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Conscience: The Struggle for a New World

January 25, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah E. Henkel at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 22, 2017. This is the second of three sermons on what it means to answer the call of Christ by making three commitments to community, conscience and caring.

Matthew 5:1-12

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

After sharing some expressions of gratitude for all in attendance and those who had invited him to the pulpit of Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began his prophetic sermon on that date almost 50 years ago with these words, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”[1]  For the next hour King preached about the unrelenting violence of the war in Vietnam suffered not only by the poor of Vietnam but also by the poor of the United States, who directly experienced the drain of economic resources as it was siphoned off to fund military spending.

The sermon was titled, “Beyond Vietnam” and alternately called “A Time to Break Silence.”  King preached this sermon one year to the day that he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee where he had traveled in support of African American sanitation workers who were on strike because of dangerous working conditions and racial discrimination.

I listened to the full sermon twice in this past week with the Community of Living Traditions, the multifaith community where I live and work, as we contemplated what King’s words mean for us – all of us – today.  I can’t recommend strongly enough the opportunity to listen to King’s Beyond Vietnam speech in full if you have not done so already…and even if you have already, to do so again as we approach the 50th anniversary of its delivery this April.  I will ask Pastor Jeff to include a link to the audio with the posting of this morning’s sermon.

Dr. King’s voice in this sermon speaks in a steady almost unmodulated tone.  He is said to have read the sermon – word for word – and you can hear the weight in the words that he is sharing.  They are heavy with sorrow and disappointment. They are also weighted with powerful momentum toward a vision for a new America.


Listen to these words of Dr. King urging his listeners to a new way. He testifies,

I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.  We must rapidly begin…the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.  When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.  On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act.  One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.  It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.[2]

The day after King preached this sermon, 168 major newspapers condemned his words and many of his allies in the fight for civil rights fell away.[3]

Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus’ words to us this morning from Matthew’s gospel are strengthening food and a clear call for us as people of faith, as a community of conscience, as we continue to struggle against the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism still wreaking havoc in our world.

The first Bible study I participated in after becoming a part of the life of this congregation was Dr. Margaret Aymer’s Presbyterian Women Horizons study called, “Confessing the Beatitudes.”  It deeply transformed my understanding of the Beatitudes and the action to which they call us.  I have heard the beatitudes interpreted and preached many times as God’s blessing over people in dire straits, a blessing that promises future heavenly reward but does little to shift the current reality, to transform the Jericho road.  Dr. Aymer’s study shared a much different perspective of the beatitudes as call to action for Jesus’ followers.

The study began by pointing to a discrepancy in most translations that gets us started on the wrong foot.  Rather than translating the Greek word makarios as “Blessed are” the Greek would be more faithfully translated as “Greatly honored are.”  Greatly honored are those who mourn, Greatly honored are those who hunger and thirst after justice.  Here’s why that translation shift makes a difference:

Matthew, the Gospel writer’s, community was suffering under military conquest that had displaced many people from their homes, crippling economic oppression carried out by the Roman Empire, and stigmatization based on their Judean roots.[4]  This is the context of those who are hearing the beatitudes as Matthew records them.  Rather than a divine action of blessing, the words “Greatly honored are” spoken by Jesus function as a call to action to the community.  Dr. Aymer writes, “By putting these makarisms [these honoring statements] into the mouth of Jesus, Matthew is demanding a response from her traumatized community, an ascription of honor – “a public validation” – toward every group that Jesus names.”[5]

Public validation and honoring of those who are downtrodden, lamenting, and made low, those who crave justice, love mercy, and build toward peace despite persecution: this was the call of Jesus’ disciples, this is the call of the church throughout the world in all times and place, and of this community of conscience right here and now in White Plains.

Last week Pastor Jeff spoke of our commitment to be community to one another, to be present and active in one another’s lives, to invite one another “to commitment and courage in dark times,” and to act when conscience calls.  This is about living into the call of the beatitudes to stand with all who are brought low by the forces of Empire.  This is about the revolution of values that Dr. King spoke of as our only way into a new world.  What does this look like?

It looks like public prayer with farmworkers in front of businesses slow to offer basic rights and weekly congregational prayers offered for family and friends shut out from reliable employment and housing.

