After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, the prominent Jewish philosopher and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel said this of him: “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us…his mission is sacred…I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way. The whole future of America will depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”One of Heschel’s most popular writings is simply called “The Prophets.” In this work he says that A prophet is someone who can feel the feelings of God and the feelings of humanity.In Martin Luther King Jr. we have certainly seen a modern day prophet. He felt deeply God’s pain and God’s joy as well as the pain and joy of his people. And he came to see “his people” as eventually including all people. His witness remains as powerful and relevant today as it was 40 and 50 years ago. It remains to be seen how his influence will shape the future of America.
A prophet has a deep sense of calling. A sense that their life purpose and what they have to offer the world is coming from a power far beyond themselves. Given that prophets are speaking against the grain of society, this calling provides an internal sense of rootedness in solid ground in the midst of storms of criticism and resistance and hatred.
The prophet Jeremiah is said to have received this calling at a young age. It is described this way in Jeremiah 1:4-10.
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not say, I am only a boy: for you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth: and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.’”
The calling of Jeremiah — one who would be a voice for justice and hope through one of the most difficult periods of Israel’s history, the capture of Jerusalem and exile of the people into Babylon.
Martin Luther King experienced a calling early on in his ministry. Like Jeremiah he was quite young when he became a public figure. At the age of 26, Dr. King was fresh out of graduate school, beginning as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama, and was asked to be president of the organization spearheading the bus boycott in town. Rosa Parks had already taken the symbolic action of refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger and as the movement gained momentum there was a backlash from some members of the white community. King received a number of threatening phone calls to his house, telling him to leave town or else. One night, he received a particularly hate-filled call and couldn’t go back to sleep. This is how he describes that night:
“I hung up but I could not sleep . . . I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had almost gone, I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud: ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. . .I can’t face it alone.’
“At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced God. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for righteousness; stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm. Three nights later, our home was bombed.”
(Written on kitchen wall of display in Civil Right Museum, Atlanta, GA) – Do not read
Fortunately King and his family were out of the home at the time and no one was physically harmed. This kitchen experience of calling, ‘stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth,’ these simple words, felt deeply, sustained King in the years ahead, much like Jeremiah’s calling sustained him throughout his life.
A prophet feels a sense of calling from the Lord, but is often critical of how God’s name gets misused and how religion often serves to uphold the status quo, rather than challenge it. Prophets speak out against religion that fosters apathy. Maybe it’s too focused on getting into the right spot in the afterlife. Maybe it’s just lost touch with the real needs of the world and keeps it’s members in a kind of stupor, comforted enough to keep on living, but dulled enough to remain separate from the pain of others. The prophets remind us that true religion is not about going through the motions of ceremony, but about being propelled to daily go through the motions of compassion.
The prophet Amos lived in Israel during a time when some members of society were experiencing extreme abundance at the expense of those in poverty who had little power. He took time out from his day job of herding sheep to speak against this kind of dangerous religion. Amos 5:21-24 says this:
“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice role down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
King often quoted this last line from Amos. He lamented a church that had become complacent with the world as it was. In the spring of 1963, King sat in solitary confinement in a jail in Birmingham, Alabama, arrested for marching in a demonstration that local courts had deemed illegal. The goal of the marchers was to desegregate the business sector of the city. King and others were criticized by local moderate white clergy who felt that the demonstration was asking for too much too fast. King wrote back to these clergy in what has come to be called Letter From Birmingham Jail. In part of the letter, King laments the lack of support of the white church as they “remain (ed) silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” He goes on to write this:
“In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson, and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”
Like the prophet Amos, Martin Luther King Jr. called on religion to be a mighty flowing stream of righteousness instead of a stagnant pool of numbness.
A prophet feels a deep sense of calling, laments the unfaithfulness of religion and society to be what God desires it to be, but also provides a vision for how the world could be, for what God wills in the world. Throughout the book of the prophet Isaiah, a number of such visions are given. Isaiah sees nations beating their swords into plowshares: instruments of war being turned into instruments of harvest and abundance. He also sees all of the skies and the earth being renewed. From Isaiah chapter 65:
“For I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating: for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight…no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.”
King is probably most famous for his dream of racial harmony that he shared with the American people during the March on Washington in 1963. He also spoke often of the Beloved Community, a global vision where racism, poverty and militarism were no longer tolerated and people lived together in respectful relationships. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, he gave an address in Riverside Church in NY City against the war in Vietnam. In that address he also spoke of a positive vision for the world:
“This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all humanity… When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life…”
It is fairly easy to praise King. He was a remarkable man. But it would be a disservice to what he stood for to merely marvel at his profound words or be in awe of his witness. Unfortunately, this is in large part what our nation has done with him. As a way of bringing this reflection to a focus, I would like to read the poem printed on the back of your bulletins, by Carl Wendell Hines: Now that he is safely dead
Let us praise him
build monuments to his glory
sing hosannas to his name.
Dead men make
such convenient heroes: They
to challenge the images
we would fashion from their lives.
it is easier to build monuments
than to make a better world.Carl Wendell HinesFor us to be true to the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., we must see ourselves as somehow a continuation of his witness. Which means we must believe ourselves to be a living thread in the prophetic witness going all the way back to the Hebrew prophets and up through our time. We must be witnesses to the reality that everyone in the world is our neighbor, that extreme poverty will not be tolerated, that we live lives of stewardship that do not destroy our fragile earth. After the service today we will be looking over the proposal for a new CMF covenant. And in closing I would just highlight here one of the lines in the covenant: “As Mennonites we are committed to bringing peace, justice, and reconciliation and the Good News to each other and to the world around us.” I believe this provides an excellent summary of what it means for us to be a prophetic community. To be faithful to this prophetic calling, we must learn all the more to feel the feelings of God. God’s joy and God’s pain. And we must learn all the more to feel the feelings of humanity with its joy and pain. Please join me now in reading this response printed in your bulletin and please stand.Congregational ResponseLeader: In the small, nearly invisible things that we do, may we join with the prophets in compassion for all of life.People: In the large, public things that we do, may we join with the prophets in a desire for righteousness.Leader: Like Jeremiah, may we hear God’s call.People: Like Amos, may we strive for a religion of justice and peace.Leader: Like Isaiah, may we see new possibilities emerging out of the old.All: Like Martin Luther King Jr. and the prophets of our day, may we be so filled with the Holy Spirit that our words and deeds become a living witness to the all-embracing love of God.Response Song “Lift every voice and sing”