A sermon preached on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday
Scripture: Amos 5:14-24 and Revelation 3:14-22
Inspired by A Letter from a Birmingham Jail
A few years ago, an ethics professor at liberal arts college took a look at what her students were debating in and out of class. She observed that they spent most of their time discussing social morality – sexuality, abortion, the economy, all the political hot topics. She found it interesting that almost nothing was said about private decency in classrooms, dorms or apartments, nothing about honesty, personal responsibility or honor. At the same time that students were getting fired up about the pros and cons of abortion, campus-wide cheating on tests, plagiarism, and excessive drinking and multi-partner “sleepovers” were on the rise.
This is a fairly common phenomenon. People often seek the advice of clergy about “hot topics” – wanting to know what the Bible says about some controversial issue – abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, stem cell research, cremation, homosexuality, transplant surgery, divorce, …or fill in the blank with your own personal hot topic. Non-scientific research among clergy colleagues shows that it’s a relatively rare thing for parishioners to ask what the Bible says about how much money they should give away. To date, no one has ever asked me whether the Bible says anything about whether or not they need to move their family into a poor neighborhood or a struggling school to share resources and hope. As I recall, nobody has ever come to ask me what Jesus would have said about the way they invest their retirement savings.
Why is that?
Why are some of us more concerned about what the Bible says about homosexuality than what it says about how we use our financial income? Why does abortion or childhood vaccination raise a debate, while children are spiritually murdered by poverty and poor education or wounded, even killed by gun violence in our own community? Why is it that we are wiling to settle for justice in the form of three strikes, long term imprisonment or the death penalty, and at the same time prefer to get away with as much as possible as long as it benefits us or the ones we love? Sometimes, It seems that if we keep the big issues – the “hot topics” out front – we won’t have to look at our own “stuff”. If we can turn everyone’s attention to the so-called BIG ISSUES, our daily ethical choices won’t be noticed so much.
Well, somebody’s noticing. The people whose lives are impacted by our decisions notice even if we don’t notice them. And as a matter of fact, if we take the Bible even halfway seriously, God notices. And according to Amos and John, the author of Revelation, God doesn’t just notice. God has a thing or two to say about the way we live.
Amos gives witness to this truth. God’s chosen people had become complacent. They had become a secure place with wealth and a reasonable amount of power for such a small nation. The line of kings was unbroken and a feeling of superiority prevailed. The people began to believe that nothing could happen to the because they were God’s chosen ones. They presumed that the way they lived their lives had nothing to do with God’s favor. So even when Amos listed out their seven sins (all connected to oppression of the poor), they had no sense that God would reject them. Even the worship of the faithful became one more place for recognition and affirmation of the status quo. Though we may hear hope in the words: “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” the flood of judgment that God intends to pour out is a mighty force, a life-changing repentance that transforms the way God’s people live.
The Church in Laodecia is no different. These Christians enjoy all the benefits of living in the richest city in the region. This city was so wealthy that even after a huge earthquake they were able to turn away imperial assistance and rebuild in splendor all by themselves. At an economic and political crossroads, the city was well known for textiles, banking and medical industries. Interestingly, though, they also had a water problem – with no source of their own, they had to pipe their drinking water in from the hot springs. By the time it arrived in the city, the water was tepid and the mineral content made it almost undrinkable. It was apparently common for visitors and residents alike to vomit out the water at first taste.
It’s this image that the author of Revelation has in mind and connects it to the lackluster witness of the Laodiceans. Instead of being clear where they stand about Christ’s lordship, they have instead accommodated their lives to the Roman overlords. Instead of identifying themselves definitively with Christ in work and witness, they have spent their time at festivals, trade gatherings and ceremonies which help sustain their financial stability and demonstrate the rest and relaxation that is possible only for those with sufficient financial resources. Upward mobility was the name of the game. Yet a city that is known for wealth, medicine and fine textiles, it was clearly wrong that the poor, the sick and the naked are neglected to the point of death. It seems that Christ is about to do to the Laodiceans what they do to the lukewarm mineral water – sickened by the taste of it in his mouth, he will vomit them out.
In 1963, another prophet wrote to the churches of the United States. From a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King Jr. confessed his disappointment and called for extreme actions of justice which would change the face of the church and of the society in which good church-goers lived.
Listen to this excerpt of his letter:
“I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Sometimes after the reading of Scripture, we say: This is the word of the Lord. And the people respond: Thanks be to God. Together with the two scripture passages, Dr. King’s words make it pretty hard to utter that response, especially if we have to go out of these doors and live as though we mean it. These are radical words – words of extremists.
How do we reconcile ourselves with a God who brings harsh judgment and the generous God that Jesus describes when he says: ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you. We Christians, and church people in general have spent a lot of energy focusing our faith on a forgiving God, a loving God, a God who sent his own son so that all who believe in him might find salvation. This God that Amos and John describe, this angry, punishing God is not so appealing. The Christ that Martin Luther King Jr. followed is not the gentle savior who cuddles his lambs as they go to sleep.
So why do we struggle so? Why do we resist what we know to be the righteous path? If we believe that God’s forgiveness trumps God’s judgment, what is preventing us from repenting right now and joining again the struggle for freedom from oppression that is going on right here in our city? These words might seem extreme – but listen again to the challenge that Dr. King offers:
“Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.” Was not John Bunyan an extremist? — “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.” Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
We’re not called to memorize God’s rules and recite them back every Sunday in worship. The Bible isn’t a rulebook. It’s a user’s manual that tells us how to live. We don’t get points because we’ve done a good job analyzing and critiquing the situation. God simply wants us to do the right thing – the righteous thing. Knowledge and understanding are like lukewarm mineral water if nobody wants to do what it takes to live in a just community. Where do our energy and commitment go? Are we focused on the well-being of victims of oppression and violence in the community, to neighbors who are rejected? Or have we simply noticed it, lamented it, maybe thrown a little money at it and moved on.
What would our world be like if we consistently and continually focused on the needs of the least of these in this world and then actually to mobilized ALL our resources to do something about it? Too big? Bring it to the micro: think about someone in your neighborhood. Still too much? What about someone in your immediate circle of acquaintances? How would your life change, the lives of your family members change if you made that neighbor the center of your concern? Instead of spending our time and energy figuring out just how to meet the MINIMUM standards, we need to recognize that there are people who need our extremist actions NOW. And at the end of the day, God is paying attention, waiting to see what we actually DO.
This is the word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!