Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
January 19, 2020
“Questions for White Christians”
Galatians 3: 26-29 – New Revised Standard Version
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
We’re going to listen to a portion of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” I always find it inspirational to hear his soaring rhetoric in his own voice.
A little context first: Rev. King had only been a pastor for two years when he preached this sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in early November 1956 – an exhausting eleven months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Dr. King wrote this sermon in the style of Paul’s letters to Christians in such places as Corinth, Rome, and Galatia, beginning with greetings and complimentary words before getting into the heart of the message.
(On tv screen from YouTube)
I, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to you who are in America, Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
For many years I have longed to be able to come to see you. I have heard so much of you and of what you are doing. I have heard of the fascinating and astounding advances that you have made in the scientific realm. I have heard of your dashing subways and flashing airplanes. Through your scientific genius you have been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. You have been able to carve highways through the stratosphere. So, in your world you have made it possible to eat breakfast in New York City and dinner in Paris, France. I have also heard of your skyscraping buildings with their prodigious towers steeping heavenward. I have heard of your great medical advances, which have resulted in the curing of many dread plagues and diseases, and thereby prolonged your lives and made for greater security and physical well-being. All of that is marvelous. You can do so many things in your day that I could not do in the Greco-Roman world of my day. In your age you can travel distances in one day that took me three months to travel. That is wonderful. You have made tremendous strides in the area of scientific and technological development.
But America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.
Just like Paul addressed divisions in the church in Galatia in our scripture today, this sermon continues by describing various forms of division that existed nineteen hundred years later, such as the presence of 256 different Christian denominations in America. But more to the point, he called out the fact that there is a white church and a black church. He asked, “How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ?” He noted that sports stadiums and night clubs are more integrated than the church. Paul said clearly, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” However, Dr. King said, Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America – the first time he used that phrase which later became common.
Speaking as Paul, he said, “I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. Oh, my friends, this is blasphemy.” As he continued to lay out arguments, he said: This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for, a blatant denial of the unity which we all have in Christ.
He then called upon listeners: “I urge each of you to plead patiently with your brothers and sisters and tell them that this isn’t the way. With understanding goodwill, you are obligated to seek to change their attitudes. Let them know that in standing against integration, they are not only standing against the noble precepts of your democracy, but also against the eternal edicts of God himself.”
I learned this week that when future congressman John Lewis was about 15 years old, he heard this sermon on the radio and credits it specifically for changing the trajectory of his life. Lewis said he realized “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
When he was a child, he saw signs for restrooms and drinking fountains designating white and colored. He would ask his mother, ask his father, ask his grandparents, “’Why? Why is that?’ And they’d say, ‘That’s the way it is. And don’t get in trouble. And don’t get in the way.’ But,” he said, “that day, listening to Dr. King, it gave me the sense that things could change.”
The following year, at age 17, he enrolled in seminary (I didn’t know John Lewis graduated from seminary!). In a reverse order from today, he then went to college and received his bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University, an historically black college established by Congregationalists. During that time, he organized lunch counter sit ins in Nashville. And was a Freedom Rider. And a few years later, was nearly beaten to death on the Edmund Pettis bridge marching from Selma to Montgomery.
John Lewis heard: “You are obligated to seek to change the attitudes of your fellow Christians.” But Dr. King added, “Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapon of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence.”
But he also added, “Honesty impels me to admit that such a stand will require willingness to suffer and sacrifice. Whenever you take a stand for truth and justice, you are liable to scorn. Often you will be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical. Sometimes it might mean going to jail. It might even mean physical death. But if physical death is the price some must pay to free their children from a permanent life of psychological death, then nothing could be more Christian.”
A few years later, on that bridge in Selma, John Lewis did indeed almost meet his Maker at age 25. It occurred to me, I wonder how old pastor King was when he preached today’s sermon? 27.
During my sabbatical I went to Montgomery and basked in the light filled sanctuary of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. I stood behind his pulpit and met a woman in her 90s who knew Dr. King as her pastor. She now gives tours of the parsonage where Martin, Coretta, and their children lived, where we saw the table around which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference met and the crystal bowl Mrs. King used to serve punch. Among other things, we saw the phone on which they received death threats and the hole in the front porch where someone threw a bomb.
I went to Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery in order to see the lynching memorial and legacy museum created by Bryan Stevenson – the subject of the new movie Just Mercy, which I haven’t seen yet, but reading the book shaped my sense of responsibility as a Christian and a pastor during these divided and difficult times.
About two years ago a group from our church went to hear Mr. Stevenson speak at the Paramount Theater. I’ll never forget how he stepped up to the podium and said, “My name is Bryan Stevenson and here is how I want to change the world. I want to end the death penalty.” He explained that one way we can change the disturbing racial disparities in the application of the death penalty is to tell the truth about the unbroken chain of events – from slavery to the “War on Drugs” mass incarceration, from lynchings to police killings of black men, women, and children – a legacy of slave patrols under which every black person was presumed guilty. As Bryan said, and is clearly true from the news, “a guilty white man is treated better than an innocent black man.” All of this with Jim Crow segregation in between.
