Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Celebration of Martin Luther King

Our Gospel passage today comes from ‘the sermon on the plain’ found in Luke.  It is a passage that expresses noble and good sentiments, but I would imagine we also think these sentiments are impractical and out of touch with the way the world really is.  But of course that is the point.  The path that Jesus sets out for us is not an easy one, it goes against the grain of the very best of us.  For me it automatically makes me imagine how these words of Christ about peace can be misunderstood as excuses for allowing yourself or others to continue to be misused, or abused at the hands of someone more powerful.  But these are merely excuses because there is a big difference between not returning hurt for hurt, and apathy in the face of abuse.  There was never anything apathetic about the way in which Jesus lived.  When Jesus ‘turned the other cheek’ it was done out of courage, not out of fear.  Nothing about Jesus’ ministry was particularly passive, what Jesus did was illuminate another path beyond violence or apathy, a path of true selfless action.  The path of the cross.
The coming of Christ into the world makes a difference.  The incarnation of God into human history makes all the difference in the way we respond to other people.
Today we are celebrating the life and ministry of Martin Luther King Jr.  Throughout his career as a leader in the civil rights movement Martin Luther King came up against opposition, not just from abject racists but from moderates who, while they agreed with Dr. King in principle about segregation, did not like seeing the disruption of the status quo by protests.  When Dr. King went to Birmingham and led non-violent direct action protests against segregation, he was blamed for the violence precipitated by his peaceful protests, and the violence of other protestors not associated with King.  White moderates could not understand why King could not wait for justice to happen in a way that was less disruptive; they could not understand why King couldn’t work through the courts and not disrupt the everyday life of the town of Birmingham. 
It is easy, I think, to tell someone else that they have to wait for justice when you already have that justice for yourself.  We do not want to give up our own privilege, our own comforts.
But I think it is pretty clear in today’s Gospel that Jesus does not want us to get too comfortable in the life we are living, because it is not the life we are called to.  Our instincts tell us that we must protect our own comforts, our own privilege at all costs.  Our instincts tell us ‘to do unto others as they do to you,’ that an eye for an eye is justice.  Perhaps it is part of our genetic make-up, part of our instinct for survival, but thankfully we are not ruled by our instincts, human-beings have the very real ability to self regulate, to do something despite what our baser selves are telling us to do. 
We may not have particularly pleasant feelings towards our enemies.  We may not want to give our cloak, much less our shirt.  We may not want to turn the other cheek, but that really doesn’t matter because to Jesus, love is not merely a feeling or emotion.  Love is action.  How we feel inside means so much less than how we express those feelings in the world.  There was never anything passive about what Jesus did in his life or calls us to do in ours.  We are not asked to just roll over and be abused, but to react to injustice in our own lives and others in a new way.
Our desire not to sacrifice too much is certainly strong, but Jesus calls us out past our discomfort, past our sense of justice, past our sense of what is fair, what we believe can be expected within a civilized society.  But imagine what the world would be like if those of us who called ourselves Christian actually lived our lives in this way?
Before he was killed Dr. King had expanded his efforts to include issues of poverty and class injustice, because he knew that Issues of inequality and injustice would not be solved merely with the introduction of anti-discrimination laws.  It is just not that simple, there is something within human society, perhaps even within our very nature, that fears the changes that lead to greater inclusion and a more even distribution of power.  Issues of race, gender, religion and sexuality are all issues that make us terribly uncomfortable, they are topics that are generally avoided in small talk, and depending on which side of an issue we stand, they are topics we would really like to forget about.  But as Christians we cannot ignore the troubles of people around us.  We must demand justice, not for ourselves, but for our struggling neighbors, we must not look at our enemies as obstacles but must learn to see the world as God sees it.  God is not blind to the pain we cause each other, God does not ignore the atrocities committed throughout the world.  God knows our selfishness and our laziness, God knows our hate and our jealousy.  But God loves us all the same.
The Rule for Christians is not ‘Do as you would want done,’ but ‘Do as God would do’  If we are to call ourselves Christians then we are meant to rock the boat, to love more by giving more, forgiving more, having more mercy, even to those that we believe don’t deserve it.
Today’s Gospel expresses quite a radical way to live.  Radical love, Radical peace, Radical sacrifice.  It is a complete turning inside out of the way in which we deal with each other.  There is a parable of sorts that was first told by a Rabbi.  It goes like this:
 There once was a man who had a near death experience.
An escort meets him at the boundary of hereafter and with a welcoming smile says, “You’re not ready yet friend; you still have another chance. But you’ll return soon, so let me show you what goes on here on the other side.”
Together they enter a great hall where a long candle-lit banquet table is laden with bowls of steaming, fragrant soups, succulent roasts, perfectly cooked vegetables, aromatic loaves of bread, the finest of wines, fruits of every kind, and a dazzling array of cakes and pies. Diners fill every chair, but shockingly, amid luxurious bounty, the scene is one of pain and anguish. Skeletal forms are twisted and moaning in starvation, with barely the strength to strike at each other with their spoons.
Looking closer, the man sees that all spoons have long handles—longer than the diners’ arms; too long for the diners to feed themselves. “So this is Hell,” gasps our Friend. “Anger and misery amid abundance. Where’s the Devil?” “Evil resides in the hearts of men,” says Escort, “But, come, let me show you something else.”
The two enter another great hall. And in that hall there is another long, candle-lit banquet table, covered with a similar incredible spread of delicious foods, drinks and sweets. Here the sounds of laughter, chatter and song fill the hall while healthy and happy diners are enjoying the company and the bounty before them.
They, too, have long spoons, but they are feeding each other.
“And this,” the Escort tells our Friend, “is heaven.”
The difference between Heaven and Hell is paper thin, and yet heaven requires a radical change in our lives.
When we hear the word extremist it only ever has bad connotations.  The extremists we hear about are murderers who use God as an excuse for their crimes. 
But Martin Luther King Jr. was also called an extremist and while he was at first surprised, even offended, in his letter from Birmingham Jail Dr. King had something interesting to say about extremism and he had some questions for the religious leaders of Birmingham, questions that 50 years later we too need to ask ourselves:
Martin Luther King wrote these words: “As I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. 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?"

 Long Spoon Parable Source: