About a week ago, Heather and I were talking about an upcoming preaching symposium and finding our confidence while preaching. I jumped up and pulled out a book I bought 25 years ago in college. It’s pages are yellowed and heavily highlighted. It’s spine cracked by use. It reshaped my life, electrifying my soul with a strange spiritual juice mixing conviction, lament, wonder, and hope. The book shines the Great Physician’s light illuminating cancerous spots that God longs to extricate from my soul.
I read these words- Well I read about 2 pages more. Hear Reverend King’s words.
“I went to my study and closed the door, the minutes were passing fast. I had only twenty minutes to prepare the most decisive speech of my life. As I thought about the limited time and the possible implications of this speech, I became possessed by fear. … Each week I needed at least fifteen hours to prepare a sermon. Now I was faced with the inescapable task of preparing, in almost no time at all, a speech that was expected to give a sense of direction to a people imbued with a new and still unplumbed passion for justice. I was also conscious that the reporters and television would be there, poised to record my words and send them across the nation. I was now almost overcome, obsessed with a feeling of inadequacy. . In this state of anxiety, I had already wasted five minutes of the original twenty. With nothing left but faith in a Power, whose matchless strength stands against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature, I turned to God in prayer. ….
Fresh from seminary, a twenty six year-old, Martin Luther King Jr. was just elected president of the Montgomery Improvement Association in conjunction with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The young pastor faced a packed church and 4000 people listening in streets to loudspeakers. He was chosen to lead due to his seminary education. He had hoped to prepare all day, but had spent the day in court with Rosa Parks. So Martin, who took two days to draft a sermon, preached with 15 minutes to prepare only jotting down a rough outline.
“As I sat listening to the continued applause I realized this speech evoked more response than any speech or sermon I had ever delivered, and yet it was virtually unprepared. I came to see for the first time what the older preachers meant when they said “open your mouth to and the Lord will speak”. A Testament of Hope “stride toward freedom”
Today we remember the Baptism of Our Lord and Martin Luther King. These two holidays weave together into a beautiful tapestry. King’s prophetic resound in our modern context with a holy resonance. Baptism plumbs the meaning of our faith. What does it mean to be a Christian? What do our baptismal vows mean?
Some popular strands of Christianity speak of faith as a matter of belief, as if faith is a a series of theological ideas or rules tenets alone. As United Methodist we understand faith as it relates to our practises. We see faith revealed by our works. (James 2) Did Jesus ever publish a creed? Jesus constantly calls us to follow him- to do the things he did! (Mark 8:34)
So with the confluence of the King Holiday and the Baptism of the Lord, I thought we might consider the baptismal vows through the eyes of our American prophet, asking what does it mean to be a Christian?
We ask parents, confirmands, and professing Christians: On behalf of the whole Church I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Now, before we quickly answer, “We do,” let us hear the word of the prophet, who was martyred in our state 50 years ago
“In our struggle for racial justice, we can’t ever give up… (For) I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.
Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. … Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.
Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.
I have a dream that one day we will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream this morning that one day every person in the world, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character rather than the color of his skin…I still have a dream that one day the idle industries of Appalachia will be revitalized, and the empty stomachs of Mississippi will be filled, and brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer… I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward all humanity. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the daughters and sons of God will shout for joy. “A Christmas sermon on peace” The trumpet of conscience 1967
Will we repent, dream, and work in opposition to the evil powers of this world?
We ask each other: Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Hear the prophet: “Nonviolent resistance provides a creative force through which people can channelize their discontent. It does not require that they abandon it, for this kind of discontent is sound and healthy. Nonviolence simply saves it from degenerating into morbid bitterness and hatred. Hate is always tragic. It is as injurious to the hater as it is the hated. It distorts the personality and scars the soul… And this is the beauty of nonviolence. It says you can struggle without hating: you can fight war without violence. I feel that this way of nonviolence is vital because it is the only way to reestablish the broken community.
We will take direct action against injustice without waiting for other agencies to act. We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices. We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully… Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. …It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of primitive forces and social stagnation.
We feel that we are the conscience of America – we are its’ troubled soul. We will continue to insist that right be done because both God’s Will and the heritage of our nation speak through our echoing demands. “The case against tokenism” NYT magazine 1962
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Do you? We do! Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in His grace, and promise to serve Him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?
What does “trust Jesus” mean? When Doctor King’s home was firebombed by white terrorists, Martin confessed being ready to give up. In “the Strength to Love,” Martin speaks of his prayer life: “I am at the end of my powers, I have nothing left. I can’t face it alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced Him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, and God will be at your side forevermore.’ Almost at once my fears passed from me. … The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm. God is able to give us interior resources to face the storms and problems of life. …When our days become dreary with the low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows! This is our hope for becoming better men and women. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world.” Do we trust in God? Do we believe God is able? Do we? We do!
Will you nurture these children in Christ’s Holy Church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themselves, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life? Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include this child in your care? All People:With God’s help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround each other with a community of love and forgiveness; that we may grow in service to others. We will pray for one another so that each of us may be a true disciples who walks in the way that leads to life.
Doctor King preaches, “Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea….
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest….
Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust. Maybe again I have been too optimist. Is organized religion too intrinsically bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true Eccelesia and hope of the world. Letter from a Birmingham Jail 1963
Oh friends, will we help build the true church within the church? Come let us renew our vows! Come let us become a thermostat calling, challenging, and changing our world. Come, for God is able. Come open your mouth and let the Lord speak. Come resist evil power and rebuild broken communities with love.Come let justice roll down like the mighty waters and righteousness like a healing stream. Come let us build a community of love and forgiveness. Come let us repent and believe the Good News! Amen.