2 Corinthians 6:2-10
Later this morning we will hear a song called “The Universe Is Bending,” which is based on the often-cited statement of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that while “the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”
I’m sure Dr. King would forgive those of us who are having a hard time believing that this morning. I’m sure he would understand the frustration and fatigue of progressive, mostly white folks like us, and he would no doubt empathize with the anger and despair of our Black siblings. Surely he would acknowledge that the movement of history sometimes feels less like an arc and more like a circle that keeps looping back on itself or, at best, a zig-zag kind of journey where the forces of justice and equality are pushed two steps backward for every one step forward they struggle to gain.
After all Dr. King struggled for, after all he worked and prayed and sacrificed for, could he have ever imagined that in 2022, voter suppression would be back with a vengeance and that Congress and the White House would fail to uphold the voting rights of the poor and people of color?
After all Dr. King did to lift up the downtrodden, save our democracy from its foundation of racist hatred and inhumane capitalism, and set all people free, surely it would devastate him to see how corruption, deception, manipulation—and yes, racism—have turned back the hands of time.
After all Dr. King did to change hearts and minds and to bring people together in love and kinship, equality, justice, and peace, how would he respond to and how might he lead in a nation of people who no longer agree even on basic matters of fact, who are, instead, bitterly divided over everything from verifiable election results to the science of public health?
I can’t answer those questions, of course. I can’t say for sure what course of action a 93-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. would recommend.
But based on what I know of Dr. King’s sermons and speeches, his public actions and his private struggles, I am pretty sure he would not give up. Based on what little I know, I am pretty sure he would spend a fair amount of time in prayer—arguing with God, bargaining with God, weeping with God, and finally asking God for clarity of vision, and for the strength, wisdom, and community to make the vision plain.
I am pretty sure that Dr. King would trust the divine words spoken to the prophet Habakkuk: that even after all this time, after so much struggle, after hundreds of years of racial injustice, after so much suffering and hardship, after countless setbacks and betrayals, after a thousand different reasons to lose hope, after all that and more, that there is still a vision for the appointed time.
I can’t know, of course, but I am fairly confident that Dr. King would conclude that God is still speaking, that God is still faithful, that God is still at work in what sometimes seems like a God-forsaken nation. I am even more convinced that Dr. King would call on the church to not simply support the ongoing struggle to fulfill the vision but to live and work at the very center of it. And I’m all but positive he would challenge us all to continue to reach out to the other and to love our enemies.
Both of our scripture lessons this morning—God’s words to Habakkuk and the apostle Paul’s words to the church in Corinth—speak of something else I think Dr. King might want us understand in these challenging and discouraging times. You see, in the Black church it is something of an article of faith (as I understand it) that our God is an “on-time” God, that the Holy One is right on time and will not be late.
Years before he delivered his most famous speech there, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he was the final speaker at an event billed as the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom. The year was 1957—three years after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that racial segregation in schools was unconstitutional, two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, one year after his home was bombed, less than a year after the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation on public buses was unconstitutional, and just a few months after he founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Dr. King was still the pastor of a Baptist church, but he stood on those steps and, in front of some 20,000 people, spoke of all those things and a global “drama of freedom and independence” as “the unfolding work of Providence.”
The unfolding work of Providence.
Beloveds, there is still a vision for the appointed time. Do we see it? Do we trust it? Are we committed to it?
Can we see—even in all its twists and turns, its setbacks and defeats—the unfolding work of Providence? Are we participating in it and following Spirit’s lead, or have we given up on godly ways and taken things entirely into our own hands? Or have we given up altogether?
Faith tells us and history affirms that the unfolding work of our on-time God, the trajectory of the “arc of the moral universe,” the path and the time-line of racial justice is, in fact, a holy partnership of the human and divine, a synchronicity of trust, patience, and persistence—what Dr. King called a “cosmic companionship.”
The prophet Isaiah spoke to a nation that had turned away from God and had put its trust, instead, in armies and military might.
“God told you that you would be delivered through returning and rest, that you would find strength in quietness and trust. But you said, ‘No! We’ve got horses and chariots!’ Well, how’s that working for you?”
“God is waiting on you,” Isaiah tells the people. “When you are ready, when you can trust that God is at work, God will be gracious to you and rise to show you mercy. For our God is a God of justice; blessed are all who wait for God.”
There must have been many times when Dr. King struggled to see the unfolding work of Providence, when he felt himself and the movement to be wandering in a wilderness of hatred and injustice. (And so it was that four years after he spoke to 20,000 people in Washington, Dr. King found himself in our basement dining room, speaking at a church supper.)
But on May 17, 1957, in a speech called “Give Us the Ballot,” he spoke with the fire of a man in tune with the Spirit. “Give us the ballot,” he said again and again, fully understanding that everything—all our hopes for justice, freedom, equality, and peace—flow from the right to vote.
And yet 65 years later, that hard-won right is being taken away, systematically, in state after state, district by district, polling place by disappearing polling place. In the year 2022, the Senate cannot manage to pass a bill that would protect voting rights.
Friends, I must tell you that in that same 1957 speech, when Dr. King took it upon himself to castigate both political parties and to rile up all people of goodwill, he also spoke at length of the importance of loving our enemies.
“We must meet hate with love,” he said. “We must meet physical force with soul force.”
I hear the voice of Dr. King in the words of the activist and writer Valarie Kaur when she challenges us to a “revolutionary love” that sees no stranger and sees no enemy.
“There are no such things as monsters in this world,” she says, “just humans who are wounded.” Of the January 6 insurrectionists, those who would roll back voting rights, and those unwilling to change Senate rules to provide for the protection of basic rights, she says, “They are grieving the [loss] of white power.”
For all his faith and trust in the unfolding work of Providence, Dr. King also spoke of it being “midnight in America,” a time of great darkness and despair but also a moment of transition, moving from one day into a new day.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality,” he said. “This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
In recent days Dr. King’s family members have said that they want no events honoring their father and grandfather tomorrow that do not also involve strategies and organizing to protect and restore voting rights.
Beloveds, now is the acceptable time. What will we do?