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Moving Michigan forward together

Consider the “Platinum Rule” as a counter to the current news cycle and a way to live in beloved community.

Incoming Superintendent, Lansing District

I had the opportunity to preach on Human Relations Day Sunday and to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day with the congregation. In each of the two worship services I began by looking out over the congregation as I said to them, “I simply want to see you. I do not know you well, but I am guessing you would like me to know you as you would like to be known, individually and as a Christian community. Isn’t that what every human being from any culture wants, just to be known for who they are as the image of God and to be embraced in that way?” I saw a lot of heads nodding affirmation.

As a part of our celebration of the legacy and impact of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we give thanks for how God creates the beloved community—community in diversity. To get inside of that understanding I had intended to explore with them the theme of Living Out of the “Other’s” Vision. But the news cycle that had consumed the weekend pushed me to start in a different place. Through an indirect route I still landed on the theme, but not before having to name some hard realities that we face in this country.

Have you ever had to say something difficult to someone about their actions, behaviors or attitudes? Perhaps it was to a coworker whose words or actions were upsetting to you or to other workers. It may be to someone you supervise, or perhaps even to someone who supervises you. Perhaps it was to someone in your local church leadership. Many of us have a friend or relative that most of the time we enjoy being with, but on occasion they say or do something that makes us extremely uncomfortable or perhaps even makes us angry.

There are even times when something is done or said that stirs us so deeply that we wonder if we should confront the situation immediately or take some other form of action. Such moments are difficult because they often confront us with what we value and they ask us to consider what we are willing to stand for openly and publicly. These moments also may reveal to us what that other person values, and it may not be consistent with what we know of ourselves. They challenge us to consider what we are willing to lose in order to keep our integrity.

The late great poet, author and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said:

”When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

The Gospel reading that I chose for Sunday was from Luke, and it leads us in this same direction of thought:

Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.”  Luke 12:2-3

The news cycles over the past two months have been filled with overwhelming examples of the truth of what Jesus said. Media giants, major producers, high profile news anchors, and members of state and federal legislative bodies have lost their careers as what was said or done in the dark was now heard in the light around issues of sexual harassment and misconduct. As report after report came out it became clear that there would have been multiple times when others could have spoken out on behalf of those being misused, yet silence gained the day too often.

In the front of our United Methodist Hymnal we have the prayer of Great Thanksgiving that we lift up each time we celebrate Holy Communion. In that prayer we pray “blessed is your Son Jesus Christ. Your Spirit anointed him to proclaim release to the captives, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Jesus came to do this in real time, real places, for real lives and to real systems of captivity and oppression.

With my new appointment starting in a couple of weeks I was at the appointive cabinet retreat all last week so I did not get to watch any television during that entire time, including the Golden Globes Award ceremony the previous Sunday evening. I understand that there were quite a few speeches celebrating that release from captivity and the changes underway that hope to set at liberty those who have been oppressed. Those who were the captors and oppressors may not be as happy for this activity of God setting people free, but those set free from the oppression are celebrating.

With power and privilege comes responsibility. When that power and privilege gets misused or abused it creates pain in the lives of those affected, and it creates pain in the heart of God. This leads me to the story read from the book of First Samuel Sunday morning. Eli was the head priest of the temple. Early in his life he undoubtedly was faithful to God and to the people. But if we read the passage just before the one many of our churches read Sunday we discover that Eli had two sons who were also priests at the temple and they were misusing their places of privilege, influence and power. They were not being faithful to God and were not keeping the best interests of the people in the forefront of their behaviors. God was mad. God was really mad!

What fascinates and excites me about scripture is that often times when God wants to confront people in power God seems to choose someone who is from the margins, someone that does not have power in the normal culturally accepted or defined way. Samuel was just a young boy when his mother Hannah brought him to the temple to stay and serve God. He was just a boy. He was a young apprentice in training. He had no power or influence. He had no status or stature. So when the voice called out in the night, “Samuel!  Samuel!” it is no surprise that he went running to Eli to ask him what he wanted. He would not necessarily have expected to become an important messenger. This happened three times and it was not until the third time that the old priest realized that it was God that was calling out to Samuel. God chose someone that had not yet been distorted by power and privilege. To old Eli’s credit he did tell Samuel to be ready to respond to God when he next heard a call.

