Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner
It is my distinct honor to stand in the space where Dr. Martin Luther King stood prophetically 54 years ago speaking health and healing in our nation. Our text today comes from the 22nd chapter of the Gospel of Matthew verses 37 to 40. “And Jesus said to him, you shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: you should love your neighbor as yourself. And on these two commandments, hang all the law and prophets.” Our subject this morning: loving God is loving every neighbor. This weekend during what would have been his 93rd birthday and 54 years since his final speech in Memphis, influential leaders and school children alike will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life by reciting his famous “I have a dream” speech and evoking his incredible and unbelievable accomplishment over 39 short years of life.
Dr. King gave hope not just to black Americans, but to people of all races and backgrounds. Hope for an America, where we, the people, would finally mean all the people. Yet today, Americans race relations are at their absolute lowest. And based on the same question for which more than 600,000 Americans fought and died in a civil war 161 years ago, over the full humanity and citizenship rights of black Americans. Today, white terrorism, based on a 400-year unholy lie of white supremacy is called by the FBI, America’s greatest threat. Today efforts to hide from school children evidence of historical injustices impacting citizens of color, has provoked banning any books on race that might even include the US constitution and the Bible.
And today brazen attempts to erase the sacred citizenship rights to vote for which Dr. King, John Lewis and so many others gave their lives, now seriously threatens our very democracy. If we look only to Dr. King’s accomplishments to measure how close America has come to being the multiracial democracy he envisioned, even the most optimistic among us are moved to ask some serious questions like: Is America possible? Is democracy sustainable? And are we on a dangerous path from democracy to tyranny?
So instead of examining Dr. King’s amazing accomplishments to measure racial and economic progress, I suggest we look at his unshakable faith and foundation of love for God that fuel his unwavering commitment to achieve equality for all Americans during our nation’s darkest days. So, we should ask ourselves this morning, how is it possible? How could Dr. King possibly, at age 26, a millennial, in 1954, recently married and installed as pastor in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, leave a relatively comfortable life and, and answer the call sparked by Rosa Parks’ 1955 arrest to lead a nonviolent movement for racial equality that would surely evoke violent responses and endanger he and his young family? The only answer is his deep-rooted faith and love for God, far bigger than his love for himself or anything else.
In fact, Dr. King’s entire life of selfless sacrificial service can only be summed up in our text today. In our text, Jesus is approached by a group of religious leaders trying to trip him up, as it were, asking him a question. “Teacher,” one asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Now the religious leader is actually trying to embarrass Jesus with the question he believes he cannot answer, by asking him, which is the greatest commandment in the law, knowing that there were 613 commandments from Genesis to Deuteronomy. But Jesus answers about the great commandment, meaning one commandment with two inseparable commandments. “You shall love the Lord, your God, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.
First, you shall love the Lord, your God. In the first book of the Bible and Genesis, we find a holy, righteous, self-existing, self-creating, omnipotent God, creator of heaven and earth who stepped out on nothing and created everything, not needing anyone to love. But in First John we’re told that God is love, and we know that love is best expressed in community. So the God of Martin Luther King Jr, is a relational God and a loving God who created humans to live in totally perfect loving harmony with himself. And even after the first man and woman rebel and cause total separation from God and humanity, the foundational text of our very faith, John 3:16, said that God loved us so much that he sent Jesus to die in our place to bring us back into right loving relationship with God’s self. So the price my friends has already been paid, not only for Dr. King, but for all of us to love God of every other love in our lives. And the clear expectation of God’s word is that we who have placed our faith in Jesus as Lord and savior have turned over the full reigns of our lives, our total being for God to be in us what we are unable to be in ourselves: consistently loving, caring, merciful, forgiving, and compassionate. The apostle Paul reminds us in second Corinthians what this means when he says, “Anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone. A new life has begun”. So belonging to Christ means that we no longer belong to ourselves attached to our old attitudes, biases, stereotypes, and ways of seeing and engaging others. Belonging to Christ means that we have his power, not our own, to love God above every other love in our lives, above every other loyalty in our lives. To care for the least and lost and the left out and to fight for justice and equality in the same way that Dr. King fought.
Verse 37 says exactly how we are to love God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind”. God is saying to us this morning: with your powerful heart, that beats 60 to 70 times per minute, 4,000 times the hour you’ll be in this service; with your mighty soul, the core of your humanity and all your emotions; and your amazing mind that processes 60 to 70,000 thoughts a day – love me with all of it. There’s no time or place then for anything else. And the only way we demonstrate our love for God is by keeping his commandment. It does not matter how much church we attend, words we preach, songs we sing or what denominational label we use, the only way that God knows that we love him as a new creation who belonged to Christ, where the old has gone and a new life in us has begun, is if we love God so much that we love what God loves and hate what God hates. We know that God loves justice, truth, righteousness, compassion, forgiveness, and caring for the hurting. But we also know that God hates injustice, inequality, poverty, exploitation, neglect of children, destruction of the environment and war.
The second peg of this two-pronged, great commandment is in verse 39. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. So the question this morning must be in a deeply divided America, who exactly is my neighbor? Who is my neighbor? The word neighbor comes from the New Testament, a word that means near dweller. But in an increasingly diverse and more divided America, yet a more segregated America, it is likely that our neighbor lives near us.
But Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan to remind us of what he means by neighbor in the broadest sense of the term. In the story, on a dangerous Jericho road where thieves and robbers hung out, a person is thrown to the side of the road, beaten, battered, and left for dead. Two church people come along, a priest and a religious man, both do nothing except to avoid crossing over to the other side of the street that hurting man, both of them Jewish from the same race and culture. But the person who is the most despised member of another race, a Samaritan, comes along, not only tends to the wounded person, but pays for his ongoing medical care. So Jesus defines the one who shows love and care for the beaten and battered and bruised person as the true neighbor. Jesus is reminding us this morning that our neighbor is everyone. And we should act as neighbor to everyone, especially those left, beaten and battered on the Jericho roads of life. Even those outside of our racial and cultural comfort zone. To love my neighbor, I must intentionally get to know and understand my neighbor, not demonize or use my power to harm my neighbor. Not handpick the neighbors who look, think, act, and vote like me, but the ones that God sends. And not use my political power to advocate for laws that make my vulnerable neighbors even more vulnerable.
But far too many mainline Christians and evangelicals are advocating passionately for issues like biblically based traditional marriage and standing against abortion, while at the same time acting hatefully or using their power against people of a different race, religion, gender or other factor. Showing greater allegiance to a political party than to the kingdom of God. Loving my neighbor does not require me to disobey what I believe the word of God says about any issue. I can love my neighbor and still hold a different view. First John makes it even clearer when he says, “we love because he first loved us. For whoever does not love their brother or sister, whom they have seen cannot say they love God whom they have not seen”. Loving God is loving my neighbor because two thousand verses of scripture state God’s preferential concern for the poor and the vulnerable. Loving God is loving my neighbor because everyone is created in the image of God, the Imago Dei, and deserve to be treated with dignity, for respect and care. Loving God is loving my neighbor because God equates our love for him by exactly the way we treat the least, the lost and the left out of our brothers and sisters.
Loving my neighbor is not an abstract notion. And neither is God’s love for you and me. Even during this long, surreal pandemic that is causing so much suffering, we also have experienced God’s protection, his healing favor and care in some very tangible ways. So Dr. King did not just love God in a general sense. He acted very specifically. A hundred million Americans state today that they have claimed Jesus as their Lord and savior. At the same time, we cannot claim to love God while leaving bruised and battered on America’s Jericho road, caged brown babies, black people facing blue police brutality, children living in poverty, children of color in the from school to prison pipeline, families of color caught in a racial wealth gap from banking and housing discrimination, Asian Americans facing hate crimes, women encountering workplace bias, and people robbed of the sacred right to vote by undemocratic, Jim Crow 2.0, anti-voting rights laws perpetuated by those as committed to maintaining white minority rule today as Bull Connor and George Wallace in their day. Love is both and an emotion and an act of your will and my will.
So beyond quoting Dr. King, the question we’re challenged to ask today is, is our will strong enough? Are we leaning more toward loving God than loving every other passion and party and politic and value system with the same passion that Dr. King had to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially those beaten and battered by life. But what gives me the most hope today as we celebrate the God inspired life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we celebrate one who led a movement fueled by young people. For all of us, but especially for young leaders today, concern with injustices of our nation, I say to you: it is not your fault, but it’s your time. It is your time to step out on the same promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis 12 to bless the hurting world through his obedience. It is the same promise that Dr. King embraced to bless the whole world through his pursuit of justice and equality for all people.
Dr. King was not just a dreamer. He was a doer. You and I have the same spiritual power that King had. The power that got Jesus up out of the grave is available to you and I when our lives are rooted in Christ. Today, today, what we know is that the same spiritual power brokers who left the man for dead on that Jericho road also left Jesus bruised, beaten and battered for dead at Calvary. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory. Jesus, our sinless savior took the beating our sins deserve and went from the cross to the grave. But on the third day he got up in all power. So you and I could get up, get up free from all of our bigotry. Get up to save our faltering democracy. Get up to help lift every child out of poverty. Get up to overcome white supremacy with the supremacy of love over hate, and get up to become bridge builders of a multiracial democracy where every life has value. And no one has a lack.
In this very last speech in Memphis, Dr. King said, “I have seen the promised land and may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land”. He was not talking about the eternal promised land, but the promised land of the beloved community right here in America, where every life matters and where systemic injustices are finally dismantled. We do my friends have some very dark and difficult days ahead, standing right now between chaos and community, democracy and tyranny. When rights like voting rights, we thought were already won, are now seriously threatened. But we could all take heart this morning in the words of James Russell Lowell:
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet the scaffold sways the future.
And behind the dim unknown stands God.
Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.
Loving God is loving every neighbor and loving God is not only loving every neighbor, but it is pleasing God who has all power in his hand to help you and me become the warriors and champions for justice and equality. Every one of us has that power. Every one of us has that choice today, if it is our will. God is ready. He is waiting for us. Our world will not change until we say, here God, take my life. I surrender it completely to you. All my value systems, everything that is holding me back from bringing inequality and injustice to a halt in our nation. Look at Dr. King. Look at Dr. King and be amazed. But look at yourself and see the possibility of doing the same exact thing that he did, serving the same God. God bless you.