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Mass of Celebration in Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King on the 40th Anniversary of His Death

St. Ambrose Church

It was just about 40 years ago this day that the world community suffered a most tragic loss at the hands of an assassin who took from us a man of untiring goodness who sought the welfare of all – through love.

"Power at its best is love implementing the demand of justice. Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love." Martin Luther King

And it was on that night 40 years ago that I recall so well emerging from 116th Street New York subway station with Frank Sugrue returning to Whittier Hall of Columbia University on 120th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. They say that when Jesus died on the cross that the veil of the temple was rent in two. That's what they say. I think you know that.

I felt that night that the veil of humanity had been rent in two, not even knowing then as we first entered onto the street that our hero, our hope for the more full implementation of a non-violent stand against injustice, racism, and violence had been taken from us. I felt that night coming down, we had like so many, many others tried to follow this man who with the gentleness of a lamb and the strength and courage of a lion, steeled himself against violence without ever taking up any weapon but the hope in the promise of the Lord that peace would come to the land.

Martin Luther King remembered and knew well God's promises of peace. Old Testament Promises spoken by God in Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st Kings, 1st and 2nd Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Zachariah, and Malachi. And the directives by the Lord Jesus of how we are to live non violent lives in Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the promise of peace by Jesus in John were all so well known to Dr. King.

The message and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. leave no doubt that while his operational style was influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, his convictions and choices, his words and deeds, his priorities and sacrifices were rooted in the ideal of the Gospel.

A passage from the gospel of John comes to mind. "Jesus knowing who he was, from where he had come and where he was going took a towel, girded himself and washed the feet of his disciples." In other words, Jesus was able to do the unconventional – He was empowered to transcend the accepted code of his time and do what was needed.

Something analogous could be said about the Rev. Dr. King – he had a sense that he came from God and consequently, he was able to preach a message that was disconcerting because it challenged our very roots and our perception of rightness. He called for a "coalition of conscience" and spoke softly and strongly of our common roots and of brotherhood and sisterhood. In doing so, he called us to look at the flaws in our identity as a nation and in our own interpretation of the gospel.

So this night, in this church we are gathered together to honor that man, that human who had a direct connection with the divine when it came to peace. We will honor him not with fond memories alone but we will honor him in another way. And it is something that every single person in this church can do.

We recall that wonderful quote from a speech, The Drum Major's Instinct of February 1968, played at Dr. King's funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church on April 9, 1968, just five days after his assassination:

"Let us go away this day, more than ever before, committed to the struggle and committed to non-violence. Everybody can be great in this effort, because everybody can serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know of Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know of the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love – to be great!

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts: 5:34-42) it could not be said any plainer "if this activity is of human origin it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy …" If we attempt to overcome the violence in our city, in our community, by any kind of unloving act, if we don't believe that the means and the end both are of love, then our plans are ill conceived and surely not worthy of asking God's blessing on them.

But if, as did Dr. King, our tactics herald the beginning of that New Humanity then, then, anyone who would try to oppose it will find themselves "fighting against God."

The reading, so familiar to us, from John's Gospel (John 6:1-15) this evening is the clarion call for how we are to proceed in our non-violent quest for peace.

There was an impossible situation that the disciples faced. A crowd of thousands had come to hear the Master and as though it weren't obvious that there was no way they could feed this throng, Jesus asks Philip "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?"

Philip's answer, quite understandable, is we can't. "Two hundred days wages would not be enough for each of them to have a little."

Andrew somewhat incredulous that anything could be done but moved by the Spirit says: "There's a boy here who has 5 barley loaves and two fishes, but what good are these for so many?"

They have a problem; they have a more than impossible situation, probably feeling even more frustrated by these questions of Jesus.

Let's look at this passage together, shall we?

John mentions some things that the other gospels do not even though they all tell this story.

First there is a reference to the Passover feast, "Now the Passover, the festival of Jews was near." Had we been alert we would have known something great is going to happen here. For the story of the Passover is the story of manna or sacred bread from heaven. God fed them in the desert.

Then we read just a little further on "Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them…" Just as will take place in the Eucharistic liturgy which we will shortly celebrate ourselves. At that time the bread will become the divine food, the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Then John draws a much sharper contrast than the Synoptics between the bread that was first made available and the bread that was blessed and multiplied by Jesus. The original bread was barely used only by the poor; the multiplied bread was so precious that Jesus said to his disciples "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost."

Beyond the course, beyond the human, beyond the forceful human way there is a divine providence waiting to be enacted by our love, by our acts of love.

Now I'm not suggesting that we not act. I'm saying we must act and we must do it God's way.

Let's stop wringing our hands and asking ourselves what can we do, how will it all end, this violence, when will it end. Have you heard this? Have you heard that?

And then let us ask ourselves what God can do through us. What can God work through my parish community?

Let us be sensitive and well aware of the fact that murder, assault, drugs are not the only violence in our community.

  • When the elderly have to choose between medicine, food or heat – that's violence
  • With all the housing foreclosures among the poor families of our city – that's violence
  • When only 32% of our high school students graduate in the city of Baltimore and 85% in the county – that's violence
  • When soldiers return to the United States after risking their lives for the welfare of us all and are met with a mountain of paperwork before they can receive treatment and assistance – that's violence.

And we could go on, but I think you get the point.

Yes we have all this and so many more forms of violence in our community and so we have a problem, we have an impossible problem. So let us see which part God wants to clean up through us. We can so easily be overwhelmed by it all that we do nothing.

God can do everything and God can do something through each one of us.

We have an impossible situation in our city so let us plan well, let us strategize, let us strategize with God what we are to do.

I would ask that we honor Dr. King in the best way possible, by imitating his virtues in our lives.

Then I would ask that each person from each parish would gather in prayer with their pastor and pray to the Lord of Justice and Peace for direction of what it is that God wills to work through them.

I would ask those religious communities gathered here in such great numbers would also do the same with regard to their own community.

Don't be overwhelmed by it all. God can do all things. And surely God can do one thing through each of us. Be open to that call. Listen and act.

If we would act for God, let us be worthy of that commission.

"Let us become the soldiers of God. Let us struggle for the Truth. Let us live not for our own selves but for others. Let us speak truly, think truly and act truly. Let us be hones as God is infinite honesty. Let us return love for hatred and win over others for God. Let the world know that above everything the most dear to our hearts is God – the supreme reality."

I pray that each of you and each parish will unfurl your sails so that the divine winds may guide you.

For the sake of our children, the poor, the elderly and all in need and especially those victims of violence, may we take this glorious opportunity given to us by Our Lord to really work for an end to violence in our city.

When I speak of love I'm speaking of that love that comes from God to us and is expressed in service to others.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on December 10, 1964, Dr. King said:

"I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow down before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and non violent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.' I still believe that we shall overcome."

And overcome we shall!