Posted by: robertartemenko | December 31, 2014

Sermon on the Porch

Twenty-seven year old Mike took the bad news courageously and exited the January 30 evening board meeting. Told a bomb had exploded on his front porch, splintering glass and wood into street facing rooms, he arrived to see the gouge the dynamite had made in the concrete.  Hundreds packed the scene including police, fire, town officialdom and a crowd who felt as targeted by this evil as his wife and ten week old daughter residing at 309 South Jackson.

909 Jackson Avenue, Montgomery, AL, just after the January 30, 1956 bombing.

PAUSE … rewind to 16 months earlier.

Married a little over a year and still finishing his Ph.D. dissertation from BU, he had just become head pastor of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. Son, grandson, great-grandson, brother and nephew of southern preachers, with an “inescapable urge to serve society,” the position met important criteria. This congregation would appreciate the intellectual heft that would power his gospel message, an aspiration at best confusing to unimpressed undergrad professors who appraised his 2.48 GPA as “short of what might be called ‘good,'” It got him out of the northeast and closer to his Georgia roots. Lastly, while nearer home, it was not too close to Atlanta, giving him independence in his own larger pond, away from his beloved, but over-bearing, father.

His whole life, including the first 14 months of ministry at Montgomery preceding the explosion, he’d been aware of the flagrant racial divide in Alabama. Despite this, his countenance was one of secure hope. Surrounded by loving family and friends and ever more recognized for the beyond-his-years wisdom, his charisma was a light on a hill. He was settling in to a promising career in the ministry.

Then … history happened … Rosa Parks decided not to vacate her bus seat on December 1, 1955 … two-months later an explosion would rock this new pastor’s life … who could know or imagine?

But that evening of December 1st Rosa was tired, maybe sore in the neck from hemming ball gowns. She plopped down mid-bus, no issue to the driver serving her usual Court Square stop. A subsequent excess of white patrons along the route legally required her to stand. In prior situations, she would have… everyone did! These weren’t bus company rules or drivers with attitudes. This was just the enforcement of city ordinances, an accepted “right” way. Was this 1855 or 1955? No matter, too tired tonight … so, sO, SO tired tonight … go ahead and arrest me she thought … and then said … and they did … and they locked her up in a Montgomery cell.

So lets recap the recently minted Ph.D.’s involvement from this December 1, 1955 incident on the Court Square bus through to the bombing of his house sixty days later on January 30, 1956. Local black leaders had been hoping for a test case to challenge the Montgomery segregation laws with little to show for it. Not even a 1952 case where a police officer shot and killed a black patron arguing with a bus driver could be converted to the infamy required to compel a judge or spark reform. The Parks incident turned out to be a very different situation because she was dear to many in the community, including well-to-do influential Montgomerians for whom she had sewn and altered dresses. She was not just a seamstress, she was a network.

A 381 day public transportation boycott by blacks ensued with moves and counter-moves employed by would-be commuters vs. the bus company, retail owners, police, city officials. End result? Local business impact was considerable, black motivation and participation were robust, and a Rubicon was crossed unhinging the status quo. The mounting progress and momentum of the travel ban called for better and broader organization of the activists to secure gains, to plan follow-on tactics, cast visions, negotiate and otherwise kindle outcomes similar to the recent anti-segregation Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka ruling. If “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” and hence unconstitutional, what about transportation, employment and a sad long list of other “separatist” disenfranchisements.

Dexter Avenue Church’s twenty-six year old pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., was reluctantly elected to head the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) . This unexpected appointment Monday, December 4, 1955 was Act One, Scene One of a twelve year public drama of costly discipleship. Less than two months later, the scene that opened for him explosively on January 30, 1956, foreshadowed many such episodes in his heroic life, where a soul seeking God’s will encroached upon a world of metastasized evil. It would yield to his empowered urging, win him a Nobel Peace Prize, but take his life at age 39, though not before he irreversibly began toppling instruments of enmity.

PLAY … come forward to three days before the fateful January 30 bombing, late in the evening of January 27, 1956.

Montgomery white official’s reaction to Parks’ December 1st challenge of the status quo was swift and severe. A broad base of antagonism was provoked as black leaders rallied to create a beachhead. King, outspoken leader of the justness and timeliness of MIA’s cause, was a lightning rod for both white bureaucrats and all variety of zealots and kooks. As front man of this not-so-quiet coup he was the obvious target for threats and recriminations. Ignoring or rationalizing these attacks did little to blunt the impact on the psyche or a young man whose first 25 years of life by his own account were seemingly “wrapped up for me like a Christmas package.” Midnight January 27 found him in a sleepless daze at his kitchen table when one more of those persistent rings sounded, now numbering up to forty a day. “Nigger, we are tired of you and our mess now. And if you don’t get out of town in three days, we are going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

… The phone clicked, the caller hung up.

