January 18, 2015
Listen! Do you hear it? That’s the sound of God calling you!
Throughout this season after Epiphany we are invited to hear—as if for the first time—God calling us to live into the truth that we are gifted, important, and precious. God calls us share in word and deed the truth that we received in our baptisms—that God loves all of creation and wants all living beings to feel honored and whole.
Maybe you do not believe God is calling you. Certainly Samuel, the young boy in today’s Old Testament reading did not. In fact, the author says “Samuel did not yet know the Lord.” It took repeated journeys to his mentor seeking clarification before he was able to say, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” He did not expect God to talk to him. God talked to adults. To priests. But not to him. The problem is, when we do begin to believe that God is speaking to us, then we have to listen. Worse still, then we have to follow. Listening to and following Jesus, as anyone can tell you, has consequences.
Take, for example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an African American man God called to prophesy about justice and integrity right in the middle of racist America. Our second reading for today is from Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written in 1963, though it sounds much more current. The reason he writes this epistle from jail—not unlike St. Paul before him—is because he spoke the hard truth God had given him to share. Like all prophets, he suffered for telling the truth.
The thing is, his truth is one we still need to hear. Yes, some circumstances have changed since 1963, thanks be to God! But doesn’t this still ring true?
“WE WILL HAVE TO REPENT IN THIS GENERATION NOT MERELY FOR THE VITRIOLIC WORDS AND ACTIONS OF THE BAD PEOPLE, BUT FOR THE APPALLING SILENCE OF THE GOOD PEOPLE.”
Isn’t it still the case that many of us prefer a negative peace (which King defined as “the absence of tension”) to a positive peace (which he said would be found in “the presence of justice”)? Doesn’t this concern still resonate?
“THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THE CHURCH WAS VERY POWERFUL. IT WAS DURING THAT PERIOD THAT THE EARLY CHRISTIANS REJOICED WHEN THEY WERE DEEMED WORTHY TO SUFFER FOR WHAT THEY BELIEVED. IN THOSE DAYS THE CHURCH WAS NOT MERELY A THERMOMETER THAT RECORDED THE IDEAS AND PRINCIPLES OF POPULAR OPINION; IT WAS A THERMOSTAT THAT TRANSFORMED THE MORES OF SOCIETY. THE CONTEMPORARY CHURCH IS OFTEN A WEAK, INEFFECTUAL VOICE WITH AN UNCERTAIN SOUND. IT IS SO OFTEN THE ARCH-SUPPORTER OF THE STATUS QUO. FAR FROM BEING DISTURBED BY THE PRESENCE OF THE CHURCH, THE POWER STRUCTURE OF THE AVERAGE COMMUNITY IS CONSOLED BY THE CHURCH’S SILENT AND OFTEN VOCAL SANCTION OF THINGS AS THEY ARE.”
How is the church doing now, 50+ years later? Is the church leading the world toward a more just society by example? Are we acting as the body of Christ, embracing the outcast and the sinner with the same enthusiasm as we do the agreeable and the successful? Are we attending to the widows and the orphans, the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, and the fearful? Are we lifting our voices against systems and laws that oppress those who are already having a hard time? Or are we silent in the face of other people’s pain? Can we honestly say that the power structure of our world, our country, our state, our city is unnerved and disturbed by the presence of the church?
How do you think Trinity is perceived by the city of Madison? By this neighborhood? Do you think the officials of Dane County tremble in their boots when they hear about what we are up to? If not, why not? Is it because we are afraid to rock the boat? To have people unsettled or upset by us? We are Midwesterners. We want to be nice. Does that need to be “nice” translate into complacency?
In his letter from the jail, Dr. King welcomes the accusation that he is not nice. He is an extremist. He assures the pastors who object to him that his extremism is modeled on the extremism of Jesus. An extremism of love. He says that the church has not welcomed such extremism:
“ALL TOO MANY HAVE BEEN MORE CAUTIOUS THAN COURAGEOUS AND HAVE REMAINED SILENT BEHIND THE ANESTHETIZING SECURITY OF THE STAINED GLASS WINDOWS.”
