Married to the Builder

January 20, 2013   St Paul and St Andrew UMC, NYC

K Karpen   Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2: 1-12

Download K Karpen Sermon 1-20-2013 podcast or click to listen.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest… The nations shall see your vindication, and all the rulers your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give you.”  Isaiah 62

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, well, be alright. 

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

 

…and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give you.”

Every once in a while, I believe, a prophet is sent to a nation in need of prophecy.  Such was Isaiah.  Such was John the Baptist.  And such was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By calling him a prophet we don’t have to do him the disservice of making him out to be more than human, or less than human.  Martin King was always the first person to point to his own faults, failures and shortcomings.  But none of that makes him less of a prophet.

As we saw last week, God never makes perfect prophets.  Moses, Miriam, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, all were people keenly aware of their limitations.  Most were people who would rather have done anything else besides prophesy.  But all were people God found a way to use anyway, to bring a message of judgment and hope, nonviolence and love, forgiveness and reconciliation to their own times, to their own nations, to their own people.

And so it was with Dr. King.  We sometimes forget that in life he was controversial.  In 1963, the year of the ‘I have a dream’ speech, he was picked as Time Magazine’s ‘Man of the Year.’  He was also declared a radical terrorist by the FBI, and put under surveillance for the rest of his life.  In 1968 when he was killed, a public suddenly mourned a figure many had criticized and reviled for opposing the war in Vietnam and calling for a poor people’s occupation of Washington DC.

If in death he seems larger than life to us, that’s our doing, not his.  That was not his goal.  As he said the night before he died, Like anybody, I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place, But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will…”

I just want to do God’s will.   Prophets are people who want to do God’s will, whether it’s comfortable or not, whether they’re understood or not, whether anyone’s listening or not, whether it’s controversial or not.

God uses imperfect people and sends them to places that often do not deserve them.  As someone once said, God sends prophets to nations not because we are so special but because God cares so much.”

And so it is with our poor country.  At the right time and in the right place, I believe, God figured out a way to give us a message we needed through a tremendously talented, wonderfully imperfect human messenger.

In the effort to make him larger than life, Martin King has been invoked in all sorts of causes.  By conservatives and progressives, by republicans and democrats, by pro-choice and pro-life advocates, in favor of welfare reform and against it.  Against and in favor of gay marriage.

And so it was this past week, when Second Amendment advocates claimed that were King alive today he would support gun ownership rights.

At first that maybe seemed a claim too outrageous to make of a man whose life was ended by a gun.  But the truth is that there was a time when threats against his family caused Martin King to keep a gun in his house.  He even applied for a concealed-carry permit, a permit that was denied because he was the wrong color to benefit from gun rights that had, let’s face it, been added to the US Constitution partly at the urgent request of nervous slave owners who feared a slave revolt.

But there is one thing to bear in mind when making use of the legacy of someone as complicated as Dr. King.  It is not easy for a person to change his or her mind, but it is possible.  It happens.  And sometimes when it happens, it seems a greater miracle than the one Jesus performed at Cana.  If fact, when you consider how we stick to our opinions in the face of all manner of facts to the contrary, turning water into wine seems a simple matter.  Compared to turning people’s minds around.

For Dr. King, I think the turning point came after President Kennedy was assassinated.  He understood better than most that one lone person does not assassinate a president.  That has nothing to do with conspiracy theories!  He was thinking about the climate, the culture, that can allow things like that to happen.

So here is what Dr. King said in response to that assassination:  Our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate.  It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling with winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence.

It is a climate where people cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder.  It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and six innocent negro children in Birmingham, Alabama.”

And then he added:

So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation.  By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice by the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing…”

In that same way, if we don’t allow the shootings in Newtown and elsewhere to change us and move us to change others, we fall into that same climate and culture that Dr. King had in mind.

I can remember the moment my own mind changed about guns.

We grew up with guns in the house.  I can remember an early miserable experience at camp at the age of eight, when in the course of a shooting competition with a rival cabin over the prize of a pizza, my sweet counselor announced, Karpen can have his own pizza party if he even hits the target.”  It occurred to me only later that that wasn’t such a smart thing to say to a kid with a rifle in his hands.

After that miserable experience I was taken for riflery lessons, given by a Methodist minister and friend of the family, until I was pretty good.  And in the bottom of some drawer in my parents’ house is buried a pile of patches and marksmanship medals from the NRA.  Confession time.

In sixth grade, I argued vociferously against gun restrictions in a classroom debate.  When our side lost the debate, my mind was hardened, not changed.

But my moment of truth, like Dr. King’s, came at the news of a horrific act of gun violence.  The assassination of a different American hero.  This time it was Dr. King himself.  After that moment in early April 1968, I never willingly shot another gun.

It would be nice to think that we could change our minds without some traumatic occurrence.  It would be nice to think that God could use us to change the hearts and the minds of other people.

And you know what?  It happens.  Not always but sometimes.  It happens when the truth is spoken aloud, without fear, without rancor.

It happens when we stand up for what we believe, echoing Malcolm X, who said, if you don’t stand for something, you fall for anything.

It happens one small step at a time.  As Martin King said, Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Which brings us back to the prophet Isaiah.  After the exiled people of Israel straggled back to their devastated homeland, Isaiah told a discouraged and disheartened people, I will not keep silent, I will not rest… you shall be called by a new name.  You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate. But you shall be called My Delight, and your land shall be called Married; for the Lord delights in you and your land shall be married to God. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your Builder marry you, and as the bridegroom and the bride rejoice together, so shall your God rejoice with you.”

When we find ourselves married to the Builder, when we let God change our name; when we take seriously the name Christian, we take on the possibility that God will change us.  Sure, it sometimes takes a miracle.  But that happens to be a particular specialty of our God.  Thank God.

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, well, be alright. 

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

 

Jesus told me that the world will turn against me if he changed my name

Jesus told me that the world will turn against me if he changed my name

I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, yeah, be alright. 

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

 

Jesus told me I’d have to work for justice if he changed my name.

Jesus told me I’d have to work for justice if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, yeah, be alright. 

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.

Jesus told me ‘have to give up fear and violence if he changed my name.

Jesus told me ‘have to give up fear and violence if he changed my name.

I told Jesus it would be alright, be alright, yeah, be alright. 

I told Jesus it would be alright if he changed my name.