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Seeking Good News

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What I’d like to do with you this morning is explore the religious dimensions of Martin Luther King, how he drew on those dimensions to motivate him and to sustain him.

Today’s texts: Psalm 40: 1-10 and John 1: 29-42 

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

When Martin Luther King Jr. was a sophomore at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he went through one those classic college-age crises of faith.

As he wrote about his religious development, he said was in a “state of skepticism” toward religion until he took a course on the Bible in which, in his words, “I came to see that behind the legends and the myths were many profound truths which one could not escape.” He said that through his college experience, “the shackles of fundamentalism were removed” from his mind.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 88 years old. We know him as a civil rights leader, an advocate of non-violence for social change, a man whose speech about dreaming of what could be still echoes throughout our nation. And this is the weekend when our nation pauses to remember him and when this community has many events honoring him.

What I’d like to do with you this morning is explore the religious dimensions of Martin Luther King, how he drew on those dimensions to motivate him and to sustain him.

I’d like to connect that with the words of Psalm 40 and the story we heard today from the Gospel according to John.

And I’d like to carry all of that forward into our own lives as we struggle with uncertainty, maybe on a personal level, maybe in a nation and a world where goodness can seem to losing out to evil.

As we take this journey, keep in mind the words from Psalm 40, a song of someone who has faced very tough times – down in the pit of death, mired in mud and filth – and is now back on solid rock.

So the psalm writer sings praises to God, giving thanks for all the great things God has done, not because the people offered sacrifices, but because of God’s loyal love. The psalm writer cannot hold back, promising to tell “the good news of your righteousness in the great assembly.”

There are pieces of all of that in Martin Luther King’s story, but it never was a given for him, even though he was the son and the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. He was immersed in religion, yet it was a struggle for him to make it his own.

King was not sure that he wanted to go into the family business. He thought about medicine, about law. He majored in sociology. But eventually, he felt God tugging at his soul.

“My call to ministry,” he would write, “was not a miraculous or supernatural something; on the contrary, it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity.” He entered seminary.

ComeAndSeeYou can almost imagine him in that group on the shores of Galilee 2,000 years earlier being told by the one they followed – John the Baptist – that this young man he had just baptized was the one they should follow.

“What are you looking for?” Jesus asked them.

“Where are you staying?” they asked him.

“Come and see,” he invited them. And they followed him. And so it began.

Much of King’s religious journey was intellectual, and that is an important part of what shaped him into the leader that we know.

But we will also hear moments of God’s Spirit bursting through, even as he resisted what he called the “emotionalism of Negro religion, the shouting and the stomping – I don’t understand it and it embarrassed me.”

As he delved into theology, he struggled with an interesting tension between two great thinkers of the 20th century.

Walter-RauschenbuschOne was Walter Rauschenbusch, who articulated what became known as the “social Gospel,” an approach that argued for the church’s involvement in the social problems of the nation and believed in humanity’s basic goodness and thought that humanity could be made perfect.

On the other side was Reinhold Niebuhr, who ripped Rauschenbusch’s optimism, saying that Christian love as a way to drive social justice “did not measure adequately the power and persistence of man’s self-concern.” He argued that when people act in groups and obtain disproportionate power through economic power, that is the “real root of social injustice.”

You can begin to see how this theological debate shaped King’s view of the world. He hung on to the importance of love as a power to change things but grew to understand that love alone could not defeat injustice and achieve social change, as King’s biographer David Garrow noted. King later wrote that “The balanced Christian must be both loving and realistic,” with a focus on love toward individuals and justice for a more fair society.

There was another voice that began to matter for King – Mohandas Gandhi, leading the freedom movement in India with non-violent direct action.

Now this is interesting. In 1950, King wrote a paper that expressed deep doubts about non-violence as a tactic for social change, arguing that “pacifists fail to recognize the sinfulness of man.”

Do these kinds of issues and questions sound familiar to the debates we still have today as we seek civil engagement with people who disagree with us but also seek to mobilize in ways that will bring justice to those on the margins, those who are vulnerable?

mlk-montgomery-bus-boycott-PAll of this was still swirling through King’s mind as he began his first call as a pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church Montgomery, Ala. in 1954. Soon, his theories would be put to the test as emerged as a leader among black clergy and others in Montgomery seeking to challenge the segregation on the city buses by boycotting the buses.

Now he was leading a non-violent direct action, challenging the injustice of the system while trying to retain a sense of dignity and respect – yes, even love – toward their adversaries.

