“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.

the dignity and destiny of all peoples

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. And they sang a new song, saying:

“You are worthy to take the scroll
    and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
    and with your blood you purchased for God
    persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
    and they will reign[b] on the earth.”

Revelation 5

As we draw near to the day on which we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in light of the present time, we do well again and again to reflect on the dignity and destiny of all of God’s created children.

That means we need to accept and learn to appreciate every culture. We might not celebrate or live out life like others do, but we need to see their strengths and our weaknesses. We need to look for and find the good in their way of life, and the not so good in our way. And we need to learn from them, and be open to appreciate ways in which God’s image is uniquely reflected in them.

We enslaved peoples from the African nations, on what pretext, I don’t know. Just because we could. And supposedly good people stood by, and ended up even participating, maybe trying to put a human face on this inhumane evil. And even the church stood by, either saying nothing, or at times, even justifying it.

And to this day there are people who see dark skinned people as somehow inferior. Today we have the scourge and lie of white nationalism. As if somehow we who are white are better, as if God created us a notch above the others. And in fact some have even argued that certain “races” (there is actually only one: the human race) are subhuman.

God’s word gives the lie to all of that in the truth that all whom God has created, God intends to redeem into the new creation. That all humans are made in God’s image. And that such are going to reign on earth.

What does all of this mean for us now? And especially where I live in the United States of America? I’m sure it means quite a lot, but from my perspective, I’ll name two. It means we need to live differently right where the rubber meets the road, in our relationships with others. That we need to go out of our way not to judge what ought not to be judged. One example from my own life: I am a worker, and while I can relate to people, I am a down to business person, who doesn’t like to “waste time.” But I notice that people from other ethnicities like to spend more time and visit, which for me cuts into the time during which I should be working. I leave room, and actually want to make room for such times when I can, but work itself is the priority.

I can learn from others to stop here and there, and appreciate the other. While also noting that these people work just as hard, and do just as well on that end, in fact they might make some contributions to the work itself which helps us do better. In other words, I need to see everything in its entirety and put the best case on everything, even if I may not be able to see it at the time.

For us, this means we have a learning, and more precisely a growing curve. The point I’m making here is that we need to stop putting others down, just because we don’t live the way they do. We need to ask what God’s values are. They have to put up with us, with our blind spots, and how often we put work over people and relationships. I’m sure work was important to Jesus. But never at the expense of relationships for sure.

My other point would be the church itself. How are we doing in showing the world the dignity and destiny, indeed, the beauty of all humanity? I wonder. Overall, with some exceptions I don’t think we’re doing all that well. There are white churches, black churches, and then other churches of other ethnicities right in the same city. And to some extent that’s understandable, and we’re not to force the issue, but be in prayer over it. But especially us white folks need to take it on ourselves, considering history, to purposefully open the door for a multiracial witness. That would mean taking people of other ethnicities onto the pastoral staff, and into the leadership of the church.

This is a part of our witness to the truth and reality and power of the good news in Jesus. In which we’re to live, and be committed to. Accepting others fully, just as God in and through Christ fully accepted us.

Christians do those kinds of things

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

1 Peter 2:11-12

The idea that Christians do those kinds of things can actually be a two-edged sword. Professing-I say- Christians did evil in the Crusades and against Jews as well. Those who have named the name of Christ have not always lived up to that name. Not that we can match Christ, but we are to be a community as well as individuals who are Christ-like, strikingly different than society around us.

The difference was stark as well as more subtle, definitely pronounced when Christianity first came on the scene: a fulfillment of Judaism, and yet in a way that no Jews anticipated, so that what Christians did, Jews would never do. And in sharp contrast, indeed opposition to the rest of humanity, the other group of people than Jews being called Gentiles, in this case the Romans. Christians actively protected babies from abortion, were to be faithful to only one spouse, considered humility a virtue, and I’m sure on and on it goes. Old hat now, since the knowledge of the story, and of Christianity played out in churches for centuries throughout the world has given at least many a kind of image of what that means, oftentimes by this familiarity breeding contempt, at least losing sight of the revolutionary character of what it means to follow Christ, to be a Christian.

Sometimes we might pinch ourselves and ask why in the world we’re doing what we’re doing, and not doing other things. Christians have been criticized for doing what they do out of a religious motive in comparison to nonreligious people who do the same thing, it is said not out of a religious motive, but out of a heart of love. There is no question that church and Christianity can be an empty ritual and religion which might even cause more harm than good. Of that I sadly have no doubt.

