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1 Corinthians 1:1-9 & John 1:29-42
It is this time of year that the words of Dr. King rise up again in the media, on posts and in speeches. Tomorrow, along with a predictably cold forecast, there will be a parade in his honor, remembering the man who helped usher in a civil rights movement that changed the landscape and, hopefully, will continue to change the landscape, for I dare say he’d believe the work is far from done. Yet this honoring often comes whitewashed – and I use that term deliberately. It gives us a sanitized King, like we often get an edited version of Jesus. So we hear the lifting up of “content of character” or “I have a dream,” but don’t hear, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” or “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed.” We will be handed images of people holding hands across color lines, or requests for a day of service at the food bank in his name, but we will likely not be challenged with King’s ideas that, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Often, especially as time goes by, we domesticate our prophets, lest their words convict us still. And what is true of Dr. King is true also of Christ Jesus and the Apostle Paul. There are lots of folks, some seated right here, who don’t hold Paul in very high regard because his words have some pretty terrible history to them. Interestingly, the latest research from scholars has shifted from work on the historical Jesus to work on Paul, and the discoveries reveal that what has happened to the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Dr. King has also happened with Paul, maybe even to a much higher degree. It’s important clarification because, it could easily be said, the church is as much structured around Paul’s decrees, maybe even more, as it is the teachings of Jesus. This is why we’re joining in this “unpacking” of Paul in the adult Sunday School class on First Corinthians – 9:30am in classroom one, if you’d like to come.
What we do know is that Paul writes to churches struggling with their identity, which makes sense as they all live into the “way of Jesus,” something brand new that, at times, Paul seems to be making up as he goes along. But these churches are also fighting the culture around them, a culture that has many moral question marks, a culture that dehumanizes women and promotes the economic exploitation of people who are deemed “less than” through an elaborate and enforced societal norm. The bulk of Paul’s instructions, particularly to this church in Corinth, is to not engage with that behavior. Don’t start with the categorization, building hierarchies within the church. For when you do, you begin to reinforce all of the rest of the stuff in the culture you are rejecting.
It’s like trying to hate hate. It doesn’t work. You have to change the whole dynamic. You cannot drive out hate with hate, only with love. And when you do try to drive out hate with hate, then you bring all that stuff that comes along with hate – inequality, oppression, bigotry, injustice. It’s a system, Paul says without saying it, a system that requires us to re-wire ourselves, to not only have a baptism, where we die to one life and are reborn to another, but also to continue after that baptism, to keep going, to keep dying to that old life, challenging our assumptions and re-wiring all of these things we’ve been taught as part of a culture that is not the “way of Jesus.”
John’s gospel makes this same claim on us, first having John the Baptist identify Jesus as the “lamb of God,” a phrase we might think signifies a sacrificial symbol. Yet, in the ancient world, it is more likely an astrological metaphor, the beginning point of the cosmos is Aries, the ram…the point from which all other constellations are drawn…the apex, in John’s metaphorically rich gospel, of a cosmic Christ, come to set right the balance of the world with the redemptive work that God will be doing through him.
John writes at the uppermost level of metaphor, making Jesus and his story incredibly symbolic of a larger struggle between good and evil, of the literal restoration of the universe in God’s grand vision. But in both Paul’s case and in John’s gospel, the call is the same – come and see. Jesus encounters Andrew and Simon Peter and asks them, “What are you looking for?” They reply, strangely, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And he says – come and see. And these two invitations – “come and see” and “stay, remain, abide” – they linger in John’s gospel, inviting us to a deeper expression of our faith.
This week we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr…a pivotal and prophetic voice in all of our lives, whether we can remember the news accounts directly from the morning paper or we have learned from stock news reel footage, movie adaptations and the accounts of history. His name will be raised, as it always is at this time of year. And there’ll be people singing his praises who wouldn’t have uttered his name unless it was attached to an epithet during his life. For we cannot forget that this person who most corporations in the city will construct a giant float in honor of tomorrow was once the most hated man in America. What might happen if we stayed, if we remained, if we abided with his example and his words of moral meaning? What if we could actually see a thread from Jesus to Paul to Dr. King, woven through history asking us to take seriously those things which actually make for justice and peace?
