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Jan 19, 2020

An Opportune Time (begins at 27:15)

An Opportune Time (begins at 27:15)

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: January 2020

Category: Faith

Audio of 2nd scripture reading, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, followed by the sermon begins at 27:15.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,

2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:

3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

4I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind — 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you — 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

 An Opportune Time

          I have an article on my desk that has been forwarded to me more than any other in my entire ministry.  It was the op ed by Nicholas Kristof entitled “This Has Been the Best Year Ever,” published in The New York Times on Dec. 28.  In it, Kristof cites dramatic numbers to talk about how much better life has gotten for many around the world:  how many more people now have access to clean water and electricity, the decrease in child mortality, the decrease in extreme poverty, a decline in devastating diseases such as polio, leprosy, and AIDS, and the growth in literacy, with particular gains in education for girls and women.[1]  These measures suggest this is a hopeful time.

          Kristof acknowledges the problems that worry so many of us—international conflict, a divided populace, climate and ecological breakdown.  He says, “there is still so much wrong with the world,” but then he makes what may be the most important observation of the piece:  “I worry that deep pessimism about the state of the world is paralyzing rather than empowering; excessive pessimism can leave people feeling not just hopeless but also helpless.”[2]  I’m sorry for his ableist use of “paralyzing,” but I think we know what he means about feeling unable to do anything to make a difference.  I think this is why the article has struck such a resonate chord with people.  In addition to speaking to a number of you, this article has been making the rounds in clergy circles, as we wrestle with the part we play in the narrative of doom and gloom that can have the effect of people resigning themselves to realities they don’t believe they can affect.  

          We know, in part, why media plays into this narrative.  It sells.  Even as some of the most pressing challenges probably go under covered, the stories that are told are told in a way that stokes anxiety.  The cynical side of me says that’s because anxiety seeks a salve and there are plenty of people ready to sell us something to make us feel better or at least numb.  I don’t want to be cynical, and I don’t think you want to be cynical either.  You don’t want to feel helpless or hopeless either.  If we are truly people of faith, then we should be people of both hope and help.  It doesn’t mean living in denial of reality.  It means being part of a birthing a new reality, one that is better for all.  Jesus calls this the good news, the merging of heaven and earth, “thy kingdom come,” as he taught us to pray, and Christ invites us to participate in the bringing about of that kingdom.

          The great Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann talks about the gift of the prophets as their ability to see how differently things could be.  They recognize present realities, but they do not resign to letting them have the last word.  Tomorrow, our country recognizes Martin Luther King Day.  He is most famous for a speech that lays out in vivid pictures a dream for how it could be.  There was every reason for him to be pessimistic, excessively pessimistic, and yet he, like others in the movement, was able to see through the fog of societal evil to move the world a step closer to the kingdom come.  His good news was that we could be better.

          Now unfortunately, or ironically, or perhaps simply tellingly, the speech I chose of his to lift up today is not one of his more obviously hopeful ones.  I plan worship a year at a time, so I chose the speech long ago.  This is no “I Have a Dream” or “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” giving hope even on the doorstep of his death.  The tenor is more somber.  The pace doesn’t pick up in characteristic fashion.  In 2017, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the speech, The New Yorker called it “searing.”[3]  It was also roundly criticized, by familiar opponents and some allies alike.  The speech was his denunciation of the War in Vietnam.  It’s long.  It’s a plodding and methodical.  It’s critical.  It’s heavy. 

          Why did King speak as he did then?  Why did I select this particular speech?  Was King so discouraged that he had lost grasp of a sense of hope and starting to feel helpless?  Was I?  King indicates himself that he was reluctant to speak out on the matter.  He says, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony,” concluding, “but we must speak.”[4]  A prophet’s reluctance is always a good sign, by the way.  The Bible isn’t just a litany of prophets; it’s a litany of reluctant prophets.  Anyone who enjoys rushing to tell everyone how wrong we are or how chosen they are, should raise suspicion, perhaps of motive, but certainly of understanding.  You shake the world because it needs reordering not because you take pleasure in the upset you cause.  King’s love of Jesus, his responsibility as a preacher of the gospel, gave him no choice in his mind, but to speak, to offer words that pierced through what he perceived as false, to make a space for a truer way to enter in. 

          That’s how prophets work.  Isaiah, one of the great prophets of the ancestors, says in today’s first reading, “God made my mouth like a sharp sword…God made me polished arrow,” (Is. 49:2).  Similarly, Jesus spoke of bringing a sword, which is not a literal call to violence, but rather a metaphor that the truth he spoke would cut through falseness and would be divisive.  He was quite clear about that.

So, how do I reconcile these two messages, the first—facts that demonstrate measurable progress—and the second—truth about the real challenges and injustices that persist?  I don’t because I don’t think they need to be reconciled.  They’re both true, and we need both.  Too much doom and gloom and we are lost in despair. Too much unsubstantiated optimism and we are lost in denial.  As Christians, we sing that while once we may have been lost, now we are found in Christ.  Jesus both faced the worst society has to offer and showed us a new world by rising to new life.  Jesus offered us hope in the face of what seems impossible.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes to this little group of people who must have felt the world was against them.  Talk about feeling small and helpless, yet Paul says to them that Christ will give them the strength and the tools they need to do what it takes to endure until the fullness of God’s way is made manifest in the world.  “Christ will strengthen you to the end,” says Paul, and maybe the key for us to remember is that the end isn’t here yet. 

This is why both lifting up encouraging signs and pointing out challenging realities can combat the kind of hopelessness and helplessness that is harmful, because both point us to the possibility of the moment.  There is still time.  We exist now, and now is full of possibility.  Kristof’s article pulls people off the sidelines and says, your participation is not in vain, but it could all be in vain if you do not participate.  This is not a hopeless or helpless time as much as it is an opportune time.  The tragedy would be to miss the opportunities because we’re too busy wringing our hands to see them.  Now is a holy time.

In Jesus and Paul’s time, they spoke of time differently.  There was the time that describes a linear string of events:  I got up at this time, I had breakfast for this long, I feel asleep at minute 5 of the sermon.  It’s a quantitative term, in Greek Chronos.  Then there is the qualitative measure of time, Kairos in Greek, and it refers to what the time is for:  it’s time for harvest, it’s time to be in mourning, or it’s peace time.  In the Scriptures, Kairos refers to the divine possibilities of the present moment, all that this time is for, what the calling of the moment is, and how we can live into it.[5] Wisdom calls us to recognize the Kairos of the moment.

This is why King spoke as he did of the timeliness of things, the urgency and possibility of the moment.  It was a recurring them in King’s rhetoric, and it showed up in his Vietnam speech as well. 

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, 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. 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 flood -- it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and    jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."

But then he goes on:

 We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation.    We must move past indecision to action.

 There in this shadowy speech King summons strength and encouragement to step into the Kairos we’ve been given: 

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message -- of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

           Could many of those words not be spoken to our time as well?  Few would deny King’s calling.  Why then are we slow to embrace our own?  Maybe we’ve decided that hopelessness and helplessness is just easier.  We’d rather wallow in it than to stand up, take account of how far we’ve come as a way to propel us forward and march one step closer to the kingdom come.  It’s not easy, but it is possible.  Just think, we may we have just begun what has the potential to become the best year ever.  Can you imagine that?  That’s not a rhetorical question.

Amen. 

 [1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/28/opinion/sunday/2019-best-year-poverty.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/martin-luther-king-jr-s-searing-antiwar-speech-fifty-years-later

[4] https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm

[5] For a brief discussion of Chronos vs. Kairos see http://ardmorepres.org/pastors-pen-kronos-vs-kairos/