January 2024

SERMON: Brother Martin

Honoring the impact of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , "I Have a Dream" speech, and the hope of keeping the dream alive

There’s David, once the proud and mighty king, screaming out his anguish over the death of his beloved son, Absalom. In the movie version of this scene, David not only cries out, but he throws himself down on the ground, face in the dirt, pounding his fists on the earth, and creating mud with his tears. Oh dear, this makes us a little nervous. We don’t really like strong emotion. Where is the decorum here? We like the Jackie Kennedy version better. Few mention the fact that after the shock wore off, Jackie Kennedy would approach people and describe in graphic detail the horrible shooting of her husband, the color of blood on her dress, the blood that oozed from his head. There is a rage, and an anger, and an irrational refusal to follow normal thought patterns. There is a crying out to God, a desperate plea to make it not so. We want to move away from this sort of thing, distance ourselves, sanitize it, make it go away.

We back away, because on some level, we realize that this could also be us. The messenger did not want to give David the message. What would we do if we lost a beloved child? How would we possibly survive. Some of our families have had to learn how. How could we go on if a family member is murdered? Some of our families have had to learn how. People don’t want to talk about it. They back away. A police officer once told me that after he was shot at close range and left for dead, few of his fellow officers were willing to discuss the event with him. It was just too close to home. A worst fear realized.

We would like to pretend that these things don’t happen to us: death at a young age, drug overdoses, violence, suicide, murder. They seem easier to imagine in Palestine or Iran. But they do happen to us. They come too close to home. They enter our families and our schools. They touch our hearts and ignite our emotions.

In 1968, I was living in an all African American community south of Chicago. The residents were part of the Great Migration from the south, and originally settled in Chicago, but missing their rural roots, they purchased plots of rural land about sixty miles south of Chicago, and made this rural area their home. Dwellings were simple, sometimes mere chicken coops. The people were poor in dollars and rich in faith. I had the only four-wheel drive vehicle in a community of unpaved washboard bumpy dirt roads, so was often called upon to transport food or people to needed destinations.

On April 4, 1968, I had driven a number of our community members to a nearby town to discuss race relations in the schools. Our children went to all African American grammar schools within our tight knit rural community, and many of them had never seen a white person before being bused to an integrated high school in the town where the meeting was to be held. As you can imagine…there were some adjustment challenges.

The meeting was highly stressful, but necessary and productive. When we returned to my vehicle for our ride home, we turned on the radio and heard the announcement that The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. The response was similar to David’s. The incarnation of spiritual leadership and hope for the African American community had been shot. The champion of non-violence had become a victim of deadly violence himself. How could this happen? Grown men wept. Some were struck silent. Hands were held and “Precious Lord” was sung acapella on every street corner. A nation was thrust into mourning. My own life was never the same again.

Who was this man we called Brother Martin? Like David, he was flawed. Like David, he was a leader. Like David, he was a father. Like David, he knew personal pain. Martin’s life had constantly been threatened, and he received threatening phone calls from anonymous tormenters, saying: “In three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

In a blog, the author Ron McClung has written about the humanity of Martin Luther King. “One night Dr. King sat at a table in his house, thinking about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born. He thought about the fact that she could be taken from him any minute. He thought about his dedicated wife who was asleep, and how she could be taken from him or he could be taken from her. As he thought about these things, he felt weak. His father was 175 miles away in Atlanta, and he couldn’t call on his mother.

In the solitude of his home, Martin realized that religion had to become real for him. He had to know God for himself. Sitting at that table, he bowed over a cup of coffee and prayed a prayer. He prayed out-loud. He is said to have uttered, ‘God, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I am right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But God, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering, I’m losing courage. And I can’t let people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.’

It was as if he could hear an inner voice saying, “Martin Luther King, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” He heard the voice of Jesus telling him to fight on, promising never to leave him alone. He said, ‘Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.’”

And courageously Brother Martin moved forward in faith. His death challenged many of us to ponder our own faith, and to sink deeply into our own grief.

As most of you know, my call to the ministry was inspired by The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I feel a strong affiliation with him and his faith.

I would like to share with you a story by Henri Nouwen upon which I based my ordination paper:

One day a young fugitive, trying to hide himself from the enemy, entered a small village. The people were kind to him, and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became very fearful. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill every person in it unless the young man was handed over to them before dawn. The people went to their minister and asked him what to do. The minister, torn between handing the boy over to the enemy or having his people killed, withdrew to his room and read his Bible, hoping to find an answer before dawn. After many hours, in the early morning his eyes fell on these words: “It is better that one man dies than the whole people are lost.” Then the minister closed the Bible, called the soldiers and told them where the boy was hidden. And after the soldiers led the fugitive away to be killed, there was a feast in the village but the minister did not celebrate. Overcome with a deep sadness, he remained in his room. That night an angel came to him, and asked, “What have you done?” He said: “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said: “But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister replied anxiously. Then the angel said: “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”

And so, Beloved Community, let us look into one another’s eyes, let us look into the eyes of our children, let us look into the eyes of the guests at the Justa Center and at Centro de Esperanza, let us look into the eyes of the incarcerated and the hungry, let us look into the eyes of God.


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