In I Samuel 3:1ff, God calls the boy Samuel to serve him as the first judge of Israel. This was in the days when judges were warrior leaders and consecrated by God to be the human head of Israel. The story of Samuel's call covers the entire third chapter of this first book of Samuel. Before the interaction between God, Samuel and Eli clarifies this call, our author tells us, "The word of God was rare in those days; visions were not widespread." (I Samuel 3:1).
Religion in Samuel's time had reached such a low point that even its priestly leader, Eli could not recognize the word of God. True, Eli's eyes were dimming and his spirit was tired and troubled, but when God came to the temple, speaking to one in his care, Eli did not know who it was. "Here I am!" "Here I am!" "Here I am!" Samuel continued to answer throughout the night to voice calling in the dark. But, not until the fourth exchange was it clear that God was the one issuing the call! Religion had reached such a low ebb, the voice of God was not known in Israel.
Has religion reached the same low point today? Is our eyesight so weak and our spirit's so troubled and tired that we can't recognize God's speaking? Some would say, things have never been better for Christianity! Some would say, with Christianity growing in Asia and Africa, with more and more networks reaching people through TV ministries across the globe, and with more "purpose driven churches" entering the marketplace of values, the church has never been stronger. But, I say, that if God were to call a prophet in this generation, most of the Church would miss the whispering voice of God to the prophet coming in the night. With no camera lights, no one to write it down in a book, no one to even clarify to the young hearer of the word, "Son, That is God speaking to you!" Or "Daughter of Zion, That is the Lord God Almighty!" The voice of God would be missed. We have become more like Eli than we care to admit.
In his brilliant little book, Why We Can't Wait, which chronicles the years 1962-1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. devotes many chapters to the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. When Dr. King first arrived in Birmingham, he writes of his early meetings with African-American pastors:
To the ministers I stressed the need for a social gospel to supplement the gospel of individual salvation. I suggested that only a "dry as dust" religion prompts a minister to extol the glories of Heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell . . . I asked how (Blacks) would ever gain their freedom without the guidance, support, and inspiration of their spiritual leaders" (ML King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait, Signet Books, NY, NY, 1963, p.67).
Dr. King was witnessing a religion in America in 1963 that so heavenly bound that it was no earthly good. In fact, this became one of his two most heartfelt cries to the American religious community when he wrote his "Letter from The Birmingham Jail," in April 1963. He cited two observations of the Christians who were critics of the movement.
First, he wrote, the Christian community has committed itself to a gospel that has no concern for the social issues of the day. The church is wrapped up - body and soul - in things that completely distance themselves from the suffering of people and the witness of Jesus Christ for changing that which is wrong in society. Fully in love with the church, he wrote:
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 the 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. They were small in number, they were big in commitment.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is the arch-defender 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 sanctions - of things that are. But, the judgement of God will be upon the church if this does not change (Ibid, p. 91).
Beyond the status-quo-compliant body of prejudicial enablers, Dr. King was disturbed by a second element he saw in his times. An even greater problem he saw in the religious communities (church and synagogue) came not from the KKK, but from moderate whites - Christians and Jews - who were more committed to "order" than to "justice." Who preferred a "negative peace" or the absence of tension over and against a "positive peace" or the presence of justice. (Ibid, p. 84). Such people are always waiting for a better time to do something. "Shallow understanding from people of good will," Dr. King wrote, "is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will" (Ibid, p. 85).
A church with no social gospel and with moderates standing on the sidelines taking shots at visionary leaders seeking freedom, justice, and faith for all - that's what Dr. King saw. From solitary confinement in the darkened cell of Birmingham's city jail, Dr. King cried out to America, just as God had cried out to Samuel in the night, "AMERICA! AMERICA!"
43 years later, I would like to tell you that a church with no social gospel at the heart of its actions and moderate Christians who criticize visionary leadership seeking justice are both things of the past. But, I cannot tell you this for I would be a liar! I would like to tell you that the church hears and responds to God's cry on behalf of the poor and oppressed. But, I cannot tell you this and be speaking the truth with love! I would like to tell you that the garbage workers of Memphis and working poor in this country whom Dr. King was gunned down trying to organize and stand for, are better off today than in 1963. But, I cannot tell you this, for I would not be speaking the truth!
