January 17, 2016

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January 17, 2016

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Day

Given by Pastor Jonathan Friesen 

This is one of our most important Sundays of the year.  For Martin Luther King Jr., and the civil rights movement he has come to represent, is one of the most powerful examples of the church at work in the 20th century.  An example of what the people of God can be and can do.

And this Sunday is also important because we celebrate King’s vision of the Beloved Community in our own Ellis Avenue Church way – by gathering around the dining room tables in our homes and our fellowship hall upstairs – and eating together and building relationships and deepening our community ties.

We started this tradition 4 years ago and this is our 8th Beloved Community Sunday.  That is a number to be proud of.

Now today, as you go to eat after service, I have a couple questions I want you to discuss as a group over your meal.   We have an important church-wide strategic planning meeting in a couple Saturdays on the 30th.  And in preparation for that, I would like you to reflect at your meals on what parts of Dr. King’s vision we as a church are living out well, and what parts of that vision could we live out more fully or more boldly, or more creatively.

And then, maybe more personally, I want you also to reflect on what you can do individually and what we can do as a church to counter the violence and increase the peace.  When we share next week about our Beloved Community Sunday experiences I want to hear what you discussed and came up with.

Now, with it being MLK weekend, we, all of us, and especially those of us who are Christians, have an important job:   To keep telling the story of the how the people of God brought about change and transformation during the Civil Rights Movement.

And it is a message that we need to be careful not to oversimplify or to secularize as many seem to want to do.  One of the ways King Day has been sadly co-opted, is that it has become a day to talk about harmony, unity, and dreams.  A day, where, as one person I read described well, we are tempted to sit around and say ‘I’m Ok’, You’re Ok’, We’re All Ok.

In that light, if I have to hear King’s I have a dream speech one more time with the image of diverse children holding hands I am going to scream.

Go to Ray School or come here to EAC and you’ll see that impressive diversity – it is a great thing and a sign of progress no doubt – but we can’t act like we’ve arrived or that racism is not around anymore or injustice isn’t around just because our kids have learned something about diversity that many, many adults have not.   Dr. King would see the situation today and he would be deeply troubled.  And forget talking about a dream –  instead I bet he would be preaching up a storm.

Things are absolutely not OK.  They are not OK when 100 people are shot in Chicago in the first 10 days of January, usually the safest and quietest time of the year when the cold weather drives people off of the streets and into their homes.

Things are not OK, when more and more videos keep coming out showing unarmed young men of color being shot in the back by police officers.

Things are not OK, when politicians are burying these videos, hiding the painful truths until after election season and allowing the shooters to go free for many months while the grieving families suffer not just a loss of a loved one but long and unfair delays of justice and truth.

Things are not OK.  I think this would be King’s message.  And when things are not OK, it is certainly very natural to fall into a place of fear.  A fear that can totally paralyze us or beat us down.

But I understand where our great fears come from.  They come when your 15 year-old son and brother Deon is killed by a gunshot while walking to the store.  Or when your 23 year-old son and brother Diontay is seriously injured by gunshots to the shoulder and another to the knee.  Or when your relative Calvin is shot at in a car with his wife and baby in the vehicle.  Or when you are yelling at your seven year-old daughter Caroline and 12 year-old son Nathan to get down on the ground behind a car during gunfire right next to you on the sidewalk.  Yes all of these events happened to our church family in recent months.

Things are Not OK and we are naturally afraid.  And so the question we have in front of us is one that Dr. King himself posed:  Where do we go from here?

Now, two years ago, our family took a tour of many of the civil rights sites.  And I think the singular most powerful moment at least for me on that tour occurred at the parsonage in Montgomery, the house where Rev. Dr. King and his wife Corretta lived along with their first child.

King, the very young pastor, was put into the spotlight of this movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott and as the days stretched to months he started realizing the gravity of it all.  Death threat phone calls started coming in, sometimes as many as 40 per day.  And he began to be afraid.

In King’s Book, Stride Toward Freedom, he describes what happened next.
My fear reached a high point late on a Friday night.  I had slumped home to the parsonage after another long strategy session and found Coretta asleep.  I paced around my nerves still on edge. And I walked to the kitchen, and with trembling hands, I put on a pot of coffee and sank into a chair at the kitchen table.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.”

“The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. I said: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid.  I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.'”

King continued: “At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and I will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.”

Three days later a bomb was put on his front porch – when you visit the house you can still see the hole it made in the concrete –  luckily his wife and newborn daughter who were home at the time of the bombing escaped harm. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

Some eleven years later, King spoke before an audience of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, he said, I heard the voice of Jesus calling saying to still fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”

You see – I think a critical part of Dr. King’s message we need to hear and learn from is how to work through our fears to be able to move on to living out God’s vision.   To use, in his words, our religious experience to give us the strength to face our fears and to keep going – going on to do what is needed and right and faithful.

Despite his very human fears Dr. King never lost the boldness of his vision or his faith.  He loved the word audacity.  I have the audacity to believe, as he said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize, that peoples everywhere deserve three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.

And we too need to stake a claim and hold on to this audacity.  And I think the key move is this:  that we cannot let our legitimate fears limit our vision, undermine our commitment, or take the edge off of our boldness.  We can’t let our fears extinguish our audacity.   Especially the vision and the boldness –  the audacity – of our faith.

And here is where we can get a great help and a needed reminder from the scriptures.  Our text we read from 1 John this morning is a bold, an audacious vision calling on us to love one another.  And it reminds us that we love one another because love is from God, and God’s love is inside us.  It abides in us.

And yes, while we are deeply imperfect people, the truth is that God’s perfect love abides in us.  Lives in us.  Is able to grow in us.  Is available for us to call on during our times of great need.

And what does God’s perfect love that is inside us do – according to the scripture?  Perfect love, does what?  Casts Out Fear.  It Casts Out Fear.

Just what Dr. King needed in his time of great fear.  Love that casts out fear.  Just what we need in our time of fear.  What we need when we are discouraged.  When the forces of violence and injustice feel like they have all the momentum.  We have to hold tight to the perfect love of God that Abides, that lives in us, and has the power to cast out fear.

And with that knowledge that God’s love casts out fear we have to let that infuse our vision for the church with boldness and audacity.

For, I have the audacity to believe that we have the power, with God’s help, to build a church community built on deep relationships that can help cast out loneliness.

I have the audacity to believe that we have the power, with God’s help, to build a church where we value one another in a way that can help cast out depression.

I have the audacity to believe that we have the power, with God’s help, to build a church that casts out the sense that violence is inevitable and peace is not possible.

I have the audacity to believe that we have the power, with Gods help, to build a church where everyone has a place at the table and those on the margins are given the place at the head of the table.

I have the audacity to believe that we have the power, with God’s help, to transform what is not OK into something more closely resembling God’s vision for our lives.

And I have the audacity to believe that with God’s help what the people of God can do to make peace and build justice will be more long-lasting and more effective than what the violent people can destroy or the fear they can generate.

Like King, when we are afraid, we need to listen, for the sound of God’s voice telling us to keep going. Telling us work for peace, work for justice.  Telling us, Yes, I will be with you to end of the age.

For on this King Day let us hold tight to the truth that God can take us, fully imperfect people who have the audacity to gather, the audacity to express a vision for peace, the audacity to work, and God can take our actions and transform them into perfect love that abides in us.

It is the kind of perfect love that casts out fear and lets us work for peace.  Dr. King, and more importantly the God we follow would expect nothing less from us, the people of God.  Let us embrace that vision with an audacity and a boldness that measures up to the perfect love that abides within us.  Amen.

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