Years ago, while attending a national church conference in Memphis, I found myself late one afternoon in February standing outside of a now very famous motel looking up at a balcony. For the first time ever, I stood in front of the Lorraine Motel, seeing the turquoise-colored door with the room number #306. I remember standing in silence trying to imagine what it had been like on April 4, 1968, when 39 yr. old Martin Luther King Jr. was shot standing on that balcony.
The motel has been preserved and you can stand right in between that balcony and the Boarding House where James Earl Ray fired that fatal shot, and you feel an eerie connection to what has become a pivotal point in our collective narrative and a very important moment in our history.
This Monday our country recognizes Martin Luther King Jr. day as a federal holiday. And while the church has him on our liturgical Feast Day calendar for April 4th– to commemorate the tragic day of his assassination, we have chosen to remember him and his legacy this Sunday in worship as a way to lift up his legacy now at a time when we need to hear his words and teachings perhaps more than ever.
One of my favorite King sermons was from early on in his preaching life. On November 17, 1957 at his father’s church, Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, King preached passionately about “Loving our Enemies.” Even as a young preacher his conviction and passion were already shaped into a clarion call. And it was his ability to speak truth to power and love in the face of hate that echo so loudly in the time we find ourselves in today.
Based on the text in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, King is driven from the start: “Hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe…the strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil…and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.”
I admit that at a time such as this these words both resonate and challenge me to my very core. I know in my heart the path of love is the path Jesus is calling us towards every day, and, at the same time, the challenge is to stand in the world seemingly steeped in hate as revealed through violence, disrespect and chaos not only in our nation’s capital but all over the country. It feels at times impossible not to hate.
But King lived through his own version of hell on earth and still persisted in his preaching and teaching calling us to follow Jesus and practice nonviolence. The end of his sermon holds words I want us to aspire to as a community today and in the days to come. While we will always do our best to stand on the side of justice and truth, we must never forget these words and what they demand of us on the journey.
Love is the only way.
Jesus discovered that.
This is the only way.
And our civilization must discover that.
So this morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.”
And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. Amen.
May Martin Luther King Jr.’s words not just inspire, but also ignite the fire in our bellies to go forth claiming, naming and living out the love of Jesus.
May we too be foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, [all person]s of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.
And then we will be in God’s [kinship] indeed.
And may you never forget that you are loved,