Rev. King’s Letter to Us

Preached on Sunday, January 15th, 2017 at First Congregational United Church of Christ, Platteville

I returned Tuesday from a week of study and renewal with the Next Generation Leadership Initiative through the UCC Pension Boards. You might remember that NGLI is a 10 year continuing ed program for young clergy in the UCC – the program so far has been an experiment, built on the hope that if we as a denomination invest in a core group of young, imaginative clergy leaders for the local church, we will be better prepared for the transformative atmosphere of the liminal space the church finds itself in. The irony, though, is that the more we learn about this liminal space, the more we come to understand that we cannot really be prepared for it at all.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, meaning “threshold.” As in, that space between a door frame when you have left one room, but not yet entered another.  “…It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” NGLI recognizes that the church of the future, be that 10, 15, or 50 years from now may look nothing like it does today. In all their wisdom, NGLI is attempting to prepare leaders for the unknown future, and maybe even for the unknown present.

Now, the church is not the only institution finding itself in this liminal space. This week brings with it once again the peaceful exchange of power between one political administration and the next. We as a nation are waiting, watching, and preparing to enter a time, perhaps more than ever, not knowing what it will bring.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr also found himself alive and called to leadership in a liminal space for both our nation and the church. He held a vision of the kingdom of God – a dream of what the world could be on the other side of the segregation door and he called on the church, clergy and lay people, to proclaim loudly their shared vision of such a world. And many answered. People came from across the country to join King in marches, and meetings, through peaceful demonstration, acts of civil disobedience, and convicted writings.

But in his letter to the white clergy of Birmingham, written from a prison cell, Dr. King lamented his deep disappointment with the what he called the “moderate white church” – a community he had expected to show up for the racial justice movement:

“But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before;” he wrote, “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.”

Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

And he said that in 1963.

Today, that outright disgust has turned apathy and has led to the liminal space we now face: with shrinking membership, endowments, and influence, the mainline white church has little to offer this world as it stands today. I am convinced this apathy is the direct result of the church’s in-authenticity and hypocrisy. Imagine for a minute, what our faith looks like from the outside. We claim to be followers of an itinerant preacher who aligned himself with the despised, preached truth to power in the synagogues, cleared the temple, and  marched on Jerusalem – and yet many define this following by sitting in wooden pews one hour a week.

Now church, I want you to hear me: this is said with the greatest love. And with a healthy dose of self-accusation. I think our congregation, the vision we hold, the love we share for one another is a reflection of the awesome vision of God’s reign we hold at our center. But perhaps, all too often, we reserve that vision for those who are already sitting here – or those who happen to find us all on our own – rather than working tirelessly to share and create such a culture for all God’s people – inside the church or out.

Also from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “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.”

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once described peace as the result of the self-transcendence in which my well-being is identified with the well-being of the whole. In that same spirit, King imagined a fabric of interdependence in which each of us recognizes that her or his well-being depends on the health and success of the neighbor and stranger – those outside the liminal space of our own front door. We are all in this together and as Dr. King so often proclaimed, “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.” Other peoples’ children matter and their education should be our priority; other peoples’ health matters and accessible health care for everyone should be worthy of our personal sacrifices; other persons’ opportunities to live the dreams God has given them matter and should be part of our own dream.

You might have heard that in this spirit, several of us will find seats on buses and in caravans this weekend to join in the Women’s March on Washington or one of over 200 Sister Marches across the nation, including Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and even Dubuque. I am joining with two other UCC clergyfolk – both of whom are also in the NGLI program, and I’m not sure that is a coincidence – to lead a bus for the Wisconsin Conference of the United Church of Christ. As we prepare to leave, I am keenly aware that this might make some of you just as uncomfortable or even angry as it makes others of you proud.

It goes without saying that our members in the Wisconsin Conference United Church of Christ hold a wide variety of political, social, and theological ideologies – just like we do in this congregation. The valuing of diversity in tension with our commitment to unity is a defining trait of the UCC. It is not always easy, and often makes discussion about our local, state, and national political systems difficult or in some places impossible.

But we in the Wisconsin Conference do have a shared set of values: values that call us to serve God and one another with compassion and kindness; values that encourage us to inspire one another with abundant hope; and values that challenge us to make bold and courageous choices with love.

After hearing the call to come to Washington, the three of us leading this bus spent significant time discerning what exactly we are being called to do. As the church, we are not called to protest the results of free elections or the process of democracy since both require a clear division between church and state. We are not called to protest individuals, as we strive to recognize all people as beloved children of God – and that includes the president elect.

But here is what we are called to do – especially in this liminal space: challenge those elected officials and our democracy to live into the high ideals it proclaims. It is our call to listen to the voices of the oppressed, and witness to the injustices our government institutionalizes. It is our call to stand with the immigrant, to protect the sacred institution of marriage for all people, to proclaim that people whose skin, speech, or prayers don’t match ours shouldn’t just be tolerated, but invited and valued as a part of the beloved community.  It is our call work tirelessly for justice. It is our call to proclaim a way of love and kindness. It is our call to board this bus with humility and follow the lead of our Still Speaking God.

One final point: as we walk into this liminal space, not really knowing what is on the other side, I think we can take a lesson from those who have gone before us. In liminal space, a lot of things change, and a lot of things die and fall away – especially things that seem to us solidly institutionalized. But for every great leader that has led a community through this space, you can point to the strong, spirit led value that lived in their heart. For Moses leading God’s people through the desert it was the shema: there is one God and you shall love that God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul. For Jesus it was the profound truth that that same God loves us back, and that love is for all people. For our founding fathers, it was the undeniable truth that all people are created equal and hold certain inalienable rights. For Dr. King it was the belief that living into those rights would result in the Beloved Community of God being made manifest here on earth.

For NGLI, it is the belief that there is not just a place for the United Church of Christ in the future,  but that our radical voice of inclusion and justice is a necessary one for the future of the church universal.

So church, what is it that we carry through the door before us? What is it that you carry into this new year with a new administration? What is it that grounds us in this time in place? My hope for you, for all of us is that we find ourselves rooted in the same dreams that have gone before us: dreams of a people who love God as much as God loves them, the dream of tables wide enough for all people to experience that love; the dream where the life and dignity of all people are seen as equal and valued under the law; the dream that all people live in beloved community of interconnectedness – where my being is wrapped up in your being, and our being in here is all wrapped up with the being of those out there.

And in this interconnectedness, hand in hand, arm in arm, may we walk forward into this liminal space, confidence that the love of God will carry us through.

As King reminds us, “But, the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform the oppossers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men (and women).”

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