For the Common Good (with a lot of help from Dr. King)

Sermon for Sunday, January 16, 2022 || Epiphany 2C || 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

One of my favorite songs was released the year after I was born. The song comes from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love).” In one of the verses, Bono sings:

Early morning, April four
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky.
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride.

U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go.

It’s no wonder that two of the subjects of the song are Jesus (“one man betrayed with a kiss”) and Martin Luther King, Jr., about whom the verse I quoted is written. Jesus is God’s gift of love (“For God so loved the world that God gave…”). Jesus demonstrated that the ways of love will always defeat the ways of hate, even if death seems to be siding with the latter. The love Jesus showed us was not simple sentimentality or even feelings of affection. The love Jesus gave us was the down-and-dirty, stick-with-it, “hold her hair back when the flu sends dinner up the wrong way” kind of love: Love as commitment, as the promise to remain in relationship even when it hurts, when you see the beloved in pain, but stay by the bedside through the night.

We celebrate Dr. King tomorrow because of his witness to this kind of Love, which he learned from his savior. How could he have led a movement that endured what it did without the endurance of Love? The sit-ins, the marches, the speeches, the acts of prophetic defiance – none would have been possible if Love had not been the motivator. The blessed saints of the Civil Rights Movement would not have turned the other cheek when the dogs were let loose and the fire hoses turned on. They would not have remained seated peacefully at the lunch counter. They would not have crossed that bridge in Selma or that schoolhouse door in Tuscaloosa.

Without Love as the foundation, the hatred of their enemies would have infected them. But Dr. King knew a better way, the way of Love, the way of Jesus, who knew compassion could ward off the infection of hate: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Dr. King’s death happened fifteen years before I was born, so it has always been a matter of historical record for me, as opposed to a visceral remembrance like it is for so many. I know the date because U2 sings it: “Early morning, April four.” U2 bears witness to Dr. King’s legacy: “Free at last, they took your life / They could not take your pride.”

For the longest time I never understood that line, nor the name of the song (“Pride”) because Pride was my nemesis. It was my great sin, the one that most often separated me from others and from God. Then I became a parent, and I understood the good kind of pride you can take in your children or your friends’ achievements or your community’s togetherness, which are just more manifestations of love. 

The pride U2 says could not be taken away from Dr. King is this kind of pride. His was the pride of a people claiming the dignity God had given them, but other people had tried to take away. Dr. King and his companions declared that such dignity could not be wrestled from them, for it was an unalienable right granted by the Creator-of-All-That-Is.

My great sin was not pride after all, but hubris. Hubris is a form of self-centeredness that tricks you into thinking you are the sole cause of all the good things in your life. Thus hubris isolates us by distorting our view of reality and keeping us from seeing all the other hands at work weaving the garment of destiny that I mentioned last week. Dr. King spoke of this garment in a commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965.

This is a rather long quotation, so stick with me. Dr. King said:

All life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.

In today’s reading from the First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul says something similar. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit…. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Paul then goes on to list many spiritual gifts: wisdom and teaching and healing and prophecy, among others. 

The Spirit bestows these gifts for the common good, Paul says: not for individual glory, not for some to rise in power at the expense of others, but for the common good. The common good is the single garment of destiny. Dr. King’s spiritual gift was prophecy; that is, the ability to present a vision of the future so compelling and so just that the vision itself is a threat to the unjust structures of the present. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was under no illusion that the work was done in 1965. Later in the same speech, he said,

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.” Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.

Dr. King’s spiritual gift was prophetic vision, and he called all people to the work of justice and love. He knew Paul’s clarity about spiritual gifts, and all these years later King’s words still invite us to use our spiritual gifts for the common good, as we weave together that single garment of destiny.

This week, I invite you to pray with God about how the Holy Spirit manifests in you. What spiritual gift has God given you for the common good of all? Wisdom? Faith? Healing? Prophecy? Something else that Paul never dreamed of? Claiming your gift is not hubris because God gave it to you for the building up of the community, for the common good. In what specific ways is God nudging you to use that gift? How are you participating in God’s vision of the future, where all are reconciled through love and justice with one another and with God?

“The time is always right to do right,” Dr. King said. And I think he would have gladly approved U2’s addition: “In the name of love.”

One thought on “For the Common Good (with a lot of help from Dr. King)

  1. Thank you, Adam, for pointing out the difference between “good” pride and hubris, between the joy we feel in doing something well, in seeing our children becoming decent human beings, and the feeling of being better than anybody else at just about everything.

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