King thought, a precious infant daughter, my wife, my life, how do I make this stop without being a coward and derailing the advent of overdue corrections in such an evil cultural and moral divide? A crushing and inescapable dilemma tormented his soul. Go-to-relief from father, family and friends seemed not up to the menacing cords strangling his heart. He realized he needed to fortify himself with levels of faith and assurance he may have preached about, but had apparently not yet personally understood or activated. In the deepest crag, of the deepest valley of these inadequacies and anxieties came words of encouragement and direction. Conspicuously transforming the darkest moment of his life to the the most important. God spoke to him as an inner voice:

” ‘ 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 heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone, He promised never to leave me alone, never to leave me alone.’ ”

… These words clicked, he was at peace.

“Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.”

He went back to bed that night. The threats continued and came to pass, but he stood them. They were aimed and hit their target, but he was never alone . . . no . . . never alone. (See Hebrews 3:5, Deuteronomy 31:6, Joshua 1:7)

We are now caught up to the opening paragraph of this post, on about 9:45 pm, January 30, 1956, three days after the most important night of his life, and three days since the bomb threat. He left the regular Monday night Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting at Ralph Abernathy’s First Baptist Church, arriving at his house to hear the only news he was hoping for, that Coretta and Yoki, and a friend there to keep the them company were safe. Luckily the thump of the bomb hitting the porch and skittering foot falls spurred their retreat to a back bedroom before the blast.

A number of town leaders joined Dr. King at the house. Besides the Fire Chief R. L. Lampley was Montgomery Mayor W.A. Gayle, who had recently discontinued talks with the black MIA boycott which he said, referring to his town, was devolving to “the destruction of our social fabric.” Also present was police commissioner Clyde Sellers, newly inducted in the 1,200 strong White Citizens Council, a pro-segregation group with vague ties to the KKK.

While the bombing was likely the act of anti-integration extremists, their rage and aggression were not the only intense emotions in play at the scene. Racist bigotry and hate had elicited a counterpunch of pent-up frustration and indignation from the black community. This was further exacerbated in the moment by white police officers getting aggressive physically with King’s supporters and followers who they were working to disperse. Martin Luther pushed through the crowd toward his house and saw and heard disturbing things. Some blacks were armed.                                                                                                                                                                                           The assembled mass appeared resigned to confrontation. Unilateral non-violence seemed a self-defeating tactic, not so unfair as illogical and futile. Whether he was driven more by internal conviction or external contingency King approached the crowd. Without wise and graceful intervention, this would end badly and likely derail the movement.

SERMON ON THE PORCH

Now when Martin sensed this, he went up on the porch. His followers came to him,  and he addressed them.

MLK Jr. – “Let’s not become panicky.” [Matthew 6:25b, 35a -“I say to you, do not be worried about your life seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”]

MLK Jr. – “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence.  We must meet violence with nonviolence.  Remember the words of Jesus: ‘He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.'” [Matthew 5:21-22 – “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”] 

MLK Jr. – “Remember that is what God said.” [Matthew 5:18 / Matthew 7:24-25 – “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.   / Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.”]

MLK Jr. – “We must love our white brothers,” King continued, “no matter what they do to us.  We must make them know that we love them.  Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’  This is what must live by.  We must meet hate with love.” [Matthew 5:44-45a – “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven]

MLK Jr. – “Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance.  Go home and sleep calm.  Go home and don’t worry.  Be calm as I and my family are.  We are not hurt and remember that if anything happens to me, there will be others to take my place.” [Matthew 5:11-12 / Matthew 6:25a, 33 – “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. / “For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Though Dr. King was not the last to speak, his powerful direction to the crowd averted violence and cast a redemptive vision of the evening’s events and days to follow. Similar to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, while words were instructive and sewed understanding, it was a palpable Spirit of grace, truth and conviction that would redeem the moment. [Matthew 7:28-29 – “When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”]

Eleven months later on December 3, he told a crowd of 1,500 at the Holt Street Baptist Church that the goal of the MIA’s non-violent crusade was not to defeat the white man but to have him recognize and be convicted by his own false sense of superiority. King pointed out that “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of beloved community.”

WAR, RIGHT, WRONG AND THE WILL OF GOD

The three days from January 27th to the 30th, from the kitchen table epiphany after the phone threat to the bombing of his home, saw his resurrection from “Mike” the new preacher to “Martin Luther,” herald in God’s opening move to tear down a wall so toxic to national community. Many times in his remaining dozen years Dr. King would refer to God’s settling and strengthening his anxious heart over his undrunk cup of coffee the night of January 27. Unfortunately, constant reprises would be required to expunge blood from his brow.

His crusade for beloved community ultimately put him on course to be separated from it by an assassin’s bullet. His heart for the tyrannized and distressed open his vision to global issues, causing him to unpopularly expand the freedom march to include America’s involvement in the Vietnam war, a “standing up for righteousness,” that appeared to some to water-down the movement to eradicate the the South’s Jim Crow laws. After a few false starts, King was certain that this East Asia inclusion was well in bounds for a God that wished to eradicate all oppression. This seemingly counterproductive scope creep of God’s chosen harmonizes with Lincoln’s pressing for the Emancipation Proclamation, perturbing his Party and supporters who thought there was Union consensus on ending the Civil War without ending slavery. But, what appears unnecessary to men in pursuit of pragmatic ends, may become a necessity to fulfill God’s broader agenda. It is ironic that Lincoln would win a grand emancipation for the slaves in the 1860’s that would have reasonable men in the 1960’s wondering if the toll of 600,000 American dead had been in vain. Indeed, it was not – it was just not enough.

