January 14, 2018, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Sunday

Steal Away  African-American Spiritual

Shed a Little Light   arr. Greg Jasperse            Chancel Choir

One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths. We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

 It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough! But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me. And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.” That’s the question facing America today.[i]

 Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.[ii]

         Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

[i] From “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution” 31 March, 1968, National Cathedral, Washington, DC.

[ii] From “I See the Promised Land” 3 April 1968, Mason, Temple, Memphis, Tennessee.

Metta Sutta
Let us cultivate boundless goodwill.
Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state.
Let none in anger or ill-will wish another harm.
Even as a mother watches over her child, so with boundless mind should one cherish all living beings,
radiating friendliness over the whole world,
above, below, and all around, without limit.

Matthew 28:16-20

The eleven disciples went to the mountain in Galilee where Jesus had told them to go. And when they saw him, they paid him homage; but some were dubious.

 And Jesus approached them and spoke these words: “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. You shall go and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit. Teach them to observe  everything I commanded you. I’ll be with you day in and day out, as you’ll see, until the culmination of the age.”                                      

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr[i]

But one day after finishing school, I was called to a little church down in Montgomery, Alabama, and I started preaching there. Things were going well in that church; it was a marvelous experience. But one day a year later, a lady by the name of Rosa Parks decided that she wasn’t going to take it any longer. She stayed in a bus seat, and you may not remember it because it’s way back now several years, but it was the beginning of a movement…

 Things were going well for the first few days, but then about ten or fifteen days later, after the white people in Montgomery knew that we meant business, they started doing some nasty things. They started making nasty telephone calls, and it came to the point that some days more than forty telephone calls would come in, threatening my life, the life of my family, the life of my children. I took it for a while in a strong manner.

 But I never will forget one night very late. It was around midnight. And you can have some strange experiences at midnight.

 I had been out meeting with the steering committee all that night. And I came home, and my wife was in the bed and I immediately crawled into bed to get some rest to get up early the next morning to try to keep things going.

 And immediately the telephone started ringing and I picked it up. On the other end was an ugly voice. That voice said to me, in substance, “N____, we are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

 I’d heard these things before, but for some reason that night it got to me.  I turned over and I tried to go to sleep, but I couldn’t sleep. I was frustrated, bewildered. And then I got up and went back to the kitchen and I started warming some coffee, thinking that coffee would give me a little relief.

 And then I started thinking about many things. I thought back on the theology and philosophy that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there.

 I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born about a month earlier. We have four children now, but we only had one then. She was the darling of my life. I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak.

 Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. You can’t even call on Mama now. You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. 

 That power that can make a way out of no way.

 And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself.  And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it.  And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night.  I said, “Lord… I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage.

 …And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me,  “Martin Luther… lo I will be with you,  even until the end of the world.”

And I’ll tell you, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul.

 But I heard the voice of Jesus… 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.

 And I’m going on in believing in him.  You’d better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name.

[i] This is an excerpt from his sermon, “Why Jesus Called A Man A Fool”  delivered at Mount Pisgah Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois, on 27 August 1967.   http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php

I spent a few days at the Menucha Conference and Retreat Center this week. This center in Corbett is owned by First Presbyterian Church downtown. It would be a nice place for a church retreat sometime.

While there, I planned some worship services through Easter with help of comments from many of you through email, personal conversation, and the survey I printed in the bulletin last week and on-line.

My takeaway from that was to take time in these sermons and worship services to focus on personal spiritual experience. Grace might be another word. “Grace through faith” is how the Apostle Paul put it. Grace being the gift and faith the “yes” to the gift.

Grace is received when we are vulnerable. It is a breaking open, a time when our ego’s defenses are down, when our heart is soft as opposed to hard. It is a “thin place.” A thin place is where the barrier between the divine and the mundane is thin. The barrier is permeable.

