Monday, January 15, 2007

Yearning to be Extreme

Nathan Howe, one of the interns at Mount Vernon Place, preached yesterday's sermon in honor of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rightly so, Nathan spent a lot of time quoting Dr. King's sermons. King's words, like the words of Jesus, are often enough.

It was a blessing and a challenge to sit and listen to Dr. King's words again -- words that we have all heard before but words that we cannot hear enough. I was particularly struck by Dr. King's words from his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." In this letter, King shares his reaction to being called "extreme." He writes:

You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergyman would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist.

King then continues:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus and extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like am ever-flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." Was not Martin Luther an extremist: "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God." And John Bunyan: "I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience." And Abraham Lincoln: "This nation cannot survive half slave and half free." And Thomas Jefferson: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ." 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? In that dramatic scene on Calvery's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime -- the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth, and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

And towards the end of the letter he writes:

There was a time when the church was very powerful -- in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey Gad rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender 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 even vocal -- sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

While these words were written 34 years ago, King's description of the church is too often accurate for today. There are many in our churches who are afraid to speak up, naming the injustices all around us. Many of us casually ask the homeless to leave our property without asking ourselves whether we will be judged for our actions -- for asking them to leave instead of offering them something to eat and something to drink. Many of us continue to hold harsh feelings towards those who have hurt us or stepped on our toes instead of remembering how Jesus calls us to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us. And, many of us allow things to continue in a way that is so different from the community Jesus called us to create.

I live in a city in which the discrepancies between those who have and those who have not grows wider each day. If I walk from my house in Columbia Heights to downtown, I can begin my journey encountering people who are asking for money in order to buy something to eat and street light cameras that have been installed by the police department to capture the crimes taking place around the neighborhood. I can then continue to walk to Adams Morgan where the diversity of the city is most beautiful and the smells coming from restaurant doors represent countless different countries around the world -- a diversity that is rarely realized in many cities and schools in this nation. My journey continues to take me through Dupont Circle where I see many people who are gay and lesbian, people who I know have been pushed outside the doors of the church more than they have been welcome on the inside. I then continue to walk down Connecticut Avenue where I see coats in the store window that cost over $1000 and diamond rings with a stone the size of a dime and a cost the size of my second mortgage.

Meanwhile, I know that I have yet to organize a prayer vigil in response to violent crimes in this city -- in response to innocent lives that have ended too soon.

I have yet to do anything substantial other than preach a couple of times on what it means to be a church that is intentionally open to all people regardless of their race, economic status or sexual orientation.

I have not done anything when it comes to leading the congregation in a serious struggle with what it means to increase the minimum wage, provide access to quality health care for all people, or have more affordable housing, to name a few of the issues that we could address.

Oh God, as we thank you for the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we pray that you would help us all to become more prophetic. May we not be thermometers that are simply taking note of what is happening around us but may we be thermostats that are prepared to engage the society and stand up for something different. God, help us to be like your Son -- the greatest gift and example you have given to us. Amen.

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