Martin Luther King Sunday
Text: Isaiah 49:1-6
This sermon grew out of my reading of Martin Luther King. Jr’s early works, delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, between mid-1954 and the end of 1956. In the sermons I could locate, I looked for repeated and underlying themes that provided theological grounding for King’s leadership in the civil rights movement. While there is much more to be said, I believe this sermon serves as an introduction to King’s theological viewpoints and illustrates his faith. This sermon was delivered at Peace United Church of Christ, January 15, 2017.
The Rev. Charlotte Frantz, retired, United Church of Christ minister
Tough Minded, Tender Hearted
“This is the beginning of a New year. It is a time when the startling facts of yesterday and the heightening expectations of tomorrow join hands in the pressing urgency of today. There is no better way to begin this year than with the conviction that there is a God of Power Who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in our lives and in the life of the universe. To believe in, and to live by the fact that “God is able”, transforms life’s impending sunsets into glistening sunrises. This conviction stands at the center of our Christian faith. The God that we worship is not a weak God, He is not an incompetent God and consequently he is able to beat back gigantic mountains of opposition and to bring low prodigious hill tops of evil.”
It was Sunday, January 1, 1956. The Montgomery bus boycott was entering its second month. The 26 year old pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church was doing what clergy do on a Sunday morning—preaching to the faithful. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded his congregation that God was fully aware of the crisis they were facing, that God would eventually prevail over the forces of evil, and that, in the midst of all the difficulties and hardships, God would provide the inner resources and strength each of them needed.
Martin had been at Dexter Avenue less than 2 years. His predecessor had been a bit of an activist, and the congregation looked for a pastor a little less likely to stir things up. They chose this doctoral student from Boston University, who aspired to become an educator and maybe, someday, a college president. Neither Martin nor the congregation anticipated what was to come.
Martin Luther King, Jr, had grown up in a parsonage. His father and grandfather served Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Like some other P.K.’s, Martin was not so sure about following in their footsteps. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta and majored in sociology. While a student, he took a class that prompted him to rethink his attitude about the Bible—at the time, he was still not so sure about Jesus, but he concluded that the Bible provided a great many truths about human life. With this cautious theology, Martin enrolled in Crozier Theological School in Pennsylvania. From there he went to Boston University where he earned a doctorate in philosophical theology.
In 1954, while working on his dissertation, he and his wife moved to Montgomery, Alabama so that Martin could serve Dexter Avenue Baptist church. Eighteen months after he arrived, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus. That evening, King received a phone call—it was time to boycott the city busses—would his church be willing to host the organizing meeting? King hesitated, but his good friend and neighboring pastor, Ralph Abernathy, encouraged him to say “yes”. At that meeting, despite voicing his reluctance, King was elected president of the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association.
He spent his weekdays and evenings organizing, but come Sunday, his audience was the congregation at Dexter Avenue. In the context of his ministry to the congregation, King forged the theological foundations for what would become a national movement.
Love. Over and over again, Martin preached a faith and proclaimed a vision with love at its center. We are called to love. We are called to the enormous, steadfast, intimate love God has for each of us. And we are called to love others with that same steadfast goodness. The enemy is not the other, nor the system under which we live, but the power of evil. And only love can transform that power. We are called to this by Jesus, whose life exemplified the meaning of love.
Martin described love as a combination of toughmindedness and tenderheartedness. Too often, the church has preached a gospel of softheartedness—a kind of sentimental love that ends up doing nothing to change the world. Toughmindedness, wrote Martin, includes “incisive thinking, realistic appraisal, and decisive judgement.” We are called to practice toughmindedness—to think critically, to be realistic in our assessments, to be decisive in our judgements about what is happening in the world. In fact, in a sermon preached just before the boycott began, Martin declared that the church was called was to “stand in judgement upon every political, social and economic system, condemning evil wherever it exists.” In his plan for Dexter Avenue’s revitalization, Martin insisted that every church member be registered to vote and hold membership in the NAACP in order to stay informed and exercise political judgement at the polls.
But along with toughmindedness we are called to tender heartedness, to a compassion that connects us to each other and engenders the development of community.
This toughminded, tender hearted love is the essence of God’s nature. Martin wrote, “The greatness of our God lies in the fact that God is both toughminded and tenderhearted. God has the qualities both of austerity and of gentleness. . . . God is toughminded enough to transcend the world; God is tenderhearted enough to live in it. God does not leave us alone in our agonies and struggles. God seeks us in dark places and suffers with us in our tragic prodigality. When days grow dark and nights grow dreary, we can be thankful that our God combines in God’s own nature a creative synthesis of love and justice which will lead us through life’s dark valleys and into sunlit paths of hope and fulfillment.”
In a sermon based on Jesus’ words from the cross, Martin wrote of love’s power to transform. Martin wrote: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate. We get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power.”
