A Day to Look Forward

January 19th, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

We celebrate Martin Luther King Day as a day of remembrance but also appropriately as a day of service. Rev. King devoted his life to service and gave his life in service. I’ve recently heard it said that his life has been reduced to just four words: “I have a dream.” Those are wonderful words from a wonderful speech but there was much more to King than the quest for civil rights for black people. Some of it is laudable, and some regrettable. To quote King, “So it goes.”

But even if the only thing we know about King is the Civil Rights Movement, and even if the only thing we ever heard him say was the black and white recording of the “I Have a Dream” speech, we have been given enough to know that King’s dream was not just for black people, and not just for the past. King’s dream was in fact the consummation of God’s plan of redemption and the final triumph of God’s Kingdom. King knew that this was a promise for the future, for the end of all things, but he also knew that striving to realize it is the mission of God’s Church today. So to fully understand the man you have to go beyond the commodified civic hero into the gospel.

Rev. King was and remained a minister of the gospel. As such, his focus was on the reversal of the curse of Eden. His calling was to obey God’s demand for justice, righteousness, and love: for all, but especially for the poor, the oppressed, the dispossessed, the outcast, and the stranger. In the “I Have a Dream” speech we hear a call for the brotherhood of all Americans of every race and creed, and if we go beyond this single moment in his life to his larger work we see him as a champion of all people, from black Americans to Vietnamese peasants. Probably without realizing it, the Nobel Prize committee affirmed the appeal of the gospel in action when they bestowed on King the Peace Prize.

While it is fitting that the commemoration of Martin Luther King’s life should be a day of service, it must be more than that. It must be a day of atonement. I fear there is a tendency to lull ourselves into satisfaction about issues of racial justice by celebrating King’s triumphs without acknowledging where he fell short. The nation has made great strides toward equality, but the events of the past few months remind us that there is still a divide. I should rather say there is an epidemic of division based not only on race but religion, ideology, politics, ethnicity, culture, class, wealth. The world does not seem to be coming together; it seems to be pulling itself apart. And though if we observe rationally we can recognize progress, we must admit the happy fraternity of the Beloved Community King envisioned is far from reality.

And so while it may be pleasant to reflect that in the United States we can see some visible movement toward overcoming some divisions, it is incumbent upon us to reflect on the distance we have yet to travel. And especially on what we as individuals must do to go that distance. It is not enough to look upon the great evils that were committed in the past and celebrate their end. Certainly that is cause for celebration but we must search out our own hearts to expose the darkness that allows hatred to persist. Yes, they were guilty. But so are we. In my heart I know I have overcome much of the tyranny of the culture I was born into, but I also know I still have far to go in recognizing all of God’s children as my brothers and sisters. So I, along with the nation, can celebrate past victories and pay homage to great leaders, still I sing along with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10 ESV)

As we look around us and we see so much tension and strife we may wonder if it is even possible to celebrate. So I am attaching the text of a very hopeful sermon by Rev. King entitled, “Our God is Able.” If you are like most unfamiliar with King’s work beyond “I Have a Dream,” it will orient you toward his pastor’s heart. Here is a taste, and the full PDF is attached.

At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the God of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of recessions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.

Only God is able. It is faith in God that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, of the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.

The PDF is from Martin Luther King, A Testament of Hope: the Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2003), 504-509.

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