Many of you have heard me speak of “my favorite Aunt Gail”. (She also goes by the name Gail Crouch.) She is one of the gifts I received when I married into my husband’s family. Below is a sermon she preached yesterday at St Paul’s United Church of Christ in Seattle, WA. On this Martin Luther King, Jr Day, enjoy…
The words thundered out over the loudspeakers: “Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.” Sounds like Isaiah to me, I thought – must be in church. And then the voice again, “…we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Amos, I thought – still feels like church. But I look around me. It sure doesn’t look like church.
I am sitting next to the Reflecting Pool at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. My feet are actually IN the water for we have walked quite a ways and it is hot that August day in 1963. I am surrounded by 200,000 folks, mostly African-Americans although there are a lot of people who look like me. We had gathered at the WA. Monument and marched, as a vast body of moving souls, down Independence and Constitution avenues and up to the Lincoln memorial.
It had been a long day, for most of us got up early and drove, bussed, or rode trains to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I had left New York City with my father-in-law Archie Crouch, before dawn. Our buses were full of people who worked at 475 Riverside in N.Y.C. the “God Box”, an office building that housed the national offices of several denominations. But many of my fellow marchers had come from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and other places from the Deep South.
We had opened our gathering by singing the National Anthem led by the revered singer, Marion Anderson. Twelve speeches later, even though the words were bracketed by songs from Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson and other singers, we were all pretty much done with words. As the 13th speech was about to begin, Archie and I discussed the possibility of gathering up our things and heading back to the buses. We actually were on our feet when this voice came over the loudspeakers calling for justice to roll down like water. We paused, sat down; put our feet back into the water and listened to what has become one of the most famous speeches of all time.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began to finish his prepared speech he moved into a spontaneous sermon mode and began those words, “I have a dream……” which we have heard for 50 years now, especially at this time of year when we celebrate his birthday. And he finally concluded with these words, “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with – with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The applause seemed to never end and all of us, after a long day of speeches and many words, knew we had just heard something very, very special.
The next day the New York Times said, “Dr. King touched all the themes of the day, only better than anyone else. He was full of the symbolism of Lincoln and Gandhi and the cadences of the Bible. He was both militant and sad, and he sent the crowd away feeling that the long journey had been worthwhile.” And the Times went on to say that although some had feared violence with the March, the 200,000 souls were really a “gentle army that occupied the Capital where politeness was the order of the day.”
Because this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of that March on Washington there will be many tributes to all the speakers and particularly to Dr. King. We will hear the “I Have a Dream” speech over and over I suspect. And while there is power in those words, spoken by a prophetic leader, I remember a man of faith. For while he was a Civil Rights leader, a political player, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, more than anything, Martin King was a man of faith. Dr. King was not a saint, but he has influenced our lives in countless ways during the past 60 years. He inspired many; his legacy is far-reaching; he is a man of history. But above all, Dr. King was a man of faith who understood that his power came from God and that it was to God he was accountable.
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Some people do not know that at a very young age, his name was changed. At his birth, he was named Michael Luther King, Jr. after his father, a minister at Ebenezer Baptist church in Atlanta, GA. For the first 5 years of his life he was called, M.L. or little Mike. But when he was 5, his father went on a trip to Christian historical sites in Europe. When Rev. King toured the site where Martin Luther had defied the Roman Catholic Church and started the Protestant Reformation, Rev. King felt an overwhelming sense of spiritual connection with Martin Luther. When he returned home he decided to honor the experience by changing his name from Michael to Martin and he also changed the name of his son to Martin Luther King, Jr.
This name change was one of the most important events in King’s life and for him it was a statement of identity with an honored tradition in religious history. Later, he would say that God had not only called him by name – he had changed his name! Just as in the Bible, Jacob had become Israel and Saul had become Paul, so his name change, for King, marked his strong sense of being called by God for something important.
As Martin King developed his theology and faith, he chose his basic beliefs that while refined over the years, would never really change. King believed that social justice is the closest possible human expression of God’s love. He urged leaders from all walks of life, to always remember that they were accountable to the poor, the persecuted, and the “outsiders” of any group. He struggled with and lived out the words of our Luke scripture reading to “love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us.”
In 1954 King was a local church pastor in Montgomery Al when his life changed forever. A woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man and the resulting Montgomery Bus Boycott focused the nation’s attention on the civil rights movement. King quickly became a leader in the boycott. In later years he described that time: “God simply wouldn’t leave me alone. ‘Stand up Martin,’ God said, ‘get down from your pulpit and get into the streets. That is where I need you.’ So I’m walking…walking for justice, walking for peace, I’m walking for freedom.” Circumstances helped propel King into a leadership role but God called him to give his life for it.
Reminiscing about an historical event is always fun and I love to remember and talk about my experiences with the March on Washington and later in Georgia when I did some voter registration work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was led by King. But I have a confession to make. As beautiful and powerful as the “I Have a Dream” speech is, my favorite writing from King, the words that most move me and have shaped my faith, are the words in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
Perhaps they move me because King sent the letter to fellow clergy, to the moderate white clergy of that day who were much like we progressive Christians in the UCC are today. It was addressed to me – and you.
In the spring of 1963, just before the March on Washington, King was in Birmingham to lead civil rights demonstrations in that city and was jailed because he participated in non-violent acts of civil disobedience. While he was in jail, a number of clergy in the city criticized King for activities that were “unwise and untimely” and they called him an extremist. Now King was routinely criticized and usually did not respond because he felt it took time he needed to give to the movement. But something triggered his need to respond to these clergy. Perhaps it was because they were his brothers in Christ, his colleagues, his peer community. The church he loved disappointed him. The letter is roughly ten pages long and has some amazing insights.
But the most powerful part of that letter for me is how he responds to those who called him an extremist.
“…Initially I was disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, but as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless then that curse you and do good to them that hate you….” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an every flowing stream.” …….Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson were extremists, so the questions is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime – the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality……The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremists for love, truth and goodness……Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”
What does it take for us to be “creative extremists?” I think that Martin King would say that standing up to discrimination and intolerance in any form might need us to be creative extremists. We must remind ourselves and our society over and over again that in times of economic distress, while we all suffer to some extent, it is the poor who suffer the most.
When we need to cut state budgets, why are programs for the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins of life, always the ones who get cut? How loud will our voices need to be as our state legislature meets this month and we see those proposed cuts offered? When our homeless population continues to grow, what creative extremism would challenge that unnecessary problem?
Most of us tend to be moderate, pleasant, accommodating. King would challenge us to be more extreme – to be extremists for love and justice. In the coming months I challenge all of us to find one way, one place, where we can be creative extremists.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was not perfect. He had many doubts and periods of depression. He knew he failed God in some of his personal actions. Some of his close friends called him a “God-troubled man” a soul who talked about peace but did not always experience it. But King would lift himself out of depression by reading scripture and praying. He believed passionately in the power of prayer to renew, heal and inspire.
On the final afternoon of his life, King was preparing for an evening meeting. He turned to his friend in charge of music and said, “Let’s sing ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ tonight.” It was his favorite hymn. A few minutes later he stood on the balcony of his motel when a shot rang out and Martin Luther King, Jr. was dead at age 39.
There will always be debates about which of King’s many speeches, marches or movements were most important. But as he said at the March on Washington, “With our faith, we will hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” King knew he did not receive his power, his sense of mission, or his hope from fame, his Nobel Prize or his relationships with Kings and Presidents. Martin King received his strength and his call from God, from his Precious Lord. Amen.