Sermon: Taking the Plunge – Making a Pledge
Scripture: John 1: 29-42
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Jesus lived in a time when his people, the Jews, were being oppressed by the Romans. The Jews had their rights of self determination curtailed by the Romans. They were being exploited economically by the Romans. And their labor was being abused by the Romans. In first century Palestine, Roman rule was being imposed upon the Jews by force. Cooperation was mandated through intimidation. It was a system maintained by violence.
And in these circumstances, Jesus comes to foment rebellion: A rebellion of love rooted in justice for each and every person. Jesus knew that beloved community, community of mutual dignity and respect, cannot be created through violence means. The hopes and dreams of God cannot be fulfilled through violence.
When people use violence they are betraying the sacred image of God within themselves. They are defying their true, core identity as a human being. They are acting in contradiction to the divine love that is at the heart of life.
In addition, when violence is inflicted, it is a betrayal of the sacred image of the Divine in the ones who are harmed. It is a denial of the true, core identity of others. And this dynamic is present whatever the nature of the violence – domestic violence, economic violence, military violence, a barroom brawl, a playground scuffle, a shooting, drone bombings – it is all part of the dynamic of the betrayal and denial of the sacredness of life. And we all suffer for it: Those directly engaged in the violence as well as those who are part of the society in which the violence takes place. Violence takes its toll on everyone.
Jesus, as one wholly imbued with the Divinity of God, cannot advocate or engage in violence. To do so would be a betrayal of his identity, his humanity, and his God.
Jesus invites his followers to experience beloved community, the commonwealth of God. As we heard this morning, those who are wondering if Jesus is the Messiah are invited to “come and see.” Experience the community. See the behavior and values in practice. Hear the teachings. Then decide. While Jesus is a freedom fighter seeking the freedom of his people, he is committed to building the reign of God which embraces all people. And this can NEVER be achieved through violent means. To use violence to implement the realm of God is to deny the foundational premise of that realm. So Jesus never uses violence: Not against the everyday people who denied him. Not against the religious leaders who were afraid he was undermining their power and sought his death. And he never advocated the use of violence against the Romans who were occupying the country and denying the human rights of the Jews as well as extorting their money and labor. No violence. Period.
There were plenty of Jews who wanted to violently overthrow the Romans and kick them out of Palestine. There were people who wanted to violently rebel. But Jesus teaches, love your enemy. Pray for those who persecute you. Do good to those who seek to harm you. He knew that was ultimately the way to convert and transform reality. Violence will always beget more of the same. Love has the power to transform. That’s what Jesus invited people to come and see. And they do. And, as we heard this morning, many follow.
This weekend we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While we are reminded that King was a civil rights leader, we want to remember that first and foremost, King was a Christian, and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was a follower of Jesus. He was committed to the Gospel. In his book about King, Tavis Smiley describes King’s message as “justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates, no matter the cost.” (Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Year, Tavis Smiley with David Ritz, p. 4) That is a beautiful, concise description of the Gospel of Jesus. In the story of Jesus, King saw the parallels between the condition of the Negro in America and the situation of the Jews under the Roman Empire in first century Palestine. He also saw that Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence, in spite of the resistance around him, was the way of faithfulness in the face of oppression and injustice. King knew from Jesus that there was no way to justify the use of violence if you’re following Jesus. From Jesus, King knew that only love and nonviolence can transform an individual and bring forth our truest humanity. And only love and nonviolence can transform a society and bring forth justice and peace. That was the foundation of King’s life.
King pursued the commonwealth of God for all of creation through nonviolent means. He worked to eradicate racism, poverty, and militarism all through nonviolent action. Yes, it was practical since blacks would easily be outgunned and overpowered by whites, the poor by the rich. And nonviolence was a tool available to the masses. But it was not just practicality that motivated King’s commitment to nonviolence. It was the message of Jesus and the goal of authentic transformation. It was the moral demand that compelled King to root himself in nonviolence. And that commitment extended beyond gaining human rights for blacks to the protection of human rights for all people in all places.
