Sermon from January 14, 2018, Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday

A Thermostat of Transformed Nonconformists
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany,
Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
Isaiah 49:1-6; Mark 1:9-13; Luke 4:14-21

The two gospel passages we heard today tell a single story.  The Spirit no sooner blesses Jesus than it drives Jesus into the wilderness.  There he confronts wild beasts and is attended by angels—he struggles and undergoes transformation.  Then the Spirit leads him out filled with compassion for others who struggle and with a passion to transform the world.

This is an archetype of the spiritual path.  The Spirit blesses us and drives us to struggle the way a butterfly struggles to emerge from its cocoon.  Our struggles increase our strength and wisdom.  They help us grow up to higher developmental stages and wake up to deeper states of spiritual experience.  We become transformed and filled with a sense of mission to serve and transform the world around us.

Inner transformation happens primarily through contemplative practices like meditation, mindfulness and prayer.  World transformation takes place primarily through action, and yet action also changes us inside, and contemplation can change the world.

The co-founder of Centering Prayer, Thomas Keating, says, “If one is truly transformed, one can walk down the street, drink a cup of tea or shake hands with somebody and be pouring divine life into the world…. The essential thing…is the transformation of one’s own consciousness.  If that happens, and in the degree that it happens, one’s ordinary actions become effective in communicating the Mystery of Christ to whoever comes into one’s life.”  (Mystery of Christ p. 275)

The Mahatma Gandhi knew the power of singing and meditating and praying.  They were all part of his inner transformation, and they became part of his program for world transformation as well.

Gandhi worked directly through marches and fasts and nonviolent action, but he saw that raising people’s level of consciousness was absolutely essential to lasting social change.  He said, “There comes a time when an individual becomes irresistible and his action becomes all-pervasive in its effect.  This comes when he reduces himself to zero.”

In Christian tradition we call being reduced to zero by the Greek word kenosis, which means self-emptying.  That was the word Paul used when he told us to have the same mind in us that was in Christ, who emptied himself.  This lowly, Christ-like self-emptying is the key to attaining the highest developmental stages and deepest spiritual states.  Every religious tradition that I know of has its own version of this—the Muslim Sufi poet calls it dying before we die.  It is what Jesus meant by losing life to gain life.

This is what Martin Luther King Jr. had in mind when he said we need to undergo a mental and spiritual change—that we need to be transformed in order to “gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.”

He was speaking from his own kenotic experience.  In the first weeks of his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement in Montgomery, King became the target of rabid racial hatred.  The police began harassing him.  One night they arrested him for speeding and threw him in jail.  The next day, released on bail, he found himself in a dark pit of despair as he struggled to keep the movement going against increasingly fierce resistance from the white community.

He came home exhausted at midnight that night, crawled into bed, and immediately the phone rang.  It was a hateful, angry voice threatening that if he didn’t leave Montgomery within three days he and his wife and little baby would be killed.  For weeks as many as forty times a day he and his wife, Coretta, had been getting calls like that, but this time it pushed King over the edge.  The thought of someone hurting his beautiful little baby and his beautiful, intelligent and courageous wife was too much for him.

He got out of bed and went to the kitchen and made himself a cup of coffee.  He sat down at the kitchen table and began to pray.  He said to God, I can’t do this anymore.  I am weak, I am faltering, I am losing my courage.  He felt utterly hopeless.  He was despairing, but he kept praying, and then, after a while, something happened.  He felt a change come over him.  Later he wrote,

“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…’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on.  He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone…”

The Spirit transforms us through our struggles, it leads us developmentally beyond our old way of being and seeing the world, and it gives us courage.  We need that courage because the Spirit leads us into conflict with a society that is unloving and unjust, or that is complacent in the face of injustice.  As we become transformed, we get out of step with our friends and our society.  We become what King called transformed nonconformists.  This is what Christ was, and it is what he calls us to be.

An Anglican bishop in England lamented, “Wherever Christ went there was revolution.  Wherever I go they serve tea.”  But transformed nonconformists turn even something as mundane as sharing a cup of tea into an expression of Christ’s revolutionary love.

King called us to be not thermometers who merely conform, but thermostats who transform social conditions.  King said, “Our planet teeters on the brink of annihilation.”  That statement was true when he said it.  It is much truer today.  Of all the possible solutions King could have proposed to bring us back from that brink, he said, “This hour of history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists.” 

That sounds like a weak answer to planetary annihilation, but the anthropologist Margaret Mead reassures us, saying: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Science has confirmed this.  In 2011 a group of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute scientists did a study funded by the United States Army and Navy.  Their research documented the existence of a tipping point of public opinion.  They found that the culture will make a dramatic and rapid reversal when a committed and passionately dedicated minority becomes 10% of a society.

A thermostat is just a small thing, just a little gadget in a big house, but it has the power to transform the climate of the culture around it.

We can do this.  We can be a thermostat of transformed nonconformists.  We do not have to do it all.

Bill Coffin was talking with a woman at a Strafford gathering many years ago who had worked her whole life on an issue and felt society had made no progress.  She was lamenting to Bill that her life was a failure.  He asked her, “Who told you that you had to solve the whole problem yourself?” He said she was just a runner in a relay race.  It was her job to carry the baton and run her heart out, and then hand it on to someone else.

King and Coffin and so many others have run before us, and they have handed us the baton.  Now we are the relay team.  What is our race to run, individually, as a church, as a community?  What is our task as a thermostat of transformed nonconformists?

The heart of that phrase is the word transformed.  That is our first task, and everything else flows from it.  Self-empty and be transformed, and you will become a nonconformist like Christ or King, living by the law of love.  Be a transformed and committed nonconformist, and others will be transformed around you, and you will do your part to help us reach the tipping point needed to transform our culture.

The hymn that we are about to sing was written opposing slavery before the Civil War by the abolitionist and editor James Russell Lowell.  Its words inspired Gandhi and King and Coffin (in fact one of the best versions on youtube is from Inda:  It contains the wisdom that the RPI scientists proved, that a small committed minority can sway the future.  It also offers the key to becoming a thermostat of transformed nonconformists, which is to be mindful that every moment is a once in a lifetime moment to decide.

Let us use this moment to open our minds and hearts to the Spirit that wants to transform us and lead us to transform the world.  Let us pray together in a receptive silence…

Once to every [heart] and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side….
And the choice goes by forever…

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ’tis truth alone is strong,
Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above his own.


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