Peace be with all of you. I would like to open by sharing my favorite story from scripture with you . . .
The story takes place after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection very early on a warm, hazy morning.
The disciples are out at sea in their boat, upset that the fish aren’t biting. From their boat, the frustrated fishermen spot a solitary figure standing on the distant shore, but they do not recognize the figure as Jesus.
The man on shore tells the disciples to cast their nets over the side of the boat, and when they do, their nets spill over with fish.
It dawns on John that this man is Jesus, and when he says, “It is the Lord,” the ever-passionate Simon Peter jumps into the water and wades toward Jesus while the other disciples follow in the boat, now loaded down with fish.
What follows is one of the most intimate and tender scenes in scripture.
After having been betrayed by these same men only days before, Jesus builds a charcoal fire and cooks a delicious breakfast for his disciples. “Come, have breakfast, “ he invites them and then proceeds to serve them bread and fish.
Think about it . . . these guys had denied Jesus, abandoned him, run away . . . and what does Jesus do? He cooks and serves them breakfast.
No lectures, no anger, no accusations.
Jesus does, however, have a question that he asks Simon Peter after the meal.
The most important question that Peter had ever been asked and, perhaps, the most important question that Jesus asks of us.
Once their bellies are full and the men are relaxing on the shore, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him:
Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these? and Peter answers, Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. To which Jesus replies, Feed my lambs. After a pause, Jesus turns to his friend a second time and asks, Simon, son of John, do you love me? Again, Peter answers, Yes, Lord, you know that I do, and Jesus instructs him, Tend my sheep. Jesus poses the question yet a third time, and by now, growing distressed, Peter, never one for patience, answers, Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Feed my sheep, Jesus commands him.
Suddenly, those three denials spoken in fear only days earlier evaporate into the morning air, replaced by three proclamations of love for Jesus.
It would be nice if the scene were to end on such a warm and comforting note. But, there is more to the story. As the story continues, we discover that this love, this commitment, comes at an exceedingly high cost. Now that Simon Peter has declared his love for Jesus, Jesus goes on to explain what the future holds for his young friend:
Amen, amen, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.
In other words, Jesus tells Peter that this love that Peter has just professed will result in Peter’s being hauled away and executed.
Hardly the kind of news any of us would want to hear at the breakfast table.
Then, before Peter can take in the enormity of these words, Jesus looks him in the eye and says, Follow me.
Follow me, says Jesus. This must have been terrifying for the disciple whose hear caused him to deny even knowing Jesus. Follow me, Jesus now invites Peter.
It is important to note that Jesus does not tell Peter to worship or adore him.
No, he instructs his friend to follow him, a much more difficult and costly command. Jesus invites Peter to follow him all the way to the cross. To the site of execution. To death.
Almost two thousand years later in Montgomery, Alabama, a young Baptist pastor named Martin Luther King, Jr, slumped over a cup of coffee at his kitchen table in the middle of the night. Martin was dealing with the bitter politics swirling around the bus boycott, had just experienced jail for the first time, and was now receiving death threats.
Fearful, exhausted, and near despair, Martin placed his head in his hands and sobbed. Near the end of his rope, Martin cried out to God that he was out of strength and out of courage.
In a moment that was to change his life, the fearful civil rights leader experienced the overwhelming presence of Jesus in the room with him. A Jesus who offered the same words that were spoken to Peter: Follow me. I will be with you, Martin. Stand up for righteousness, stand up for courage, and stand up for truth. Follow me.
And, despite his weakness and human failings, Martin, like Peter, allowed himself to be led to a place where he would rather not have gone. Led to a place of countless arrests, beatings, misunderstandings, and accusations.
Threatened by violence in the South, racism in the North, investigated and harassed by the government, criticized by his own movement when he condemned the war in Vietnam, he was branded a troublemaker, a communist, a radical.
Heeding the Lord’s demand to tend my sheep, Martin’s discipleship took him to Memphis, Tennessee where he was to join striking sanitation workers who were marching for justice and human dignity. His visit to Memphis on behalf of the poor led him to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where his Yes to Jesus was met by hatred, by the gun, by death.
Fast forward to the year 2004.
My high school theology class has just finished studying Dr. King, when one of my junior students, Alejandra raises her hand. “How come they kill all the good guys?” she asks, ticking off on her fingers the names of Mahatma Gandhi, Oscar Romero, Jean Donovan and the three Maryknoll sisters killed in El Salvador.
