Called to Beloved Community

From January 19th, 2014 - based on Psalm 40:1-11 and 1 Samuel 3:1-10.
    This weekend—and specifically tomorrow—we celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  And I know that for many of you, this is a very important remembrance and continued call to action. . . .  As I prepare to teach an upcoming course on economic ethics for Lexington Theological Seminary, I came across a note that I wrote to myself some time ago:  We need to be reminded of injustice in order to know the justice we seek. 
    In this congregation, we give of our time, energy, and resources to aid the hungry and the homeless, to advocate for peacemaking, welcoming, and including all people within our family and the family of God.  In many ways, these efforts demonstrate our commitments to justice.  But we are also surrounded by injustices—some big and some small but certainly not insignificant. 
    To see and know these injustices exist, powerfully remind us of the work we must do in order to bring about the justice we seek.  And on this day, they remind us that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. is not done. . . .
    MLK turned our attention in vivid and tangible ways to the people living at the margins of society.  And much of the church’s work belongs there.  That work continues; it is not finished.  And so—even today—King continues to hold a torch for us to follow; he teaches lessons for us to learn from; he offers prophetic words for us to listen to; he sets a course for us to act on.
    But like so many prophets who make a mark on the world, MLK was a controversial character in his day.  He was not always the popular icon he is today.  He pushed into long held status quos that made many people feel uncomfortable and angry.     
    Some of you may remember the controversies surrounding MLK in the 50s and 60s. . . .  I’ve heard stories from minister mentors who actually lost their jobs in churches for joining King on marches and sit-ins.  This work and these ideas were not necessarily something many churches wanted to support. . . .
    MLK committed his concern to any who were racially or socioeconomically oppressed.  He fought for racial justice on behalf of those who were deemed non-human—who could be fire hosed down like dogs in the streets by policemen.  He fought for economic justice—working on behalf of the poor.  In fact, he was shot fighting on behalf of sanitation workers in Memphis as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.  He also advocated the end of the Vietnam War.  And his work earned him the reproach—by other ministers, no less—of being an “extremist.”
    So, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King responded to that reproach.  He writes,

And now [my work] is being termed extremist. 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 an 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 an 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?

Here, MLK makes explicit something that might be easy to overlook these days—the unquestionable, indisputable spiritual foundation of his work for social justice.
   King organized.  He marched.  He networked.  He delivered well-publicized speeches… But he also prayed and garnered strength from his faith.  He took time to quiet himself enough to hear and listen to God’s voice—speaking to him, filling him, guiding him.  Martin Luther King, Jr. embodied what the prophet Samuel in our scripture reading this morning affirms:  prayerful listening enables prophetic proclaiming. 
   And what was true for Samuel—and what was true for King—is also true for us today:  Action powered and inspired by prayer is the most effective.  In other words, meaningful personal spirituality grounds truly effective social transformation.  In order to effectively confront situations of injustice and to work to make needed changes in the world, it is important to take time to still our spirits, to quiet our minds, and to open our ears and our hearts to the One who is constantly and forever powering and pumping love into the world.      God is speaking.  Are we listening?
    God calls to Samuel three times—“Samuel!  Samuel!”—but Samuel is confused.  He thinks it is his elder priest Eli calling him.  It is not until God calls the fourth time that Samuel responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 
    And at first, none of us may recognize God’s voice, either.  What would we be listening for anyway?  But God’s call is persistent.  Our busyness—our tiredness—our aches and pains—our daily overwhelm do not let us off the hook.  God is forever and always calling us into greater love for one another and this world.  God is calling us to create, nurture, and sustain a beloved community in which all people have worth and experience hope and love. . . .  Are we listening? 
What does God’s voice sound like, look like, feel like?
    Hearing God’s voice was critical for King’s prophetic witness.  In January 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he received a threatening phone call late one night.  And after that, he couldn’t sleep.  He was at the breaking point of exhaustion and about to give up.  But he went to his kitchen and prayed, and during that time, he experienced the Divine voice saying, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.”  At this point, he says his fears and uncertainty ceased because hearing God’s voice gave him an “inner calm.” 
God provided the inward resources for him to do his outward social justice work.  He needed God to speak first.  Then he could act.  He had to tune his attention to that Divine voice that calls.  He listened prayerfully then proclaimed prophetically.
    King’s experience sheds light onto the interrelationships between prayer and justice.  Many leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, including MLK, claim that prayer both began and vitally propelled the movement.  And the prayer he is talking about required a great deal of listening.  Not filling the silences with ceaseless noise or mindless chatter.  Listening.  Opening.  Creating space. 
    “Speak,” Samuel says, “your servant is listening. . . .” 
    For both the prophet Samuel and MLK, God sources and guides the just action in the world.  There have been—and there continue to be—theological roots and imperatives for sociopolitical activity and activism.  Samuel and MLK know this and respond to God’s call to act on behalf of the “least among us.”  And they model God’s call to us today to do the same.
    But MLK lamented that he had heard many people—even ministers—say, “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”  And he lamented that so many white churches could turn their concern away from meeting the real needs of the people in their midst in favor of maintaining the status quo. 

“Over and over,” he writes, “I have found myself asking: "What kind of people worship here?  Who is their God?  Where were their voices? . . .  How we have blemished and scarred [the body of Christ] through social neglect and through fear. . . .  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. . . .”

   To create a vibrant and relevant future for the Church—to accept and respond to God’s call—one thing we must do is to listen prayerfully. 
   God speaks.  And we must make room in our lives to listen. 
   What is God calling YOU to do and be? 
   What is God calling US to do and be?
   What is God calling FCCV to do and be? 

   It may not be clear yet.  It may be changing.  It may be uncomfortable and challenging.  But whatever it is, we are not alone.  God speaks, and we listen.  And we are on this journey together toward a truly beloved community.
    To live into a beloved community, we have to pay attention to the many calls for justice, transformation, and compassion today.  Whether they be social, economic, or political—those living on the margins of society call out for our attention and concern.  All people are beloved children of God.  We turn on the news and we see images of sociopolitical struggle in Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, the Philippines, the Ukraine, Brazil, New Jersey, New Mexico, San Jose, Oakland, Vallejo. . . .  The call for compassion—and the need to live into beloved community—even comes from within our own church—in the needs that are present here, the struggles we face, and the deep concerns that we carry with us.
    And through it all, Martin Luther King, Jr. leaves us a rich legacy and signposts that signal the path toward a community of greater love and justice.  One of those signposts is the sheer importance of prayer—of finding that inner stillness that enables God to speak to us in the midst of so much news and so many issues and causes and concerns.  It’s not a coincidence that King took a regular “Day of Silence” to pray and to listen.  He described listening as his lifeline.  It was a critical part of his prophetic witness.  Perhaps, we could more intentionally work this practice into our own lives as we strive to live into a more loving and just community.  Perhaps we could more intentionally turn an open ear toward God so that when God calls, we can answer with all sincerity: “Speak, God, your servant is listening.”   Amen.