The Bible is filled with stories of thin places. Moses being confronted by the burning bush. The woman who touches Jesus’s cloak and receives the power of healing, Paul and Silas breaking into joyful song while in chains in prison, and the Risen Christ breaking bread with the couple on the road to Emmaus, and suddenly their eyes are opened and they see him and know him.

These are all stories of grace, of experience. While they are stories told in metaphorical language, we shouldn’t let the language fool us. They are stories about experiences that appear to be universal for human beings.

Martin Luther King recounts one such experience in a sermon he delivered in 1967 that we just heard. This was an intense experience. His life is threatened and he is weak and vulnerable. It is during that vulnerability that he experiences grace, the thin place. It comes by the inner voice who he notices as the voice of Jesus. What is said is what the risen Christ says to the disciples before he ascends to heaven, “Lo, I will be with you always until the end of the age.”

This is what Martin Luther King hears not as a text in scripture, but as an experience, an inner voice speaking to him.

This voice doesn’t come from a vacuum. He is a minister. He knows these texts. He has a Ph. D in religion. He has had a lifetime of exposure to faith. He grew up in church. But grace is when it becomes personal.

I am going to pass around my childhood Bible. I received this from my kindergarten Sunday school teacher. My mother made the leather cover. Andy is what my family calls me. I will be Andy in heaven.

That is my childhood faith that informs my faith, but it isn’t enough. Necessary but not enough. Necessary in that early on it is implanted within me, but not enough in that it is not mature. I cherish it but as Martin Luther King wrote in his sermon, “You can’t call on mommy or daddy now.”

What King realized that night is that he will need an adult faith for the adult life and the adult challenges he is facing. He didn’t realize it intellectually, he realized it in his prayer of desperation over his late night coffee alone in the kitchen with the pressure so intense he breaks. He knows he cannot do it alone. Then grace.

…And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther… lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.”

Then King said in his sermon, “You’d better know him, and know his name, and know how to call his name.”

That Jesus for King was shaped by his childhood, his family, his education, it is his Jesus, so to speak. It is the inner voice that calls to him and who he can call. My question is this:

Who is your inner voice? Who do you know? Who or what do you call on?

Part of the work of religious education, worship, personal spiritual growth and so forth is to come to a mature understanding of your inner voice. That inner voice is your grounding, your moral compass, your rock, your shield, your vine, your source, your stream, your higher power, and it grows with you as you cultivate it.

If we don’t cultivate the voice it can only provide us with childhood responses.

When I heard the voice to go to the ministry, I remember that moment. I was alone in our mobile home and it was simply a clarity. It felt like an idea. It wasn’t reasoned out. It simply said, “You need to be a minster.” That experience started the process of exploration. I told my wife and she said, “Well you better tell Francis.” Francis was our minister. So I set an appointment with him and I began that journey.

It didn’t take long to realize that that voice was still probably a junior high or elementary school voice. As I restarted my journey of faith, now with a focus on the ministry, my faith was really at a childhood or middle school level and it needed to be shaped with life experience and study and practice.

It is interesting that there are times when I think the inner voice should be there but it isn’t. After I lost my son I was talking to my counselor. I don’t know if he asked or I volunteered but I said my experience of God was a dead tree stump. There is no voice.

CS Lewis in his book Grief Observed, a book he wrote after the death of his wife, wrote that calling on God is like banging on a door that no one opens. Sometimes it takes time to look back and see where there was grace.

I do not see the inner voice as a dead tree stump. But I needed to when I did. My inner voice is a bit beaten up, wounded. I see now why the wounded Christ is such a powerful image. The resurrected Christ who carries the wounds makes sense. The wounds make us, shape us. There is a maturity there. When I call on my inner voice now, in times of reflection, I hear a voice of assurance, of presence, of a wounded healer.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, we often talk about the ethics and the courage and civil rights and so forth, but really he came at this as a person of faith, for whom his personal struggle and the struggle of those he served was a spiritual struggle.

I want to honor that about him and to honor his challenge to all of us to know our own inner voice and know how to call on that voice.