Another student, Derrick, jumps into the conversation, “Yeah, and how come so many others ended up in jail?”” And he names Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Philip Berrigan.
I think of St. Teresa of Avila who said, “If this is how God treats his friends, it’s no wonder he has so few” and wonder how to address my students’ questions.
Finally I give the best answer – the only answer – I know.
I point to the crucifix on the classroom wall, to the One hanging there on a cross.
The One who taught us not how to kill, as it has been said but, rather, how to die.
The One whose last words to his disciples before his execution were, Put up your sword.
The One who said, Blessed are the peacemakers.
The the One who broke the law by healing on the Sabbath.
The the One who turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple.
This nonviolent Jesus was considered a troublemaker, a scandal, a threat to the status quo. What to do with a simple man from Nazareth who tells his followers to love their enemies? To give their riches away to the poor? To lay down their weapons?
This kind of love and this kind on nonviolent God-man was too much for those in power to tolerate.
He challenged injustice, he turned old assumptions on their heads, he dined with outsiders, he befriended women. He spoke of a kingdom where the last would be first and the first would be last. His only weapon was truth, and it cut to the bone.
Of course, they arrested Him and had him killed. It was inevitable. The world was not ready for this kind of love.
And so it has gone for the friends of Jesus throughout the centuries. For those who agreed to follow him down this nonviolent path of love.
They have been put down and locked up.
They have been persecuted and prosecuted.
They have been called dangerous dreamers.
They have been labeled crazy criminals.
They have been called fools and said they wished they were more so for the sake of Christ and his nonviolent kingdom, or as King called it, the Beloved Community.
They make up the great cloud of witnesses who heard the words follow me and put on their running shoes.
Being human, they probably muttered their “Yes” through chattering teeth while feeling a knot of dread in their stomachs, but they were, nevertheless, resolute in their response.
Like Peter and like us, these great followers of the nonviolent Jesus were human in every way.
They include a high-spirited young woman from Chicago who gave up a privileged life to serve the poor in El Salvador during a bloody civil war, an American journalist with a wild past who opened her heart to the poor while saying “No” to war, and a migrant worker who prayed, fasted, and organized in the hot fields of California on behalf of farmworkers.
They include three nuns who currently sit in federal prison for daring to beat swords into plowshares in obedience to a higher law that says, “Thou shalt not kill,” and they include, of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the very human man whose life we celebrate today.
And so we celebrate today, but we celebrate with great caution. For there is a danger in reducing Dr. King, as we have so often reduced Jesus himself, to a safe and sanitized figure whose message is little more than a sound bite.
We grab onto “I have a dream” and forget that the nightmare of racism, materialism, and militarism that King dubbed “the three triplets of evil” still plagues our world.
If we only honor the memory but toss out the message – a message that is more urgent today than ever – we are little more than armchair peacemakers. By perching King atop a pedestal, we can admire his life from a safe distance where the risks, the uncertainty, the challenges of peacemaking hardly touch us at all.
By keeping King on a lofty pedestal, we risk the temptation of letting ourselves off the hook. The biggest danger is that by making a saint of our brother, Martin, we may miss out on our own call to holiness.
For we, too, are called to risk being fools for Christ. To dirty our own hands. To join in the work.
As surely as Jesus invited Peter and Martin and Dorothy and Oscar to follow him, he invites each one of us to follow him down the steep and dangerous path of nonviolent discipleship.
While we may not all be called by Jesus to lead marches, spend time in jail, or die as martyrs, we are all called to follow from the places where we find ourselves now.
Whether you are the Pope or whether you are in preschool, the voice of Jesus that has echoed through the centuries, still speaks in our hearts today:
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . Blessed are the peacemakers . . . Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do unto me.
Yes, Jesus spoke to Peter over breakfast and he spoke to Martin at his kitchen table, and, if you listen carefully, you will hear him speak to you, inviting you to follow him.
The difficulty is, however, that we live in a culture of competing voices, and it is often hard to hear the gentle voice of Jesus over the clamor. When we do hear the voice of Jesus it is so out of synch with the other voices that surround us that we often turn away.
We sense a danger – a kind of death – in the invitation to follow Jesus that is hard to bear.
And yet this is the road to peace. To be sure, it is an uphill road – a road that will often make you feel as if you are walking alone and heading in the wrong direction.
But walk we must!
As the U.S. Bishops wrote in their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace:
Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus.