We are called to love, Martin said in that same sermon, not in order to change the world, but in order to become children of God. This statement caused me great pause. I am a white American Christian, schooled in the pragmatic, desirous of creating more justice in the world. I want to be called to create change. But Martin told his congregation of hard-working, long-suffering bus boycotters, the purpose of love was not to change the world, but to become children of God.
Listen to his words, “We are called to this difficult task (of loving our enemies) in order to realize a unique relationship with God. We are potential sons and daughters of God. Through love, that potentiality becomes actuality. We must love our enemies, because only by loving them can we know God and experience God’s holiness.”
Martin called love the “soul force” required to stop oppression and endure suffering. He wrote, “Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautiful exemplified in the life of Christ, is the most potent instrument available in humankind’s quest for peace and security. The great military leaders of the past are gone and their empires have crumbled and burned to ashes, but the empire of Jesus, built solidly and majestically on the foundation of love is still growing. We will never be true sons and daughters of our heavenly Father until we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.”
In a sermon called “Antidotes to fear” Martin again wrote of the ultimate importance of love—both for individuals and society. “The kind of love that led Christ to a cross and kept Paul unembittered among the angry torrents of persecution is not soft, anemic and sentimental. Such love confronts evil without flinching and shows in our popular parlance an infinite capacity to ‘take it.’ Such love overcomes the world even from a rough-hewn cross against the skyline.”
Martin understood the universe as a “strange dualism of good and evil, right and wrong, light and darkness, happiness and pain, life and death. There is,” he wrote, “a tension or a struggle at the core of the universe. Yet Christians insist that in the long struggle between good and evil, good ultimately emerges as the victor. Evil must ultimately give way to the powerful, insurgent forces of Good. This is ultimately the hope that keeps us going.”
Martin reminded his congregation: “We are not alone in this vast, uncertain universe. Beneath and above the shifting sands of time, the uncertainties that darken our days, and the vicissitudes that cloud our nights, is a wise and loving God. God’s boundless love supports and contains us as a mighty ocean contains and supports the tiny drops of every wave. The confidence that God is mindful of the individual. . . gives us a sense of worth, of belonging, and of at-homeness in the universe.”
These words about the nature of the universe, God’s love and the necessity of our loving were spoken to a congregation all too well acquainted with oppression, discrimination, and hatred. King’s congregants knew what it was like to be treated as less than worthy. They knew what it was like to feel as if they didn’t belong. They knew the fear and anxiety that comes with living in what feels like someone else’s land.
Yet King’s words of hope rang true. He was not preaching religious platitudes or euphemisms from that pulpit in Dexter Avenue Baptist church. He was reflecting on his own experience; his own struggle with doubt, with fear, with faith. In the sermon “Our God is Able”, Martin talked about his own dark night of the soul. It happened in the early weeks of the Montgomery bus boycott. Almost immediately after the boycott began, Martin began to receive threatening phone calls and letters. Over time, they increased in number and intensity.
Here’s how Martin related the story:
“After a particularly strenuous day, I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said, ‘Listen nigger, we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.’ I hung up, but I could not sleep. It seemed all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached the saturation point.
“I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally, I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage was almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where 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 heard the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”
Martin knew he was called to love, called to that profound love by a God who would not abandon him to his fear, would not leave him alone, would not let go of him, would love him with toughmindness and a tender heart through all the hard work that lay ahead.
That hard work would be done in community. We cannot do this work alone.
In “Antidote for Fear”, Martin told another story—this one about the necessity of reassuring one another of the tough minded, tenderhearted, ever present, nature of God. Let me read it to you:
“One of the most dedicated participants in the bus protest was an elderly Negro whom we affectionately called Mother Pollard. Although poverty stricken and uneducated, she was amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the movement. After having walked for several weeks, she was asked if she were tired. With ungrammatical profundity, she answered, ‘My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.’
“On a particular Monday evening, following a tension-packed week which included being arrested and receiving numerous threatening phone calls, I spoke at a mass meeting. I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage, although I was inwardly depressed and fear stricken. At the end of the meeting, Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. ‘Something wrong with you,’ she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight.’ Seeking further to disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘Oh no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.” But her insight was discerning. ‘Now you can’t fool me,’ she said. ‘I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you? Or is it the white folks is bothering you?’ Before I could respond, she looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I don told you we is with you all the way.’ Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quite certainty, ‘But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’ As she spoke those consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.”
We do what we do, with tough minded, tender hearts because that is the nature of a God who has promised never to abandon us. God’s gonna take care of us. Our toughminded, tender hearted God. Amen.
For further reading of Martin Luther King’s sermons, I recommend the book Strength to Love, a collection of 15 sermons first published in 1963. I also recommend the website, http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu for an extensive collection of documents, including sermons, from throughout King’s life.