Monday, January 15, 2007

Ready or Not!

On Saturday late afternoon, I received a phone call that the person who would be leading Adult Sunday school had to cancel due to illness. (She actually ended up in the hospital Sunday morning, so keep her in your prayers!) So I had to be sure to prepare the class in addition to making the many last minute arrangements for the rather complicated worship service I had planned.

In the end, the two needs ended up being addressed at the same time. I recruited the extra readers I needed for the service during Sunday school--which felt rather like a brilliant move on my part if I do say so myself. :)

Although our congregation does follow the lectionary, yesterday we departed from it (for the most part) in order to have a service to celebrate the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. (We kept the Corinthians text, but substituted other texts in for the two other readings.)

However, in Sunday school we were studying together the gospel text (John 2:1-11) of the Wedding at Cana.

I had some great resources to help me prepare for the lessons. Our church uses the Seasons of the Spirit curriculum put out by the United Church of Christ. Their emphasis for the lesson was on the abundance of God's love--reflected in the abundance of wine that Jesus creates out of water. Believe me, I'm all about abundance, especially when it comes to God's love. But something was not satisfying me about this direction. I decided that what I really wanted to do was somehow connect the gospel text to Martin Luther King.

Very early on Sunday morning, I turned to the RevGalBlogPals for inspiration--checking out the comments on the 11th Hour Preacher's Party. There, I came across a comment left by Rev. Maria (who writes on the blog Jubilee). In this particular comment, she wrote that she was planning on drawing a comparison in her sermon on Sunday between Jesus' reluctance to perform his first miracle and King's experience at his kitchen table over a cup of coffee during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Both men were reluctant to take the first (and in some ways final in the sense of irrevocable) steps toward their public ministries. And yet, both men were being called out, in some sense, to begin--despite not yet feeling ready.

The direction resonated with me on so many levels--although I was not yet familiar with King's coffee cup, kitchen table epiphany. I pulled out my old, ginormous copy of Parting the Waters. After much searching (the index didn't include a listing under coffee!), I managed to find an account of the experience. Taylor Branch describes it this way:

The limitless potential of a young King free to think anything, and therefore to be anything was constricted by realities that paralyzed and defined him. King buried his face in his hands at the kitchen table. He admitted to himself that he was afraid, that he had nothing left, that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. Then he said as much out loud. He spoke the name of no deity, but his doubts spilled out as a prayer, ending, "I've come to the point where I can't face it alone." As he spoke these words, the fears suddenly began to melt away. He became intensely aware of what he called an 'inner voice' telling him to do what he thought was right. Such simplicity worked miracles, bringing a shudder of relief and the courage to face anything. It was for King the first transcendent religious experience of his life.... For King, the moment awakened and confirmed his belief that the essence of religion was not a grand metaphysical idea but something personal, grounded in experience--something that opened up mysteriously beyond the predicaments of human beings in their frailest hopes. (Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63, p. 162)

I also found this account from Albert J. Raboteau in an article comparing the spiritualities of Thomas Merton (one of my patron saints) and MLK, published in the Winter 1988 edition of Spirituality Today. You can find the article here. Raboteau relates the moment in King's own words:

"And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.... I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, "Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage they will begin to get weak. And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And I will be with you, even until the end of the world." ...I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainly disappeared." (See A Hidden Wholeness: Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr.)

In the story of Jesus changing the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana, I always imagined that Jesus was reluctant to perform the miracle because he knew that it truly wasn't supposed to be the time for his public ministry to begin. He has always seemed terribly irritated in this story when he turns to his mother and snaps: "Woman, what does this have to do with me. Don't you know my time has not yet come?" But Mary doesn't flinch. In fact, she doesn't even respond to Jesus. She merely turns to the servants and instructs them to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. And Jesus follows through--just as she knew he would.

But for the first time, thanks to Rev Maria, I now saw Jesus as reluctant to perform this first miracle because maybe, just maybe, he didn't think he was ready. Maybe he didn't feel like he knew enough to put himself out there. Maybe he was reluctant because he was afraid--not just that he may not be able to do what he wanted to yet, but because if he did accomplish it, there would be no going back.

Raboteau writes as much about King. He says that it was King's epiphany at the kitchen table that caused him to "commit himself to the movement completely despite his growing realization more certain as the years went by -- that it would cost him his life."

I find such hope in these stories of reluctance. Indeed, I take courage in King's "weakness" as he sits at that kitchen table in the middle of the night, in desperate need of hearing God's assurances to him. And I take comfort in the image of a young Jesus who doesn't feel ready quite yet. A Jesus who feels like he needs to maybe read one more book before saying for certain what he thinks. Or needs to take one more retreat. Or simply needs to hang back just a little longer before he takes that first step.

We concluded our Sunday school time relating our own experiences of feeling not quite ready to take on all that we have to in our lives. And yet we find we simply have to step forward, ready or not, and face what we can with what we have. And in every moment, ready or not, we have to open ourselves to God's leading--in hopes of aligning ourselves with the Presence of Love in our midst.

Throughout all of Advent, I emphasized in worship the notion of God With Us, Emmanuel. Far from pretending that the Christ child has yet to be born, our congregation celebrated throughout Advent that God is Already With Us, accompanying us in every time and place.

And now, in this season after the Epiphany, I have encountered God's continuing assurance, through the epiphany of the prophet Martin: "I promise never to leave you, never to leave you alone. No never alone. I promise never to leave you, never to leave you alone."

Ready or not. No never alone.


rev maria said...

You got all that out of one little comment! I'm impressed and humbled.
I'm especially impressed that you spent time researching the kitchen epiphany - I always assume everybody knows all about that, even though I really only know about it because I took some courses on Dr. King in seminary. (It really should be listed in the index under coffee :-)

srf said...

My partner took a similar tack with her sermon on Sunday, preaching on the miracle at Cana and MLK. She was talking about the ways in which a ministry of hospitality can open up opportunities for prophetic words and actions. But she was struggling with Mary's role in the gospel story, until she saw the paralell with MLK that you and Rev. Maria saw as well. She took it in a slightly different direction though, noting that sometimes we need to be encouraged and empowered (called out, as you put it) to hospitality. She interpreted Mary's role as that of those in our lives (and in MLK's) who continue to remind us of our calling to hospitality and to prophetic action.

Songbird said...

Nice work! And i'm glad the Preacher party helped!!