Excerpts from a Sermon as we Remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Here is the first part of my sermon, “Lamb People, Lamb Power (Rev 7:1-17),” delivered at Union Baptist Church on January 17. The pastor of the church is a former student, Rev. Dr. Al Hathaway, and it was an honor and pleasure to be there.

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He was a man of deep conviction… of fervent passion. A man of vision and of visions. His vision was of a beloved community that included people of all nations and races. A vision of unity and equality.

He was an eloquent speaker and gripping writer, with a gift for words like few people of his time. A man who gave speeches and wrote texts sprinkled with allusions to Scripture, words that challenged the system and gave great hope to the oppressed. Words of comfort to the afflicted and words of affliction to the comfortable. Words of a prophet.

He was a teacher, a preacher, a leader of The Movement. Some claimed he was a subversive. Some claimed the whole movement was subversive, dangerous.

He was a man of power. Not ordinary power, but power nonetheless. The power of conviction, the power of powerful critique of the powerful, the power—ultimately—of God, the power of the Spirit, indeed, the power of Jesus. His was the power of suffering love, the power of nonviolence, the power of faithful witness and resistance.

He was, therefore, a threat. A great threat. A threat to the status quo. A threat to the powers-that-be and that were and that are. So the powers, of course, took him out of commission, or so they thought. They put him away. But even there he dreamed and he had visions and he prayed and he wrote—he even wrote a now-famous letter, a classic epistle full of his vision and his visions, full of his passion and his passions, full of his convictions and his convicting words to the churches and to the civil authorities, full of his own hope and his words of hope to those he had had to leave behind.

Today, we remember his legacy, and we celebrate his vision, his passion, his commitment.

His name, of course, is John. John the Seer, John the Revelator, John of Patmos, John who penned that famous visionary letter that concludes the Scriptures: the book of Revelation from which we read a portion, chapter 7, together. John the servant and witness, as he calls himself (Rev 1:1), John the exile, banished by government authorities because of his faithful preaching of the word of God and his faithful witness to Jesus (1:9). John the subversive and troublemaker.

You, of course, thought that I was speaking, not of John, but of Martin, of Dr. King. I was not, and yet I was. For you see, John and Martin have much in common. They are both visionaries inspired by Jesus with a vision of God’s desire for the world and given power in and by the Spirit to articulate that vision for their peers and for all who come after.

It is easy to forget 40-plus years later that Dr. King was not merely a political figure but also a spiritual figure. Indeed, he is recognized by the Episcopal and Lutheran churches as a martyr, a witness to God and the Lamb who paid the ultimate price. And it is easy to forget nearly 20 centuries later that John—like Paul and like Jesus—was not merely a spiritual figure, but also a political figure. His was the politics of God, and that meant that the politics of Rome were in trouble. His vision was of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev 7:9-10 NRSV).

“What’s so threatening about that vision?” we might ask, and understandably so. Here is what’s so threatening, very simply: it is not Rome’s vision! Rome imagined itself as the bringer of salvation, and the emperor as the Savior. Rome had its own plan for obtaining and maintaining peace and security and unity throughout the empire, and it had nothing to do with a foreign deity or a crucified lord from Israel, from the east, which the Romans thought to be the source of most cultural scum and political sedition.

John’s vision was also his power, it was the power of the Lamb, the power of suffering love, the power of nonviolence, the power of faithful witness and resistance. The power of the Lamb that was slain.

12 Responses to “Excerpts from a Sermon as we Remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King”

  1. Josh Rowley says:

    Michael–

    I am typically hesitant to blend the celebration of the Lord’s Day with the celebration of national holidays. I suspect you share this hesitation. I’m wondering how you would explain to a parishioner the difference between blending the Lord’s Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day (which I am glad is a national holiday), on the one hand, and blending the Lord’s Day and, say, Memorial Day or Independence Day, on the other hand.

    I ask because today my faith-community did in fact blend the Lord’s Day and MLK Jr. Day. It was done well and it was well received. I have already started to worry, however, about the next time a national holiday arrives. If I ignore it in favor of focusing solely on the Lord (which I think is appropriate on the Lord’s Day, especially in a service of worship), then I may face questions as to why I have given attention to one national holiday and not another. I’m fearing I will be seen as inconsistent–perhaps even hypocritical.

    Here’s one of my favorite MLK Jr. quotes:

    “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 thermostat 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” (James M. Washington, ed., I Have a Dream: Writings and Speeches That Changed the World [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], p. 97).

  2. MJG says:

    Josh—

    Thanks for this comment; it is important and thought-provoking. And yes, I share your concerns very deeply. So here are some thoughts about doing this “national holiday” as a liturgical event:

    1. The focus should be on worshiping the Lord, not on MLK per se.
    2. The emphasis about MLK should be on him as a Christian minister who spoke truth to power and tried to embody God’s dream as a Christian, not his role as an American per se. It is helpful to know that the Episcopal and Lutheran churches consider him a martyr—which should be stressed.
    3. The legacy of MLK is the challenge to better discipleship not better citizenship.

    In essence, then, don’t treat it as a national holiday, and argue that there’s nothing about discipleship to Jesus that naturally springs out of the other days.

    There’s probably more.

    Your quote is also one of my absolute favorites. I had a few in my sermon today, and I had thought about this one but chose another one from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

  3. RevDrDRE says:

    Mike,
    thanks for the excerpts — that was great! I too preached from Revelation — including Chap 7 — on Jan 17 and tried to make some connection to the ministry of Dr. ML King, Jr.. As an African American pastor, the legacy of Dr. King, Jr. is one that we cannot ignore — even on the Lord’s Day. In fact, later that afternoon I was part of an Ecumenical Worship Service honoring the legacy of Dr. King that I helped to plan (I am the convener of the East Washington Minsters Fellowship here in DC — an ecumenical gathering of pastors and others). We don’t see the worship experience as connected to any national celebration — we’d be having a service even if there were no national holiday!

