Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Witness of Self

Exodus 32:1-14
Matthew 22:1-14
"Letter from the Birmingham Jail"

"Those who see beyond the shadows and lies of their culture will never be understood, let alone believed, by the masses."  Plato

In other words, if one refuses to go along with the crowd and the dominant culture, one is considered a "weirdo" and will not be taken seriously.  They are "non-conformists".  But as MLK observed, "But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body [of Christ] through ... fear of being non-conformists."

One of the most significant works of Martin Luther King was his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail".   The letter was written in response to concerns publicly expressed by eight white Alabama religious leaders, Gentile and Jewish, who had referred to the protests in Birmingham as "unwise and untimely", concerned as they were for social stability. 

They probably meant well in expressing a concern that while Dr. King's efforts were well intended, it was perhaps not quite the right time or the right method.  At the very least, the concern was that such a drastic change in local culture would be better attended to gradually and through the legal system rather than immediately and so radically by public protest.  Yet it was noted by Dr. King in this 1963 letter that the "change" through the legal system had come in 1954 by the USSC in Brown v Board of Education which outlawed segregation.

Dr. King began by writing, "I would like to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms ... since you have been influenced by the argument of 'outsiders coming in'."

These "criticisms" seemed to center around the fact that Dr. King was from Atlanta, so his coming to Birmingham to meddle in local affairs was inappropriate because it was none of his business.  In Dr. King's absence, they seemed to believe, all would be well.  The irony of the complaint, however, was that even though these eight clergy seemed to acknowledge a legitimate problem, they did not seem to appreciate that they were being forced to see things as they really were rather than as they perhaps wished they were.

It is like walking through the same door at the same place time and again.  At first something out of place is noticed but eventually put out of mind through repetition and lack of concern.  Soon that which is out of place (chipped and/or faded paint, carpet stains, rust, broken things, etc) is hardly noticed.  We get used to what it is; we "conform" to the present reality. 

"Status quo" does not mesh with the very essence of life because life itself is not static.  Life is dynamic and vibrant and should always be thriving and progressing.  But when we begin to notice - or are forced to acknowledge - that life is not so dynamic or vibrant for some, that something is wrong, we are compelled by Christ Himself to confront rather than conform to the ugly reality that while our own individual lives may be perfectly fine, things are not so fine for others.  It is easy to delegate individual responsibility, but it is much harder to look at the world through the lenses imposed on us by "outsiders" who force us to see things - and people - in a whole different light.  The Bible does precisely this.

Dr. King posed a question I find unsettling because it speaks all too clearly to our current social climate: "Is organized religion too inextricably bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world?"  "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century."

Welcome to the 21st-century church and the reality of Dr. King's greatest fear: the very Body of Christ being "dismissed [by the masses] as an irrelevant social club with no meaning", a body which has "lost its authenticity and has forfeited the loyalty of [quite literally] millions".  There is harsh truth to all Dr. King wrote in this "Letter"; philosophical, social, and biblical Truth that was summarily dismissed in his time as not only having been written by a black man but by an "outside agitator".

I thought about this "Letter" as I was reading the Exodus account of the 'golden calf' which, more than anything, challenges us to come closer to understanding how lost the "millions" may be - not strictly because they made bad choices but because the contemporary Church is lost itself.  We have become comfortable with "fitting in" to the popular culture rather than challenging it, quite likely because we have allowed ourselves over time to be so oriented. 

We like to believe we are independent thinkers, free men and women who are masters of our own universe, captains of our own charted courses, doing and believing because we think we have drawn our own conclusions independent of "outside" influence.  However, the text of the 'golden calf' reveals much more than an impatient and faithless people so easily enticed by shiny baubles.  We get a glimpse into the reality of the human psyche that is much more "conditioned" than it is "informed".  

By this I mean this was a people who had endured 400 years of slavery.  They had been overpowered and tricked into slavery ("Let us deal shrewdly with them", Exodus 1:10), they were fed and cared for as slaves.  Soon they were treated as slaves until they began to breed as slaves.  The culture which had held them captive for generations worshipped lifeless idols of all sorts, including cast animal images; so for 400 years this was the life which had become normal to them.  It was what they knew even if they did not participate.  It was what they had witnessed for so long that they could not know anything else.  They had been sufficiently "conditioned" to the point that nothing less than a Divine Miracle and an "outside agitator" would lead them to freedom.

For a time they were willing and surely excited to follow Moses out of their familiarity, but any interruption in the new routine would confuse them.  We must be mindful that in their 400 years of "social conditioning", they had severely limited social capacity.  So when Moses disappeared for so long, the people reverted back to what they had long been used to, the only "way" they really knew; and Aaron had no problem with it because he had long been one of them.  For all they knew, the "outside agitator" was dead.

In their state of confusion and anxiety they returned to the safety of familiarity, the misleading premise and false promise of "the good ol' days". 

What they could not know at the time was that turning back (even metaphorically) was a return to "status quo" and, ultimately, death.  Their former lives in Egypt held no promise but death.  Yet they were afraid of "change" and lacked the capacity to see beyond "the shadow and lies of their [known and familiar] culture".  It was not that they did not want a new life; it was that they were unable to envision anything else.

When Jesus shares His "parable of the wedding feast", we must realize we are the ones who are so enmeshed in the culture we've become accustomed to, the Americanized way of life we are familiar with, than even such a Divine Invitation that calls us OUT of that culture and into something glorious may not be as welcome as it will be a serious disruption and threat to the only life we really know. 

As it is now, we can very comfortably compartmentalize our "church" life apart from our "real" life and find no difficulty in doing so because we can tune in and tune out as the situation may warrant; our "real" life demands our fullest attention because that's where the money is - the bills and paychecks and pensions.  And the "SELF" which has been called out by Christ from the "bondage of myths and half-truths" has been lost to the "unbiblical distinction between ... the secular and the sacred" - as Dr. King had observed. 

Some have suggested religion is little more than a social "brain washing" designed to control the masses.  What we must see, however, is that the TRUE SELF was created in the Divine Image, distorted through social and cultural conformity, and reoriented to the TRUE SELF with the Advent of Messiah and the radical nature of the Gospel.  It is the INVITATION extended to us when we are challenged to self and social evaluation - and - critical analysis not to determine if we are "popular" with our neighbors but whether we are faithful to our Redeemer.

We must not ignore the reality of what Messiah is teaching: that "many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt 22:14).  This is not a human abstract; it is the mind and foreknowledge of The Lord.  It will be the "faithful" who are "chosen", but the "popular" (the "many") will not even recognize the Call.

We are not called to social "conformity"; we are called to Divine Glory.  It is long past time to awaken and answer that Call.  Amen.  

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