The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
Presented Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, by our minister, the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
Listen to a recording of "Living Good Friday and Easter with Martin
Luther King, Jr."
37:06 minutes - 14.9 MB - Living Good Friday and Easter with Martin Luther King, Jr. .mp3 file.
From the sermon: "3 Dimensions of a Complete Life." April 9, 1967:
As I come to my conclusion this morning, I want to say that we should search for him. We were made for God, and we will be restless until we find rest in him. (Oh yeah) And I say to you this morning that this is the personal faith that has kept me going. (Yes) I'm not worried about the future. You know, even on this race question, I'm not worried. I was down in Alabama the other day, and I started thinking about the state of Alabama where we worked so hard and may continue to elect the Wallaces. And down in my home state of Georgia, we have another sick governor by the name of Lester Maddox. (Yes) And all of these things can get you confused, but they don't worry me. (All right) Because the God that I worship is a God that has a way of saying even to kings and even to governors, "Be still, and know that I am God." And God has not yet turned over this universe to Lester Maddox and Lurleen Wallace. Somewhere I read, "The earth is the Lord's and the ullness thereof, and I'm going on because I have faith in Him. (Oh yeah) I do not know what the future holds, but I do know who holds the future. (Yes) And if He'll guide us and hold our hand, we'll go on in.
From King's God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Robert James "Be" Scofield in tikuun (2009) He claims his first choice of religious tradition was Unitarian Christian:
King had numerous opportunities to express his understanding of Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity with his many sermons, books, interviews, and writings. If at any point he changed his views and became an orthodox Christian, he might have at least once claimed that Jesus was his savior, the Bible was the literal word of God, or non-Christians would go to hell. But there are no statements either during his educational career or in his work as a civil rights leader and preacher that would suggest he ever changed his liberal views of the doctrines.
King's metaphysical and philosophical understanding of God and human nature did grow and develop while at Boston University, though his approach to the Christian doctrines remained constant. It should not be surprising then that while Dr. King served a Baptist church, his first choice of religion was Unitarian Christian (which later merged with Universalism).[xxxviii] Dr. King's liberal faith resonated with the dynamic Unitarian Christian tradition because of his acknowledgment of the truth in all religions, his view of Jesus as an exemplary teacher, and his rejection of biblical literalism. Coretta Scott had been attending Unitarian churches for years before she met and married Martin, and they both attended Unitarian services while in Boston. He ultimately faced the reality that he would probably not be able to play a role in the civil rights movement in this tradition and thus he became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, shortly thereafter being elected to lead the Montgomery bus boycott.[xxxix]
Easter Sunday this year just happens to fall on April 4, the very day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. So which one should we talk about and think about today in our Unitarian church? We should discuss Easter at least in some way even if we don't really celebrate it, but at the same time we don't want to forget that on this day of all days we should remember the life of this great American many of us are inspired by and regard as something like a hero. So Easter or Martin Luther King? This dilemma is really not a dilemma and not simply because we can talk about both Martin Luther King and Easter. It is not a dilemma because to talk about Martin Luther King theologically and spiritually-to discuss his theological beliefs that sustained him all the way up to his experience of his own Good Friday 42 years ago today-is to talk about Easter. My contention is that understanding what MLK believed about God, Jesus, the world, human beings, etc., is also to understand what he believed about Easter.
I don't know what is says about our culture today, but if you google Martin Luther King and Easter or MLK and resurrection you will be distressed to run into several articles that are not just critical of MLK but hateful toward him. These are written by evangelical Christians, both black and white, who call MLK a communist and a non-Christian. According to them, MLK spoke respectfully of other religions and denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus so MLK was no Christian. There are several sites out there on the internet to warn you against believing that this MLK was a real Christian. How could someone who doesn't even believe in Jesus' resurrection be a real Christian?
Now I don't want to shock you, but it is reasonable to believe that MLK did not actually believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus' body. MLK as you know had a lot of sophisticated education in theology, philosophy, biblical studies. He knew the Bible well and was familiar with historically-oriented biblical scholarship. He knew there were different resurrection accounts in the gospels and different accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection activities, what he did, to whom he spoke after the resurrection, etc. From the time he was a seminary student MLK expressed doubts about the historical veracity of these accounts and I am sure agreed with his teachers that these different Gospel accounts were faith narratives rather than purely historical narratives. MLK was no fundamentalist, evangelical Christian who put his faith in every single word of the good book. He applied his modern, rational mind to every single word of the good book, even to the resurrection accounts, and he doubted their historical veracity. He also understood what Christian fundamentalists do not understand. A religious person has faith in God and not in the historical veracity of biblical accounts.
That Martin Luther King opened his mind to historical critical biblical scholarship and liberal theology and philosophy does not mean that when you confront the life and the beliefs of MLK all that confronts you is rationalism, skepticism, and doubt. Far from it. What confronts all of us in the life, in the beliefs, even in the death of MLK is faith, deep, serious, religious faith, even what we might call the audacity of faith. This is why I say there is no dilemma between talking about Martin Luther King and talking about Easter. MLK doubted the historical veracity of biblical accounts of Jesus after his resurrection walking around and talking to people, but he did believe in Easter. He believed very seriously in a living God who would not let hate have the last say over Jesus' fate, who would not let the power of the Roman Empire have the last say over Jesus' fate. He believed that that was simply not the way God's world worked. That audacious faith enabled Martin Luther King to face every day the possibility of his own Good Friday until that day 42 years ago today when it happened.
