Christ came to church this morning. He looked different than previous pictures I’d seen, but I recognized him. At South Church’s annual Martin Luther King Day service — one of their quarterly series of ecumenical worships between four churches — an old Black man in what amounts to a wheelchair came out and spoke about immigrant children and “dreamers”. He spoke about sharecroppers and Martin Luther King, Jr’s family history. The preacher talked about the police pulling him over in his own life, and he talked about children in his own neighborhood. It was then that I recognized him.
There is a part of Christian theology called “incarnational” theology, and it talks about the outrageous idea that God became incarnate — was put into a human body. Christians believed it was true in Jesus because he had certain characteristics, including a sense of eternity and justice which is different than the world around them, where God’s chosen people were oppressed by the militarized Roman Empire, he told the truth, and his stories connected him with a wide variety of people, among other things.
When Bishop Dr. Allen Wilkins preached yesterday, each of those things were true. His sermon was, as he said, “raw” — off the cuff, with some preparation, but no notes or written text. He also said that he doesn’t like to preach on Martin Luther King Day “because it brings up too many emotions”. His sermon went to a whole bunch of topics, but all of them were in accord with the Spirit of Christ.
His themes: 1) “Bullying is bad”. Sounds sweet enough, doesn’t it? But this was no “after school special” version of an anti-bullying message. Bishop Wilkins connected bullying to economic justice when he said, “There’s the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. The haves bully the have nots”. He connected it to immigrant and children’s rights. Bullying is bad when some people have rights and others don’t. He connected it to racial justice when he spoke about the police pulling him over because he was Black. When the Law treats some people like they are citizens with rights and others as citizens without rights, this, too is bullying. The Bishop believes that bullying , in all its forms, is wrong because God sees us all as citizens of God’s Kingdom. Furthermore, he said, when we see someone being bullied and we have to choose between the the bullies and the bullied, we must always choose to care for the bullied.
2) Truth affects our children. When we speak up in truth about bullying /injustice we see, we teach them that they have the right to be heard, and that the truth is powerful. When we speak the truth in church, we say that God knows the truth, and listens to it when people speak it. The truth is that Martin Luther King’s grandfather was a slave/sharecropper. The truth is that King’s father was a preacher who had it a bit better, and that King himself turned that pulpit into a way to change the world. God shined on all of them, even when society’s bullies didn’t. The truth is that our children are worth protecting.
3) Progress towards all people’s citizenship is possible and we know it because we have experienced it. The Bishop spoke of a White woman who died because her family didn’t want to hear the truth that Blacks have value and rights around the time of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was an ally. He continued on with a reminder of the history of our own South Church and its leaders in the struggle for civil rights in New Britain. He said we were allies, and that everyone in church that morning — any of the four churches there — was blessed because of it.
On a more personal note, I am an old preacher whose body has taken some hits and whose body is sore often enough. When the Bishop preached, he reminded me that I, too, still had purpose — that I, too, could speak the truth and stand up to bullies and remind people of Christianity through my own preaching when the Spirit hits. His story could be my story because we both could tell God’s story .
I have to say, though, as I heard that, that it didn’t seem like such a big deal. Ooooh, we let them use our church! We said they were human beings! We thought they should have rights! Of course we did. The church was sitting around empty otherwise. They are human. They should have rights. This is basic humanity and basic Christianity. The amazing thing is that — in this day and time — I guess these basics are radical things. Kindness has power. Truth has power. Doing the right thing has power, and our world is messed up enough that that kind of power is a stark contrast to our world.
Is yesterday’s preacher, Bishop Watkins, Jesus the Christ? No. He himself would tell you that. But as sure as we are that God’s spirit could miraculously fit in Jesus’ body, we can be sure that Jesus’ spirit could miraculously fit into the bishop’s body. The incarnation of Jesus is recognizable all of the time in the human beings around us, if we open our eyes to see it. They don’t need to be preachers, but in this case, it was.
Resisting with Peace,