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Jan 26 2017

Sticking With Love

I've decided to stick with love . . . Hate is too great a burden to bear. - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bonnie Hill’s marvelous bulletin board in our lower lobby offers us the visage and powerful words of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the month when we celebrate his birthday. Dr. King was not just God’s gift to America, but also a divine gift to the church. His proclamation of the gospel and his willingness to follow Christ – all the way to the cross – provide inspiration for our spirits and light for the path that opens before us. Martin made the self-giving love of Jesus real as something that we practice in the world, rather than a concept to be philosophized or a “heavenly” promise we sing hymns about but wait until the last day to receive.

In the final years of his life, the man from Atlanta made the arduous journey from being the inspired orator of the March on Washington, whose work seemed to culminate in the National Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act, to becoming an increasingly lonely prophet who dared to show the nation the true differences between dream and nightmare. His fidelity to Jesus, in word and in deed, ripped the cover off what Dr. King called the “unholy trinity” of poverty, racism, and militarism, making visible the precious human lives crushed beneath these powers. King spoke prophetically to the church he loved about our role in the way of deliverance.

At the time of his death in 1968, MLK and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were organizing the Poor People’s Campaign. King called for a kind of Marshall Plan to address the stunning levels of poverty in America. This would include an Economic Bill of Rights, increased construction of affordable housing, and significant resources to improve public education in impoverished communities. The critical need for adequate health care for all was something Martin wanted to address five decades ago. He called us to a “revolution of values”.

The Poor People’s Campaign would be a mass movement made up of people of all races and geographical areas, giving voice and expression to concrete needs and struggles. Critical choices would be magnified. The nonviolent, assertive nature of the campaign would image Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (with particular attention to Matthew 5:38-42). In the manner of Jesus, the movement would incarnationally set the ways of life and death next to each other with the invitation: Choose life. Nothing less than the soul of America as at stake, he said.

The man who grew up as the son of a Baptist preacher never ceased being a pastor himself. He died in Memphis as he accompanied mistreated garbage workers. When his own aides complained that he was too busy for this kind of accompaniment, Dr. King replied that these were exactly the kind of folk on whose behalf they were serving.

When Dr. King declared “I’ve decided to stick with love . . . ” it was a commitment that had been tested again and again. That’s what followers of Jesus do: we make a life decision to “stick with love”, to learn what it can be, to celebrate it as God’s saving power in the world.

King showed us, for instance, that loving our enemies is not pie in the sky, but a practical reality that makes the reach of God’s love complete:

“We must be able to stand before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force . . .we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you . . . But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” [1]

Like Jesus before him, Martin wasn’t going to leave anyone out.

I always have mixed feelings at the time of Martin Luther King Day. It is as though the holiday is a sentimentalized version of “I Have a Dream,” rather than the celebration of a God-given life that encourages each of us. Poet Carl Wendell Himes, Jr. reminds us that “it is easier to build monuments than to make a better world.” [2] It is the latter that beckons us to our best selves. I don’t think of Dr. King’s life as “exceptional” so much as it is a powerful example of what is possible in each of our lives. Perhaps 2017 is the year that many of us can behold him not just as a “Civil Rights leader” but as Pastor and Prophet to all of God’s people. His truth and leadership have never been more relevant than they are today.

Sticking with love,

Scott

[1] King Jr., Martin Luther, “A Christmas Sermon for Peace”, Dec 24, 1967.
[2] Himes, Carl Wendell, Jr., “Now That He is Safely Dead”, Drum Major for a Dream: Thompson, CT: InterCulture Associates, 1977. p. 23.
Washington, James M. (Ed.) A Testament of Hope. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986, pp. 256-257.

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