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Like a Mighty River

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Jan 17

Texts: Amos 5:21-25 and Colossians 3:12-17

The Alabama State Capitol sits on a high bluff above the Alabama River in Montgomery. Its white marble steps and imposing pillars can be seen from a long way down the boulevard.  For 8 days in 1861, it served as the Capital of the Confederacy.

Just across from the capitol building is a tidy, red brick church, where Martin Luther King, Jr. began his first pastorate in 1954.  The basement of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was a meeting place for Civil Rights leaders and the organizing center for the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-6).  Just around the block from Dexter Avenue Baptist is the Southern Poverty Law Center. The plaza in front of the SPLC building is graced with a memorial fountain, engraved with the names of Civil Rights heroes and a dark, granite wall, etched with the words: “…until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

These words from the prophet Amos—words we heard this morning in our scripture reading—were made famous by Dr. King in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  Delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, during the 1963 march on Washington.  

There is an eternal debate in faith communities about the role of religion in the public sphere.  What does Dexter Avenue Baptist Church have to say to the Alabama State House?  Should an avowedly political movement with avowedly political tactics be meeting in a church basement? Every day in the news we see powerful evidence that faith-based politics can go dreadfully wrong.  Yet do we have the luxury of turning away?  Our faith demands engagement.  

The debate about religion and politics plays out in congregations across the U.S. Some are largely silent, others deeply engaged. The relationship between religion and politics has been hotly debated in theological circles, as well. Some would say that the church has no business speaking of politics.  Others would say that to take no stand is, in fact, to side with the status quo.  Liberation theologians argue that all our actions are political. We can either be aware and actively working for justice, or we can be silent and complicit with existing laws and practices. Liberation theologians argue that, where systems are corrupt and they rain down injustice, we must take a stand.  

The prophetic call for justice is a deep river flowing through our tradition.  This morning we read from Amos, a minor prophet from a small town south of Jerusalem, during the reign of King Jeroboam—about 750 BCE.  Amos had no qualms about speaking truth to power. He did not get hung up on separating religion from politics, but openly calls to account the religious authorities of his day, indicting them for empty ritual practices and calling them to justice.

Amos’s words are both poetic and potent.  He envisions a justice that is like a torrential river after a heavy rain.  For Amos, justice is not a delicate balancing act—like the classical image of Lady Justice, holding the perfectly balanced scale. Rather, justice is a swift, cleansing torrent. Justice roars down like waters.  

That day in 1963, on the National Mall, Martin Luther King used this image from Amos.  King declared, “We cannot walk alone, and as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back…we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

So much has been said about the content of King’s words that day: his plea for justice, freedom, and equality.  This morning I want to highlight, too, the context of his words.  The context is community.  The context is church.  The context is a whole movement of people seeking justice and liberty.  “We cannot walk alone,”  King declared. And I say to you: we do not walk alone.

As we honor Dr. King on this—his birthday weekend—we recognize the legacy, not only of a single individual, but of a movement. We honor all who worked for justice and for freedom, then and now. It is in community and through the coordinated efforts of many, that lasting change comes about.  Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”

Today we remember a movement that changed the world.  

We remember Ella Baker, founder of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, Ralph Abernathy, Diane Nash, Julian Bond, Marion Barry, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and hundreds of Freedom Riders. We remember Bob Moses and organizers of the voter registration project, Jimmie Lee Jackson and James Reeb, Claudette Colvin, the students who led the lunch counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s in Greensboro. We remember the Little Rock Nine—the first African American students to attend the all-white Central High School in New Orleans (in 1957), Ruby Bridges—the first African American child to attend an all-white public elementary school in the south (in 1960) and James Meredith—the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi (in 1962).  

Civil Rights leaders, an assembly of diverse personalities, organizations and objectives.  Exemplars? Often.  Forbears and companions in the work of justice? Yes.  Beloved in Christ—yes. Saints and sinners, all—like us.   

I have named a few, but there are so many others!  Take a moment to think. Who else comes to mind?  I invite you to speak aloud some of those names now.  

Medgar Evers, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Coretta Scott King. Andrew Young, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks. We lift up these people whose names we know.  And we lift up the thousands whose names we will never know.  

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  We do not walk alone.  If the challenges of this time are great, if we sometimes feel discouraged, let us remember all who have answered the prophetic call to justice.  And let us not be afraid to wade into the turbulent waters of that mighty stream.  

If the prophet Amos speaks of justice, the letter to the Colossians speaks of love. “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another.”  

How can justice, which seems to hard-edged at times—and needs to be hard edged —be reconciled with the imperative to love?  First of all, our tradition knows nothing of the soft, romanticized love with which our world is so enamored.  The love of which we speak is not timid or sentimental, but rather, bold, courageous, self-searching, and accountable. This kind of love speaks truth.  This kind of love prompts action. This kind of love is tough.

And there is no conflict between love and justice, because both are grounded in the knowledge that we are loved by God—each and every one of us.  People of every color, nation, and faith: beloved.  If justice is our mandate, love is the power that draws us forward.  Thanks be to God!

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