In 1956, Dr. King’s sermon laid out the sacred responsibility of Christians to end segregation and the sober consequences of following Jesus. But in 1963, feeling abandoned, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King lamented, “I felt that the white ministers, priests, and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead some have been outright opponents. In the midst of blatant injustices, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard many ministers say: ‘those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”
So, what might Dr. King’s updated sermon, Paul Letter’s to American Christians in 2020, address today? Here’s one thing for Christians to grapple with: following a string of black men, women, and children killed by police in 2015, 81% of black Christians said they believed those killings were part of a broader pattern. But more than 70% of white Christians believe they were all isolated incidents. 71% of white Catholics, 72% of white evangelicals, but most disturbingly to me, 73% of white mainline Christians deny the lived experiences of black Christians.
Jim Wallis from Sojourners said, “white Christians must start acting more Christian that white.” Which is one indication of the state of American Christianity today.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great theologian imprisoned and executed by the Nazis. He stood against the perversion of German “Christians” who supported Hitler and the Third Reich. He insisted Christians take “the view from below.” From the “perspective of those who suffer.”
This week, the International Bonhoeffer Society cited his writings and sermons and make a shocking statement. They described the “ever-deepening divisions and growing vulnerability among the marginalized,” including the “dehumanizing treatment of migrants, systemic attempts to strip rights from LGBTQ persons, the assault on communities of color especially through voter suppression, and economic policies that have contributed to the largest disparity of wealth in the nation’s history.” And then declared they do not believe that American democracy can “endure a second term under the presidency of Donald Trump.”
The International Bonhoeffer Society is simply a group of scholars who describe themselves as dedicated to advancing his theology and legacy through critical scholarship, engaged pedagogy, and constructive readings of his collected writings. But they described Bonhoeffer’s warnings about leaders who become “misleaders” interested only in their own power. How he warned in the 1930s that “when a government persecutes its minorities, it has ceased to govern legitimately.” And always reminded Christians that the church has an “unconditional obligation to the victims of any societal order.”
They’re as non-partisan as it gets, so this is not the kind of statement they make easily, although it did come on the heels of the Christianity Today editorial that advocated the removal of the president from office that shook the evangelical world.
These Bonhoeffer scholars, religious leaders, and confessing Christians, also admitted their own “complicity in the social order than has produced Donald Trump’s presidency and the many social and economic injustices that predate it.” And then pledged to actively resist policy goals that harm vulnerable people.
Paul told the Galatian church, “In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That would seem to imply that in Christ, there should be no distinctions such as evangelical, progressive, fundamentalist, or vanilla Christians. “For all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” But, big question: Did Paul say, there “should be” no division? Or did he say, “In Christ, there is no division?” That is something entirely different.
Back in 1949, 20 year Martin said: “We must bring Christ back to the center of the church.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, but he may have been on to something important and particularly relevant today.
Of course, what it means to put Christ back at the center could be quite different depending on the church. But it is a really important point as we engage in what is going to be an even more divided electorate in 2020, in which the church is not supposed to be explicitly partisan.
With that in mind, we must always focus on what Jesus taught. What is your position on wealth inequality? What did Jesus say? What is your position on immigrants and foreigners? What did the prophets teach?
The question isn’t how you can fit some Jesus into your political views but how does Jesus inform your political views? This does not necessarily fit easily into one party, nor should it in a diverse society.
But for ourselves, as we remember the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we should all be asking questions with Christ in the center, such as:
Depending on your answer, you might be called an impractical idealist or a dangerous radical, but as Congressman John Lewis realized, “people can make things better through faith and hope and love.”
Bryan Stevenson suggests four ways:
1. Get proximate to those who are suffering
2. Challenge and change existing narratives
3. Be willing to do things that are inconvenient and uncomfortable
4. Stay hopeful
Stevenson said, "You cannot change the world if you allow yourself to become hopeless. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists, and so you've got to find a way to stay hopeful. You either are hopeful or you're the problem. I hate saying it like that but I really do believe it, because your hope is your super power. Hope will allow you sometimes to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope will allow you to speak when other people say be quiet. When you're hopeful you can actually believe things and see things that other people can't."
Call to Confession
Dr. King once said, “Nothing is more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.” Truly, the work of justice begins with a proper recognition that injustice is real. Let us confess those things that distract and consume us. And let us be awakened by the movement of the Spirit that gives us and the whole world life.
Unison Prayer of Confession
God of Justice, whenever we settle for the way things are instead of the way you would have them to be, forgive us.
Whenever we are paralyzed by fear or limited in vision, increase our trust in you.
Whenever we offer charity, but fail to work for justice, show us the more excellent way that your love requires.
Whenever we tire of our struggles and tomorrow feels overwhelming, restore our hope.
Whenever we forget those who have gone before us or act is if we were the first to struggle, allow us to recognize our arrogance.
May the witness of our brother Martin encourage us to be dreamers for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
The Assurance of God’s Pardon
If, by reflection, analysis, and prayer, we are freed to acknowledge the wrongs around us, the pain among us, the selfishness within us, and the work before us, God’s call is constantly being revealed in us. Always remember and never forget: The liberating love of God is at work within you!
 Inspired by Paul Rauschenbusch – adapted from 7 Ways to be an MLK Christian
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world