I think Easter Sunday is a great time to remember and celebrate Martin Luther King. It gives us a chance to encounter a person we all respect, a person who doubts the historical veracity of the biblical accounts read at Easter, but also a person who takes Easter ultimately seriously and really believes in it, believes not in every literal word of ancient texts but believes in the power of a living God to have the ultimate say over history. Martin Luther King says to us on Easter Sunday don't look for Jesus in the tomb because God doesn't want him there. And I think he is a person of such audacious faith that he would also say to us: "I lived my life too as much as I could as a child of God so don't look for me in the tomb, either."
That is the audacity of this great man's faith that speaks to us at Easter. There is a lot of controversy about Martin Luther King's theology. It's not just the fundamentalists damning him to hell who question just exactly his theological beliefs are. Did MLK have a fully orthodox Christian theology? Did he believe in the incarnation? The Trinity? Did he believe that Jesus was the Son of God in an absolutely unique way that no one else has ever been or could be? The fact of the matter is, you can read all of his writings, books, sermons and speeches and still not really be able to answer these questions. He was not a theologian and answering these questions in a precise way is not his concern. He is a lot more concerned for sanitation workers and other ordinary people and for big social issues like social justice and racial integration and the war in Viet Nam than he is about these theological issues. Perhaps if he'd lived longer and had some years when he wasn't leading a mass movement he could have given himself the time to work out all these issues and hammer out his own complete theology that may or may not have been completely orthodox. But the hatred in our society did not permit him the time to do that so now so much later he still has hatred aimed at him by those who hate anyone who doesn't measure up to what they see as complete Christian orthodoxy.
Despite that fact, and despite the fact that it really is hard to determine some of his exact theological views, still Martin Luther King speaks to us with an audacious faith. Here's a person who knew and experienced hatred and violence constantly and knew that at any moment this hatred and violence may end his own life and even expected at some point that they would. Still he knew that hatred and violence are not godly, are never of God, and so can never ultimately be victorious. They might kill him but they wouldn't win in the end and that ultimately people of different colors and different races would live peacefully together because love, peace, and nonviolence are godly, are from God, and they will ultimately win. God will ultimately be victorious. This is the audacity of Martin Luther King's faith. This is for him what Easter is all about. God does not allow the ungodly forces in the world to put Jesus in the tomb forever. God does not allow anyone who has worked like Jesus for the cause of God's spirit of love and peace and justice to stay in the tomb forever. Jesus doesn't stay in the tomb. Gandhi doesn't stay in the tomb. Martin Luther King doesn't stay in the tomb.
That is an audacious faith we don't encounter much or talk about much in our church, but I don't think you can talk about MLK, remember him, honor him, without talking about that audacious faith, especially on Easter Sunday. We may not feel comfortable embracing the faith and the theology but I would be ashamed if we did not embrace the work, what Martin Luther King would call the godly work, of love and peace and justice. We know that there are people in our community and in our country who hate Obama just because he is a black man in the White House but we know we cannot hate people out of their prejudices. Nothing positive comes from hate. There are plenty of people in our community and country who somehow think that Americans are really the only people who matter and who don't really care how anything affects anyone anywhere else but that is not an attitude that comes from love and we have to oppose that narrow attitude with a broad, global perspective. We know there are plenty of people who think that being rich makes you a success and if you are rich you deserve it and if you are poor you probably deserve that too and who see now problem with the ever growing gap between the rich and the poor in our own country and the world. We know this attitude too is not godly and we have to oppose it and think and live very differently without hating the people who think like that. We know that thee are people who take great pride in our incredible military power and who support wholeheartedly the use of violence and the dropping of bombs even when they don't know exactly why or even where the country is that we are bombing. We know there are people who really believe violence and military might are really going to solve our problems, and we know that attitude is not godly, is not born of love and brotherhood and we know we need to oppose that too, but not out of hatred or arrogant superiority.
I think those of us who gather here in this church on Sundays and call ourselves Unitarians agree on all of this and agree to try to do this work and advance the attitudes and beliefs that do spring from love, peace, justice, brotherhood. Let everyone in this town think those Unitarians are a bit strange as long as they think we are strange because we care about other countries as much as we care about our own, because we welcome different types of people with different beliefs, because we don't support wars at least without questioning and debating the reasons. Martin Luther King says to us that the work we do is godly work and that those who are really committed to love, peace, justice, and brotherhood come to understand that these things are of God and that God does make these things victorious in the end. That is why Jesus does not stay in the tomb. That is what Martin Luther King says to us at Easter.
I know that is probably a lot for us to believe as we think about and celebrate in some way Easter. Most of us, perhaps none of us, has King's audacious faith. Some of us believe we shouldn't have it. We are, after all, Unitarians, and Martin Luther King was not exactly a Unitarian, even though he apparently did go to Unitarian churches. I cannot match or emulate his faith, but I don't know anyone whose faith I respect more than his. I'd certainly want us to be the kind of church he would be proud of. Let's let him have the last word on this Easter Sunday, his words about what a church should be, words that I hope will always describe what our church is:
The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If the church does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travellers at midnight.
. . . NLK (from A Knock at Midnight, 1963)
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.