In his famous sermon at The Riverside Church in New York, King declared his thorough going commitment to nonviolence as a moral commitment not just a convenient tactic for gaining rights for blacks: “They applauded us on the freedom rides when we accepted blows without retaliation. They praised us in Albany and Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Oh, the press was so noble in its applause and so noble in its praise that I was saying be nonviolent toward Bull Connor. There is something strangely inconsistent about a nation and a press that will praise you when you say be nonviolent toward Jim Clark, but will curse you and damn you when you say be nonviolent toward little brown Vietnamese children! There is something wrong with that.” (The King Years by Taylor Branch, p. 160)
The legacy of Dr. King reminds us that the gospel of nonviolence applies to all of life and all situations, personal as well as political and international. Life is life. And love is love. Regardless of the circumstances.
As we reflect on the Christian commitment to nonviolence, we want to remember that nonviolence is not about being passive and sitting back and accepting your fate. Nonviolence is not about sitting back and watching your favorite news channel, or being glued to your siloed newsfeed online. Nonviolence is about active engagement with people and power. It is about disarming injustice and oppression. Jesus was known for getting out and engaging with people, dealing with those considered enemies, engaging with foreigners, healing on the sabbath, telling stories about defying the power structures of the day. In a similar manner, King and those engaged in the civil rights movement were not sitting at home wringing their hands. They were organizing sit ins, protests, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and voter registration drives. They were nonviolent, but they were not passive. They were taking direct action. And direct action was being taken against them. There were beatings, bombings, and murders. There were violent enemies of civil rights and Dr. King just as there were violent enemies of Jesus. Nonviolence does not necessarily guarantee personal safety at least not in the short run.
Knowing this, when there was going to be a civil rights action, the people were taught about nonviolence. They were schooled in the philosophy and the techniques of nonviolent resistance. And they were asked to take a pledge of nonviolence. There was much preparation for this and not every one agreed to it. In fact, only a small percentage of the people involved in the civil rights movement committed themselves to nonviolence. Maybe that is why the goals of the movement have yet to be realized.
It’s a big commitment, the commitment to nonviolence. We see what it cost Jesus. We know what it cost King and others who committed their lives to nonviolent social transformation. King reminds us that Christians desiring to follow Jesus must take seriously the commitment to nonviolent resistance. Following Jesus means seeking the transformation of ourselves, our communities, our religion, our country, and our world through nonviolent action.
When those involved in the civil rights movement were preparing for an action, they were asked to consider signing a pledge of nonviolence. That pledge is printed in your bulletin. Take a look at it. In a moment we will read it together. Notice that that the pledge was to be signed like a mortgage or a lease or a contract. It was a commitment. There is a space for noting Nearest Relative, yes, next-of-kin because there could be serious consequences to committing to nonviolence. This was not to be taken lightly. The pledge also included many ways to serve. Marching, demonstrating, and sitting in were not the only options. There was day to day work, background work that was important, too. The commitment to nonviolence was comprehensive.
We are just beginning a new year. It is a time of transition in our country as new lawmakers begins their service and a new administration moves into the White House. We are in the midst of a major transition in human history and development that won’t be understood until well into the future. We need to ask ourselves where we stand in relationship to injustice, oppression, inequity, and the violence and greed around us. Will we be passive observers? Or will we take seriously the model we have been given in Jesus as King did?
In our context, we hear Jesus’ invitation to come and see: Experience the transforming power of radical love. See the results of nonviolent action in pursuit of God’s dreams for Creation. Become part of passionate, active engagement with the world promoting a vision of universal justice. Work for the transformation and healing of individual lives, social arrangements, economic systems, educational settings, and religious institutions. Protect the planet itself. Come and see another way that honors the sacredness of life and trusts the power of love not weapons, might, fear, hatred and greed. Come and see. Find where you are being called. Look for where you can plug in. See where your voice needs to be heard. And take action. Nonviolent action. So that others may come and see the power of love. Amen.
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I hereby pledge myself—my person and body—to the nonviolent movement.
Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:
Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
Remember always that the non—violent movement seeks justice and reconciliation
Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain on a demonstration.
I sign this pledge, having seriously considered what I do and with the determination and will to persevere.
Besides demonstrations, I could also help the movement by (Circle the proper items): Run errands, Drive my car, Fix food for volunteers, Clerical work, Make phone calls, Answer phones, Mimeograph, Type, Print Signs, Distribute leaflets.
ALABAMA CHRISTIAN MOVEMENT FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Birmingham Affiliate of S.C.L.C.
505 1/2 North 17th Street
F.L. Shuttlesworth, President