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What Does It Mean to Be A Public Christian?

Today’s blog post comes from Jeremy Myers’ sermon at Augsburg University’s chapel on January 21, 2020. To listen to his message, click the soundcloud link below. To read his message, you can find the transcript below the soundcloud link. 

 

I don’t want to stand here in the wake of Dr. King’s day and give you a bunch of my words. So, my intent is to allow Dr. King tell us what it means to live our lives as public people of faith. But, to get there, I must share a couple of my own stories.

Those of you who have been confirmed in a Lutheran church might be familiar with the question, “What does this mean?” It is the question Martin Luther uses through his small catechism to help his readers begin to understand what the various confessions of faith in that catechism might mean for their daily lives. It is a powerful question within the Lutheran tradition. One we should always keep in front of us.

In November of 2014 we put my father into assisted living because his dementia was beginning to the win the fight for his mind. He had been a Lutheran pastor his entire professional career and he loved asking the “What does this mean?” question. One day a local pastor came to the assisted living home to lead a bible study. This pastor turned to my dad and asked him when he had last experienced Jesus’ love in his life. My dad looked the pastor square in her eyes and responded, “What does this mean?” I’m not sure if my father understood the pastor’s question. He could not remember how to take communion. He couldn’t remember the words of his favorite bible stories or hymns. He no longer even remembered who I was, but he held on tightly to this question, What does it mean?

Image of the drawing of MLK
Drawing of MLK done by Jeremy Myers’ father

In April of 1968 my father was a 26 year-old seminary student doing an internship at an African-American congregation in St. Louis. He was assigned to preach the Sunday after Dr. King was assassinated. He couldn’t find the words to write a sermon, so his pen and pencil sketched this picture as he asked himself, What does this mean? My dad was trying to figure out what it meant to be a pastor in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. What does it mean to be a public Christian leader in the midst of pain, and suffering, and tragedy and evil?

Before I go further into Dr. King’s sermons, I first have to give you some context. This is from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

 

This is me. He is talking to me. And, I believe my father knew Dr. King was talking to him as well. Dr. King is a radical, calling us to be radical

Dr. King has given us many ways of thinking about what it means to be a public Christian leader. In August of 1963 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was asking and addressing this question. He and others were arrested for protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been criticized by Christian and Jewish clergy for breaking the law and being an extremist. He penned the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail in response. Let me read an excerpt from it.

YOU spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. . . But as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered an extremist. 

Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” 

Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 

Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” 

Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — “Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.

 

So, the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love.

The “transformed nonconformist” is another phrase Dr. King uses to describe the calling of the Christian in the public square. He says . . . 

“In spite of this prevailing tendency to conform, we as Christians have a mandate to be nonconformists. . . 

The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers . . . have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of [humankind], put your faith in the nonconformist! . . .”

Nonconformity in itself, however, may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power. . . Paul [in Romans] offers a formula for constructive nonconformity: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  Nonconformity is creative when it is controlled and directed by a transformed life and is constructive when it embraces a new mental outlook.

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.  The transformed nonconformist, moreover, never yields to the passive sort of patience that is an excuse to do nothing. . . 

[They] recognize that social change will not come overnight, yet [they] work as though it is an imminent possibility.

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist.

Dr. King uses the title of drum major to name both our desire to be the best and our call to be servants. He says . . . 

“let us see that we all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade.

Do you know that a lot of the race problem grows out of the drum major instinct? A need that some people have to feel superior. A need that some people have to feel that they are first, and to feel that their white skin ordained them to be first. . . And think of what has happened in history as a result of this perverted use of the drum major instinct. It has led to the most tragic prejudice, the most tragic expressions of man’s inhumanity to man.”

[God says], “Oh, I see, you want to be first. You want to be great. You want to be important. You want to be significant. Well, you ought to be. If you’re going to be my disciple, you must be.” But [God] reordered priorities. And [God] said, “Yes, don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity. That is what I want you to do.”

 

And so Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian?, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist, a drum major for justice.

Dr. King also calls us to be of tough mind and tender hearts. Or maybe to be informed citizens, thoughtful stewards, critical thinkers, and responsible leaders. He says, . . . 

[God gives us] a formula for action, “Be therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” It is pretty difficult to imagine a single person having, simultaneously, the characteristics of the serpent and the dove, but this is what Jesus expects. We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.

 

Jesus reminds us that the good life combines the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove. To have serpentlike qualities devoid of dovelike qualities is to be passionless, mean, and selfish. To have dovelike without serpentlike qualities is to be sentimental, anemic, and aimless. 

When someone asks, What does it mean to be a public Christian?, it is safe to say, it means to be an extremist for love, a transformed nonconformist, a drum major for justice, a tough-minded serpent, and a tender-hearted dove.

And Dr. King new the source of these things. He knew the source of love, the source of transformation, the source of justice, of toughness, and of tenderness. And so did the psalmist in our text today. 

Psalm 146:3-9

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
   in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
   on that very day their plans perish.


5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
   whose hope is in the Lord their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
   the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7   who executes justice for the oppressed;
   who gives food to the hungry.


The Lord sets the prisoners free;
8   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
   the Lord loves the righteous.
9 The Lord watches over the strangers;
   he upholds the orphan and the widow,
   but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

 

It is God who brings justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, freedom to the prisoners, and sight to the blind. And it is God who brings us to the oppressed, to the hungry, to the prisoners, and to the blind. To be a public Christian is to be a tough-minded, tender-hearted, transformed, nonconforming, extremist for love who boldly follows Christ into the fears and heartaches of this world.