Sunday, January 17, 2016

Moral Courage & Boundless Love

Sunday, January 17, 2016

I’ve taken a liking, of late, to writing my sermons at local coffee shops, here on the westside sometimes, downtown sometimes.  I find that the public atmosphere gets my juices flowing, stimulates my thinking, helps me make connections between my faith and the real lives of my neighbors.  It’s strange, too, because for years I was always a kind of hermit when it came to my reading and thinking and writing.  But now I find that I need the rattling of coffee cups, and the banter of others, and the restlessness of public space.  So go figure.

This week, on one of those rainy, cold days we’ve been having, I set myself up at a coffee shop downtown.  And I’d just settled into some reading when a woman rushed in, frantically, and made a beeline for the restroom door.  And she was agitated and clearly living on the edge.  And the restroom door was locked, of course, and required some kind of key.  And she was frustrated.

And just as frantically, she hurried over to the barista at the counter and demanded that restroom key.  And I could tell she was steeling herself for disappointment.  She knew this wasn’t going well.  And, of course, the barista had to ask that she buy something first – a latte, perhaps, or a scone.  Only customers could use the restroom in the coffee shop.
Now obviously, the agitated woman had nothing but a full bladder and the soggy clothes she was wearing.  She was no customer; and she could do nothing – nothing at all – but walk angrily and bitterly away.  And I got the impression it wasn’t the first time.

But before leaving that shop, she turned at the door, this very poor and very distressed woman, and she howled.  She screamed.  At all of us.  “This just sucks!” she roared.  And I’m sorry for the language, but it was raw, because she was raw.  “This just sucks!” she roared.  “This kind of crap just sucks!  I just need to pee.  That’s all.  I just need to pee!”  And then she was gone.

Driving home that afternoon, I realized I was looking for her.  I don’t know why exactly – but I looked just the same.  And indeed I saw all kinds of folks who might have been her: a young man burrowed under five or six blankets, hiding out in an entryway to a local bank; an old woman with a shopping cart full of clothing, a plastic garbage bag on her head, her only protection against the driving rain.  And a mother and small child at a bus stop on High Street, right here on High Street, huddled together, underneath blankets, soaked through by the rain, waiting not for a bus, but for a miracle.

And you all know what I’m talking about, who I’m talking about, if you live here in Santa Cruz.  There’s a large community of very poor sisters, very poor brothers who live in our midst, who huddle every night beneath old blankets and sleep in doorways or underneath bridges.  And there’s no doubt that they feel this weather – this cold, rainy, El Niño weather – they feel it in ways the rest of us can only imagine. 

The rest of us can rejoice a bit for the badly needed winter rains, and the snow pack in the Sierra.   But, for our very poor sisters, our very poor brothers, the winter weather is just another disaster, in a series of disasters.  And life just gets harder.


I’ve been thinking this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his prophetic voice and his commitment to action in the face of poverty and injustice.  And I’ve been asking myself what King might have said about global warming, about climate change.  I guess my questions are triggered by the important two-day conference we’re hosting early next month.  What are the moral dimensions of climate change?  What does King’s legacy teach us about principled, compassionate, courageous action?  And perhaps most importantly for you and me – How do disciples of Jesus approach one of our generation’s, or any generation’s, most significant crises?  These are the questions that lead me back to Dr. King.

And I think the place to start has to be King’s deeply Christian concern for the poor and their struggle for human dignity and a fair life.  King took Luke 4 – this text we’ve
read this morning – very much to heart.  And as a minister, as a disciple, he accepted the burden of Jesus’ most generous, most radical call: “To bring good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed and proclaim the great Hebrew year of Jubilee!”  As King’s own ministry matured, as his political vision broadened, he identified more and more with these verses.  And he set about addressing the root causes and vicious consequences of poverty in America. 

So what might the King tradition say about climate change, about the moral dimensions of climate change?  Well, I think it’s fair to start right there.  There’s no question that climate change is another devastating crisis for the poor of the world.  If this winter’s California rains are a disaster for those without shelter and healthcare and safety nets, think about how devastating global warming will surely be for the poor and the vulnerable and the homeless. 

And in fact, we don’t have to guess.  We don’t have to imagine.  We have only to remember Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and huge storms that have ravaged the Philippines and South Pacific.  Climate change is already a disaster, it’s already a kind of curse on the poor of the world.

And the King tradition reminds us, reminds you and me, that it’s our basic Christian calling, our most important and essential vocation, to protect the poor, to stand by the poor, to shelter the poor from life’s many storms.  It’s not just the ‘nice’ thing to do, according to King himself.  It’s the godly thing, the holy thing, and the spiritually healthy thing to do.

This week, I picked up King’s book, Where Do We Go from Here?...And I found this amazing passage, the words of Martin Luther King himself.  Listen to this.

The real reason we must use our resources to outlaw poverty goes beyond material concerns to the quality of our mind and spirit...(catch that, the quality of our mind and spirit)...Deeply woven into the fiber of our religious tradition is the conviction that we are made in the image of God, and that all have souls of infinite metaphysical value.  If we accept this as a profound moral fact, we cannot be content to see some hungry, to see others victimized with ill-health, when we have the means to help them.  In the final analysis (King wrote), the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together.  They entered the same mysterious gateway of human birth, into the same adventure of mortal life.

