Second Sunday after Epiphany
Isaiah 62:1-5

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” [1]

With these words, Audre Lorde began her presentation to the Modern Language Association in December 1977. Earlier in the year, she was told by doctors that she needed breast surgery for a tumor that had a 60-80 percent chance of being malignant. In those three weeks between receiving the news and the actual surgery, Lorde says, she underwent “an involuntary reorganization” of her entire life; a “harsh and urgent clarity” that left her shaken but stronger on the other side. This clarity was an acute awareness of her mortality and of those things in her life that took priority over all else.

What she found in this time was that she most regretted her silences; those instances in her life in which she did not speak up for her beliefs because of the threat of pain or death. Yet the unfortunate truth was that death—the final silence—might be coming quickly, regardless of whether or not she had spoken what it was that needed to be said. She wrote these words on this epiphany: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” [2] Yet she goes on:

But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.

Tomorrow, we commemorate the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of us may choose to participate in a day of service, going out into our communities in the hopes of making this place just a little bit more just; a little more tolerable; a little bit better. Some of us may choose to stay at home, catching up on sleep and laundry. But at some point or another, we will be reminded of Dr. King’s words and actions, his work that sought justice for black Americans, for the poor, and for the working class.

I don’t know that I need to speak for too long about how Dr. King is remembered now. We have all surely heard his powerful words from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, in which he proclaimed a mighty dream in which this nation is transformed from a land of slavery and injustice into that beloved community where all people, regardless of color, can sit and share life together.

We read portions of his 1957 sermon entitled “Loving Your Enemies” in which he proclaims, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We see the pictures of Dr. King marching with sanitation workers on strike in Memphis, and a particularly poignant picture of him standing on the same balcony of the Lorraine Motel where he was assassinated just one day later.

And we immortalize these images, those words, and that dream. We place them in stone in a memorial in Washington. We name streets and schools after him. And, of course, we have a whole day dedicated to him and his visions of racial justice and that beloved community.

In the midst of all of this, however, it’s my concern that we isolate Dr. King into his own time, as if we somehow have transcended those injustices that compelled him. We try to persuade ourselves that we are somehow “post-racial” or colorblind, as if the issues that he spoke out against are things of the past, no longer pertinent to our lives today. But we know—truly know from the depths of our souls—that we’re not there.

African-American teenagers are still being gunned down by police, and the school-to-prison pipeline is just as prevalent in Black communities. Transgender individuals—especially trans women of color—are being murdered in hate crimes at a staggering level. And while I don’t want to bombard you with anecdotes this morning, it’s important that we are aware that the racist systems that we so often celebrate as having been demolished are still firmly in place. Yet we have taken Dr. King’s prophetic words and placed them in stone in hopes that they lose their edge, as if they only speak to a time removed from our society today.

And what we tend to do—especially those of us who are privileged—is to just stay silent about it. If it does not have an immediate bearing on our day-to-day lives, we like to act as though it’s not happening. Now, we know it is, and perhaps we’ll make a Facebook post or tweet about it every once in a while, but we are generally silent in the face of the overwhelming crisis that is happening in the neighborhood right next to ours.

Why is this? I think it’s because we’re afraid. We’re afraid that we’ll be rejected, perhaps even threatened if we take a stand that is “too radical.” We have a fear that we’ll alienate friends and family, losing loved ones. We fear that we won’t be heard or received accurately. We fear that we can’t make a difference, so saying anything is just a waste of time. We fear the vulnerability that comes with speaking, of offering a piece of ourselves to a hostile world. We fear we’ll say the wrong thing. And we have become so socialized to respect fear above all else that we in turn fail to respect ourselves, our morals, or the call that God has placed on our lives. We respect fear more than life itself.

Dr. King spoke about this just after the march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama ended in violence. In a sermon the very next day, he said these words:

There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they’re worth dying for. And if a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, some great truth stands before the door of his life — some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right. A man might be afraid his home will get bombed, or he’s afraid that he will lose his job, or he’s afraid that he will get shot, or beat down by state troopers, and he may go on and live until he’s 80. He’s just as dead at 36 as he would be at 80. The cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit.

A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. [3]

Silence in the face of injustice is a way that we try to protect ourselves form the vulnerability that comes with speaking at the cost of our soul. As Jesus asks in the Gospel of Mark, what will it profit us to gain the whole world but lose our soul? [4] If we are waiting for the “safe” time to speak out, we’ll be too late. If we are waiting for the time that we are not afraid, we will die without having said a word. Like it or not, our silence is not going to protect us or or make a single iota of difference. Death will greet us in the end. The difference is whether we got there fearfully or courageously.

For courage, I am convinced, is not as much about being completely fearless, though I think that does come. No—courage is far more about the choice to love rather than fear; in which our dream of what is to come is far more valuable than the fear that we face in the present moment.

In the lesson that Kate just read for us, we encounter a people who have just returned from seventy years of exile. And as they reached their homeland, they encounter a land that seemed unrecognizable and barren. Food was scarce, and there were conflicts with the people who settled there during the Exile. Some seemed to think that the land itself was still cursed by God for their previous disobedience, that the desolation they encountered was ongoing divine punishment. This was a time of political, economic, and spiritual chaos.

Yet the prophet Isaiah still heard the voice of God, and he heard a call that compelled him to speak: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.” [5]

In the midst of this desolation, Isaiah held on to the hope of a God who delights in God’s people and rejoices over them., not forsaking them or punishing them. Throughout the final chapters of Isaiah, the prophet paints a picture of what is to come, a vision of the new heavens and the new earth. If we were to hear this same message today, I think that it might sound something like this:

We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

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. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! [6]

When we respond out of fear to the challenges and sins facing our world this day, our response can’t help but be a paralyzing silence; an inadvertent acquiescence to the way things are and the way things have been. But when we respond out of a courageous, audacious hope for what is possible in this world, I can’t help but believe that the silence will be broken. I like to think of it as a song of sorts. It may begin softly, but it will slowly crescendo. Knowing me, it will be sung out of tune, and it at times may not be the prettiest song. But it’s a song nevertheless, filling the room until you can’t help but hear other people joining in. And then—as we sang earlier—earth and heaven will ring with the harmonies of liberty.

As Audre Lorde ended her presentation, so too do I end today: “And there are so many silences to be broken.” [7]

[1] Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press, 1984) 40.

[2] Lorde 41

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Speech on Courage” given in Selma, Alabama on March 8, 1963

[4] Mark 8:36

[5] Isaiah 62:1

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” given in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3, 1968

[7] Lorde 44