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Dr. Vincent: Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon

Dr. Vincent and Bertha Sadler Means
Dr. Vincent with Ms. Bertha Sadler Means

On Sunday, January 15th Dr. Vincent delivered a celebratory sermon in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at St. James Episcopal Church. Dr. Vincent previously served as a Senior Warden at St. James.

Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon
Remarks by Dr. Gregory J. Vincent

On such a glorious Sunday morning, let me say it is good to be off the road and home where we boldly proclaim, “Wherever you are in your journey of faith you are welcome at this table.” It remains one of the great honors of my life to have served you as Senior Warden and I am grateful for the opportunity to join all of you this Sunday as we celebrate the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to thank Revs. Hoster and Hawley for allowing me this opportunity, for the second time, to stand before all of you at the pulpit for our annual MLK service. The occasion is not one I take lightly. As a child, Dr. King was one of my heroes and he remains so to this day. I grew up in a church and home in New York City where I lived under two golden rules – respect for others and love for thy neighbor. To see all that Dr. King was able to achieve, with God as his witness, using little more than these two rules was mystifying as a child.

At graduation from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, the President and Dean presented me with the MLK Leadership Award. I was initially thrilled by the honor, but then felt uncomfortable accepting it, as I didn’t feel I had done enough to deserve it. Still clear in my mind, I remember filling out law school applications, so overcome by emotion that I almost included these feelings in my personal statement. In the end I had a moment of clarity for which I have followed since that day. Rather than expose my true feelings, I made a promise to myself that I would devote my life and career toward serving others and fighting for justice to honor Dr. King and all those that made my accomplishments possible.

At 54, I fully recognize that I am still a work in progress, but know that this opportunity to stand before all of you is one I embrace whole heartedly and will cherish.

This Sunday we look to the word – both written and spoken – of Dr. King. Of course Dr. King’s compelling message was always divinely inspired by God.

Before I begin, I wanted to share with all of you a favorite quote of Dr. King’s, one which will frame the remainder of this morning’s remarks: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

I use this quote to ground myself when I am feeling especially down or lost. Dr. King was always one who understood the dichotomy of life and could phrase it in ways that all could easily understand. This is also true of most of his noteworthy works, two of which I was drawn to in preparation for this moment.

The first is the renowned Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Written in April 1963, the letter was authored in shorthand by Dr. King as he sat in prison after being arrested for gathering without a permit on Good Friday. Let there be no doubt that Dr. King broke the law, and for that there were consequences, but as he so eloquently stated in his Letter, there are just and unjust laws. Some of the greatest atrocities in human history have occurred under the letter of the law, with slavery at the top of that list along with Jim Crow and state-sponsored racial segregation. As Dr. King reminds us, law in and of itself is not inherently just.

Now revered as one of the seminal texts of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King leveraged his personal discomfort, his finite disappointment, to respond to those that labeled him an outside agitator and to raise awareness that it is our collective responsibility to stand up to prejudice wherever it may occur. In his beautiful prose, Dr. King wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It’s this message – a refusal to be patient or accept the status quo that I find most meaningful given our current state of affairs. Although predestined by God, our freedom was not granted voluntarily. That fact is easily taken for granted in 2017, but it’s true. Progress is and never was inevitable, but comes as a result of the tireless work of men and women who follow God and His justness. For as we find in Lamentations 5:5, we may be weary, but there can be no rest for us.  A sobering thought indeed.

But all is not lost, for as Dr. King wrote, “In some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” In the depths of that Birmingham jail, Dr. King isolates his disappointment, so that infinite hope may reign supreme.

The second piece emanates some five years later as Dr. King stood at the pulpit in Memphis before the congregation at the Church of God in Christ to deliver a fiery sermon in April of 1968. The world was a much different place than the one King inhabited in his Birmingham jail cell. President Kennedy was assassinated, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had passed. The country fell deeper into war, one which King would speak out against for destroying “the deepest hopes of men the world over.” The nation would witness the depths of racism on “Bloody Sunday” and two weeks later the power of nonviolent demonstration in the crossing of the Pettus Bridge on the way to Montgomery. Civil Rights icon and American hero, U.S. Congressman John Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life on that Bridge. He didn’t just talk, but he literally walked the walk.

