Standing in virtual pulpits in churches less that a mile and half away from each other, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling and Senator Cory Booker preached on justice Jan 17. Their thoughts, delivered independently of one another, were the prelude of an historic week that held the national observance of Martin Luther King Day and the inauguration of a new American president, just weeks after domestic terrorists laid siege to the U.S. Capitol.
“Now, let us get to the deepest things we know,” said Bishop Easterling, kicking off a sermon series of ebony bishops at Asbury UMC in Washington, D.C.
Booker (D-NJ) began by joking how preaching at Foundry UMC beat his earlier appearance that morning on Meet the Press. But he went on to share how he has been struggling with his own faith in these times of darkness and pandemic in our nation.
Both leaders acknowledged how important it is to address the systemic sins of poverty, racism, and hatred, while acknowledging that in important spiritual moments in history, individuals must, with humility, take stock of their faith, beliefs, and actions.
Booker confessed that he sometimes still struggles with living up to the radical love expressed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“King understood that in order to change the world, one must prepare yourself, one must fortify yourself, one must recommit yourself to the difficult Gospel of Jesus Christ, the difficult Gospel of loving your enemy, loving your neighbor, loving unconditionally and radically,” Booker said.
Easterling, the presiding bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, cited Psalm 46 as she stressed how living one’s faith can be a radical act.
“God’s business is never neutral,” she said. “God is not simply a sympathetic presence meant to provide a place to hide in times of trouble. No, God is an active agent providing a place of strength in which all may firmly dwell.”
For Booker, this dwelling place takes him deep into a core belief that “on any given day, one of the biggest differences we can make in the world will most often be a small act of kindness, decency, or love.”
He shared a moment when he forgot this truth in a way that still breaks his heart. In the time leading up to running for mayor, Booker lived in a low-income high-rise in the projects, where he befriended a group of teenage boys who he watched grow up as they hung out in the lobby of his building. One boy in particular, Hassan Washington, reminded Booker of his father.
As he got to know the boys, he made plans to help them and connect them with opportunities. But as he grew busier in the mayoral run, the boys drifted away from the lobby and Booker lost track of his intentions. He regretted it, but also told himself that as mayor he was going to take care of all the city’s children.
Then tragedy struck. On one of his first days in office, Booker was called to the scene of a murder.
“I will shamefully tell you I barely acknowledged the humanity killed on the sidewalk,” he said. “I was just ministering to the living and talking about my plans.”
But that night he learned that one of the boys killed was Hassan Washington. It felt like a gut punch, he said. It still shatters his heart.
Washington’s death made him vow to try harder to use his moral imagination and creativity to find ways to “make real the potential and promise that each of us has to affect the world.
“It all boils down to us, who we are as individuals – the power of our love, the grandeur of our imagination, our ability, every day, to be good to one another,” Booker said. “I don’t know if I have the solution to all of our nation’s problems, but I know that those solutions lie with the heart of each of us as individuals.”
Bishop Easterling also stressed the need for people of faith to be still and know how God is speaking into their lives.
But she cautioned against a trend in the church and nation to practice “spiritual bypass,” using Scripture and religious cliches “to push past the hard work we are called to do, instead of asking hard questions and wrestling with injustice.”
Like Booker, the bishop called on United Methodists to wrestle with injustice and refuse to rush to premature forgiveness before a harm is even named, understood, or addressed.
She asked people of faith to avoid spiritual bypassing as they consider and celebrate King’s life and work, taking care not to cling to false narratives or romanticized myths.
“America is familiar with many of Dr. King’s quotes and she loves to hear her children recite parts of certain speeches,” Bishop Easterling said. “But are our actions performance or purposeful? Is our witness to Dr. King’s message simply transactional, or it is transformative?”
“Beloved, let me be clear,” she said, that we must be still and count on God.
“But this is not a call to passivity, or to remain cloistered in our sanctuaries. It is not a call to engage in pious private spirituality or an excuse to avoid the prophetic work of acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
“We need to understand that the battle is the Lord’s. Understanding that, we can use our energy, our strength, and our wisdom to work to become repairers of the breach, to work to fulfill justice throughout the land, (and) to work so that there is true peace.”
Booker ended his sermon remembering King’s assassination, and the plaque outside the Lorraine Hotel that evokes the story of the biblical Joseph right after his brothers threw him in a well to die. “Behold here cometh a dreamer,” the plaque states. “Let us slay him and see what becomes of his dream.”
“Well, King has been slain but we must answer the question of what will become of his dream,” said Booker. “Each one of us, if we follow those dreams with love and work and sacrifice for others, I tell you, we may be down in a well now, but we will rise up together, each of us connected one to another – illuminating, inspiring, engaging other souls, and we will light up the sky and cast away the darkness.”
In her sermon, Easterling wove together the truths of both sermons.
“Justice will not be silenced,” she said. “Justice will not be defeated; justice will not be bullied. Hate will not have the last word. Love always wins.”