Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Kairos Has Come

On the eve of April 3rd, 1968, amidst tornado warnings and torrential downpours, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a crowd of folks as they gathered in preparation for the city’s sanitation workers’ strike that was to happen the following day.

Knowing the whispers of threats were growing louder around him, he addressed the fears of the crowds. Rather than allowing them to go unspoken and gain power in silence, King talked about the risks and dangers he faced in a way that brought clarity and perspective, not just to King’s life but to the movement for justice of which they were all a part.

Foreshadowing what was to come, King told the tale of how he had nearly died a decade earlier when he was stabbed in a book store in Harlem. And he recounted how even on the way to Memphis a bomb scare on the plane necessitated a special guard to accompany him. And then, King said this:

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will.

And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” - Martin Luther King, Jr "I've Been to the Mountaintop" -

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

Not more than 24 hours after uttering these words, Martin Luther King Jr. would lie dead, shot by an assassin’s bullet. I may not get there with you…

Recalling these very same events theologian, Dan Clendenin, notes that what was so remarkable about King was his unique ability to distinguish between the chronos time of the world and the kairos time of God. In Greek there are two different words for time. Chronos is the daily, ordinary time of the tick-tock of our clock. It is linear time that marches on second by second, hour by hour, day by day. But kairos time is different. Kairos time is God’s time. In Greek it denotes a time of great opportunity that irrupts through the daily grind of chronos time as something special and unique happens.

King knew the difference between these two times and while at the beginning of this speech he marched through the chronos of human history, he paused for a moment to reflect about the times in which they were living…there was something different, something unique happening in that moment. King told the crowds that out of all the remarkable epochs of human history, he would ask God for just a chance to live in these times in the mid 20th century. He said,

“Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding. Something is happening in our world."

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

And so, as King gets to the end of the speech and contemplates his own chronos life span in the midst of the kairos opportunity, we see that for King, as Clendenin wrote, “longevity, length of days, is a pale imitation and sad substitute for a decisive choice at a critical moment, however short the time.” (From his essay "The Time Has Come," January 2009)

This notion of kairos time is not a new idea. In fact, it arises from our sacred scriptures. Some of the very ones we read this evening. In both the passage from Corinthians and the passage from Mark, the authors announce a kairos opportunity in their midst. We hear Paul warning the Corinthians, “Kindred, the kairos has grown short.” And Jesus, calling the disciples, “The kairos has come! The kin-dom of God is near.”

In both of these passages we see the authors employing kairos as a way to indicate the rupture of the ordinary by the coming of the extraordinary.

In the Gospel the very first words spoken by Jesus according to Mark announce the breaking in of kairos time, of a time of great opportunity, expectation and decision. For kairos time always requires action. "The kairos has come. The kin-dom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

In announcing "the good news of God" Jesus proclaimed the initiation of God's Commonwealth, God’s Shalom, God’s vision of peace and justice. No longer were the people to yearn for this time, nor prophesy of this time to come…now was the kairos of God’s kin-dom in which they were living!

It is with this proclamation that Jesus invites Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to join him, "Come, follow me.” “Come, the kairos has come! Now is the time!” The text goes on to detail the newly called disciples' response: "At once they left their nets and followed Jesus." At once. No hesitation. No questioning. No doubts. At once.

You see for Mark it is essential that the readers understand the depth and significance of this kairos time. Kairos demands a response to God’s invitation to opportunity and possibility. There is no time for discussion, no time to make a list of pros and cons, no time for deliberation. Once one is confronted with the kairos of God’s kin-dom, one is required to respond….immediately!
Some may choose to ignore the invitation. Others to accept it. The text does not tell of the countless numbers of folks Jesus invited who were not yet ready to accept such a life changing job opportunity. We know that the choice to accpet the invitation necessitates a radical re-visioning of their lives, doesn’t it?

The text goes on to tell us that in choosing to join the march of kairos time with Jesus, those Jesus called had to leave everything behind. Not just their nets and their boats, but their livelihoods, their vocations, their families, their friends, their responsibilities, their preconceived futures. All left behind in the wake of God’s time. The decision to work for God’s kin-dom, God’s vision of peace and justice requires that one abandon the ways of the world.

William Loader understands that this choice is not simply a choice to change one’s life, but rather to transform the world. “The calling of James and John and Simon and Andrew and such other callings to leave all and follow function as a protest not against life at home, but more generally against societal structures which simply perpetuate the past and trap people into the service of the status quo and its gods.” (From Loader's First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Epiphany 3)

This is exactly what Paul is trying to tell the Corinthians in the second passage we read. "The kairos is short...this world in its present form is passing away." With the initiation of the kin-dom proclaimed and embodied in Jesus everything has changed. Absolutely everything! The crisis of the kairos demands that one change their lives immediately.

We read these passages and sometimes I think we imagine that these radical, life altering events only happen in “biblical times.” As if somehow, once the canon closed and the imaginations of the authors ceased to spin tales, that God too stopped acting. “Well, that kairos thing is a great idea for the people back then. But, we are living in the midst of chronos, plain and simple. There are no great opportunities for change, for life altering experiences. You know I’ve got school to finish, a job to find. I have family responsibilities and I’m really quite busy.”

I know these excuses because I confess there are times when I too believe I am too mired in the chronos of quotidian life to ever find time or space to live in the kairos. I look around at the world, the Church, my community, even my family and friends and I think, nothing is ever going to change.

More often than not, even here at CWM, we talk about the kin-dom as if it is some far off distant future and yet, the reality is that the kin-dom means nothing if we don’t live into it. King knew that. That night in Memphis he preached to the crowds,
“It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

- "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee

King understood that once the kin-dom is initiated, there is no turning back. The kin-dom must be manifest on earth if it is to be at all. With Jesus, kairos time disrupted business as usual and every single day since, in every age and epoch, humans have had the choice to join God’s movement for peace and justice in the world, or to ignore it and escape into the chronos of status quo drudgery.

The choice is ours to make! Now is the time!

If you do not think we are living in kairos time, consider this, just this week we inaugurated the first African American president of the United States of America, who not less than 60 years ago would not even have been able to have lunch in the nation’s capital! Right now in the United States of America we have been given the unique opportunity to renew our historic work in racial reconciliation. While Obama is no messiah, he symbolizes a new advent, a new opportunity to begin once again to talk about race in this country, and not just to talk but to do something about it. This is kairos time and it demands a choice, it demands action!

Friends, we are in the midst of kairos time. God is breaking in all around us. But the choice is up to us what we will do with that eternal invitation to peace and justice. Susan B. W. Johnson has noted that “there are about ten weeks between the January 20 commemoration of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. and the April 4 anniversary of his assassination. This time has become a uniquely American pre-Lenten period, a time for self-examination and atonement related to issues of race and class, and issues of freedom and nonviolent activity.” (from her article Love's Double Victory, Christian Century January 15, 1997)

I invite us as individuals and as a community to use this pre-Lenten time period to do exactly what Jesus instructed…”Repent and believe.” Repentance in it’s original meaning does not mean to feel guilty or bad about the past, but rather to change the future. For Jesus to repent historically meant to think and act differently. In Hebrew it literally means a turning around, changing directions, choosing a different path, or making a radical rupture.

In the coming days, we have a choice to make…will we continue to live beneath the oppressive and stagnant weight of the status quo or will we dare to join the inevitable march of God’s kairos and change our lives, change our world? We each have the opportunity to go to the mountaintop, to see and believe in the promise land that is breaking forth in our midst.

The choice is ours to make. Now is the time.

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