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Prophetic Discipleship

What the children are doing:

Where is your safe place, your favorite place to be where you really feel safe and loved?

When I was a kid, I remember going to church on Sundays with my parents, and sitting in a long pew with bright red cushions, and sometimes I would lay down on the seat and maybe fall asleep. But I remember the feeling of having taller people all around me, and I knew they were looking out for me because they would smile at me even when I was acting silly. I learned to sing the songs, I drew pictures, I played with my sister until my parents would have to sit between us. But I really felt safe and loved there, and I knew God was there.

A long time ago, someone wrote a psalm, which is a song for God, and we still sing these during worship. In the psalm we sang today, the writer said—there’s only one thing I want, and that’s to stay here in God’s house and see God’s beauty because God gives me shelter and keeps me safe.

It’s important to have safe places, because we can’t stay in there all the time, but we can carry the feeling with us. When I remember that God is with me, then I don’t have to feel afraid because God takes care of me. Even grown-ups have to stop and remember this sometimes!

This past Monday, we observed a day to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., civil rights leader who would have celebrated his 94th birthday if he hadn’t been shot and killed 55 years ago. Around our community, there were parades, memorial ceremonies, service projects, and learning workshops. Around social media there were quotes shared, taken from the many speeches and sermons given by Dr. King—“I have a dream” and “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

His daughter, the Reverend Bernice King, spoke this week at a service to commemorate her father. “We love to quote King in and around the holiday,” she said. “…But then we refuse to live King 365 days of the year.”[1] She pointed out that even when people recall Dr. King’s memorable words, they make her father’s legacy into something “comfortable and convenient.” She said she’s “exhausted, exasperated, and frankly, disappointed” that there has been so little progress in Dr. King’s vision of racial justice.

Reverend Bernice King likened her father to one of God’s prophets. She said, “A prophetic word calls for an inconvenience because it challenges us to change our hearts, our minds, and our behavior.”[2]

Remember the words of the prophets. Jesus studied the prophets of ancient Israel, and Jesus also could have quoted Isaiah: the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. But Jesus knew prophets aren’t only sent to give words of comfort but also words of warning: pay attention to what you’re doing, notice who is benefitting and who is suffering because of your actions or because of economic policies, and “Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near.”

Repent means change your ways, turn in the opposite direction of injustice. Change your heart, your mind, your behavior. Not because God’s gonna get you. Jesus says the reign of heaven is already here; God is present, and God is working among you already. You’re not alone. This isn’t a test for you to pass or fail. God has a dream of healing and justice, and you are also part of that dream.

Repent, Jesus says, and then he starts organizing. The reign of heaven is not a rhetorical device, not an imaginary place, not a future reality—it’s now. Let’s get to work, and Jesus starts calling disciples to join him. They’re all aware there are risks involved—a prophet’s word is inconvenient. John the Baptist had been preaching about God’s dream of justice and the political leaders got upset about that and John was arrested.

John’s arrest didn’t start a war or a riot or an uprising. Instead there was nonviolent resistance and a commitment to a mission of healing and preaching good news. Nonviolent resistance is hard work. We could forget about John and pretend like Jesus called disciples in a world free of consequences where people just want to be happy and feel loved. After all, why would anyone be against all that love? Why arrest John the Baptist? Why crucify Jesus? Why shoot Martin Luther King, Jr.?

It’s hard work to commit oneself to justice and nonviolence. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually spelled out precisely how to do all this in his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”: four basic steps of any nonviolent campaign: one, collect the facts to determine what injustice is going on; two, negotiate; three, self-purification; and four, direct action. All of these steps require relationships—engaging with other people even those with whom you disagree, insisting on dignity and humanity, and being absolutely clear about your motivation.

That’s what the self-purification part is about. In Birmingham, after Dr. King and local civil rights leaders negotiated with local business leaders, and their discussions brought no changes, King described his group’s process of preparing for direct action. “We would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification. We started having workshops on nonviolence and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?’”[3]

Maybe you wonder, where did these participants in the civil rights movement ever find the courage to keep going? They had to work together, to ask hard questions, to trust each other, to remain rooted in their humanity. They assembled and connected with others, they didn’t travel alone.

Early Christians had to do that, too—and clearly they struggled. Paul’s first letter to the church in the city of Corinth is about addressing disagreements among believers about whose baptism is better. Before we can think, that’s so silly, I want to try an experiment. I’m going to say some names of churches, and I want you to just check in with yourself and notice if you have any feelings: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, North American Lutheran Church, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, Assemblies of God, Church of God in Christ, Church of Christ, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Metropolitan Church of Christ, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Church…and I could go on and on, of course.

The apostle Paul writes, to his ancient audience as well as to us: Has Christ been divided? Umm…it would appear the answer is, uh, yes? If we’re okay with dividing Christian community to the point of disrespecting or even hating each other, then there is plenty for which we need to repent.

The message about the cross is foolishness, my friends, just as nonviolence is weakness—to those who are perishing. But for those of us who claim the cross as our power, those of us who know nonviolence is actually strength, we come close to God, close enough to know God’s power and witness God’s healing and align our actions with God’s dream for this world.

And this is not easy. Old habits die hard, and indignities sting, and closing in seems like a protective move, but it’s a trap—it’s self-righteousness, which only feels good at first.[4] Did you know there are Christian churches where I wouldn’t be allowed to preach just because I am a woman? Did you know I’ve been so annoyed at other Christians that I’ve been tempted to start calling myself a “follower of Christ” just to differentiate myself and not be associated with those other Christians?

Jesus says to me, Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near. Look around! Here it is. And Jesus says to you, too: repent, for the reign of heaven has come near. Pay attention! Take notice. And find some others to work with too—there are still sicknesses and diseases to be cured. There is still good news to be proclaimed.

The words of the prophets remain inconvenient and challenging. But they will lead us back to our humanity, restoring communities and rebuilding relationships. May the body of Christ be mended and united, and may we live out God’s vision of healing in the world, working toward justice, to the glory of God.


Pastor Cheryl

[1] [2] Ibid. [3] Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail, in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington, HarperSanFrancisco, 1986, page 291. [4] Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber: “Self-righteousness feels good at first in the same way that peeing your pants feels warm at first.”


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