God’s power, human power

In August of 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with the speech, “Where do we go from here?” Every person in the country should study it.

But then, we don’t like long speeches, do we? We prefer memes, soundbites, chants, and slogans. We get addicted to the adrenalin that comes from the things that incite our passion. The long, hard, strategic work that actually affects change over time, well, we don’t have the patience for that. 

King reflected on ten years of the SCLC’s work for racial justice across the country.  And in answering, “Where do we go from here?” he affirmed his commitment to non-violence. But at the same time, he challenged ministers and others who reduced the idea of love to a sentiment:

“Now, we’ve got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.

“And the other thing is, I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

“Let us be dissatisfied, and men will recognize, that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

“Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout, “White Power!” when nobody will shout, “Black Power!” but everybody will talk about God’s power and human power.”

This Sunday, I’m preaching on the story of the first convert to Christianity in the Book of Acts: a black, sexually-altered man from a foreign country. For all those reasons, the man would have been excluded from Judaism. He was someone Philip would never have met on his own. It took massive intervention by the Holy Spirit to get Philip to seek him out. But when Philip explained the Gospel, the man was changed.

It was through transformations like this that the church, in the power of the Holy Spirit, transformed the world.

As King said, “Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.”

The light of the Gospel.

What are we here for?

Why did God put us here?

My guess is that few people today have thought about that, and fewer still would come up with the right answer. Some might say, “Because God loves us,” but most wouldn’t know what to say. Nearly 400 years ago, a group of theologians from England and Scotland answered those questions, “Worship.”

It was the height of the English Civil War, and the theologians wanted to create a tool to teach children about God. The result was the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Its most famous line is the very first: “The Chief End of Man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

Of course, God loves us, but God created us so that we could reflect back to God a bit of God’s own glory, beauty, truth, and love. We’ve come to expect worship to inspire and teach us; we have high expectations of the music and preaching. Over the years, this led churches to divide over questions of music and style; we expected churches to cater to our tastes. But worship is about God, not us. 

If you’re not worshipping, or if you’re worshipping something besides God, you’re missing out on an essential aspect of life; you’re violating your design.

The Bible says that in the early church there was singing, teaching, preaching, and celebration of the Sacraments, but the Bible gives precious few details about what that was like. Much of what we hold dear about worship is of our design. 

But there’s no doubt that God created us for worship.

God commanded his ancient people to go up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. He commands us still, but because of the work of the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, worship no longer has to be in just one place.

But there’s also no doubt that God created us to worship together.

It’s a joy to come together again this week, still a bit distanced, but together as God intended. 

Forgot their name?

Why is it that we forget someone’s name the moment they’re introduced to us?

In the wake of the racial unrest sweeping the country, many voices have called for the need to listen to each other. But what actually seems to be happening is that we yell at each other instead.

Why is that?

Luke 10 says that an expert in the law once came up to “test” Jesus. He wasn’t asking for a legal opinion or for legal advice; he was trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. He had no interest in learning from Jesus, only in making himself look good.

Luke 10:29 tells us the man wanted to “justify himself.” 

The parable Jesus told the man in response to this self-justification is called “The Good Samaritan.” 

In reading the story of the man who stopped to help someone who was helpless and dying by the side of the road, it’s easy to miss the reason why Jesus told it.

Self-justification is an ancient problem.

We all want to appear knowledgeable, appear smart, appear to be in control. When we’re introduced to someone, we’re more worried about what we look like, what we’ll say next, than in really being present for the other person.   

Forgetting their name is the least of our problems. 

Both, and

In his powerful book, Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson talks about the power of the media to shape our perceptions. On Sunday, March 6, 1965, 600 blacks led by Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to march from Selma, Alabama to the capital in Montgomery to protest voter registration practices. In what became known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers beat the marchers with clubs as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

When the images of the atrocities were broadcast on TV, white Americans were horrified. Public opinion galvanized against the troopers. When the marchers tried again on March 21st, they were 2000 strong. Along the way, they were joined by people of all races from across the country. When they reached the steps of the capitol, their number had swelled to 50,000.

Watson said that for him, the enduring images of the march were the faces of women, which reflected “fear and faith, hurt and hope; their eyes, focused on changing the reality of life, perhaps not for themselves, but for their children; their lips, prayer for deliverance, not so much from the white state troopers as from a life and future of indignity.”

Then Watson asks, what is the impact of images of “black people burning cars and raiding convenience stores?” Images like those have the power to undo “the purpose, spirit, and progress” peaceful marchers fought for in Selma.

Images have the power to both unite and divide, don’t they? 

Today, we tune into the cable channels and social media platforms that support our point of view. What passes for news are often “canned shouting matches that only deepen people’s entrenched positions.”

Maybe we should turn off our screens and focus on some images from the Bible.

Long ago, Moses asked God, “Show me your glory.”

God replied, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

And what is the “goodness” of God?

God put Moses in the cleft of a rock and put a hand over Moses’ face, so that Moses could only get a glimpse of God’s back. The image of God’s face would have been fatal.

As God passed by, God said in Exodus 34:6: “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness…. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….”

One might be able to tell where we stand by what channel we tune into, but we can’t manipulate the image of God to our support our point of view.

God is both loving and just.

Maybe the most powerful image of all is the cross, where both the love and justice of God were satisfied.