It looks like a packed photo of congregants smiling behind a sign reading, ‘White Plains welcomes refugees,’ and the packed streets of White Plains where we have marched for justice for Trayvon Martin, for Eric Garner, for Kenneth Chamberlain, for all black lives.

It looks like monthly bursts of orange clothing on the 25th of each month to call for an end to violence against women and girls and the regular celebration of women’s strength within this congregation.

It looks like an openness to wherever God calls us next…to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, to stand side by side with the Muslim community in the face of threats, to be louder and bolder in our welcome to LGBTQ community members, to advocate for affordable health care for all, to encourage each other beyond comfort zones and into conflict zones to speak out with strong voices about God’s love in the face of hatred.


Over the past two days millions of people have marched in the streets of this nation and all over the world to give voice and presence and public validation to a revolution of values.  As we face the uncertainty of a new presidency, there is a rising cry in our country and in communities of faith like ours to follow God and God alone into the hope for a new future.

Our Reformed tradition is clear that God alone is Lord of the conscience.  A study of this central belief undertaken by our denomination in the 1980’s stresses, “When the government ignores or corrupts its role, flouts justice and endangers peace, it is no longer fulfilling the purpose for which God gave us the gift of civil authority. When that happens, Christians, one by one and as the church, must search consciences and seek the Spirit’s guidance to discover what it will mean in a particular time to obey God rather than men.”[6]

We will continue together in this congregation to seek the Spirit’s guidance, to hear and obey God’s word, and to go where we are sent.  This is not easy or risk-free work.  It is also not solitary work.  In our conversations about King’s “Beyond Vietnam” sermon this week, we were reminded about the number of deep connections and friendships that called him forward to offer those words of challenge.  There were his letters exchanged with Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who wrote about the devastation he witnessed first-hand and entrusted his friend Martin with the call for peace; his difficult conversations with young black men in the North who demanded he take on the epic violence being dealt by the U.S. government before critiquing violent tactics of revolution in American streets; his close partnership with his Mennonite friend Vincent Harding who drafted and helped bring to life the text of ‘Beyond Vietnam’; the worshipping communities King visited – of many faith traditions – that gave courage to “the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world.”[7]

We are called as a community to encourage one another to choose to follow God’s voice, the call of our conscience to stand with all held in dishonor by the powers of this world. In the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, “Even when they call us mad, when they call us subversives and communists and all the epithets they put on us, we know that we only preach the subversive witness of the Beatitudes, which have turned everything upside down.” In gratitude and awe of this world turning gospel and its call on our lives, we say: Amen.


Prayers of the People

God of our Conscience,
We give you thanks for the stir of your Spirit in our lives,
For the Spirit of restlessness that settles in us when become complacent,
For the Spirit of courage that leads us where we fear to go,
For the Spirit of companionship that reminds us we do not go alone.

You call us to acts of justice, love, and mercy.
We pray for a world that is wounded by injustice, violence, and greed.
May our prayers lead us to act, may our actions become living prayers.

We pray for this earth that sustains and holds us, giving thanks and praying for the healing of all creation.

We pray for all nations of this earth, especially those experiencing extreme violence and war: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Turkey, Somalia, The Philippines, Yemen, Libya, Darfur, Nigeria, South Sudan, Israel, Palestine.

We pray for this nation as we face the future together, as people in this country inaugurate a renewed commitment to stand with and to honor all who are brought low the forces of injustice. We give thanks for the millions of people who marched and sang out the way of justice this week and especially for the voices of women who led the way as organizers and visionaries in cities across the world.

We pray for the witness of the church and of all communities of faith as we discern God’s call above the voice of fear and division.

We pray for….
God of compassion, be present to us in this place and in this world.  Give us courage to bear your light and your love all along this journey for goodness is stronger than evil and love is stronger than hate.  May this truth thrive and grow.  Hear us as we join our voices in hope to pray, “Our Father…

[1] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” Riverside Church, April 4, 1967,

[2] King, “Beyond Vietnam”

[3] “The Story of King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’ Speech,” Interview with Tavis Smiley (National Public Radio, March 30, 2010),

[4] Aymer, Margaret, “Matthew’s Beatitudes, Community Ethics and Poverty,” Accessed on, January 2017,

[5] Ibid.

[6] “God Alone is Lord of Conscience,” A Policy Statement Adopted by the 200th General Assembly (1988), Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.

[7] King, “Beyond Vietnam”

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