Kathryn Henderson, Student Minister
Do you believe in miracles? This is not a trick question, I promise. There is no right or wrong answer. I’m asking you to think about the moments when something is inexplicably transformed out of what might have seemed hopeless, impossible even, into exactly what we needed — or what we needed to become. I’m asking us to think about saying Yes to the transforming power of God’s love, and the miracles that can happen when we do.
I ask this today because we are remembering the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — a man who helped spark a transformation in the hearts and minds of so many that all our lives were transformed — a social transformation that seems, in retrospect, miraculous. And because it may seem like, once again, the world could use a few miracles.
Let us remember in silent prayer Dr. King, and the ways his life continues to shape our lives…
Gracious God, we give you thanks for the heart, mind, and undaunted vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ask that his work continue to give birth to true peace in our lives and throughout the world. Amen.
Transformation is the keyword in today’s readings that tell us of God’s plan, God’s miraculous, re-creating love. Like Dr. King, both authors are concerned about this love and destiny: for Isaiah, the destiny of a nation; for John, the destiny of all humanity. Dr. King dedicated his life to both. For the writer of Isaiah, probably in the years following the exile, the ultimate expression of God’s care is in the establishment of Jerusalem and the Temple, the very home of God. The writer is telling the people that after captivity in Babylon, of untold loss and suffering, that they “shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.” Isn’t this a wonderful image? No longer Forsaken or Desolate, but a delight, a crown of beauty, in fact a royal diadem in the hand of God. A change of circumstances so extraordinary — miraculous — that it could only be accomplished by the transforming power of God’s love.1
The writer of John also has a few things to say — well, an entire gospel, but not for today! — about this miracle-making love. He wants to make it clear that Jesus is the New Jerusalem, the embodiment of the Temple, born to share our lives — a very personal God. We are told this by the first of the signs in this gospel — changing water into wine. The transformation Isaiah foretells will take generations, but Jesus signifies how the world, and each of us, can be born anew in a moment, when he takes ordinary water and turns it into the finest of wines, just like that. Here we see Jesus making something new out of a completely different substance — something seemingly impossible.
Have you known this kind of transformation in your own life — of God’s indelible touch when least expected? A grace that erases bitterness or heals a broken heart. These moments can be so subtle that we don’t even notice them until we realize we’ve changed. Or they can happen, like water becoming wine, in an instant. I want to tell you about such a moment. Let’s imagine a time when Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and lynchings were commonplace — the years just after women had won the right to vote — and forty years before this would be guaranteed for all citizens. Back even before Dr. King was born. My mother was a girl of four or five — it’s 1926 or 27 — and she was playing with the neighbors’ children. We wouldn’t think twice about this today, but back then, on the outskirts of Raleigh, North Carolina, the neighbors’ kids were the children of sharecroppers on my grandparents’ back forty.
Now, this was not Mississippi or Alabama — it was a comparatively tolerant and progressive place. My grandparents were well educated people, a school teacher and a ship’s captain. Yet when my mom came home, she was beaten for playing with her friends and told never to see them again. The sheer irrationality and injustice of that experience burned deep inside her, and she never forgot it. In an instant her life was changed: a little girl would mature into a woman who passionately stood up for the rights of others.
She, and my father, would be steadfast witnesses to the transforming power of God’s love throughout their lives. One of my earliest memories is of my father telling me that prejudice and discrimination are wrong — and about how Dr. King was changing the world. And then just after my ninth birthday, the unthinkable happened: Martin Luther King, Jr., hope of so many, voice for the voiceless, creator of a path for peace, was assassinated.
My mother’s life-changing moment happened in an instant, but mine began imperceptibly, a night or so after Dr. King died, while I was riding with my dad to the airport in downtown Washington, D.C. If you’ve ever driven into D.C. from the Virginia suburbs, you know that there’s a crest on I-95 where you can see the entire city skyline. Usually it’s beautiful, especially the dome of the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the distance. But on that night, April 5 or 6, 1968, the horizon was filled with smoke, and the angry glow of fires burning a hole in the center of the city.
The fires had been started during the riots that began as the news spread that Dr. King had been killed. It was like emotional pain come to life, the pain of an entire people, and spread across the sky. I think the beginnings of my desire to work for a better world began then, when I learned that there is pain that surpasses words, so deep that it causes people to do something — something that will express the anguish that is breaking their hearts. I’m not agreeing with this violent response, but I understand that there are forces that can move through people that we can hardly imagine.
It also felt, especially as I’ve thought back over that night, like a vast, almost cosmic lament — a need to cry out of such magnitude that it literally exploded through the city. This speaks of the devotion so many had to Dr. King, and perhaps something else: the feeling that hope, the great hope that he kindled for genuine freedom and peace, had died with him. And fear, the darkest of fears, that without him, life could never again be set right. And perhaps most heartbreaking of all — that the miracle he had sparked had ended — the great, transforming love was gone.
Those tumultuous times are long past, and we sense only a faint shadow of them in the Occupy movement, or the Arab Spring uprisings. But in reality, the revolution of peace that Dr. King launched did not die. It lives on, like the revolution Jesus began, in countless ways, because we keep saying Yes to that way of peace.
