The Rev. Michael F. Thurman: “Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Prophet for Our Times”
It is indeed a high honor to be here with you at the National Cathedral. I wish to extend a heart-felt thanks to Dean Baxter for the invitation to be your guest today. Why? Because our nation is preparing to celebrate the national holiday in memory of our slain leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Therefore, I am most honored to be in your presence today. I am also honored to be in your presence today because in exactly six days your city will lead the nation in the inaugural celebrations of our nation’s forty-third president. This is indeed a call for healing, as our nation must prepare to move forward for the good of the common wealth of all mankind.
In our text this morning (Ex. 3:7—12), we have before us the actual making of a prophet. Although there is much debate over whether Moses was a prophet or not, there are scholars who consider Moses as one of the prophets of old. What we have been privy to in the life and works of Martin Luther King, Jr., is to get a glimpse of God at work in the making of a prophet in the here and now. Seemingly right before our eyes, we have witnessed God in the very act of developing a prophet for times such as these.
As I reflect upon the contributions made by Dr. King, I am immediately confronted with the question, What would America look like today had it not been for Dr. King and the countless thousands of grassroots civil rights protesters who took to the streets in mass protest, pushed to their limits of tolerance by the forces of injustice and socio-inequality? Is it possible that America could still be a nation known around the globe for its cruel and dehumanizing legal segregation? To state it another way, could America have looked in the year 2001 as it did in 1954, prior to the Montgomery Bus Boycott and prior to the historical case of Brown vs. Board of Education? That is indeed a troubling question! It brings to mind another very troubling thought, that man left to himself will continue his destructive behaviors until external forces are applied to bring about change. History is filled with accounts of revolutions in which the disenfranchised, tired of being trampled upon, rose to the moment and brought about positive change both for themselves and ironically for the larger society as well.
Somehow, through the infinite wisdom of the Creator, the forces necessary to bring about positive change met in the crucible of possibilities, the mortar of probability, and the pestle of hope begin to mesh and pound away at the previously thought impenetrable substances of injustice. It is certainly no accident that as King had experienced success in Montgomery that Judge Frank M. Johnson would decide a number of civil rights cases presented before him. It is no accident that as the SCLC movement continued to apply pressure for the demise of Jim Crow Laws nationally, that Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, and later launched the Great Society programs, which were governmental initiatives to ensure justice and equality for all Americans irrespective of race, class, sex and creed.
These are great events in and of themselves, and they must be recorded in history, but they can never be fully explained by history alone. The role of history is accurately to record these events and to make some interpretations regarding the events and their meaning in the larger scheme of things. Thus it is to evaluate a series of micro events and then to apply various skills of hermeneutics and to wherever possible link these events so that we might view them from a macro perspective. But that it is the limit of history’s ability. The role then shifts to the community of faith to do its own investigation, to see through a different pair of lenses, and to view the series of seemingly isolated events in order to arrive at the larger macro perspective with yet another viewpoint. The community of faith must view and interpret these events from the perspective that God is busy and active in human history bringing to fruition his will and purpose, thus the view from the supra-historical perspective.
As we reflect upon the mission and purpose of Martin Luther King, Jr., we must necessarily begin to view him not as just a great social reformer; not as just a great organizer of people; not as just a great orator, but as God’s agent called to stand and deliver a moral challenge to a nation, which had gone morally askew in its unjust treatment of an entire race of people. Dr. King was called to be one of the very mouthpieces of God! In the letter to the Hebrews we are reminded that “at various times, God has spoken to us through the prophets.” It seems as if Dr. King belonged to that tradition of the Old Testament prophets, having been charged with a searing message of repentance and restoration for this modern nation. In Deacon John Feagin’s now famous mural in the basement of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Dr. King is portrayed in a very powerful and towering image of him in his pulpit robe, as a reminder that King was first and foremost an agent of the church.
The response of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the call of God in his life is indeed indicative of the fact that God heard the cry of his children who had been in bondage for nearly three hundred and fifty years. In our text the Lord tells Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt, I have heard them crying out.” This is good news for it says to us that God is sensitive to the pain of humanity. Martin’s was a life spent in an attempt to alleviate the painful scars left on the psyche of this nation from the evils of segregation. He was so thoroughly convinced of this need that he once said: “If physical death is the price I must pay to free my brothers and sisters from the permanent death of the spirit, then nothing could be more redemptive.”
His consciousness to the heart-felt cry of the African American community was awakened when as child he was prohibited from enjoying the rides at a public amusement park and refused service from other businesses and establishments because of the color of his skin. Refused and omitted for no other crime except being black. So, much like Moses, having felt a strong connection to a Hebrew slave slain by an Egyptian solider, King’s consciousness to injustice was awaken. Striking resemblances in the making of a prophet.
In our modern world, we have become so insensitive to the evil and pain. We have relegated outrage to the special interests groups that lobby for the politicians’ nod of support indicating that he/she will adopt it as a pet project, and occasionally to some church leader who dares to break the circle of silence and become a lone wolf in a fight in which the odds are against winning. But nevertheless the church has the responsibility to cry foul whenever humanity drifts too far askew. No, this is not a popular stance, but morality is not always popular. The call to faith is not a call to luxury but rather it is a call to a roughed journey. The Apostle Paul would say much later, “I die daily,” as he describes the rigors of the Christian life. Dr. King would state it this way: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where a man stands during comforts and conveniences, but rather where he stands during challenges and controversy.”
In our text, upon acknowledging the pain caused by evil, God responds by sending Moses. The text brings it out beautifully “So now, go!” God sent Moses! It suggests that God responds to the outbursts and cries of humanity. It suggests that God takes an active role in the affairs of mankind. As God responded to the expressed needs of Israel, so now God heard the pain and saw the great disparity of evil in America and he sent Martin to be a spokesperson for justice. And in the vernacular of the eighth-century prophet Amos, Martin too called for “justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” When God sends a prophet he equips him/her to address peculiar situations, which effect the present times. Therefore the message is an abidingly relevant one as it is thus one synchronized with the very heartbeat and voice of God.
As all prophets must deal with their own sense of inadequacy to face the giant task before them, Moses asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Martin dealt with his own feelings of inadequacy as recorded in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, just minutes before the first mass meeting:
“I was almost overcome, obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy…
With nothing left but faith in a power whose matchless strength
Stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature,
I turned to God in prayer. My words were brief and simple, asking
God to restore my balance and to be with me in a time when I needed
His guidance more than ever.”
The only assurance that these great prophets of God had was that God would be with them. In Moses’ case, the text says, “And God said I will be with you.” What powerful word of promise for one commissioned to be God’s agent. The above statement by Dr. King allows us a glimpse as to his belief that God would indeed see him through.
In closing, we must not only see Martin Luther King, Jr., as a great leader, as an organizer of people and organizations, as a great man, but as an instrument in the mighty hand of God, whom God used to change the course of history. The words of John of Salisbury recorded on the inside cover of the brochure of Christian martyrs of the twentieth century, which commemorates the ten new statues of the west front of Westminster Abbey, sums it up well:
“Whoever he be that is willing to suffer for his faith,
Whether he be little lad or man grown, Jew or Gentile,
Christian or Infidel, man or woman it matters not at all:
Who dies for justice dies a martyr, a defender of the
Cause of Christ.”
May the grace of God rest with you all and may the spirit of Dr. King continue to echo in your hearts as you are provided opportunities to stand for justice. Amen.