    Your response above to Josh is helpful.

  4. MJG says:

    Thanks, Dennis. Glad to hear what you did.

  5. MDM says:

    I’ve done some analysis on Molefi Asante, 20th century African American rhetorician, and he constantly pulled from MLK’s speeches; underscoring content/style.

    One of the styles utilized by King, was the application of repitition, which is espicially effective when utilizing the spoken word — for the spoken word is effervescent, short lasting; naturally lending itself to the poetic dimension of language. I see you have done the same thing here (I am thinking not coincidence..).

    Another device Asante talked about was indirection (they look one way, you go another). That was a clever juke in weaving what was thought to be a presentation on Brother MLK… (and in a strong sense, it was, as John and he had a lot of the same things in mind).

    – Indeed, they were both visionaries working out their faiths. They were both not just spiritual figures, but political figures as well.

    However, concerning the comment on nonviolence: did not Christ overturn the money changers tables and chase them out with a whip [John 2.15]? While the overall tenor of Christ is not violence, but compassion and love, I don’t think that means anger and grief, even violating anothers space, is categorically wrong.

  6. MJG says:

    Thanks for the rhetorical analysis!

    “Violence” is a bit of a tricky word, one that needs careful attention and definition. One definition relates to coercion, another to harm, another to power.

    In any event, John 2:15 probably speaks of Jesus driving the animals out.

  7. Josh Rowley says:

    Thanks for the comments, Michael and Dennis. I agree that it is important to remember Dr. King, and that an appropriate way of doing so is by celebrating his birthday. The concern I expressed earlier is not about Martin Luther King Jr. Day per se. My question is this: How do we avoid civil religion in worship on the Lord’s Day nearest national holidays?

    In my ten years as a pastor at two different Presbyterian churches, I have repeatedly felt pressure on some of these days to be patriotic, proclaiming American exceptionalism or commending America’s military might. I have resisted doing so, and I have received some criticism as a result (for example, “Don’t you know that you’re only free to preach because of veterans?”). To be clear, I don’t condemn America or criticize veterans. I simply don’t make the Lord’s Day about, say, American independence; in the eyes of some Christians, I thereby commit a sin of omission.

    I continue to struggle with the question of how best to explain to parishioners why I resist civil religion in worship on the Lord’s Day. Am I alone in this struggle? The distinction made above between discipleship and citizenship is helpful. How, then, do we convince Christians that these two things are not identical–and at times may even be antithetical?

  8. MJG says:

    Josh—

    I wish more people struggled as much as you do! They just give in or don’t even perceive a conflict. In my view celebrating MLK is a church thing to do in spite of its being a national holiday! I am sympathetic to your concern even about that day/time, however, because of fear of civil religion. The service I was in had a few tendencies in that direction but was, overall, quite appropriate and worshipful.

    Another distinction worth noting here is that most national holidays remember and/or celebrate wars. I think the Sunday near MLK can be a teaching moment: we recognize this man, not because he is a national hero, but because of his Christian character and integrity: he practiced Christian means (nonviolence) to achieve God’s ends (justice).

    BTW, Dennis is a Mennonite, so he is keenly aware of this issue!

    Keep up the struggle, and keep the faith! And have a look at the Ekklesia Project if you have not yet done so. This is one of their main foci.

  9. Josh Rowley says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Michael.

  10. Libby says:

    Nice sermon (excerpt), Dad! I just got around to reading it today, and I was very pleased with myself when, after reading the first paragraph, I skipped down to see who you were describing! :-)

  11. MJG says:

    Thanks, Libby. You’re too clever. :-)

  12. MDM says:

    I really understand your struggle Josh, and I think that it is real and authentic struggle (one that most are wont to gloss over)…

    How does the Christian both work/anticipate the fruition of God’s Kingdom while distinguishing itself from the usual, mundane ['civic religion']? — hard, HARD questions.

    Phil. 2.12 — work out your OWN faith, and do it in a fashion that is marked by fear (awe, reverence) and trembling!! Objectivity and certainty is not essential to understanding Christ.

    Sometimes, I think, we tend to see our faith as being something that ought to be solid and objectively true — but that is largely a Western concept/philosophy… Things are much more complex than that, and we sense that at a visceral level, I think.

    – Michael, as for the rebuttal about Christ driving out ‘animals’, I am still at a great loss about what you exactly mean by that…. From what I gather, these were real and actual humans, not unconscious animals, utilizing the temple as a place to make a fast buck, which is an all too human predisposition even in our society today… I am not at all convinced or assuaged by your rebuttal.

    Christ, John the Revelator, and MLK may have espoused a great hesitancy toward violence — this is very evident — yet does this mean no violence/anger/frustration whatsoever?

    Does this mean we carry not a sword and scabbard? — If so, our own bare being, our fists, can be wielded as weapons, no?

    John 18.11 — put your sword away Peter! — but notice, Peter still was carrying a sword to begin with; he was a disciple of Jesus, equipping a sword…

    Militarism and conquest has been a common attribute of empires, and America does not at all escape unflawed… But does that mean we categorically surrender our livelihood in the face of another’s aggression? Yes compassion, even to the cross, but does that mean no-violence?

    I am struggling with this question, for I live in America, a place that is prided and dependent on its military, its prowess of guns and bombs — I need a better answer/solution…….

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