A LETTER FROM JAIL
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on January 19, 2014 (Second Sunday after Epiphany)
Philippians 1:12-18 (a portion of a letter the apostle Paul wrote from jail)
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 24So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. 25And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan. – Matthew 4:23-25
On this Sunday morning before the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I would like to read a portion of a letter – another letter from jail.
A little more than 50 years ago — in April, 1963 – the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., along with several other civil rights activists, was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama for violating an injunction prohibiting public demonstrations in the city. While in jail, King was able to get a copy of the local newspaper, which contained a “Call for Unity” written by eight white clergymen who objected to King being in Birmingham and his methods of protest. They accused the activists of being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”
King wrote a letter in response to those clergymen in the margins of that newspaper, and on various scraps of paper he was able to get from friends. It was a brilliant piece of writing, not only for the conditions in which it was written, but because King used the very sources and authorities the white clergymen respected – philosophers, theologians, and church history – to defend what he was doing and to criticize them for not supporting his movement.
Here is a portion of that letter that I thought still speaks to the church of the 21st century:
“…But despite these notable exceptions, I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.
When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.
I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
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 God 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.
Perhaps I have once again been too optimistic. Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Perhaps I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ekklesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have left their secure congregations and walked the streets of Albany, Georgia, with us. They have gone down the highways of the South on tortuous rides for freedom. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been dismissed from their churches, have lost the support of their bishops and fellow ministers. But they have acted in the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment. I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour…”
Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr.
(a portion of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”)
I think this letter still offers some powerful challenges to the church of the 21st century. Let me just share a few that caught my attention:
The image of the church being a “colony of heaven” here on earth. Do we think of ourselves as being ambassadors of Christ, proclaiming the Realm of God here on earth, and trying to live as if we were citizens of heaven? How would people who truly loved God and neighbor live? Let us live that way here, and now. In so doing, we will be a “thermostat” for the culture in which we live – actively trying to model what we wish our world to be, rather than a “thermometer” that passively reflects what is happening around us.
In order to be relevant as a church, we must be concerned about the lives of people in our world. So many Christians want to separate social issues from religious issues, sacred from secular, politics from church. But King is right that such separations are unbiblical. They are negated by the miracle we just celebrated: in Jesus, God took on human flesh, forever uniting heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material.
The gospel lesson for this morning tells about how Jesus went through Galilee proclaiming the good news of the Realm of God (he and his followers were starting to live it), and curing every disease and sickness among the people. We regularly pray that God would heal our injuries, cancer, and other diseases of the body. May we also pray that Christ would heal the diseases of our souls and spirits: including our racism (which most of us would deny having) — our often unconscious beliefs that we are somehow better than others: more moral, harder working, smarter, more deserving of respect and opportunity than others. And may we be healed of our apathy and silence at the suffering of others because they don’t look like us, don’t speak like us, don’t worship like us, because of where they were born, or whom they love. That would indeed be an impressive demonstrations of Christ’s healing power!
Robert J. von Trebra