If we study the man who was honored today, we are students. If we honor the man who was honored, we are respectful. If we carry the same Light as him, we are lamps.
Reverend King Jr. was many things in his lifetime. Son, student, husband, father, activist, minister, and ultimately a martyr for his passion. But what he learned to be is what we are all called to be: a lamp. Especially today we look back upon his lifetime of achievements and find the assembled list to be extraordinary. But what he did is a very pale reflection of how he did it. In other words, it was his devotion and obedience that set him apart, not what he actually had to do. For we are called to do the same, to seek justice and love mercy, but we must be willing to bear the light.
God has never asked anyone to do anything that they cannot do, because He has promised to supply all that we need. Reverend King Jr. was an obedient truth-teller. Certainly he is classified under many other labels, but as far as I can tell, he was always an obedient truth-teller. We like to immortalize our heroes and disregard their flaws. However, when we choose to immortalize a mortal, what we are really saying is, “I could never do what they did.” But we must.
God spoke and moved powerfully through Reverend King Jr. The light he carried shone brightly into the darkness. The light that shone was the Light. And that, my friends, is the calling for all of us. When it comes to issues of social justice in particular, the categories we fall into are parallel with those of church attenders. Like the “holiday Christians” who show up on Christmas and Easter, there are those who clamor loudly for social justice today. You will hear from them again one more time this year. There are “regular attenders” of social justice: informed, attentive, and fairly visible. Then there are “members” of social justice; those who actively participate and can be counted on in critical times. Then there are the “ministers” of social justice, and they are…where?
Ministers of social justice are everywhere, or at least they should be, because anyone who follows Christ must bear the light of truth in the darkness. John the Baptist, as written about in the gospel of John, “was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light” (John 1:8). Later, in that same gospel, we clearly see who is the light when Jesus declares, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). Yet, for you students of the Bible, you also know that Jesus said this: “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). How do we do that? How do we bear the light? I believe the answer lies in the way Jesus described John the Baptist: “John was a lamp that burned and gave light, and you chose for a time to enjoy his light” (John 5:35). And that, my friends, is something you can do.
If we believe that the light was only here in the life of Jesus, then you must also believe that we are living in total darkness now. If we believe that social justice and civil rights were causes only for people like Reverend King Jr., then we will do nothing but show up on holidays. If you, however, believe that you are meant to be a lamp that bears the light, then it is time for God to clean you up so that His light can shine.
Start by remembering that, as a lamp, we have all been pulled out of the mud. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6) Our desire to remain in darkness (John 3:19) is because we fear being exposed. We do not want to be seen in our muddy, cracked, beat-up condition. But what we must remember is that, once we are cleaned up and our true self exposed, people will not see us, but Christ. Reverend King Jr. was in no way qualified at birth to burn as brightly as he did. Born to black parents in the South at the time of The Depression, what could possibly make anyone think he would do what he did? But where we see mud, God sees a lamp.
My grandmother was born into very different circumstances eight years before Reverend King Jr. Her world was the almost all-white land of the North. Her experiences growing up, just like King’s, forged her views on race relations. And her views, much like King’s, were ultimately changed by the grace of God. Reverend King Jr. could have easily seen his surroundings in the deep South and accepted that there would always be tension – so why bother? But through obedience and devotion, he spoke truth and exposed light into the dark injustices of our nation. My grandmother’s experience was different. In a small, conservative community that remains nearly all white to this day, she raised her family. She and my grandfather did a magnificent job of instilling faith deep into the family line. But the matters of the color of skin sat silent.
My intention to marry the black woman I had been dating drew a fair amount of critique from friends and family alike. Both families involved had reasons to claim that it was not a good idea. I remember receiving a letter from my grandmother who gently offered her view concerning the planned marriage. She did not agree. Yet, in her disagreement, she attended our wedding. She loved my wife and welcomed her. She loved our children and they never noticed anything but the same love and grace I always felt from her. She was a lamp, cleaned in the hands of God.
Four years ago the lamp of Reverend King Jr. and the lamp of my grandmother collided. And it made for a very bright light that I will never forget. My grandmother was gravely ill. Cancer racking her body, she was residing in a nursing home, dependent on the aid of others. I took advantage of some unexpected time to go visit her, making the drive of 100 miles. I found her in her room with my father by her side. She was watching television. She was watching the Inaugural Ball for President Obama. The impact was not lost on me. Even though I like to point out that President Obama’s mother was “as white as mine,” I know that our nation considers him to be our first black President. (For more on this social phenomenon, read this excerpt by F. James Davis – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html). And there was my grandmother – watching. I remember that at one point my father asked if she wanted to watch anything else (she was a big fan of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”), and she said, “No, this is okay.”
What tends to change our view on things very often boils down to this: the influence of the ones we love. When we name and love someone, labels no longer fit. Reverend King Jr. had a deep-rooted love for those around him. Maybe he was driven by love for his parents. Maybe he was driven by love for his own children. Maybe..definitely..he was driven by his love for Jesus. I keep referring to him as Reverend King Jr. to properly honor the fact that he was named after his father who was also a minister. And, like his father, he adopted the name Martin Luther to honor the great Reformer – the one who challenged the church’s views. Both King Jr. and his father were born to the given name of Michael. The name Michael means, “Who is like God?” or, as one interpretation suggests, “Who’s God?”
It is the heart of that question that drove Rev. King Jr. and my grandmother in their lifetimes. It was their sincere desire to know and love God and not to allow him to only be a label. Will you do the same? Will you seek to know and love God in such a way that you can bear the light he gives? Will you, like many before you, learn to drop the labels?
Four years ago I watched President Obama dance with the First Lady. My father and grandmother watched too. Less than two months later we went to say “farewell” to my grandmother, expecting her to go to be with God at any time. Had it not been for the grace of God, who holds us all, the three little boys who whispered good-bye to her would only be seen as “black.” But because she loved Jesus without labels, she received three little boys as “Caleb,” “Joshua,” and “Jonathan.” We can easily label anyone around us, just as labels can be applied to us. But the only label that should stick is “lamp.” Will you, today, let God wipe off a little more dirt so that his light can shine?
Some day my grandmother will dance with those three little boys. Until then, I bet she is having a great time up there with Michael.
Be a lamp, love without labels, and bear the light.