Thoughts on MLK’s Birthday

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your
solemn assemblies…
Take away from me the noise of
your songs;
I will not listen to the melody
of your harps.
But let justice roll down like
and righteousness like an
everflowing stream.  

Amos 5: 21, 23-24

The distinguished twentieth century American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, once said that the Civil Rights Movement just might save the church from irrelevance. It certainly did that for me. It was fashionable in academic circles in the 1960’s to be critical of the church. “Organized Religion, the Institutional Church” was the object of derision and scorn by some scholars and students alike. (Parenthetically, after a lifetime in the church, I always smile to hear it referred to as “organized.”) In any event the church was the object of cynicism bordering on scorn by most the people I knew. And then something happened, or rather, someone happened.

One of my professors at the University of Chicago Divinity School announced in class that the guest preacher at Rockefeller Chapel the next Sunday was a remarkable young Baptist minister from Alabama. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. and, the professor told us, his combination of thoughtful scholarship – he had earned a Ph.D. from Boston University-, evangelical zeal, and passion for justice made him an unusually compelling preacher. He was one of the best preachers, the professor said, he had ever heard. So, curious, Sue and I went to worship at Rockefeller Chapel that Sunday morning and listened to a young Martin Luther King proclaim the gospel in a way we had never heard before. He did sound like an Old Testament prophet.

It precipitated an important transition in my thinking and a deeper sense of my vocation. The church mattered. The church was called by God to participate in the building of a better, more just, world. Ministry mattered. Clergy could lead and inspire and help the institutional church to change its own way of thinking.

A  generation of us watched Martin Luther King, and the Civil Rights Movement in the church and world with admiration, respect and no little fear. Clergy were beginning to demonstrate, commit civil disobedience, get arrested and go to jail. And through it all he opened all of us to a deeper, more profound sense of the possibilities of ministry in the “Institutional church”.

Every year on his birthday, I remember and offer a prayer of gratitude for his leadership, faithfulness, his ministry.

Dear God, we thank you for the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., for his courageous commitment to justice, equality and the dignity of every one of your children. We thank you for his dream of a nation and world where individuals are no longer judged by the color of their skin, but afforded equal opportunity, equal treatment. We thank you for his reminder that you intend the church to reflect on its own life, and to pray and work in its mission, for that new world of justice and kindness and compassion. Amen

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