But at the heart of what Christianity really means as to its goal is the actual fulfillment of what it means to be human. And at the heart of that is love played out in good works. Faith in Jesus is restorative to the humanity that God created in the first place through the new creation in Jesus. A Christian should epitomize what it means to be human. What that involves might be debated, but scripture gives a clear picture of what it is. There’s some overlap with society at large, because humans are made in the image of God. Therefore people everywhere believe that loving others is important. But that love, just like all else in creation can be distorted so that it’s twisted, often to a self-love which “loves” for its own use and pleasure at the expense of another. And often in marked contrast to Jesus’s teaching about loving one’s enemies.

So why do I do the things I do? And part of that frankly is putting up with myself, being patient with myself, and my own unhelpful foibles, repentant yes, but still patient. At the heart of that is the cross, and in Jesus’s death seeing God’s love for us, and forgiveness and new life extended to us in Jesus. So that we want to follow on that basis. And live and do as Jesus did. With ongoing forgiveness needed for both omissions and commissions which deviate from that. But nonetheless that trajectory being our goal and passion in life from day to day.

All of this by the grace (gift) of God in and through Jesus.

 

when all seems lost (in this world)

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11

It is hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is going on in the world, the trajectory and back and forth, ebb and flow of it all. A well written history is indeed fascinating. I remember early on finding that especially so with American history, and especially that of the United States. We really can’t be sure where that is going all the time, and it seems like inevitably a mixed bag of good and bad. There is no doubt that we hope and pray for the good of peoples and nations, naturally first of all, our own nation, but not excluding any peoples, or nations.

So it’s not like we don’t care what is happening in the world. It’s more about expectations. We as Christians believe that God is indeed Sovereign over the nations, that somehow “God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year.” And that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in the place of ultimate rule and authority, somehow that rule flowing in and through the church as his Body in the world, through the gospel, from the Father by the Spirit. But what we see is at best incomplete, and at worst seems incoherent and subject to forces which begin to make all too much sense in terms which are not helpful, and even evil. As in all of life in this world, it’s not simply a matter of good and evil, since there seems to be an admixture of both as people like Abraham Lincoln knew all too well.

The answer that we in Jesus need to dwell on, which is not just for us, but for the world, has already been mentioned in this post. It is the rule of King Jesus through his body the church, a rule which is solely through the gospel, the good news in and of him. Again, there is much good that can happen since humankind is made in the image of God, albeit with undercurrents and waves of evil present. But the only sure-fire hope for the world is in Jesus through the gospel. And that gospel certainly pertains to the present life, but is also about the life to come. In fact, strangely enough, it brings something of the life to come into the present through the new creation in Jesus.

For us who believe in that hope in Jesus, which by the way means nothing less than a faith which simply anticipates and waits for the completion of God fulfilling his promises, that means we don’t settle into even the best this world has to offer. We are in a sense strangers and foreigners here, because we point to the only salvation in Jesus alone. A salvation not just in terms of the individual, though certainly about that as well, but for the entire world, and every aspect of it. A hope that seems planted in human hearts until all of that seems more or less lost. The hope for what the Bible calls shalom, which not only means justice, but goodness manifested in human flourishing along with the flourishing of all creation.

We pray for good, and against evil in the world, in the nations and governments. But our hope and expectation is in none of that. It is only in the Lord Jesus through the gospel, the good news in and about him. That is the one political reality and salvation we hold on to, both for the present world, as well as that to come. And in which we in Jesus have begun to live even now. Meant not only for us, but for the world in and through Jesus.

the importance of one’s work

I’m not sure if you can attach work to vocation, or God’s calling, which is part of my frustration in writing, but in some general sense one surely can. Because God’s creation of humanity in God’s image involves representing God in the world in what humans do in their rule which is actual stewardship over the earth and God’s creation on earth. Work is important from the beginning, and only the toil due to working with the thorns comes from the curse of the ground because of humanity’s sin.

Work is certainly not the most important aspect of who we are, which is surely to know and love God, and in that communion to know and love each other. But we can’t separate work from that, because it’s part of the whole. Just as we rejoice in God’s works, we can rejoice in the good works of each other, and in those which God enables us to do.

We have the Protestant work ethic on the one hand, but also the Protestant penchant for being suspicious of good works. The former might have been mostly from Calvin and the latter inherited from Luther, but it’s not fair to suggest that those who emphasize rest from works in the faith that’s apart from works, fail to work themselves. The best of those traditions have some good understanding and balance between the faith that rests and the faith that works.

I love work, and hard work at that. Often I find it quite therapeutic. I may be under something, but not only the distraction, but effort of work helps one to settle into a kind of peace or blessing from God. Of course everything is a gift from God, work included. Works will continue beyond this life, but what we won’t miss is all the difficulties that can come with work in the here and now. Overcoming such difficulties indeed can be part of the fun now, but often require plenty of patience and persistence, and rest when those kinds of days come mercifully to an end.

Work is a part of who we are as humans. We’re given something to do which includes something of a creative capacity from God as well as the ability to cope with creation. All the while rejoicing in God’s works, and being thankful for the good works given to us. Even while we look forward to the rest to come in the next life, which actually will include even more works I take it. But done in the sphere of the new creation in which the dynamic will be striking, a work grounded in a wonderful freedom of love. In and through Jesus and to the glory of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

 

for an egalitarian ethic

Men and women are created in God’s image, in fact God’s image is not complete without one or the other. Humankind is made in the image of God, male and female, of course. But since the fall, man has ruled over women. And society by and large has reflected that, patriarchal in nature, the man ruling. When God’s kingdom comes in Jesus, I see the tables turned: women who all too often were under the heels of men having authority.

This is a debated issue, one on which good Christians disagree. The many friends and family I have who would hold to an ethic in which there is hierarchy: the man having authority over the woman, really don’t live it out much that way at all, if at all. It is usually an arrangement in which they both rule, in some cases it seems the woman gladly letting her man make some hard choice. But actually that is mutual. The woman often has her domain and the man, his. And more often than not, I think both weigh in on major decisions. Not unlike an egalitarian, or I would prefer the word (as I think Scot McKnight has said before) complementarian for  this position, although complementarian has been used for what has been called the soft patriarchal position, I just described. Practically speaking it has little or no difference with an egalitarian marriage or relationship in which all have rule or authority or place according to their gifting from God.

Of course this is a huge subject, and I could start working on it a bit to scratch the surface, providing links for any who want to explore further for themselves. But I want to call attention to what I think is an important blog post by Rachel Held Evans (thanks to Scot McKnight, for calling our attention to this this morning in your “Weekly Meanderings”). One that will be controversial, for sure, though I think she covers what needs to be said on the subject without at all suggesting that all who hold to and practice a patriarchal ethic fall into this darkness. It is entitled, Patriarchy and Abusive Churches. One quote from it:

My evangelical brothers and sisters, we have an abuse problem and we need to talk about it.  Talking about it does far less damage to Christ’s reputation in the world than covering it up.

Now obviously, abuse is a result of sin and no denomination or community is immune to sin’s effects, but we do see a trend in which most of the organizations facing scrutiny over abuse and sexual misconduct charges of late are characterized by authoritarian, patriarchal leadership and by cultures that routinely silence the voices of women.

So the point I want to make today is not that all who subscribe to patriarchy are abusive, but that patriarchy in a religious environment, just as in any environment, has a negative effect on the whole community and creates a cultural climate more susceptible to abuse than one characterized by mutuality and shared leadership between men and women.

Read it carefully, remembering that Evans is not saying that those who hold to the complementary patriarchal position are suspect at all. She is calling attention to something which I believe should be considered along with the sin that needs to be exposed according to the accountability called for in scripture.

a bunch of failures

I recall the story of a man who as a Christian had it all together to the point that his children said that they had never seen him do anything wrong. Indeed everything he did seemed to be right. To the point that one of the children left the Christian faith behind, fearing that they could never measure up to the standard set before them by their father.

A sad story? Yes. The fact is that we are all sinners, and in one way or another, we’re all failures. I wish I could live my life over again in some ways, with the same wife and daughter of course, but avoiding some of the pitfalls I did not avoid well, and growing in areas in which I am not mature enough. The good news for me is that even at my age (mid-fifties), by God’s grace I can seek to do better the rest of my life. The fact would remain, however, that I am still a sinner in need of forgiveness, simply because I not only struggle with sin, but sometimes do sin. And we sin in ways we’re not clearly aware of in our lack of love for God and for neighbor.

We often look at ourselves, perhaps our finances, or maybe a past divorce, or a past sin, or perhaps the way we failed in raising our children. And we think there is no hope. Actually we live in a nation which is besieged with the same issues.

But we who are so conscious of our sins, failures, and shortcomings are the very ones God wants to use to help the many others who likewise are sinners and failures in some way. I don’t say we’re failures in ourselves, only because we each are special, made in God’s image. But we are failures in the sense that we have gone our own way rather than God’s. We indeed are sinners.

This helps me when I consider serious issues, and think that because I have not met all of these well in my past with some ramifications for the present, that I therefore can’t help others, or serve them in the ministry of the word and prayer. Actually in one sense I am now uniquely fitted to do that, since the Lord has helped me, and is helping me to get past those issues. I know that I too am in need of God’s forgiving and restoring grace just as much as the next person. This thought can be an encouragement to churches, as well, who for this or that reason may think they can’t go on as a viable church. God loves to take that which seems rejected, and use it for his own good purposes to bless others and glorify himself.

And so I take my stand as one of the failures. Who does not in any way, shape or form excuse sin, or excuse my sin. But who also knows that the Lord is present to help us even partner with him, that other sinners might see Jesus through us, and live.