But more so than anything else, in those five years, the world had grown tired. Support for Dr. King’s non-violent message was waning. Yet on this night you would have never known that. Joined by his closest confidant, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Dr. King ever the optimist, still saw only greatness on the horizon. He began by recounting a conversation he had with the Creator. Standing at the precipice of eternity, God asked him in which age would he like to live. God offered him his choosing, from Ancient Greece to the days of Lincoln, even the Promised Land itself, yet Dr. King turned him down. “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy,” he said. For, “only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.” It was the will of God, working in mysterious ways as people across the globe cried for freedom that he could not live without. “We want to be free,” he told God.

I have read this sermon many times before, but its impact has never been greater than now. There are challenging times on the horizon and the world may not be the place we thought it was just a few months back. But, I hope we would all make the same decision that Dr. King made some 50 years ago, to live in the present. While it may seems as though we are taking a step back, progress is eternal and as Dr. King taught us all, however long the arc, it undoubtedly bends toward justice.

Like Dr. King, I consider myself an eternal optimist – I refuse to allow any displeasure to overcome my hopefulness. But the direction of the country, where I see more and more of us drawing ourselves into our perspective corners based primarily on belief and ideology, has me worried. Every morning I wake up to have what I call, Greg time. It’s generally a private, quiet time, where I catch up on the day ahead. I use this time for prayer, followed by reading anything and everything that’s come out since I went to bed – mainly news and commentary, both that which I agree as well as that with which I may vehemently disagree. I do this because I’m forever in search of the truth, knowing what the other side thinks provides me with a differing point of view that helps to sharpen my own arguments.

But I fear our collective desire for rational inquiry and our search for absolute truth is dissipating. The rise of “fake news” should deeply trouble all of us. Although it has never been easier to surround yourself with like-minded opinion, I ask that you fight this urge. Standing up for what we believe in does not mean compromising our intellect. I have always believed that it is through debate that we develop our strongest arguments.

Look no further than our congregation for examples of what is possible when we push ourselves outside our comfort zones. I take such great comfort in St. James’ commitment to racial reconciliation and community building. First and foremost because it follows the righteous path which Jesus sought. But also because it is challenging, uncomfortable and difficult. Let us never forget that St. James’ founding was one based on exclusion. Our strength as a congregation is due to our devotion to serve the excluded, embrace our diversity and partake in social action. Our radical hospitality was intentional and while it can be a challenging process at times, I would not give it up for anything. It’s vital that we continue to work toward finding the commonalities among those we might otherwise disagree with. It is the Gospel of Matthew 22 for which Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.” For if we greet only our own people, what have we done that others have not already done?

In closing his sermon, Dr. King proclaimed that he had been to the top of the mountain and peered over its edge. “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Again there is Dr. King’s infinite hope.

The very next day, Dr. King would meet our Creator in heaven from the bullet of a domestic terrorist. But on that night, Dr. King confessed to being happy and without worry, for his eyes “have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

As we celebrate the 88th anniversary of Dr. King’s birth tomorrow, and as we recently celebrated the 75th anniversary of St. James’ founding, please continue to build relationships that bridge our divides. And if you find yourself upset by our current climate, I encourage you to do whatever you can to advocate for those most in need, just as Dr. King did. In Zechariah 4:10 we are told “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin.”

If anyone is interested in learning more, I highly recommend Engines of Liberty by David Cole, a professor of law and public policy at the Georgetown University Law Center. In the book, he lays out the blueprint for citizen activism, arguing that throughout history, it is our citizenry that has been the true driver of change.

Thank you all for your graciousness. Please do not be cynical, but find your infinite hope, continue to fight for all that you believe in and carry that message to someone whom might otherwise, not hear it.  As the Most Rev. Michael Curry, The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has so eloquently stated, “We are the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.” Let that be the source of our strength and inspiration.