We can never forget that we have been baptized into Christ’s crucifixion, however that may play out in each of our lives, and let us be clear – crucifixion hurts.
The crucifixion of standing up for a classmate who is being made fun of is no less painful than the crucifixion felt by St. Francis when he was belittled for choosing Lady Poverty over his father’s riches.
The crucifixion of being called a wimp for refusing to fight is no less real than the crucifixion experienced by Franz Jagerstatter who chose to die rather than serve in Hitler’s military.
Whether you are Martin Luther King, Jr. or a sophomore at Divine Child High School, the work of peace – of following Jesus – comes at a cost.
In a few weeks, I will be meeting with several young people who have been studying the gospels along with the lives of the saints and great peacemakers for the past couple of years.
Several of these young adults have come to the conclusion that they cannot in good conscience participate in war and are preparing to declare themselves conscientious objectors. They are standing on the gospel and leaning on the teachings of the Church.
They have taken to heart the words of Pope John Paul II who made a statement that is worth taking the time to read aloud. The sound of these words in our time seem so foreign, so out of step with what we hear in the media, but they are the words of our Pope and they need to be listened to. Speaking to a group of young people, the Holy Father said:
On my knees, I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace . . . Violence only delays the day of justice. Violence delays the work of justice . . . I say to you, with all the love I have for you, with all the trust I have in young people: do not listen to voices which speak the language of hatred, revenge, retaliation. Do not follow any leaders who train you in the way of inflicting death. Love life respect life, in yourselves and to others. Give yourself to the service of life, not the work of death. Violence is the enemy of justice. Only peace can lead the way to true justice.
And the cost to those young people who are taking these words to heart? Given the voices clamoring for war, war, and more war, it is high indeed.
They are sure to be criticized by friends, family and even some in the Church. Yet, having wrestled with the voices that surround them, they feel they must take this step, follow this path, come what may.
This willingness to say, “Yes, I’ll follow you, Lord” wherever it leads is the essence of discipleship.
Your “yes” may require you to befriend the marginalized in your school or welcome a new neighbor who comes from a different religious or racial group. Your “yes” may mean that you consume less and give away more. It may mean smiles rather than snarls at the family dinner table.
These are the kinds of simple actions that make for peace and prepare you for the tougher, costlier choices that you will face as you mature.
As my favorite tee shirt says, “Peace Takes Guts.” The guts to stand alone at times, the guts to be laughed at and ostracized, the guts to be a nonviolent disciple of Jesus.
Dr. King understood this well. We forget that as a drum major for peace and justice, something he aspired to, he often felt he was out of step and marching alone.
Jesus, abandoned by his disciples, felt the same way. It is not easy to follow the Nonviolent One in a world that seems to only understand the language of revenge and retaliation. Yet, ultimately, this is the only way.
And the good news – and it is good news indeed – is that we do not undertake this walk alone. Jesus is walking with us, loving us and giving us the courage we need to live nonviolently.
As Peter and Martin and all those who work for peace understand, this is all we really need.
There is a freedom beyond description that comes from placing out trust in God alone. When we learn that true security does not come from money or missiles or looks or popularity – but from God alone – we are spiritually free to follow Jesus wherever he may lead.
So many of our saints and prophets were jailed for their beliefs, but they found out that there is no jail cell big enough to hold a human heart that has pledged itself to Love.
Nor was there a cross big enough to hold – once and for all – the One who is Love.
What Simon Peter and Martin and all of us discover when we follow the nonviolent Jesus is that while the way of peace is the way of the cross, it is also the way of resurrection.
We were not only baptized in Christ’s death, we were also baptized into his victory over the grave.
Each time we follow Jesus and act for peace, in ways both large and small, we are graced with a taste of resurrection.
Like King’s vision articulated the night before he was killed, we too can catch a glimpse of the Promised Land when we agree to take this walk with Jesus.
It is a Land of justice and reconciliation and hope and righteousness. It is a Land where, finally, the Beloved Community is realized. It is a Land worth living for. It is a Land worth dying for.
On this special day, let us follow Jesus. Let us work for peace. Let us listen to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and make his prayer our own:
I’d like somebody to mention that I tried to give my life to serving others, that I tried to love somebody. I want you to say that I tried to be right on the war question. That I tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you can say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. Say that I was a drum major for righteousness. I just want to leave a committed life behind. Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right side or on your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right side or your left side not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition, but I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.
MLK Day reflection given at Divine Child High School