We say Yes every time we listen to someone who is suffering. Or volunteer, give a stranger directions, or stand up for the rights of someone who needs help. Here at Union Church you say Yes all the time. When you buy coffee or Christmas cards to support the partnerships in Zambia and Nicaragua, gather coats for the Russell School, or lead worship at Waban Health Center, you bring to life the revolution of love — what the writer of John sees as new wine — the presence of God acting in your lives — transforming your lives.
And, don’t we all sometimes long for transformation, even…a miracle? A moment — in our individual lives, our churches, communities, and institutions — that will make things right. And so we reflect on the sweep of Dr. King’s influence — how our lives together, our society, our world, changed so dramatically, so impossibly, in just a few decades. It wasn’t simply that King was a gifted leader and brilliant orator, and that people joined with him to make the changes happen. It is more fundamental than that: he was willing to be shaped by the transforming power of God’s grace. This is the force that changed him from an adolescent uncertain of what he believed to a young pastor, then reluctant activist — then committed visionary of the nation and world. Listen to his personal reflection on how he came to know God’s grace, written in 1960, by which time he had received almost daily death threats for years, his home had been bombed twice, he had been imprisoned, and a woman had nearly succeeded in fatally stabbing him.2
In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God. True, I have always believed in the personality of God. But in past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God. Whatever the cause, God has been profoundly real to me in recent months. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope.
It’s natural to think of Dr. King as a saint, but he was not fully formed, not even when sitting in a Birmingham jail or accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. The path of personal transformation is mysterious, yet in his life we can see the signature of the divine love at work. Although uncertain of his beliefs, he trusted that he had been called by God, and said Yes. He did not believe he had the wisdom, experience, and maturity to lead the Montgomery bus boycott, but he said Yes, and he grew into that, allowing himself to be shaped by the people he met and his experiences, and his relationship with God.
At any step along the way, Dr. King could have said, “You know, God, I think where we’re at is good enough. I’m going to take a rest now.” But he didn’t. After general civil rights and voting rights were secured, he turned his attention to the struggles of impoverished people — regardless of their race. And he began opposing the Vietnam war, to the dismay of many of his supporters who saw the shifting focus as diminishing his capacity to effect civil change. Even when his colleagues turned away from him, even with almost continual death threats, Dr. King kept on saying Yes. Yes to faith. To God. Yes to the world he loved. Yes to being transformed, to being led. Yes to peace. Justice. Yes to love.
We can see that Dr. King lived what the author of John’s gospel wants us to understand. That the transforming power of God’s grace, and our choice to accept it, is what’s important –not as much whether Jesus is a miracle worker. At the wedding in Cana Jesus has a choice. He knows he can reveal the fullness of who he is or let the moment pass. He is reluctant, uncertain that this is the right moment to act, and yet he chooses to have faith and engage God’s love — demonstrating, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that God is present here now, in every moment, and every moment we recognize that we have the chance to become our full selves. We, too, can know the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. Sometimes this feels impossible, but when we listen to our hearts we can discover again the Love that is endlessly renewing.
We all make choices about whether or not to allow God’s presence to shape our lives, to move in and through us. What are these moments in your lives? Where are you needing these today? When you think about transforming love, how can you say Yes? For King, it was when things got tough that he grew into a real relationship with God. No longer a superficial love, but a real, personal certainty of being held by the deepest of loves, the kind that comes from uniting the heart, mind, and soul. This is knowing that God will hold you as if you were the most precious royal crown.
Today, almost 45 years after Dr. King’s death, we all live more freely and justly because he believed that Jesus’s teachings to love God, ourselves, and one another could be reality. He, and everyone who worked with him, was willing to be transformed by God. Yes, there are still hearts that judge, in many ways and we still have work to do. But our society as a whole is more just, because our neighbors — regardless of race — are living full lives under civil law. Because they are more whole, we are more whole.
It may not be playing out in dramatic scenes on the evening news anymore, but as long as we have faith, and act, the revolution of love will continue to transform the world, one choice at a time. Every time we say the Yes that allows God’s grace to flow through us and into the world we help to create a new substance: the inner calm that will withstand any threat. And the miracle is that as we allow ourselves to be transformed, we help transform the lives of those around us — and ultimately our communities and world.
On this day of honoring Dr. King, let his words, spoken as he received the Nobel Peace Prize, carry us forward:3
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant….
Sooner or later, all the peoples of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
May it be so.
1. See “Turning Water to Wine: God’s Excess and Extravagance,” Daniel B. Clendenin. Retrieved on January 14 from http://www.journeywithjesus.net/index.shtml.
2. “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” Christian Century 77 (13 April 1960): 439-441. Retrieved on December 4, 2012 from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/pilgrimage_to_nonviolence.
See also “Suffering and Faith,” retrieved on December 4, 2012 from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/suffering_and_faith.
3. Acceptance speech at Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, December 10, 1964. Retrieved on January 14, 2013 from http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_acceptance_speech_at_nobel_peace_prize_ceremony.