Samuel goes back and when he once again hears that voice cry out, “Samuel!  Samuel!” he obediently responds, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” The story that was read Sunday does not give us the message that God wants Samuel to share with Eli. Let’s just say that it is not good news for Eli and his abusive sons, but it could be good news for the people. The point here is that when an abuse of power that impacts the lives of others is taking place God does not just hop down off the eternal throne and come in to give people time out in the corner. Sometimes I wish God would for it would make my life and yours much simpler. Instead, God calls forth messengers to make clear what God expects of God’s people, especially of those in places of leadership and responsibility. The only authority that Samuel had was that God had called him and given him a message to set things right when they had gone wrong.

Earlier this week I was reminded of the words of the late theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, an ordained German Lutheran pastor and author, died confronting the abusive attitude, systems and behaviors of Adolph Hitler and his regime. He was given a message to set things right when they had gone wrong. He wrote:

“Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession. … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

I did not wish to talk about politics to the congregation that morning, but I told them that I do need to talk about responsible discipleship. If I say that I follow Jesus Christ, then I am saying that I value what he made clear he valued and values. I am saying that I am willing to stand for what he lived and died for and that was affirmed in his resurrection and ascension. Like Samuel, if and when God calls me to bring a message to set right what is wrong, then my response is to be “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” This is precisely what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did in his time, place and circumstances. He proclaimed, “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.”

The events swirling in the news about the recent comments of the man occupying the White House are the time, place and circumstances that we now face. No matter how uncomfortable it may make us this is our time and place. It does not matter if you are a Democrat, a Republican, an Independent, or not registered at all. It matters if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. It matters if you and I are baptized Christians, members of the Body of Christ, who in our baptismal liturgy proclaim that we “accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Whether we like the news cycles or not, they certainly have fulfilled Jesus’ admonition, “what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops”.

I am grateful to Bishop Bruce Ough and the Council of Bishops for the statement they released condemning the racist rhetoric used by the president. Click here. Such language used by a national leader is beneath the dignity of this country and more so it is beneath the essential nature of our relationship with God. I am grateful to the General Commission on Religion and Race for also releasing a statement  and for providing links to resources for use in your local churches and communities. The latest news cycles confronts us with what we value and what we are willing to stand for openly and publicly. Our faith affirms that each person is created in the image of God. To demean or belittle entire countries of people is to suggest that God got it wrong. It is our Christian responsibility to offer a counter view that lifts up and affirms our common humanity and dignity.

And that leads me back to the theme that I had wanted to start with: Living out of the “Other’s” Vision. You have often heard it said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We often refer to this as the “golden rule”. What if instead we live by this premise, “Do unto others as they would prefer, not as you prefer.”? Read more. Douglas Brouwer is the pastor of the International Protestant Church in Zurich, Switzerland, and author of the book, How to Become a Multicultural Church. He suggests that in diverse settings it’s not enough to treat people the way you would like to be treated. It’s important to learn how they want to be treated. He calls that the “platinum rule”. What he is trying to help us in the church to explore is how to check our own assumptions about individuals and communities that are from a different cultural origin than our own. It is an invitation to enter into genuine relationships by not evaluating everything through our own lens. Dr. King poignantly reminded us,

“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.”

If you and I want to see beloved community then the invitation from God is to be and become that community here in our place and time. To live authentically in relationships across diverse cultures requires of each one of us a willingness to see the other person and their culture through their lens and not just filtered through our own. It also requires of each of us that we be willing to examine the systems that we are a part of to see if those systems prevent others from being seen and embraced as who they are and want us to see them as.

As I looked out upon the congregation in both worship services last Sunday I asked them, “Is God calling you as a congregation to intentionally seek to build beloved community here in this town? Is God calling out in the night to some of you to lead the way as messengers of a more intentional beloved community in this time and place? If so, I pray that you respond, ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’”

I ask the same question of myself and of each one of you as we move Michigan forward together!