Alongside the Community Church of Durham
Sunday, July 19, 2020
We live in a season of intense moral urgency. Everywhere we turn, we’re confronted with this moral urgency. Climate change, for example. We simply can’t wait to act. We don’t have decades to play with. You know this as well as I do. We’re talking about years, ten at most. The time is now. Racial justice is just as critical, right, and failing to meet this moment—this George Floyd moment, this Breonna Taylor moment, this reparations and Black Lives Matter moment—failing to meet this moment would betray the democratic project and demoralize a generation of brave young activists. I don’t think I’m exaggerating here. You’ve been out there in the streets. You’ve been listening online. The time is now.
Fifty-five years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. preached “the fierce urgency of now”—and in many ways he was talking about the same fusion of issues, the same fusion of crises and sin and national aspiration. God insists the church rise to the moment, Dr. King insisted: confronting American pain and embodying holy hope. God insists the church choose sides. “The fierce urgency of now.”
So what do we do then with two modest parables in this morning’s reading: the second and third, the parable of the mustard seed and the parable of the leavening yeast? They don’t immediately fit. Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, the smallest, tiniest seed of them all. And the thing is, that that mustard seed takes its own sweet time, to find fertile ground, to take root in the field, to germinate there. And that’s just the beginning: the mustard seed requires seasons of rain, and seasons of sun, and the patience of the sower. And only then, through days and weeks and seasons, does it grow into something like a great shrub, or if we’re lucky a small tree, where the birds come to nest and rest and sing and raise their little ones.
You see the contradiction here? If the faithful church has to rise to the moment, if “the fierce urgency of now” requires decisiveness and courage and action—what are we to make of Jesus’ invitation to uncompromising patience, to the kind of patience that sees promise in tiny seeds and waits confidently for those same seeds to take root, welcome the rains and grow into the shrubs and trees we all need? Maybe Jesus is warning us to resist calls to moral urgency, to back off when the prophets of passion urge bold action and social revolution. Maybe Jesus is counseling caution and optimism instead, the kind of faith the woman manifests in mixing the yeast into the flour until all of it is leavened. You see the rub? Is faith all about patience or urgency? Is discipleship motivated by restlessness, by that hunger for justice Jesus describes in the Beatitudes? Or is it sustained by gentle, generous optimism—the kind of optimism that resists passion, and resists revolution, and waits instead for the unfolding of God’s plan?
As usual, I think Jesus is doing something very different here. Messing with our expectations and habits. I think he’s offering a strategy, a gospel strategy, for “the fierce urgency of now” itself. Do you see that too? There’s just no way Jesus is saying: don’t worry so much about climate change, let things play out, see how it goes. And there’s no way he’s saying: don’t agonize over all this racism and state violence; it’ll all work out in the end; good people will prevail. Jesus is convinced that God is active, alive in our neighbors, in their very lives and struggles; and Jesus makes no excuses for those who see neighbors suffering or oppressed or isolated by poverty—and do nothing about it. So he’s all in on “the fierce urgency of now.”
So maybe what Jesus is doing is linking “the fierce urgency of now” to something like the “uncompromising patience” of God. Maybe what he’s doing (in these parables) is insisting that our commitments to mercy and blessing and justice invite faithfulness and courage, day by day by day, season after season. “The fierce urgency of now” is not fixed in a moment, or even in a season, or (we know this) in an election cycle. “The fierce urgency of now” invites disciples like you and me to do the hard, exacting work of loving and blessing, coalition-building and movement-organizing; “the fierce urgency of now” insists that we do this hard, exacting, spiritual work day by day by day by day, season after season. We learn to do the work together, in community, in partnership, resisting despair and trusting in God. And along the way, along this path that is by turns thrilling and heartbreaking, these little mustard seeds will take root and grow. And the yeast will leaven the loaf. The kingdom of heaven emerges in our choices, in our coalitions, in our resistance, in our joyfulness. By the grace of God. In our hard work.
Moral urgency requires discipline. That’s the point, I think. Discipline and faith.
Forty years ago, the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama wrote a lovely reflection on these kinds of themes, and he called it: The Three Mile an Hour God. Isn’t that a great name for a book? The Three Mile an Hour God. And he’s talking about the kind of spirituality that rises to the challenge of times like these. He’s talking about the kind of Christianity that engages the great issues of our time with confidence and passion and, yes, with “the fierce urgency of now.” But it’s not a revolution of weapons or bombastic gestures. And it’s not a revolution of technologies or gadgetry or clever political messaging. It’s a revolution, writes Kosuke Koyama, of solidarity and blessing; it’s a revolution of sacrifice and love.
And here’s the passage that speaks to me this morning: “Love has its speed.” This is Kosuke Koyama. “Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.” Isn’t that great? Isn’t that just right? “The three mile an hour God.” Not the God you find blasting away at a NASCAR race. Not the God you find roaring overhead at an air show. But the God you meet on the Sweet Trail. The God you encounter picking blueberries. The God you discover in a freedom march. “The three mile an hour God.”
What we want to do—as a church, as a beloved community—is find love’s speed, walk at love’s speed, tune our lives and our programs and our purpose to the ways and rhythms and pacing of God’s speed in the world. This does not mean turning from the urgency of movements for racial justice. It does not mean turning from the necessity of coordinated efforts for ecological healing and renewal. What it does mean, however, is doing little things with great love and watching them blossom into movements. What it does mean is investing time in one-to-one conversations and expecting to hear things that motivate and inspire us. What it does mean is going all in with one West African refugee and experiencing together a revolution of concern, compassion and conviction. So that we simply must organize and agitate and work to change the immigration system itself, and how it treats and demeans our neighbors (and the God-in-our-neighbors).
“The fierce urgency of now” is upon us. There is just no question about it. What this faith does—what our mustard seed faith does—is inspire hope and confidence among us, even as it enlists us in a movement of daily discipline and courageous resistance and robust partnership. The speed the love of God walks! All of this looks different now, in the midst of a pandemic that changes everything we do (church included). But we’re on our way. We’re on that path together. Every time you show up in a virtual courtroom to bear witness to an immigrant’s right to freedom. Every time you show up for a car rally at an ICE detention facility. Every time you make time for a one-to-one conversation, making space for new visions and new energy and new urgency in the church. Every time you make a call to check on an elder who’s a little isolated and a little weary of COVID-19. Every time you invite a teenager to a Black Lives Matter march and every time you read a book and challenge yourself to name white privilege.
Love has its speed. Love is our way. It’s not arrogant or rude. But it’s not passive or dismissive either. Love has its speed. Love is our way. Love is the mustard seed’s journey to becoming a shrub. Love is the yeast’s life in the loaf. And love is the church becoming the beloved community. And a blessing for the world.