Thursday, January 18, 2018

The servant of God will not be denied

By Bishop J. Terry Steib, S.V.D.

Below is a transcript of an homily given by Bishop J. Terry Steib, S.V.D., bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, during a special Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels honoring late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Together we celebrate the day for a man of God who knew what the Lord meant when he said, "You are my servant through whom I show my glory." 

Martin Luther King Jr. was that servant of God, sent in our midst to help us find a new way. And together we recall a memory of a prophet of our time who has now become in many ways a light to the nations.

And we commemorate that dream not just to the African-American community, but to all the people of the United States, and yes, even to the people of the world.

In our first reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us that the servant of God is a person upon whom the Spirit of the Lord is present. The servant of God is a person whom the Lord has chosen and sent to bring good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, release to the prisoners.

Isaiah was a servant of the Lord; and in his time, the people of God had returned to their own land, but they were desperate for a new beginning, desperate to make a whole a land that had been destroyed, desperate for a message that would transform their lives. It was to these chosen people that God sent his servant Isaiah.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in our time, was a servant of the Lord who came into the midst of the people as the people of God were trying to bring themselves out of the tortured times which was called Jim Crow at that time.

For too long, slavery meant that the black people had to mind their place. For too long, slavery meant that black people had to drink from one fountain, while the white people drank from the other fountain.

For too long, slavery meant that the civil rights of a minority group of people was different from the civil rights of a majority group. For too long, what African-American people said did not matter as much as what caucasian people said.

It was in our midst that God sent his servant Martin Luther King Jr..

He helped us to see the promised land of civil rights, for whoever was willing to open their eyes, he proclaimed the good news to the poor, to the victimized, to the enslaved, to the prisoners of the remnant of slavery.

We know his dream, and many of us can remember the wonder of having it spoken on that August day in 1963. We remember the baritone voice of Reverend King touching the hearts of some 250,000 marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., when he told them, "I have a dream."

We remember the thrill of it, and we still hold on to the dream.

And the dream is just like every other human being's dream. It's a dream of being free to be ourselves. It's a dream of being able to pursue the ideal of what it means to be an American: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

"I'm black and I'm proud," we said back then. "Black and beautiful, and free," we said back then. "Black and Catholic, and free," we said back then.

And what are we saying today?

And yet, sisters and brothers, even though we know the dream of freedom, even though we have heard many people espouse this dream, even though some of us were in Washington, D.C., when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put beautiful words to the dream, we know that the dream is deferred, it's put off, it's waiting for its completion.

Are our lives better now than they were at the height of slavery? Of course they are. 

Are our lives better than they were when we were sitting at lunch counters or refusing to move to the back of the bus, or watching and hearing about our young men and young women being killed when the bombs went off in Southern churches for no other reason than they happened to be black? 

Are things better today than they were then? Of course they are.

But the dream is still deferred, like a raisin in the sun, like a festering sore. We've come a long way, but we still have a way to go.

How do we know that? We know that the dream is deferred because we have hundreds of people who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia, stating in effect that African-American people are inferior and should remember their place.

And we thought that somehow, these terrible statements ... just maybe we as a nation were beyond such horrible historics.

We know the dream is deferred because we know that nine African-American people were killed in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, recently because a deranged young man chose to shoot them while he studied with them in Bible study group.

We know the dream is deferred because a candidate in recent election for an Alabama Senate seat said that America was great back in slavery times, because families stayed together.

Which part did he miss? That slavery is wrong, immoral? Or did he miss the fact that one of the tragedies of slavery was that black families were broken apart for no other reason than that the slave owner could get a better price for this or that stronger slave. 

Or that the slave was a father to several children, or that the slave was pregnant, made no difference. The master sold the strongest to the highest bidder.

Sisters and brothers, our enslaved families, our enslaved ancestors, lived their wretchedness, hoping, praying, and living for the moment when someone would make their dreams of freedom come alive.

And here came the drum major, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And oh, yes, the dream is still deferred, byt the prophet, the servant of God, will not be denied.

I'd like to believe that what has led us to this day, will give us a sense to continue to ask about his dream, his cause, suggesting that in that dream, he lives somewhere nearby.

Perhaps, we will have the wisdom and the knowledge and the courage to introduce our young ones to the hero, who by the end of his life was totally committed to bringing the good news to the afflicted, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty, to release the prisoners.

Perhaps, we will remind ourselves that the old dream, the famous and forever quoted dream of 1963 was only the beginning. Perhaps, we will remember that neither the dream nor the dreamer can die in places where men and women and children give themselves to the building of a better world.

And wasn't that what Martin Luther King kept saying to the end of his life? Let us rededicate ourselves in the long and bitter but beautiful struggle for a new world.

So let us invite ourselves, and our young ones, to build on that dream. 

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