This coming Monday, January 20th, America will take a moment, at least officially, to honor one of it's most prophetic and heroic figures...Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Unfortunately even though it's an official holiday lots of people will ignore it and lots of people will treat that day with contempt. I recently had a member of one of my churches say that it's not fair that Martin Luther King, Jr gets his own holiday and that some schools and banks close to observe that day. He went on to say his kids are expected to attend school on Veterans day and that Veterans did more for this country than any Black preacher could ever do. I agree Veterans are important and so is their sacrifice, but that "black preacher" transformed a backwards, bigoted and racist society into one that, for the most part, has at lest learned tolerance for the other. Tolerance, however, is not and should not be the vision we desire to have for relationships with others in our communities who's skin, gender, and lifestyle is different from the prevailing and dominant raced as white and sexed as male culture we live in. Tolerance is not love, tolerance is not grace, tolerance is saying, "I wont hurt you, discriminate against you are even kill you because you are different." The truth is tolerance is the enemy of love and grace. What our vision ought to be is acceptance. We need to have a vision, or what Dr. King called, "a dream", of a society that embraces the various ways that God's image is in each and everyone of us, despite our race, gender and sexual orientation.
As a pastor I am disappointed that our church has not arrived yet at a place of full acceptance and inclusion of all the various ways God is imagined in humanity. Our church, the United Methodist Church, is at a crossroads with a traditional and prevailing view of humanity and society. We cling to an archaic interpretation of family and sexuality and call it "being faithful" to tradition and scripture. It seems like when Dr. King and the social revolutionaries of the civil rights era were advocating for a more just and advertent society many in our church then were against that as well. There were pastors defrocked, churches attacked and even people killed because of the radical idea that all men were created equal and that society can truly be a place of liberty and justice for all.
Unfortunately our church, at lest the Methodist Episcopal stream, has always sided with traditional interpretations of life and scripture (when threatened with loss of membership or money) , but fortunately many of the other streams, such as the Brethren and the Methodist Protestant streams, had embraced progressive visions of church and society, i.e the ordination of women and black ministers, when it wasn't popular. I think overall the leadership of the United Methodist Church is moving towards embracing a progressive vision of church. Now some still don't and cannot and won't. For example, I had an Elder in my conference tell me that because of my support for dialogue, just dialogue, regarding full inclusion of homosexual persons in the life of the church, he regretted helping me with my commissioning paper work and would be voting against me at Annual Conference when my name is put before the executive session of Elders for provisional membership. I'm sure 50 years ago there where Elders who said the same thing to young pastors, especially in the South, who dared to say "blacks should have the same rights as whites, in society and in the church."
So this Sunday the Church celebrates Human Relations Sunday. We are asked to have special prayers, litanies, hymns, and to take up a special offering that help raise awareness on how we interact with other humans in our own communities and globally. I think it's safe to say that the circus that has preceded this years Human Relations Sunday, i.e the Gay Marriage trials, might have a negative effect on what we are trying to convey by having a Human Relations Sunday. This Sunday I'm going to attempt to share the importance of keeping Dr. Kings "dream" alive, not just over issues of race, but all issues of bigotry, i.e homosexual rights, workers rights, and women's health rights. I'm sure that in the small Northern Michigan community I live and serve in, this won't be popular. It'll have to be nuanced a bit, but hopefully the message and the agenda of a Human Relations Sunday will "get out there" and maybe at least challenge, if not transform some hearts and lives.
The biggest challenge we have as a Wesleyan tradition is adjusting to becoming a progressive church. My understanding of Wesley's faith was that he, as a son of the enlightenment age, had a rather progressive vision for Christianity, also he struggled with the traditional world view he grew up with and lived in. Fortunately in the frontier world that Methodism thrived in, Mr. Wesley's Methodism found some rather progressive partners who challenged a traditional world view and championed a progressive world view...in some ways;). Methodist were the first to have racially mixed worship and women leaders and preachers. By 1800 almost 80% of Methodist were black, unfortunately then, like now, we allowed social pressures to cloud our judgment and instead of being a mixed racial church we helped blacks start their own Methodist tradition, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Methodism has in it's DNA the make up that is needed to be the most inclusive, gospel centered, evangelically minded form of progressive Christianity the world has ever seen! The question is will we embrace that possibility or will retreat back to stereo types, bigotry and exclusiveness? This sunday, Human relations Sunday, is a perfect opportunity to reflect on this question and maybe develop a gospel centered response for it. We will have to wait and see.
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Grace and Peace,