Editor’s note: This is a sermon preached on Martin Luther King Sunday, 2016 in Torrington, CT
The other day, a local clergy person and some friends and I had lunch. We were talking about interim ministry, when she said “I’m one of those pastors who believes that we have one great sermon — one thing that we want the world to hear, that we approach from a bunch of different ways, but it’s the same sermon. If that’s true, this is that sermon, in its most primal form, with each of influences at its base. As it is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, I wanted to talk about King in all his aspects and what his life means to you, this congregation, in Torrington, today. I began humming a song by Harry Chapin and I knew how it fit together.
In a song that I want played at my own funeral, the late folksinger Harry Chapin sings, “I wonder what would happen to this world… if a man tried to take his time on earth, and prove — before he died — what one man’s life could be worth, I wonder what would happen to this world. And if a woman used a lifeline as something more than some man’s servant/mother/ wife time, Well, I wonder what would happen to this world?”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did just that. In his short span of time on this earth, he did incredible things. According to the King Center, “In the less than 13 years of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the modern American Civil Rights Movement, from December, 1955 until April 4, 1968, African Americans achieved more genuine progress toward racial equality in America than the previous 350 years had produced. Dr. King is widely regarded as America’s pre-eminent advocate of nonviolence and one of the greatest nonviolent leaders in world history. He was awarded at least fifty honorary degrees from various colleges and universities across the United States. In the years from 1957 to 1968, he would speak over 2,500 times at public events, traveling over six million miles. He also wrote five books to spread the message farther. He was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 14, 1964, the youngest person ever at the time. In short, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a multi-faceted person who did more with his life than just lead the March on Washington and preach “I have a dream”, though that would have been enough for most of us.
My kids can see clips of him giving speeches and sermons, but I am old enough to have seen him in “real life” on TV. Since then, I have seen his friends speak at different things — Andrew Young at the UCC’s “Faith Works” conference, and comedian Dick Gregory at a rally decrying nuclear power after Three Mile Island. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Jesse Jackson in person, but it doesn’t matter. First, Gregory and then Young, when they spoke, had that thing. That thing that says, “I’m serious”, that thing that says, “I believe what I am saying”, that thing that says, “You know it’s more than me speaking here”. When I saw Gregory speak, I thought to myself, “Bull Connor and all the fire hoses and dogs never stood a chance! Imagine coming down the street facing this guy… and Martin Luther King and Andrew Young… and Jesse Jackson… ”
I had my first call experience at about age 9, I think, though I wouldn’t remember it until 20 years later. After that, knew that I wanted to be GREAT. That is, I wanted to be remembered for something when I left the earth. At the time, I wanted to be famous, but I wanted to be famous in the same way as King — not famous because people knew who I was, but because I did something that was worthy of people knowing who I was. Then I saw Dick Gregory and I knew I wanted that thing — whatever it was. In seminary, and because I loved history, I sought to learn about great men that I was inspired by and maybe find out the secret to That Thing. I took years, of course, studying Jesus, and time studying Gandhi, because King had. Then I concentrated on Saint Francis in a semester-long class at BU, and Martin Luther King, in a course at the Harvard Divinity School. Years later, I would add therapist Virginia Satir to the mix, but her version of That Thing is more diffuse in some way.
What did I learn? Greatness requires love, absurdity, and strong faithfulness to an idea. Here’s what King, Gandhi, Francis — and yes, Harry — all had in common:
First, they loved. Jesus loved humanity, Francis loved Jesus and nature, Gandhi loved India, King loved America, Harry Chapin loved his wife and later the hungry.
They started with that and they took an idea of Jesus — just one verse is enough — and make sure you get one that people say, “Oh, he couldn’t have meant that. It must have been a metaphor. Gandhi “if your enemy hits your right cheek, offer him your left, as well”. For King, it was that, and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. For Francis, it was “take nothing but a cloak and a pair of sandals and preach the gospel”. For Harry, as far as I know, it wasn’t Biblical, necessarily, though he did attend an Episcopal church in New York City growing up. His saying was, “People shouldn’t go hungry”.
Then, with that one verse, or idea, you do it over and over and over. My life is different now, so I don’t necessarily want to be “great” as in “famous” at all. I have come to believe that any “great” I have is in the small things I have done for individuals, in visits, in prayers and so on.
In fact, to be life-changing and memorable (or great) is simply to have done “good” repeatedly. Luckily or sadly, depending on your point of view, society has lowered the bar, though. Now, if you care for others at all — if you do good at all — you stick out and people notice. If you have been good to your kids — a lot, with any kind of frequency — they will think you’re great. If you are good, frequently enough, to your community, they will think you’re great, and you will have changed their world.
To be legendary, and make it into the history books, you have to have that one verse of Jesus’, take it seriously, and pursue it with all due haste daily. In other words, to be That Great requires a an idea, a dream, and … God to keep you doing it every day. Once God is involved, you get that thing. and absolutely anything is possible to be done with your life time. Look what Jesus did in 3 years, Francis probably took 10, Gandhi a bit longer to transform India and hit the world stage. And King from 1954 to 1968, spoke 2,500 times and travelled six million miles. Harry, between 1972 or so and his death in 1980 changed the world as well. He was doing 200 shows per year and giving nearly half the profits to fight hunger by the time of his death.
Once the wildfire catches, God’s Spirit calls community to you to get things really moving. Jesus had the disciples, Francis had the 12 Friars minor, Gandhi has the ashram and people like Nehru, King had the people I mentioned. Harry had his family and friends, and later had a Congressional committee under President Carter for support of his ideas.
So here’s the one great idea that I have, that you will hear, in various forms in all of my sermons: you can change the world. You… and you and you and you. You have the resources. You have Jesus’ words, you have your lifetime, however long it is, and if you have God’s Spirit — THAT THING — in your life, there’s nothing you can’t do.
Now, you may say to yourself, “but I’m nobody, and I’ve done things I’m not proud of”. All of the people I have mentioned — all of them — have made mistakes (all except maybe Jesus.) Francis was in love with Claire from afar, scandalously romantic for his day. He was a soldier who killed people in the Crusades. Gandhi, if you’ve ever seen the movie, threw his wife into a wall. King had affairs that are well documented by the FBI, and Harry’s probably greatest success was a song about what he was doing wrong — not being with his kids.
All of these men were — in other words — human. The good these men did far outstrips things they might have done in their private lives. When we focus on those things, we get short-sighted and miss the point that God and history know — human beings like you and me — are capable of great things, despite their flaws, in relatively short periods of time.
This past week, much of America was talking about the Powerball — you know, “a dollar and a dream” — and we considered what we would do if we were ever so lucky. The people that I have mentioned had God and a dream, so luck had nothing to do with it, and they changed the world. With God, love and a dream, and later a community that support you, I wonder what would happen to this world. Amen.