As I do each year on MLK weekend, I re-read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” a letter that I think deserves to be in our Biblical canon alongside Paul’s letters. Writing just like Paul often did, from a jail cell, Dr. King lays out his reasons for being in Birmingham, where he is labeled an “outsider,” and calls for justice in the most salient and, sadly, still relevant ways I can imagine. He writes,
“More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”
Dr. King takes to task the clergy who are supposedly “supportive” of his goals, but who decry his methods, the ones he calls “white moderates.” Wait, they say…just give it time, as if people of color have not given their oppression time. They call him an extremist, which he writes was initially something that he wanted to refute. But then he wondered…
“Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel…
So the question is not whether we will be extremists,
but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?
Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”
As we join in celebrations in his honor and hear politicians and pundits praise him, can we also remember that at the time of his murder, according to a 1968 Harris poll, 75% of those polled disapproved of him, largely because he was calling out the injustice of Vietnam and the cruelty of unfettered capitalism in what he called a “reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values,” one which would “look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth with righteous indignation.” So, how does Dr. King enjoy approval ratings close to 90% today? Is it because we water down his message, numbing it with platitudes and much more easily digestible snippets? It’s easy to raise his call to love without recognizing that such love is by it’s nature costly and sacrificial. That love, just as Jesus told us, asks us to come and see, and, in this case, to notice how often we take the narrow remembrances of Dr. King’s successes and cast aside the ways that he called us to stay with that vision, to remain dedicated to social change, to abide in our awareness of injustice.
I often wonder, what would Dr. King be doing today? What would he be fighting for today? What would he be protesting? Would he be taking a knee during the national anthem? Would he have called for marriage equality? Would he have been at the front of the protest march shouting, “Black Lives Matter!?” Would he be lending his voice to the victims of police shootings, for medicaid expansion, for undrinkable water in Flint, or a pipeline through Standing Rock? Would he be calling for the ERA to finally be passed in every state, or seeking for money to be taken out of politics, for gerrymandering to cease? Surely he would be appalled at the setbacks in voting rights! And he would still have all of the same things to lament about our economic system, which exploits for the benefit of those at the top, without regard to a living wage or equitable sharing of profit.
“I have a dream,” he once famously said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Would he still have that dream, only expanded by drawing a circle ever wider, by “staying, remaining, and abiding” with the Love and Spirit given to us in Christ Jesus, the same Love that can open our hearts, expand our circles, ever calling on us to see a liberative God at work all around us?
Oh, friends…there is still much work to do. There is much work to do right here in Tulsa, where we see report after report indicate that our policing has serious racial disparities, something that communities of color don’t need a report to verify, and we’re getting ready to hire a new police chief. Right here our own county jail participates in the injustice machine that is our so-called immigration policy, making political, fear-based statements out of women seeking shelter from violence with their children, and families desperate for a better life. Right now, we see a total failure to adequately fund public education, a demand written in our own state constitution, while tax breaks are given to corporations and millionaires. We close hospitals and isolate families and even entire communities from access to healthcare because we won’t expand Medicaid. Criminal justice, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s healthcare, voting rights…the chances to stay, remain and abide in the lessons given to us by Jesus, Paul and Dr. King are plentiful.
But let us not make the mistake of thinking that our political lives are somehow separate from our faith lives. Let us not take these moments of political crisis as a time to leave our faith, but instead to stay, remain and abide in it. Now please hear me, I did not say anything about our partisan lives, for that is too narrow a definition. Too often we concern ourselves with the puny language of partisanship, looking to promote one party over another, turning politics into a competition, a zero-sum game. We lose out on the moral ground that ought to bolster our political lives and inform the work of politics, which is the method by which we live our morals and ethics into the public sphere, especially in a pluralistic society like ours. So I tell you again, like Jesus said to his disciples and Paul reminded his churches – come and see. Come and see what happens when you take the outrage you might rightly feel and focus it through love. Come and see what occurs when you see injustice and call it out with compassion. Come and see what comes to be when you realize that working to make the world a better place, whether that is feeding a hungry person a meal, writing a letter to the Mayor to express the qualities you seek in a new police chief, or standing together to demand better treatment of immigrants, it is actually participating in the redemptive work that God is doing through Christ Jesus. It IS our faith.
Dr. King’s letter ends like this, written in the vernacular of his time:
I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope 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 their scintillating beauty.
I think we’re still hoping, Dr. King…still dreaming.
May it come to be.