More than 100 people gathered at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles Jan. 18 to, in the words of guest preacher North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry, “sing the songs of Zion, to commemorate the life and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and … to consecrate our future and our lives.”
Those songs of Zion included renditions of the traditional “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “We Shall Overcome” and “We’ve Come this Far by Faith” offered by the Los Angeles Episcopal Chorale Society, under the direction of Canon Chas Cheatham, and “In Christ there is no East or West,” performed by organist Dan Resch of St. James’, Newport Beach.
Tenor saxophonist Keeland Bowers, 16, a Los Angeles County High School for the Arts student and the third-prize winner in the Episcopal Chorale’s annual scholarship competition in 2013, performed “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
Bishop Suffragan Diane Bruce celebrated the Eucharist and Curry’s sermon – frequently interrupted by applause, laughter and “Amens” – focused on the Sermon on the Mount from Luke’s gospel, and urged those present to strive to become “the human family of God.”
“In December 1956 Martin Luther King had an institute for social justice in Montgomery at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott,” Curry told the gathering. “In that address, he talked about the significance of the boycott.
“He said, ‘We have before us a glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization. There is still a voice crying out in terms that echo across generations, saying, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you, that you may be children of your father which is in heaven,’” Curry told the gathering.
Paraphrasing King’s remarks, Curry said that consequently, because of Jesus, the true goal of the civil rights struggle is “not simply the equal right to ride anyplace on a bus … The true goal for which we strive is reconciliation, redemption; the true end is the creation of the beloved community.”
And, consecrating the future means, according to Curry, to strive to become the human family of God which, he said was the reason “God came among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, to show us the way to be more than we would be on our own.”
Jesus came among us, added Curry, to help us live into God’s dream, “to show us the way to live the ways of justice and compassion and love and forgiveness instead of the ways of hatred and vindictiveness and vengefulness.”
These lessons are “our hope and our salvation” in becoming more than just the human race, but to become the human family of God.
“They don’t give Ph.Ds in being a member of the human race,” Curry said. “There is no cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude or thank you Lordy for being a member of the human race.
“Being a human being is not an accomplishment,” added Curry. “Jesus came to show us how to be more than a member of the human race, how to be more than a collection of individual self-interests, how to be more than Republicans and Democrats. He came to show us how to become God’s human family, and that, my friends, is the hope and salvation of us all.”
He cited Jesus’ call to welcome strangers, to visit those in prison, to give clothing to those in need (Matthew 25:35-40) “just as you did it to the least of one of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” and evoked laughter when he said, “Why should I love my enemy? Because they’re your family.”
He said liking is an emotion, a reaction and response, while loving is a decision and a commitment.
Just loving those who love you is human race behavior, he said. “But when you love those who don’t love you, that’s doing the human family of God thing, and that’s hard.”
Similarly when you lend to those who can give back, or when you stand up for someone with the same self-interests, it’s human race behavior. “But when you lend to somebody who doesn’t have the capacity to give back, or … stand up for somebody and you don’t have a dog in the fight yourself, that’s the human family of God.
Added Curry: “The ethic of Jesus is a family ethic. Jesus taught us to love our enemies, because our enemy is our sister, our enemy is our brother. Love your enemy; bless those who hurt you. Transform this world from death and discord, from this nightmare into God’s symphony of love and God’s dream.
“This stuff is dynamite. This stuff has the power to transform the world. It’s done it before and it will do it again.”
People protested after North Carolina state legislative assembly district lines were redrawn and repressive measures enacted, Curry said, including more stringent voter identification requirements and reductions in public school funding and mental health benefits, as well as rejection of supplemental funding for Medicare-Medicaid and unemployment insurance.
A number of protestors were arrested “and I’m proud to say many of them were Episcopalians,” he said. “But, the truth is that not all Episcopalians were happy and they weren’t all happy that the bishops were endorsing and supported” the demonstrations.
In response he evoked the “Jesus standard.”
“We said that all legislation must be tested by this; does it meet the Jesus standard? To do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Does it meet the Jesus standard to love your neighbor as yourself? Does it meet the Jesus standard, as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me?
“The truth is it takes all of us to figure out a solution,” he said. “There’s no liberal solution, no conservative solution. Let’s work together to find solutions to our problems.
“When you kick folk off Medicare, when you kick folk off the unemployment rolls, when you do not provide services for the mentally ill; when you take away folks’ votes and when you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters and members of my family, says Jesus, you did it unto me.”
And that, he said, is part of the gift and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “He reminded us that, as children of God we are descended from the same God, and he loves us all and, if that’s the case, we really are family. We may be dysfunctional but we really are family.”
And, if we really are family, “then we must work to build a world where we can live together as brothers and sisters,” he said. “Then the truth is when we can work to build a world that looks something like God’s dream and not our nightmare.”
Noting that DNA tests have pointed to a common maternal ancestor of all anatomically modern human beings dated from 130,000 years ago in Africa, he said, “We got the same mama.”
During the presidential election in 2007-2008, the New England Genealogical Society did a series of genealogical studies on candidates and discovered that “Barack Obama, Brad Pitt and George Bush are actually cousins.
“It went on further and discovered that Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain are actually cousins. They went further and discovered … that the late Sen. Strom Thurman and the Rev. Al Sharpton are cousins.”
Ultimately, he said, Jesus came to show us how to move beyond merely an individual collection of self-interests, how to become the human family of God by loving, caring for and honoring one another, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, and “to create a world where no child goes hungry, how to create a world where truth is declared in our public squares, how to create a world where justice truly rolls down and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“So, don’t get discouraged,” he said. “We are not just here to commemorate Martin. We are here to consecrate our selves and our future.
“So, go into this world and don’t be ashamed of your personal problems,” he said. “Go into this world and don’t be ashamed to be characterized by compassion. And don’t be ashamed to love like Jesus, to live like Jesus, to forgive like Jesus. Go forth into this world and let the world know there is an Episcopal Church – and doggone it, she’s waiting.”
Curry’s sermon may be viewed on the Diocese of Los Angeles’ Just Action YouTube site here.