Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, January 16, 2011, "The Power of One", Richard Clifford SJ


Second Sunday Ordinary Time A (1/16/11)

Last Saturday we were taught a very bitter lesson–the power of one. A twenty-two year old gunman named Jared Loughran opened fire with a Glock pistol, killing six and wounding fourteen. Among those dead were two people that news reports focused on because of their exceptional gifts, a nine-year old girl and a federal judge. Among those wounded, the press understandably focused on the congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, popular in her district and exceptional as a legislator in Washington, D.C. But these exceptional individuals were gunned down by one disturbed and alienated individual. The power of one.

Let us turn now to another individual, one in whom we can see the power of one–for good. I speak of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life will, I think, give us an insight into today’s Gospel. As you know, as a nation we will celebrate Monday as a national holiday in his honor, always the third Monday in January, near his birthday of January 15..

Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in 1929 and died April 4, 1968. His grandfather began the family's long tenure as pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, serving from 1914 to 1931; his father served from then on, co-pastoring with his son until Martin’s death. Martin attended segregated public schools in Georgia, and received the B. A. degree in 1948 from Morehouse College, his grandfather and father’s alma mater. After three years of theological study at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania (where he was elected president of a predominantly white senior class), he was awarded the B.D. in 1951. Enrolling in the doctoral program at Boston University, he received the Ph.D. in 1955. In Boston he met and married Coretta Scott, a young woman of rare intellectual and artistic attainments. Two sons and two daughters were born into the family.

In 1954, Martin Luther King became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As a member of the executive committee of the NAACP, he stepped up to lead the first great Black nonviolent demonstration of contemporary times in the United States, the bus boycott, which lasted 382 days. In December, 1956, after the US Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional, Blackes and whites began to ride the buses as equals. During the boycott, King was arrested, his home was bombed, he was subjected to personal abuse, but at the same time he emerged as a Black leader of the first rank.

In 1957 he was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to lead the rapidly growing civil rights movement. The ideals for this organization he took from Christianity; many of its operational techniques from Gandhi. In the eleven-year period between 1957 and 1968, King traveled over six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action; and found the time to write five books. In these years, he led a massive protest in Birmingham, Alabama, which he called a coalition of conscience. It inspired his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail": he planned voter registration drives for blacks in Alabama; he directed the peaceful march on Washington, D.C., of 250,000 people to whom he delivered his address, "l Have a Dream", he conferred with President John F. Kennedy and campaigned for President Lyndon B. Johnson; he was arrested upwards of twenty times and assaulted at least four times; he was awarded five honorary degrees; was named Man of the Year by Time magazine in 1963; and became not only the symbolic leader of American blacks but also a world figure. At the age of thirty-five, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

On the evening of April 4, 1968, while standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lead a protest march in sympathy with striking garbage workers of that city, he was assassinated.

I mentioned that Dr. King will help us get inside the readings from the Bible that we have just heard. Great as his accomplishment is, he is not a unique figure. There have been versions of Dr. King all through biblical history and the history of the church. We have heard one of them speak in the first reading–an unknown prophet who lived centuries before the time of Jesus Christ. This prophet, whose name we unfortunately don’t know, boldly declared to his demoralized fellow Israelites exiled in Babylon, that God was not through with him. Not only was God looking upon them with kindness and fidelity, God was urging them to get up and march. March home to Zion, which is the place where they belonged, for God had given the land to their ancestors. But his fellow exiles, badly shaken and many without hope, would not believe him. They preferred to believe that there was nothing left. They were abandoned and it was better and more realistic that they realize that and settle in.

But he refused to be silent and told them that their dreams were too small. "It is too little," he told them, "for you to be (only) my servant, to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and restore the survivors of Israel." Great as they are, that dream is too restricted. The prophet went on: "I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth." The prophet, with some friends, joined the march to Zion. Though many did not follow, they were brought back to full life by the courageous act of that one prophet. Without knowing it, that prophet taught later generations about Jesus, for he foreshadowed some of Jesus’ traits in his own life.

John the Baptist, too, about whom we read in today’s Gospel, was also a herald of Jesus. He pointed him out and urged us to listen to him. He points to him as the one sent from God, endowed with the Spirit, the very Son of God. Martin Luther King, a deeply Christian leader and clergyman, would say the same. All three of these great saints would point to Jesus and say that whatever good was in them was the result of God’s sending the spirit.

So let us this weekend honor one of God’s heroes and realized that we ourselves are called not only to admire, but to imitate. Each of us has gifts that only we can bring and enable others to worship the Lord and strengthen the community.


Richard J. Clifford, S.J.

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