You see, the women you and I see at bus stops, or wheeling shopping carts down Highway One in the rain – they are us, and we are them.  And the bearded, bedraggled men who stand at intersections with cardboard signs – they are us, and we are them.  That was King’s moral insight, and Jesus’ religious insight before him.  “In the final analysis, the rich must not ignore the poor because both rich and poor are tied together.”  The universe is made this way.
So let’s be honest and clear.  The moral dimensions of climate change are many.  In the great stories of the Hebrew Bible, we humans are called the tillers and keepers of the earth.  And the fields and the mountains are holy to us, and the rivers and oceans are something like the life force of our human race.  To be moral, to be human is to care for the health of the ecosystems we love.  To be moral, to be human is to cherish the planet and partner with the planet so that generations to come can till it and keep it too.

But Christians begin where Jesus began: with a particular concern for the very poor, what our Roman Catholic friends have long called his “preferential option for the poor.”  Martin Luther King insisted on this – on genuine human compassion – as a lens through which the great questions of the day came into focus.  In a sense, King might even have said, that how we treat the planet, how we care for the earth, is a direct consequence of how we organize our economies, and how we care for the poor.  To destroy the planet is to shun the poor.  And to shun the poor is to destroy the planet.


So this conference in February is timely and terribly important – for our planet, for all of us, and for our spiritual wellbeing.  If you haven’t had a chance to look at the conference lineup, it’s in your bulletin this morning.  And I really do hope you’ll come and bring your friends.  It’s completely free this year!  And it includes artists and musicians and inspirational speakers – philosophers, activists, and representatives from many religious traditions.  It really is a critical moment in our church’s witness for the planet and for the poor.  And I hope you’ll join me and many others, here, that weekend.

But there’s one more piece of Martin Luther King’s body of work that I want to lift up this morning, in connection with all this.  And this piece has to do with faith, and hope, and the courage to move ahead in a challenging time.  And we know that the great moral questions can overwhelm our fragile human hearts.  We know (for instance) that poverty is a huge, global crisis, and the forces aligned against real change are powerful, maybe even epic.  We also know that making steady, meaningful progress on the global warming front is politically hard and requires sacrifice; and we know it will test our collective human capacity in unimaginable ways.   OK, we know all that.  We’re in for a hard time.

But here, right here, is where King’s faith can serve us, and strengthen and encourage us.  And it was a mature Christian faith.  King’s Jesus wasn’t some genie in a bottle.  King didn’t conjure up Jesus to magically escape a desperate situation.  No, for King, Jesus was a presence in the heart of a difficult moment, in the heart of a political confrontation, in the heart of a conflict.  Jesus was a presence and a friend and a source of profound encouragement.  And so Jesus is, so Jesus can be, for us.   

You remember that Martin Luther King wrestled with doubt (often) and worried for his country’s future (a lot) and agonized over the suffering of children and families in places like Mississippi and Detroit and Vietnam.  In the face of bigotry and violence, he had to dig deep, to rely on something, some power beyond himself.  Not because the power was an opiate.  Not because the power offered him escape.  Not because the power made his life easy.  But because the power offered him love.  Because the power offered him hope.  Because the power promised never, never to leave him.  And the power was God.

So I want to read one more passage that I found this week.  And this one’s from King’s book, The Strength to Love.  It’s kind of poetic, as he could be sometimes.  And it’s spot on, I think, for you and me.  An encouraging word.

Religion, says Dr. King, endows us with the conviction that we are not alone in this vast, uncertain universe.  Beneath and above the shifting sands of time, the uncertainties that darken our days, and the vicissitudes that cloud our nights, is a wise and loving God.  This universe is not a tragic expression of meaningless chaos but a marvelous display of orderly cosmos...Man is not a wisp of smoke from a limitless smoldering, says Dr. King, but a child of God created “a little lower than the angels.”  Above the manyness of time stands the one eternal God, with wisdom to guide us, strength to protect us, and love to keep us.  His boundless love supports the tiny drops of every wave.  With a surging fullness he is forever moving toward us, seeking to fill the little creeks and bays of our lives with unlimited resources.  This is religion’s everlasting witness, its eternal answer to the enigma of existence.  Any man, any woman who finds this cosmic sustenance can walk the highways of life without the fatigue of pessimism and the weight of morbid fears.

What a powerful, insightful, passionate articulation of faith – and what faith means in a dangerous time!  “God’s boundless love supports the tiny drops of every wave!”  “God’s boundless love grows in the roots of every tree!”  “God’s boundless love infuses every vine, and every crop, and every budding flower with grace!”  God’s boundless love – God’s cosmic sustenance – God’s surging fullness.

We are not alone.  We will not be alone.  And we can walk every highway, we can navigate every crisis, we can face every challenge without the fatigue of pessimism.  Without the fear of abandonment.  Without the distortions of cynicism.  Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, said Jesus.  And the Spirit of the Lord is upon you.  And the Spirit of the Lord is upon the planet and the creatures and the waves and the treetops.

And where there is Spirit there is grace.
And where there is grace there is good news.
And where there is good news there is hope.
Thanks be to God.