"Liberty and Justice For All", A Sermon for Martin Luther King Day
The following sermon was preached by The Rev. Wayne N. Miller, Bishop, Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Monday, January 21, 2013.
Listen to the lecture by clicking on the "play arrow" above.
Good morning! It is always a wonderful privilege for me to worship here and to have an opportunity to preach in this community of faith and learning…
And today especially it is nice to be able to preach on a day when there is nothing much else going on in the world (!!???) so that I know everyone’s attention will be focused on what I have to say…
Truthfully, it is somewhat freeing to know that the world is so intently watching and listening, today, to that other guy from Chicago. It takes the pressure off … which is nice because I have been feeling a little bit oppressed this week. You see I just got back from the ELCA Bishops’ Academy… and you know the first few days back in the office after a long trip are always pretty oppressive…
So I was thinking, “This is great. Everyone will be paying attention to the President talk about the land of the free; maybe this is the perfect opportunity for me to exercise a little freedom of my own and not prepare a sermon at all.” You know, I could just let the Spirit work freely in the moment… preach freestyle… whatever came into my mind. But then I started to think about how horrible it would be if I couldn’t think of anything to say. It would be a little unusual for me not to have anything to say… but it could happen. And then I’d be up here all tongue tied and befuddled, stammering and perspiring and feeling like a complete fool and this pulpit would start to feel like a prison holding me captive for 10 or 15 minutes until we were all free at last to move on to the hymn of the day. And then you would all think that I was completely incompetent and I know what happens then. By tonight it would be all over Facebook…“Whatever you do, don’t let the bishop preach in your church,” you would write to your friends and their friends… “It’s horrible. You’ll have to tie people to the pews to keep them from running away!” And then I’d have to spend the next 4 months trying to convince people that I really know how to do this. And every week I’d be a slave to my…
So anyhow, I decided in the end to jot down a few notes and to prepare a little bit for what I wanted to say… and now I am free at last to share a few things that are written in my heart… like how easy it is for us all to get fooled about what it is that really sets us free and what it is that really just puts us in a brand new prison.
You take money, for example; something that, in our society, just about everyone seems to agree has the power to set us free…And so it does. Because anyone who has ever lived without enough of it knows that the special kind of worry and frustration and despair that comes from not having any money is a deep, dark prison cell from which it can feel like there is no escape… except to get a lot of money. But the really odd thing that I’ve learned in my experience is that the people living in the cell next door to the poor are the people who have too much money… and who live every day of their lives in the solitary confinement of terror that they will lose it.
Or in our society maybe sex becomes the thing that we are quite sure will set us free… free to do whatever we want with whomever we want… only to discover ourselves imprisoned by a world of hurt, betraying the trust of those we love, or dealing with a disease or a pregnancy, or entering our golden years compelled to take a pill of one kind or another to make us 29 again so that we won’t feel like our life is over.
Or perhaps you have found a chemical to drink or smoke or sniff or swallow that has such a delightful power to make you feel light and free that you decide that maybe you should take a little more of it to make you freer still… and then a little more to make you more free… and then…well…
I freely admit that it might seem a little bit odd that I should start my sermon today with all this talk about “freedom” when it is so obvious that the texts of the day are about “justice.”
But, frankly, the idea of starting the conversation with talk about justice felt a little oppressive… mostly, because, as some of you may have heard me say before, “justice” is one of those great faith words that everyone knows and that everyone uses, always thinking that we mean the same thing, when, in fact, we mean very different things by it.
I mean, does “justice” mean everyone gets the same? Does “justice” mean everyone gets what they deserve… or what they have earned, or what they need… or what they want? Does “justice” mean that everyone starts the race from the same place… or ends at the same time?
Is “justice” about the redistribution of material benefits… or about the realignment of power? Is a just world one in which all differences disappear… or a world in which our differences are celebrated? What, exactly, is this stuff that so freely rolls down upon us like the waters of an ever-flowing stream? If it is true that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice… what is the gold in the kettle at the end of the arc?
In our own ethical writings in the ELCA, I have noticed that we tend to define justice as “fairness.” But I’m not sure this helps much, since all of the questions I have just asked about “justice” could be equally applied to “fairness.” To define a just world as “fair” is about as helpful as saying that in just world, everyone is just… which is true, but not exactly elucidating.
All of which has sent me back into the writings of the other prophet we remember today, Dr. King himself… and to the observation that in almost all of his writing, but perhaps quintessentially in the Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “justice” is almost interchangeable with “freedom,” and “injustice” inseparable from “oppression…” an insight which is increasingly leading me to speak about justice in this way:
That each and every human being has been created, gifted, and called by God to be someone and to do something. When everyone is free to be who they are called to be and do what they are called to do, our society is “just.”
But when the social and institutional structures of human sin prevent some groups or categories of people from becoming all that they are called to be and doing all that they are called to do, then a condition of systemic injustice exists… injustice that can only be broken by the application of collective liberating power.
Justice is communal liberation for shared vocation.
Justice and Injustice, like Freedom and Oppression, may be intensely personal experiences… but they are never private, because my freedom depends upon your freedom, and, as Dr. King pointed out, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
So on this day, as our nation once again lets freedom ring, and as we affirm together the promise that where you come from does ever have the power to determine how far you can go… on this day I say to you once more, “For freedom Christ has made you free…” for justice you have been justified. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.
However, you live from this day forward, know this:
That though there may be many and various things that Christ has set you free FROM, for sure what Christ has set you free FOR is the freedom of others. Christ has set you free to set free those who are poor, those who hunger, those who weep, those who are despised… and paradoxically, Christ may even set you free to free those who are oppressed by their oppression of others… an oppression which they curiously and disastrously confuse with personal freedom.
Christ has set you free FOR ALL… free to live life with your hands held open, without restraint. Christ has set you free to release your own talent, your own imagination, your own abundance and to let it run wild in the world around you. Christ has set you free to share the story of your own journey from bondage to liberation with someone who desperately needs to hear it.
It is not an easy call to respond to, but it is a worthy vocation. Because the dream… that treasure in the kettle at the end of the great arc, sisters and brothers, is JUSTICE.