Though haunting and somewhat strange, Martin Luther King’s Last words give clarity to his life and calling. On the eve of his death he flew in the morning from Atlanta to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. He recounted in his last speech, less that 24 hours from James Earl Ray’s mortal wound to his right jaw, that his flight that day had to be cleared because of a bomb threat.

In closing his last speech he prophesied:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

LINCOLN CONNECTION

Similarly, Abraham Lincoln, engaged in a titanic struggle, was humbly resigned to its outcome being totally in God’s sovereign hand, and that that alignment with the divine was not an option, but a path to be sought as quickly and completely as wrong might be repented of and the right course charted.

The President’s notes of September, 1862, in writings referred to as “Meditations on the Divine Will,” laid out the sole dependency:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party — and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true — that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.”

Lincoln, like King, saw that beyond what either of them was personally striving for as heads of nations or movements, that “the will of God prevails.” Yes, resignation and submission of His people was required, but as objects as well as agents of this remediation, those embroiled in struggle needed to answer a call to actively participate, transform-from and conform-to in some fashion before peace would come. Ask Moses. Ask Jonah. As Joseph. Ask David. Ask George Washington … Ask King and Lincoln. You flow with God or shipwreck.

Lincoln put an exclamation point on this in March, 1863, joined by the Senate and House of Representatives:

“Whereas, the Senate of the United States devoutly recognizing the Supreme Authority and just Government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and of nations, has, by a resolution, requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and humiliation; and

“Whereas, it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history: that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord … ”

and also in July, 1864.

“That the President of the United States be requested to appoint a day for humiliation and prayer by the people of the United States… to convene at their usual places of worship, or wherever they may be, to confess and to repent of their manifold sins; to implore the compassion and forgiveness of the Almighty, that, if consistent with His will, the existing rebellion may be speedily suppressed and the supremacy of the Constitution and laws of the United States may be established throughout all the States; to implore Him, as the Supreme Ruler of the World, not to destroy us as a people, nor suffer us to be destroyed by the hostility or connivance of other nations or by obstinate adhesion to our own counsels, which may be in conflict with His eternal purposes, and to implore Him to enlighten the mind of the nation to know and do His will, humbly believing that it is in accordance with His will that our place should be maintained as a united people among the family of nations…”

National Days of Prayer proclaimed by earlier presidents had preceded these, and would continue, but the spirit of submission and humility has not repeated itself since WWII’s days of infamy.

CLOSE
We need to remember the “premise – promise” nature of God’s economy and relational model as we reflect on digging ourselves, our families, our communities and nation out of the darkest problems of the day. Going our own way alone will not work. We have to do it with God. And, the process is not just falling to our knees, recognizing and recoiling from our bad deeds and repenting. It’s about standing back-up for whatever God’s Way and God’s Will is.
It’s really not that mysterious.
Consider again Jesus encouragement to King on January 27, “‘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'”.
Without exception, God’s will is always about our seeking and standing-up for and promoting …
righteousness, justice and truth.
If we do that from our heart, from our own spirit, our soul, He will be with us …
no never, never leave us alone.
  • The PREMISE then, is that we are to seek His will at all times and in all trials.
  • His PROMISE is that in so doing, He will be with us and never never leave us.
Easy to say
Hard to do.
In fact, It’s a killer.
====================================================================================
References and Selected Bibliography
Abraham Lincoln Online Website, source for many documents, speeches and historical materials [http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/meditat.htm]
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Website, text of Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech in support of their affiliated sanitation workers in April, 1968 [http://www.afscme.org/union/history/mlk/ive-been-to-the-mountaintop-by-dr-martin-luther-king-jr]
American Presidency Project Website, Messages and Papers of the Presidents, [http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=69994]
Carson, Clayborne, The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., New York, Time Warner Books, 1998
Garrow, David J., Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, New York, First Perennial Classics, 2004
Hicks, Jonathan P. Hicks, “Black Entertainment Network Website, Commentary: Celebrating Rosa Parks Remarkable Contribution – and Courage,” [http://www.bet.com/news/national/2013/02/04/celebrating-rosa-parks-remarkable-contribution-and-courage.html]
Johnson, Robert E., “The Night Dr. King Saved the Lives of Two White Men,” Vol. 79, No. 14 – ‎Jet Magazine, January 21, 1991, p. 6-8
Mansfield, Stephen, Lincoln’s Battle with God: A Presidents Struggle with Faith and What it Meant to America, Nashville TN, Thomas Nelson, 2012
Marsh, Charles, From Church Budgets to Beloved Community: King in Montgomery, The Civil Rights Movement as Theological Drama, 2005, [http://archives.livedtheology.org/node/2375]

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