After Forty Years: The Urgency of Now
Written by Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President
January 20, 2008
Deuteronomy 30.11-20, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9
A Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Sermon
First Congregational United Church of Christ
"We are now faced with the face that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late."
Shortly after Labor Day this past September I had the privilege of accompanying one of our retired United Church of Christ pastors, David Duncombe, on the first day of his over forty day fast in Washington, DC, a public witness aimed at changing hearts and minds on Capital Hill over debt relief for some of the most impoverished countries in the world. These countries currently labor under the crushing burden of debts owed to western governments and the World Bank, debts that make it nearly impossible for them to address the poverty that enslaves so much of the global south. At age 79, David seemed an unlikely volunteer for this kind of physically and spiritually demanding witness: No food for six weeks, sustained by only a gallon of water a day. Those we visited, congressmen and women, senators, and their staffs, were both impressed and bewildered. "Is this safe? What would prompt you to do such a thing, especially when on day one of the fast you weigh only 145 pounds? Why are you doing this?" Hardly your run of the mill lobbyist.
David responded simply, "Next week we will be observing the 6th anniversary of the attacks on September 11. Thousands died that day and their names need to be remembered and honored. But that same day 19,000 children died of hunger or hunger related diseases in sub-Saharan Africa. Who remembers them? Who will read their names at public memorials? And what of the 19,000 who died the next day? And the next?" A former hospital chaplain, David likened his visits through the halls of Congress to the hospital visits he used to make. "Often you find the patient – the member of Congress - unresponsive! But you get to know the family, the staff. And, as they see me grow weaker and more emaciated day by day, moving from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair, the face of poverty becomes real, and I believe the urgency of responding grows more and more compelling."
In the months before he died, Martin Luther King, Jr. published a book with the provocative title, Where do we go from here: Chaos or community? At the very end of the book King quotes from the famous sermon he had preached on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was assassinated. In that sermon at Riverside Church in New York he had made his clearest statement about the idolatry and racism of the war in Vietnam. And he reminded the congregation that leisure and caution were often our most insidious mode of complicity with evil. "We are faced," he said
With the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such as thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The "tide in the affairs of men" does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: "Too late." There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. . . . We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be [humankind's] last chance to choose between chaos and community.
Forty years later we listen again to these urgent words of choice. Can it really be forty years? The number of years evokes biblical images of wandering, of long years between escape and entry, between Exodus and the Promised Land. The Mosaic character of Dr. King's ministry reminds us of another choice echoing through the ages: "See, I have set before you today life and death, blessing and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendents may live." Near the end of his own prophetic ministry, Moses gathers the people following their forty year sojourn in the wilderness. Milk and honey may lie beyond the river, over the mountain top, but here on this side of the Jordan there is the urgency of decision: chaos or community, life or death, blessing or curse.
By the time King preached his sermon the civil rights movement had splintered over tactics and generational conflict in the face of the persistence of racism and the readiness of those in power to hand out partial rights without threatening their own privilege. By that night in April, 1967 the anti-war movement was roiling across the land as the violence in Southeast Asia entered into its long final crescendo of death and deceit, a crescendo that sadly would take years rather than months. From the elegant pulpit at Riverside Church King would embark on his last crusade organizing poor people into a campaign against poverty here and throughout the world, a campaign that would end among garbage workers in Memphis with the shots that rang out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Racism, war, poverty. Forty years later this unholy trinity remains our deepest shame and our highest calling, joined now perhaps by the recognition that life itself on this planet hangs in the balance. Today, as then, we face the urgency of now.
Yet for forty years we have allowed ourselves the luxury of thinking we had time to respond. Most of us have made our wilderness journey one of privilege and leisure where evangelical faith is often replaced by mere respectable religion. The most popular president of these forty years was eulogized by this satirical lament: "He borrowed from the future so he could live in the past." Where is the urgency of now? What would King see forty years beyond his own mountain top vision the night before his death?
He would see Katrina, the Jena 6, the rush by almost every presidential candidate to demonize mostly Spanish speaking immigrants as the gravest of threats to our culture, our economy, and our security, the surreal but persistent media attacks on one of our own congregations – Trinity Church in Chicago – calling it racist in order to undermine the credibility of an African American candidate who happens to be one of its members. He would see the readiness to torture innocent and guilty alike in part because they are Arab, and in all of this he would direct people of faith to the urgency of now.
He would see the exaltation of violence enshrined in a doctrine of war that replaces last resort with preemptive assault, a crusade built on the fiction of weapons of mass destructions that justifies the sacrifice of its youth with words of mass deception, the human rights debacle of Guantanamo and the evil of Abu Ghraib, and he would tell us that all this points us to the urgency of now.
He would see the scandal of the sub-prime mortgage debacle that lands so heavily on the poor, the number of children without health care growing steadily on the tide of veto-proof indifference, the fact that we listen mostly in vain for presidential debates to take seriously the question of poverty while Matthew's and Luke's beatitudes are turned on their head by candidates rushing to display their religious credentials: "Blessed are you who are wealthy and even you who are middle class, privileged though insecure, for yours is the kingdom of God." And through all of this he would points us to the urgency of now. When will peace and poverty, racial prejudice and the future of the planet get on the ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Florida and California? Or will this presidential election, like so much of our public rhetoric, only be about more walls, more weapons, and more privilege for those already wealthy?
"See, I have set before you today – not tomorrow, not next year, but today – life and death, blessing and curse." Martin Luther King called this a fierce urgency. Whether it was the Moses of the Jordan looking back forty years to the freedom that had been promised at the Red Sea, or the Moses of Memphis looking ahead toward a forty year wilderness through which many of us have been wandering, the message of urgency remains. How many of us are prepared to fast today so that the 19,000 children who may die tomorrow will live?
Tucked away in the opening verses of 1 Corinthians with Paul's warm words of gratitude and affection is a reminder of King's warning that in life and in history there is such a thing as being too late. The "revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ," and the "day of our Lord Jesus Christ" are references to divine accountability, to the Last Day of Judgement. You and I may find portraits of the Last Judgment more quaint curiosities than vivid reminders of what lies in store. The future lies ahead with seemingly infinite occasion for fixing the chaos we permit to endure.
But tomorrow is, increasingly, today. And whether the day of the Lord Jesus is beyond the mythic Jordan, or on this side of the crossing where our world threatens now to end in fire and flood, the fierce urgency of now is very real. Forty years of wandering since King's final warnings and passionate pleas have left the Beloved Community still largely a dream, as fleeting as it is compelling. As in the days of Paul, the arrogance of Empire seduces us with the idolatries of Rome and her modern day imitators. But we are not Rome; we are the Church, called into the fellowship of God's Son, saints, called together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." As such, we still receive the promise of graceful speech and discerning knowledge, not lacking in spiritual gifts, but strengthened for the day of Christ's coming. Thus in the face of the urgency of now, we can be redeemed from the judgment of "too late," and instead fiercely choose life where, in the midst of the chaos, the beloved community shall reign, The old hymn declares "I'm bound for the promised land, I'm bound for the promised land!" But for forty years we've been meandering along the scenic route. "Choose life!" our Moses tells us, again and again, before it's too late.