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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Extreme Love

The Rev. Betsy Hooper-Rosebrook
MLK propers
Exodus 3:7-12, Luke 6:27-36, Psalm 40:1-12

     I tend to picture myself as moderate in most things. On the whole, I'm a middle of the road, even keel sort of person. There are some areas in which I definitely underperform and others in which I probably overindulge--get to know me and you'll figure those out pretty quickly--so my moderation isn't a matter of principle, more of habit. I'm aware of my inclinations in part because of my negative reaction to things that strike me as extreme...extreme being a very relative judgment in any case. But it's just kind of who I am.
     So I was taken aback this week when I was preparing for preaching today, with readings commemorating the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., and I read Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter, penned in 1963 in response to a group of 8 clergymen who criticized Dr. King for coming to Birmingham to help organize and participate in peaceful demonstrations protesting segregation, he writes, "But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label."
     That would be me, I suspect: disappointed, probably even distressed, at being categorized as an extremist. Were others dismissing my words and actions as those of a lunatic or zealot? Had I lost my sense of decorum, or calm judgment, or perspective? I'd wonder where I had stepped over the line. So if Dr. King started with that reaction, then how did he shift to "a measure of satisfaction from the label"?
     Here's how: He continues, "Was not Jesus an extremist for love: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you." Was not Amos an extremist for justice: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream." Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus." ...So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
     Well, when he puts it that way! And looking back at today's lessons, there it is, not only the quotes from Jesus's words that Dr. King used, but also the passage from Exodus; God calling Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of slavery in Egypt...extreme action. For his part, Moses was probably thinking, "Couldn't I start by just talking to one of the foremen about our getting a few Monday holidays? Isn't this out of Egypt stuff a little over the top?" But we all know how that turned out--the plagues, the Red Sea, the 10 commandments--extreme almost seems an understatement.
     I suspect that extreme may go hand in hand with scary, and probably that scariness is a big part of why I lean toward moderate so often. It comes from different places in my soul, all of them about me: What if I look foolish? What if I get hurt? What if I'm wrong? What if I don't know what I'm doing? Maybe I need to come to terms with there being times when extreme is what's called for because of others, to push myself or open myself or submit myself to a bigger vision, freed from the blinders of moderation and the bridle of fear.
     Besides fear, there's complacency; near the end of the letter, Dr. King writes of the leaders in white churches, "All too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows." That hits close to home; just last Monday I was looking at our MLK and Rosa Parks windows with our preschoolers and talking about being people who speak up for what's fair. But do I carry that out those doors? It's easy for my attention to telling the stories of the windows, which are intended to remind us of our call, to lull me into thinking I've fulfilled my responsibility. That barely even falls in the category of moderate, and it certainly isn't extreme. We all too easily can give ourselves a pat on the back for sincere words and good intentions, neglecting the part where we actually put heart and hands to work.
     I need to do better, to do more, to speak out and step forth with reckless passion for that which God is passionate about. We're the beneficiaries of God's extreme nature: in love, in grace and generosity, in the abundance of creation, in forgiveness, in the dignity granted to every person. I long for an awareness of those gifts great enough to push me beyond my fear and complacency into renewed boldness.
     The dilemma, for me and for all of us, is figuring out what extreme love and justice look like in our lives today in any given moment. There are plenty of times when a quiet word, calm negotiation, a gentle touch or restrained action beautifully reflect the abundance of God's care for each of us. My comfortable moderate style often is a good fit with my faith. However, each of us is confronted at times with blatant injustice, with cruelty and prejudice, with words or actions or the absence of actions that make another child of God feel diminished, less than. Maybe it's momentary, in the form of a joke or a slur, a sideways glance or a turned back. Or perhaps it's systemic: the continuing presence in our society of those who don't have homes, food, health care, education, or security; the persistent denial of rights to those who are deemed different by virtue of race, ethnicity, economic status, sexual orientation, or faith; or individuals who for reasons of age, gender, or disability are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
     Unfortunately, these are so numerous that any one of us would be exhausted responding in a big way to all of them, but each of us can certainly speak up and act in the little moments--not letting them pass with a shrug, which is what my moderate self wants to do--and I can pick one or two of the larger issues to address consistently and boldly, in ways that by their extreme nature might make me uncomfortable but which reflect my understanding of the extravagance of God's presence in our life and world.
     When each of us begins to do that, speaking up rather than remaining silent, acting now instead of waiting for someone else to go first, going extreme, we stand in the great tradition of answering God's call, joining with Moses, with Jesus, with Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, with generations of faithful men and women, in the confidence that, in the words of the psalmist:
I have declared your righteousness in the great congregation;
behold, I did not restrain my lips,
and that, O Lord, you know.
[Psalm 40:10]

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