It was exhausting. And King felt exhausted not only from the challenges of being a young leader of a broad movement, but from the threats that were being made on him.

King was arrested for going 30 miles per hour in a 25 mile-per-hour zone. He was taken to jail, put in a cell with criminals, fingerprinted and then released. The authorities in Montgomery were trying to send him a message. It was his first arrest and he was unnerved, not happy about becoming the center of attention. He was getting obscene and threatening phone calls at home.

King at table (1)The night after his brief stay in jail, he came home late and his wife Coretta and their baby daughter were asleep. Another phone call, this one telling him if he wanted to leave Montgomery alive, he had better go soon. He made some coffee and sat down at the kitchen table. He was discouraged, wondering if he could go on.

The phone rang again. It was around midnight. “You can have some strange experiences at midnight,” he would recall. Another threatening call – “if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

It was like those words we heard in Psalm 40 today. He was in the pit of death. How could he go on?

In a sermon King gave in Detroit in August of 1967 – less than a year before his murder the following April – King talked about feeling the power of God come over him. Let’s listen to about two minutes of that sermon:

“Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” – 20:39 to 23:18

(Here is the text)

I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer; I was weak. (Yes)

Something said to me, you can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta a hundred and seventy-five miles away. (Yes) You can’t even call on Mama now. (My Lord) You’ve got to call on that something in that person that your Daddy used to tell you about. (Yes) That power that can make a way out of no way. (Yes) And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me and I had to know God for myself. (Yes, sir) And I bowed down over that cup of coffee—I never will forget it. (Yes, sir) And oh yes, I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. (Yes) I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. (Yes) I think I’m right; I think the cause that we represent is right. (Yes) But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now; I’m faltering; I’m losing my courage. (Yes) 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.” (Yes) I wanted tomorrow morning to be able to go before the executive board with a smile on my face.

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, (Yes) “Martin Luther, (Yes) stand up for righteousness, (Yes) stand up for justice, (Yes) stand up for truth. (Yes) And lo I will be with you, (Yes) 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 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) never to leave me alone.


Do you hear the echo from Psalm 40? “I put all my hope in the Lord. He leaned down to me; he listened to my cry for help…He steadied my legs, he put a new song in my mouth.”

So much of what Martin Luther King spoke about and wrote about in his leadership of the Civil Rights movement had to do with seeking justice, with calling the nation to its highest ideals, to free both black and white from the shackles of racism.

Underlying all that, though, was this deep sense of spirituality. He would often return to that night at the kitchen table to give him hope and courage when things seemed to be getting darker.

And as he held onto the idea that Jesus’ voice was calling to him even in the midst of hardship, he followed that invitation we heard in the Gospel according to John to “come and see.”

Later, he would write about how to integrate the personal suffering he experienced into his following of Jesus. He wrote in The Christian Century magazine in 1960 that he did not like to talk about his own suffering, lest people think he was seeking sympathy.

But he knew what it was like to suffer. By this time, he had been arrested and jailed five times. His home had been bombed twice. He was stabbed once. Phone threats were a daily occurrence.

King wrote that he was often tempted to “retreat to a more quiet and serene life.”

But, he also wrote, “every time such a temptation appeared, something came to strengthen and sustain my determination. I learned how the Master’s burden is light precisely when we take his yoke upon us.”

He continued that the sufferings of recent years had drawn him closer to God. “More that ever before,” he wrote, I am convinced of the reality of a personal God.”

This year, as we look at the landscape of our nation, we are aware that many of things we care deeply about are facing severe challenges.

Civil public discussion, threats to people on the margins of our society like Muslims and immigrants and blacks, work to protect the creation that God has given us, the economic gaps that separate us, the threats from terrorists and hostile nations – all of these can pile up and weigh us down.

I think the story of Martin Luther King reminds us that we are not the first ones to feel weighed down by what is happening in the world around us. We are not the first ones to wonder where God is in our lives or in our world, we are not the first ones to get discouraged.

I think the story of Martin Luther King also reminds us that those are very natural feelings. We know that there were times they almost paralyzed him.

And yet…and yet…listening for God’s presence in the darkest hours can also open us up to new possibilities for our lives and for those we care about.

We are called, as individuals and as a people, to respond to Jesus, whether on a seashore or at a lonely kitchen table.

John Bell of the Iona Community in Scotland has written a wonderful hymn that captures all of this. It’s inside the bulletin and it’s called “The Summons.” Let’s sing it together.