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Sunday, April 8, 2018 | 4:00 p.m.
Remembering Dr. King 50 Years Later
Pastoral Resident, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Fifty years ago last Wednesday, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Exactly a year before his life was taken away from him too soon, he gave a speech at Riverside Church in New York City called “A Time to Break Silence” or “Beyond Vietnam.” Many of you may already know it; maybe some of you remember him giving it. Maybe you remember how his boldness had shifted and that many of his peers and colleagues warned him against speaking out because of the partnerships it would break. Yet Dr. King spoke out anyway. Hear these excerpts from his speech:
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join with you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statement of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
He continues on giving seven reasons why he is against the Vietnam War. He declares,
I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.
It was sending [the poor’s] sons and brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. . . . I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.
The giant triplets Dr. King names—racism, materialism, and militarism—intersected, are interwoven, and harm the structures and life of our society, and Dr. King names it loud and clear in 1967.
Dr. King’s words are bold—even bold for today. And what has changed since? What hasn’t? What still resonates today? Many say that this speech was one of the major reasons he was killed. As his message became more interconnected with the culture of white supremacy, a culture built on racism, materialism, and violence, as he organized against the Vietnam War, for the Poor People’s Campaign bringing together the poor and people of color, King became too threatening for the U.S. government. A more organized and ignited people grounded in love, liberation, and hope was too dangerous for the systems and institutions of society. And so he was killed. We can’t forget how radical, how bold his message was. We can’t leave his legacy sanitized and forgotten.
In the church, in relation to Jesus, we often ask, “Why did Jesus die?” instead of asking, “Why was Jesus killed?” We forget that Jesus was organizing a movement grounded in love, liberation, and hope. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, turning over tables in the temple, speaking truth to the leaders in power who heard the rumors of healings and miracles, it was too ungrounding for the structures of the Roman Empire in Palestine, so the Romans killed him.
But let us not forget also that we celebrated Easter last week. We celebrate Christ’s resurrection—the ultimate resistance to death and violence. We live in hope because Jesus’ spirit and truth and vision for our lives and our world was not snuffed out. He lives in and among us because nothing—no empire, no “ism,” no violence is more powerful than God’s love for us.
That spirit ignited the early church, and what we read in our Acts text today is an example of Jesus’ hope cut loose. Peter and John were under trial before the religious council, which, unsettled by the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, sought to silence these disciples. But Peter and John say, “We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
After released from the council, they go back to their community and pray the most focused, the hardest prayer of their lives. They were scared. How could they not be? They needed the risen Christ’s strength and power. They saw what happened to Jesus. They knew the risks. Many warned them to keep silent, but they couldn’t. They pray, “Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
It wasn’t enough to just have the strength to speak; they felt called to heal, to do wonders for their community. With their deep faith, with their profound hope, they were shaken, for the Holy Spirit filled their hearts and spoke the word of God with boldness in them, preparing them to also speak with boldness.
There’s this image Jesus uses as a metaphor for the kingdom of God that I love. Luke 13:18–19 reads, “[Jesus] said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”
I love this image because we wonder, how could a mustard seed become a tree and create a whole ecosystem where birds can live? Well, a mustard seed is a weed really, and weeds are resilient and have this amazing quality of finding their way in less-than-fertile-soil. With a combination of their efforts, the microbes in the ground, and sabbath for the soil, the topsoil actually becomes a fertile environment for less resilient plants to grow. They grow, trees grow, and before you know it, you have birds nesting, grasshoppers jumping, and worms wriggling.
Weeds—those dreaded plants we want to pluck from our gardens—are like the prophets of our history who spoke with boldness, undervalued and feared in their lifetime. They were taken from us too soon, but their boldness, their resilience, their hope helped create the fertile ground, the holy soil that God calls us to cultivate today.
When we remember the boldness of Jesus, the boldness of his disciples, the boldness of Dr. King, our work can seem daunting. But remember, just as God created this tiny little mustard seed with the wisdom that its growth could be part of collective healing in its ecosystem, God creates us. God loves us so deeply and so profoundly, that God trusts us to be bold. We pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us like the disciples to speak with boldness; we look for evidence of the resurrection among us to be part of this rising of hope and liberation.
Dr. King fifty-one years ago said in his observations of the communities around him that “perhaps a new spirit is rising among us.”In remembering him, especially this week, with the celebration of this Easter season, may a new spirit rise in us too. In the name of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.