There is a silent Hurricane sweeping our state and our nation. The name of the Hurricane is Poverty. Poverty is devastating one household after another. Today, the working poor in the richest nation on the earth can't make ends meet. They can't make ends meet, not because they are bad, or wasteful, or lazy, but because their wages are too low. The fact is, that today's federal minimum wage of $5.15 (worse yet, Ohio's minimum wage of $4.25 an hour) is lower than it was in 1950 when adjusted for inflation. $5.15 an hour is simply not enough to live on. Many full-time working Americans cannot meet their basic needs, often forced to choose between feeding their families or heating their homes. They are people who are members of this faith community as well as people who belong to other churches. Some of them are your family members. Others are your friends and co-workers. Many of you work in buildings which they clean and care for.
As a nation, we must make some critical decisions in the coming years. We must decide to get serious about the greatest moral issues facing our society: Poverty and her twin Economic Injustice and Intolerance, and the crying need of Equality for all people. We do not need more moderate sideline Christians tossing tomatoes on their religious leaders who stand for justice.(Lord, knows there are already enough of these). We need front-line Christians joining the march and entering the fray. We don't need a Christian faith which beautifully smiles on a neighbor on Sunday morning but stabs him in the back on Monday morning.
The issues we are facing now and in the days ahead are like the issues of Dr. King's era are close to our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. We need to decide what we believe. What do we believe? What truths do we hold to be self-evident? What are we, like the early Christians or the Christians who marched with Dr. King, willing to stand for?
I, for one, believe that a Social Security card is not a private portfolio statement, but a membership ticket in a society where we all contribute to a common treasury so that none need face the indignities of poverty in old age.
I believe that tax evasion is not a form of conserving investment capital, but a brazen abandonment of responsibility to our country.
I believe income inequality is not a sign of freedom of opportunity at work, because, as pointed out already, it persists and grows, and unless you believe that some should be masters and others slaves, it's a sign that opportunity is less than equal.
I believe that self-interest is a great motivator for production and progress, but self-interest is amoral unless contained within the framework of social justice for all people.
I believe that public services, when privatized, serve those who can afford them and eventually weaken the sense that we all rise and fall together as "one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
I believe that prosperity requires good wages and benefits for workers. I also believe the best place to see this belief come to fruition is here at First Church! What better place to offer good wages and benefits than in the church we hold near and dear!
I believe we can no longer treat Mother Earth like a punching ball. We can't strip her, rape her and leave her to die and expect her not to respond with the wrath and power now we see in her climatic changes, devastating coastal storms and hurricanes and earthquakes that leave the human race wondering what hit them and how they will live in the aftermath.
I believe that our nation can no more survive as half democracy and half oligarchy than it could survive as half slave and half free, and that keeping it from becoming all oligarchy is steady work - our work in the church and in society. (Many of my belief statements have been adapted from Bill Moyers, Moyers on America, Random House, NY, NY, 2005, pp. 44-45).
I believe we have reached the breaking point in this country in which you and I must do everything in our power to stop the unmitigated verbal, physical and economic attacks on gays and Muslims and other peoples of faith - which are coming predominately from people who call themselves "Christians."
In fact, I believe anyone who speaks hatefully, no matter how they cover it over, is not worthy to bear the name of Jesus Christ. These verbal and physical attacks are horrific and must stop because injustice anywhere is an assault on justice everywhere.
In Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis, former President and Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Jimmy Carter (whose inauguration I attended 29 years ago this week), speaks to many of the crises I have articulated today. However, he points out that recent debates over these and issues around abortion, women's rights, the death penalty, foreign policy and global image, the threat of terrorism, science vs. religion, and the separation of religion and politics have caused almost unprecedented divisions in our country. He writes:
The most important factor (in the sharpness of divisions and debate) has been caused by the fundamentalists who have become increasingly influential in religion and government and have changed the nuances and subtleties of historic debates into black and white rigidities and the personal derogation of those who dare to disagree. (Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values, Simon and Schuster, NY, NY, 2005, pp.2-3).
The days ahead will not be without struggle. We cannot stand on the sidelines any longer. I invite you to join me in the discourse and the action ahead. I will be still only long enough to hear God's word in the midnight hour calling, "Timothy, Timothy, why are you silent when your sisters and brothers are suffering?" I do not want my generation to be counted among those who do not know the voice of God. I hope you feel similarly. I hope and pray that and I have the courage to answer, " Here I am. Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening!" Amen.
Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church