Thursday, January 18, 2018

Listen Before Speaking: MLK Holiday 2018 and 1 Samuel 3:1-20

I offered the sermon at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Albany, NY, on the Sunday of what some consider the MLK Holiday Weekend, an expansion of the one day civic holiday to include opportunities for learning and service in the spirit of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Seeing that the Revised Common Lectionary readings suggested 1 Samuel 3:1-20 (aka "the call of Samuel"), I revisited key events in King's life where a sense of call was sensed and sometimes wrestled with by even Dr. King himself.  Here's the sermon:

The call of the prophet Samuel might strike you as “low key”. Many times, we think of God’s voice booming, yet here, God is subtle, drawing in the young man through a quiet calling out that at first leaves young Samuel thinking it’s the voice of his elderly mentor Eli.

When Eli sagely realizes Samuel is not just “hearing things”, he gives some advice: When God speaks again, say “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” It’s an unexpected moment, a call given as a “stage whisper” by the divine voice that could otherwise rumble across the heavens! Yet God works in a variety of ways, most often in ways we’re sometimes not subtle enough to catch onto!

The call of God can happen to anyone. God knows no partiality! We can be called to serve as pastors or missionaries or chaplains or all manner of church-related vocations. And indeed, God calls and gifts each believer for serving others through “secular” and “sacred” means. For a Christian believer, the “call of God” happens in a variety of ways and sometimes crystal clear and other times at first mostly opaque. Yet God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond? How do we hear God when times are so uncertain that it could be said, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (1 Samuel 3:1b)

In the summer of 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity officer of the American Baptist Convention (now ABC/USA) was seeking material for the “Life Service” Sunday. This was an initiative to encourage churches to place especial emphasis in Sunday worship on church vocations, most particularly the importance of people being called to ministry. The publicity office sought testimony and insight from notable people who epitomized a life lived in service to Christ and the Church. Joan Thatcher reached out to a minister with a rising profile in the late 1950s and certainly a good number of American Baptist connections. She sent a letter to Atlanta, asking Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asking him to write about his call to ministry. As part of her request to Dr King, Joan Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

Dr King wrote back:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry. (LINK:

These words about “call” were shared across the denomination as part of the 1960 Life Service initiative. We hear this word thanks to the careful archiving of the King Papers, held at Stanford University, and made available online for everyone to access. King is on our minds this weekend with the civic holiday and the various ways communities and organizations recall King’s legacy through celebration and times of service to others in need. We hear these words from 1959 with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what significance King would take on for the Civil Rights Movement, his greatest public speeches yet to be seared into the minds of generations yet to come.

Yet, in this moment of reflection, King recalls a shifting of vocations, uncertain until he was certain about his life’s pathway. It was not in the clarity of a singular moment. I am reminded of J├╝rgen Moltmann who looked back at his life and career as a theologian and observed, “The road emerged only as I walked it.” King came to the realization, yet it was not ultimately a one-time event that overwhelmed. Instead, he found his call to ministry “a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.” He had to hear it, live with it, perhaps run from it, and then embrace it, and as any pastor will admit, then keep embracing it through thick and thin (and there’s plenty of that, if you didn’t know already!).

The life of following Jesus, whether we are a pastor or lay person, a new Christian or a long time believer, is about being on that journey, even when it’s uncertain what will come next. We are gifted to serve Christ and the world in various ways, yet we also know we are not meant to have it “all together” (or if you think you must have it all together, may I give you this kind and liberating word that you do not have to be perfect to be part of God’s Kingdom-Reign)?

Certainly, our brother Martin was given a great call and endured much in his following of that call, yet he could also look back and see where there was a dynamic at work where gradually he came into what God called him to become for the church and most certainly matters of a nation’s soul. King was the son of another Baptist minister, Rev Martin Luther King, Sr. Some accounts recall “Daddy King” as resolute in his vision of his two sons, Martin and A.D., becoming pastors, joining him in the ministry of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He sent Martin at age 15 to the Morehouse College, a prestigious historic black college. (A PBS special next month will explore the HBCU. Similarly, the American Baptist Home Mission Society has a video recalling efforts to establish colleges and universities in the South with Morehouse itself named after a significant executive director of ABHMS, Dr. Henry Morehouse.)

Morehouse College was, as it is well known today, a fine school where King was challenged, especially as a younger than average undergraduate. He made it through his studies, and the time came as he said in his 1959 recollection, “I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry.” I note here that later this year, 2018 will mark the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, TN.

Such a moment will be a sad commemoration, yet it will be remembered because of the witness King had built up in the nation’s conscience. We know the “rest of the story” element of King’s life, yet I think again it is well worth noting another “50th anniversary”, remembering that in February 1948, King was sent forth from Ebenezer and his studies completed at Morehouse that may to become a seminary student at Crozer Seminary in September 1948. (Crozer would later close its Chesterfield, PA, school and merge in with Colgate Rochester, thus giving students and alums for years to come a bit of challenge trying to say their alma mater is “Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School” in one breath…) Such moments in a pastor’s life like an ordination service may get shuffled away in the hectic pace of ministry with its mix of sermons to write, meetings to attend, appointments to keep, yet I find recalling these “milestone moments” in my life as a pastor are helpful. Once heard, the call to preach is hard to shake loose.

Yet for King in 1959, he looked back at his vocational pathway, exploring other tracks of professional development, embracing the call, then living it out in the years since 1948. Over that next eleven year period, he would marry, start a family, earn a Ph.D, and be called to his first “solo” pastorate, Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery, Alabama. From there, King would become part of the Montgomery Bus boycott alongside Rosa Parks, help found activist groups, including what is now known as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He would become known increasingly around the United States, meeting with presidents and other national leaders. He would feature on the cover of TIME Magazine and publish his first book Stride Toward Freedom.

 Yet, that same time period, those years of “saying yes” to his call also came with the experience of unsettling anonymous calls and letters threatening violence. In late January 1958, King would be sleepless after a disturbing phone call. He found himself in prayer, “Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. 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've come to the point where I can't face it alone.”

In response, King recalls, It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world." I tell you I've seen the lightning flash. I've heard the thunder roar. I've felt sin breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced Him before. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. Three nights later, King’s home would be bombed. Mercifully, no one was hurt, yet he knew it could have been easily otherwise for his family. Remarkably, King would call for nonviolent response, even as the violence around him threatened to continue. [LINK:]

Flash forward to 1959 and he receives this correspondence from the American Baptist Convention. “Could you tell us about your call to ministry, Dr. King? What can you say to inspire especially our youth to explore God’s calling to ministry and mission?” Considering the long path from that initial call to preach, to the wrestling to accept it, to the affirmation and blessing of ordination to schooling and then to such a ministry as this, Dr. King could write of ministry as a call to be embraced and a pilgrimage he found himself on, not for his gain or glory, but to serve the God who called him to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community. What do you hear in this word today, whether it is taken from the call to a young child of ancient Israel or a 20th century Baptist whose legend and legacy may make us miss out on the man who struggled through the long haul and tumult?

How do we understand how to live and serve in difficult times in sore need of conscience, non-violence and a beloved community? Like Samuel, King was called to tell the people that the Lord was ready to bring a mighty word: “See, I am about to do something….that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle” (cf. I Samuel 3:11)

So I leave you with this troubling yet fruitful word: God calls. Will we know how to listen and respond?

(Most helpful for this sermon: the MLK chronology published by Stanford’s King Papers Project: