This Sunday we will gather after the 10:00 service for our Annual Meeting. It will be the 176th time we do so as a parish. That alone gives me a moment of pause; what an awesome testimony and responsibility in equal parts. We are both the inheritors and bearers of a tradition that seeks to both honor the past and anticipate a hope-filled future. I am humbled and excited each day we take another step forward together in that reality.
This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. – a time for recognizing his life’s achievements while also confessing we still have far to go before his dream of racial equality becomes a reality.
Recently I re-read his sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” delivered in 1956 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama during his third year as their pastor. In it he describes the sermon as an “imaginary letter” from the apostle Paul addressed to Christians in America with the intent it should be passed from congregation to congregation, in the same way Paul’s actual letters were.
I was struck by the themes of this letter sounding as real and immediate now as they must have 63 years ago. King observes the detrimental effects of American innovation and ambition on the spiritual and moral life of its citizens, and urges us to remember that our ultimate allegiance belongs to God. He encourages the Church to be the voice that calls America to strive for justice and equity for all people, and to not let internal divisions pull the Church away from that mission.
He notes the fact that the Sunday worship hour is the most segregated hour of Christian America, and worries about the effect that has on the Body of Christ. It is alarming to realize how little things have changed. But with that truth, King’s words still offer concrete guidance on what we can do as a people of faith. He praises those who work to move beyond the things that keep Christians apart and leaves us with a word of encouragement.
Toward the end of this sermon/letter he says,
May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil [of segregation]. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapons of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.
He ends with the hard truth that this is not easy work and comes at a high price for all who choose this path of love. The work of removing biases and barriers is costly, and yet we know as a community that to do otherwise undermines our faith.
So as we gather this Sunday for our 176th Annual meeting- may we hold these words in our hearts as well. The reminder that as we celebrate all we have accomplished through God’s grace and mercy, we are also a community charged and challenged with the work of doing that which challenges us to face into anything that keeps us divided or unaware of who we are called to be on the journey. May we hold tight to the goal of emulating what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for to the very end- the unwavering belief that LOVE was and is “stand[ing] at the center of the cosmos.”
Love requires us to put ourselves aside, it requires openness and vulnerability and sacrifice on a Christ-like scale. Love is not for the faint-of-heart because its power can change everything, even the most deep-seeded aspects of a culture and the way we deal with each other.
Come home this Sunday and hear again the words of 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 as Paul describes who and how we are called to live together as the Body of Christ. I cannot wait to be together again.
May you never forget you are loved.