January 17, 2021
Christ Church Gardiner
We just heard a beautiful flute rendition of ‘Take my hand, Precious Lord,” which is said to have been Martin Luther King, Jr’s favorite hymn. On April 4, 1968, King requested his friend and musician, Ben Branch, to play this song at a fundraiser that was to take place later that night. That request became the last words King spoke. He was assassinated minutes later on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Mahalia Jackson sang, “Take my hand, precious Lord” at King’s funeral. A fitting song for family, friends, and fellow activists as they grieved the death of King and the disruption to the movement he was leading. Fitting words for us today as we are wearied by the events of our nation—the hostility, the anger, and the violence. How many of us relate to these words from that hymn: “I am tired. I am weak. I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me on.”
Even Martin Luther King had dark moments when he wasn’t sure how to move forward. A calling from God to be a prophet speaking truth to the powers-that-be is never an easy call to answer. We see that in the story of Samuel this morning. Samuel who grew to be a great prophet in Israel and truth-teller to King David, gets his first call from God in the middle of the night when he’s still a young boy. God asked Samuel to share a hard judgement with Eli, his master, because Eli had allowed his sons to turn away from God. Prophets, like Samuel, are often responsible for holding those in power accountable for their shortcomings, but that’s never an easy task.
For King, this meant speaking to those with power about the sinfulness of racism. This was dangerous work because those same people could use their power violently against him.
There were times when King wanted to give up, turn away from his call, and live a safer life with his wife and children. Not long after he began organizing and speaking up, he received death threats, crosses were burned in his yard, bricks thrown through his living room window. One night after, receiving a threatening phone call, he came to a breaking point. He was on the verge of giving up, of backing down. And so he took his fear and exhaustion to God. He prayed—admitting he had nothing left to give and asking for help. And like Samuel, he heard the voice of God. In the quiet assurance of an inner voice, he heard, “Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” (Drew Hart, Trouble I’ve Seen, 2016). God didn’t promise to make it easy. Only to be present—working alongside King.
Perhaps you and I won’t have the lasting influence on justice in this nation that Martin Luther King had. But we know that as people who believe in a God who embodies love and justice, we are called to that work. And in days like the ones we are living through now, that work can seem overwhelming. Because despite the successes of the Civil Rights Movement led by prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr., a week and a half ago, a mob stormed our Capitol, many of them displaying the symbols of white supremacy and American racism including logos that celebrated the Holocaust and the attempted extinction of the Jewish people. Gallows were erected and a noose hung outside the Capitol, a reminder not only of the violence done to black people in the past but suggesting that more violence is to come. In light of this anger and hate on display so publicly, we may ask ourselves, where do we go from here?
In Luke’s Gospel this morning, Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”
As difficult as those words are, they are Jesus’ answer to the insurrection at the Capitol and the hate-filled rhetoric: loving, doing good, blessing, and praying. That’s not going to be easy and at times will feel outrageous. I’m supposed to love that guy with the shirt that says “Six Million Wasn’t Enough?”
Jesus says yes. But to make sense of that, we have to understand what Jesus meant by love. The love of Jesus isn’t a sentimental and emotional love, as our Presiding Bishop reminded us last week in his response to the Capitol insurrection. Michael Curry preached, “[Jesus’] way of love is the way of sacrifice, the way of unselfishness, the way of selflessness, that seeks the good of the other as well as the self. And that is the way of the cross, which is the way of life.” (“Who Shall We Become” Sermon)
The love of Jesus demands accountability from those who would harm others, but it refuses to dehumanize anyone—even those we deem to be the enemy. Jesus knew that we would never get anywhere by returning hate with hate. Martin Luther King knew this as well.
And so, I want to close this morning with words from King spoken to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967. A speech entitled, “Where Do We Go from Here.”
“We still have a long, long way to go… [B]efore we reach the majestic shores of the promised land, there will still be gigantic mountains of opposition ahead and prodigious hilltops of injustice.
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best…is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. And this is what we must see as we move on.
And so I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. And I am still convincedthat it is the most potent weapon available [in the] struggle for justice in this country.
I’m concerned about a better world. I’m concerned about justice; I’m concerned about brotherhood; I’m concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about that, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder. Through violence you may murder a liar, but you can’t establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can’t murder hate through violence. Darkness cannot put out darkness; only light can do that.
And I say to you, I have also decided to stick with love, for I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems. And I’m going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn’t popular to talk about it in some circles today. And I’m not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love; I’m talking about a strong, demanding love. For I have seen too much hate… and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we aren’t moving wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who loves has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.
And I must confess, my friends that the road ahead will not always be smooth… But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation from the words so nobly left by that great black bard, who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson:
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days
When hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place
For which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way
That with tears has been watered.
We have come treading our paths
Through the blood of the slaughtered.
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the bright gleam
Of our bright star is cast.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. (“Where Do We Go from Here?” address delivered by MLK at the 11thAnnual Convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1967))
In response to the words of Martin Luther King, let us all say, Amen.