And he goes on to say, in his challenging, prophetic way,
“THE JUDGMENT OF GOD IS UPON THE CHURCH AS NEVER BEFORE. IF THE CHURCH OF TODAY DOES NOT RECAPTURE THE SACRIFICIAL SPIRIT OF THE EARLY CHURCH, IT WILL LOSE ITS AUTHENTIC RING, FORFEIT THE LOYALTY OF MILLIONS, AND BE DISMISSED AS AN IRRELEVANT SOCIAL CLUB WITH NO MEANING FOR THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. I AM MEETING YOUNG PEOPLE EVERY DAY WHOSE DISAPPOINTMENT WITH THE CHURCH HAS RISEN TO OUTRIGHT DISGUST.”
That stings mostly because I can’t argue with any of it.
But here’s the Good News, my friends: Despite human resistance to telling and hearing the hard truth about how we have strayed from God’s vision of a Beloved Community, God doesn’t give up on us. God keeps sending us reminders that we are worth all the trouble we create. God keeps calling us to take up our crosses and follow Jesus, proclaiming in word and deed that God loves all the weary world, no matter how messed up.
As baptized children of God, we are all called to speak up for those who are oppressed, even when that advocacy is unpopular or leads us to actions that are controversial and unsettling. We are called to connect with any who are suffering, despite fear that we don’t know what to say or do, or that we might not be listened to, or that our words won’t make a difference. We are the people of the Good News. We can’t wait for reinforcements. WE are the messengers!
No matter how often the response to the truth is to kill the truth-tellers, God keeps on raising up more of them. King reminded the church of his time, that “WE MUST COME TO SEE THAT HUMAN PROGRESS NEVER ROLLS IN ON THE WHEELS OF INEVITABILITY. IT COMES THROUGH THE TIRELESS EFFORTS AND PERSISTANT WORK OF MEN WILLING TO BE COWORKERS WITH GOD. THE TIME IS ALWAYS RIPE TO DO RIGHT.”
This is still true in 2015. The time is ripe to do right.
But we don’t go into this work alone. God accompanies us in, with, and under every part of our lives. God blows through the wind, and shows up at the dinner table. God breathes new life into us every day, and holds us close all through the night. God gives us companions in the work of ministry, as well as his own body and blood in the sacrament. And we have always the great cloud of witnesses who show us how to courageously live our faith, going as far back as little Samuel, who utters the fateful words, “Here I am Lord,” to Paul and Silas who preach to their fellow inmates, to Martin Luther who is excommunicated from the church he loved for being a heretic, to Dr. King, writing with love from his cell in Birmingham to the white church leaders who find his quest for human dignity offensive.
It is dangerous to be an extremist for love. But what’s the alternative? Is it to risk not ever really being alive? Not embracing the call to be a disciple of the one whose name we bear? Before Dr. King said it, Jesus said that he had a dream. And Jesus’ dream was that all of God’s world would have life, and have it abundantly.
So, here we are. We are afraid. We are inspired. We are skeptical. We are humbled. We are sure God doesn’t mean us personally. We are unconvinced. In all this variety, we are baptized and called God’s own beloved people. In the company of crazy dreamers and beautiful fools, let us take up our cross and follow Jesus. And maybe in the doing we will find, as Dr. King articulated, that
“THE DARK CLOUDS OF RACIAL PREJUDICE WILL SOON PASS AWAY AND THE DEEP FOG OF MISUNDERSTANDING WILL BE LIFTED FROM OUR FEAR-DRENCHED COMMUNITIES AND IN SOME NOT TOO DISTANT TOMORROW THE RADIANT STARS OF LOVE AND BROTHERHOOD WILL SHINE OVER OUR GREAT NATION WITH ALL OF THEIR SCINTILLATING BEAUTY.”
Amen. Amen. And Amen.
Today’s second reading is an excerpt from a letter written in jail. Actually, that isn’t new. Many of our epistle readings from the Bible were written from jail, too. Paul, Peter, and a number of other early church leaders spent a great deal of time in jail. It’s a risk you run when you honor God’s call above human law. And like Paul’s letters to the churches in Rome or Corinth or Galatia, Dr. King’s letter from the Birmingham jail was specifically addressed to church people. Eight white Alabama pastors criticized the nonviolent protests Dr. King was leading. This letter is King’s explanation of the spiritual reasons for his actions. It’s also a warning to his clergy brothers (yes, they were all brothers in those days) of the danger that results from ignoring God’s call for justice. He cautioned these pastors to be on guard against the temptation to let the church be tail-lights instead of headlights for the world.