Beloved Friends- This coming Monday we will be observing “Martin Luther King Jr. Day.” Since 1986 our country has used this third Monday in January to celebrate and remember the immeasurable gifts of Martin Luther King Jr. and his tireless work as a nonviolent activist, preacher of the Gospel and key figure in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1956, (nearly 12 years before his assassination in 1968), Dr. King delivered a sermon entitled, “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” It was first delivered at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in King’s third year as their pastor. He describes this as an “imaginary letter” from the apostle Paul addressed to Christians in America with the intent that it should be passed from congregation to congregation, much like Paul’s actual letters were.
As I re-read the sermon this week, I was sad to hear the themes of this letter sounding as immediate now as they did 64 years ago. King observes the detrimental effects of American innovation and ambition on the spiritual and moral life of its citizens and urges us to remember that our ultimate allegiance belongs to God. He encourages the Church to be the voice that calls America to strive for justice and equity for all people, and to not let internal divisions pull the Church away from that mission.
He notes the fact that the Sunday worship hour is the most segregated hour of Christian America and worries about the effect that has on the Body of Christ. It is alarming to realize how little things have changed. But with that truth, King’s more than a half-century old words still offer concrete guidance on what we can do as a people of faith. He praises those who work to move beyond the things keep Christians apart and gives us a word of encouragement.
Toward the end of this letter he writes:
May I say just a word to those of you who are struggling against this evil [of segregation]. Always be sure that you struggle with Christian methods and Christian weapons. Never succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter. As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapons of love. Let no man pull you so low as to hate him. Always avoid violence. If you succumb to the temptation of using violence in your struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and your chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. In your struggle for justice, let your oppressor know that you are not attempting to defeat or humiliate him, or even to pay him back for injustices that he has heaped upon you. Let him know that you are merely seeking justice for him as well as yourself. Let him know that the festering sore of segregation debilitates the white man as well as the Negro. With this attitude you will be able to keep your struggle on high Christian standards.
As I think about his perspective I wonder if people of all faiths and spiritual paths- regardless of religious affiliation, might benefit in today’s climate of violence, hate speech, bullying, division and rampant hostility by slowing down and considering this path of nonviolence anew. And as we do ask ourselves again and again what is it that is motivating our words and actions. For King the motivation was always Love, which he saw as “stand[ing] at the center of the cosmos.”
Love requires us to put ourselves aside, it requires openness and vulnerability and sacrifice on a Christ-like scale. Love is not for the faint-of-heart because its power can change everything, even the most deep-seeded aspects of a culture and the way we deal with each other.
In concluding the letter King, draws parallels with Paul’s hymn to Love in I Corinthians 13. “So the greatest of all virtues is love. It is here that we find the true meaning of the Christian faith. This is at bottom the meaning of the cross. The great event on Calvary signifies more than a meaningless drama that took place on the stage of history. It is a telescope through which we look out into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking forth into time. It is an eternal reminder to a power-drunk generation that love is [the] most durable power in the world, and that it is at bottom the heartbeat of the moral cosmos. Only through achieving this love can you expect to matriculate into the university of eternal life.”
Come “home” this Sunday as we gather again to celebrate that Love offered to us simply for the asking. We will honor the memory and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. as we read the propers assigned for his Feast Day (April 4th) and remind ourselves of the power and promise of the “most durable power in the world.”
And may you never forget that you are loved,