

I find it ironic – no – I find it providential that this Tuesday’s inauguration of the first black president comes on the heels of Monday’s celebration of a black, Baptist preacher and prophet named Martin Luther King Jr. The Obama family is headed to the White House only because a lot of black, white, and brown families headed to the prayer house; Barack Obama will take to the podium on Tuesday morning because so many women and men before him first took to the streets proclaiming God’s justice and freedom for all people; Barack will lay his hand on the Bible and take an oath of service because generations of Civil Rights workers and leaders laid their lives on the line and promised to live out the truths of the Scriptures, come hell, high water, hoses, and dogs. It is because of God’s saints and martyrs who have preceded us in God’s battle for justice that we are able to see some of the fruits of their labor this coming week.

One of those saints, with battle scars from previous engagements with injustice, will be the first to pray over the new president after he has been sworn in. I speak of the United Methodist pastor, Civil Rights leader and activist, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. It is on his shoulder, and thousands of shoulders like his, that we stand today at this monumental juncture in history. I am reminded of the boldness of Lowery in 2006, at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, where the then retired UM pastor received a standing ovation when he remarked before four U.S. Presidents in attendance:

“We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor!”

It is that kind of courage and faith – the kind that speaks God’s truth without fear or remorse – it is that kind of faith we celebrate this Human Relations Sunday – that we commemorate on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. tomorrow – and that we reap the benefits of on Tuesday morning when we witness the inauguration of our nation’s 44th president.

So let us pray for our nation’s leaders, and in particular – President Obama and his family. Let us remember the advocates and martyrs for justice in the Civil Rights Movement, of all races and colors, who travelled this way before us with unwavering faith and resolve. And let us give thanks to God who is still leading us towards that dream given to one of his great prophets – a dream where people are judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

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