First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, January 15, 2023)
Rev. Dr. Mouris A. Yousef, Pastor
“A Ministry of Reconciliation!”
Exodus 3:1-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Much can be said about Martin Luther King, Jr. My first real introduction to the theology and ethics of Dr. King happened over 20 years ago during my years as a grad student at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. I almost took every single course that both New Brunswick and Princeton Seminaries offered on King’s theology and spirituality and I ended up writing my Masters dissertation on King as well. My love and passion for King continued in the following years as I kept reflecting on his life and thought resulting in writing this book titled, “A Prophet from the South: Theology and Ethics of Martin Luther King”, that was published in October 2021. The book introduces King to the Arabic-speaking world in general and to the Christian community in Egypt in particular.
What would be the message for us today as we reflect on Dr. King’s life and ministry? Two things that I would like to underscore this morning as our nation celebrates and observes Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day tomorrow, Monday, January 16th.
First: The Importance of Spiritual Grounding
One of the most important – and often overlooked – moments of the Dr. King’s life was his midnight “kitchen table experience” in 1956. King was 27 years old and in his second year as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had been helping lead the city bus boycott, which brought an ongoing barrage of death threats at his house, mail and phone. Some days, there were as many as 30 to 40 calls, often in the evening, trying to force him to return back to Atlanta.
King would just lay down the phone and, if at night, go back to bed. But one call, around midnight on January 27, 1956, became pivotal for him. While his wife, Coretta, and their infant daughter slept nearby, the caller, a man, said, “N-----, we’re tired of your mess. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow up your house and blow your brains out.”
Shaken more than usual, King, as later recounted, went to their small kitchen, made a pot of coffee, buried his face in his hands, and prayed aloud: “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right … But I am afraid … I must confess … I’m losing my courage.” At this moment, King, in his own words, said, “I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for truth. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. I will be at your side.’”
His fear quieted at that moment and left him, though never the threats. A bomb blew up on the front steps of his home three evenings later. Fortunately, despite the wreckage, no one was injured. From the damaged porch, King called his gathered supporters out of their anger, and into nonviolence and love for their enemies.
Well, what we can take from King’s “kitchen table experience” is the importance of spiritual grounding to move onward in the hard, sometimes perilous struggle for justice, allowing no fear to detour our journey forward. Spiritual grounding is essential. Deep personal spiritual anchoring matters. No wonder that the story of liberating the Hebrews from the hands of Pharoah played an important role and carried a special message to the African American community. If we lack this spiritual dimension, our striving for justice will be short-lived and yanked away by distraction or fear of societal disapproval, retaliation, physical danger, financial insecurity, and so on.
Second: The Impact of a Dedicated Life
As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.,s Day tomorrow, we also get to remember the impact of a dedicated life. On February 4th, 1968, just two months before his assassination, King prophetically spoke about the impact of a dedicated life. In a sermon titled, “Drum Major Instinct”, King imagined his own funeral and urged his congregation not to dwell on his life’s achievements, but to remember him as one who tried to give his life serving others.”
In his sermon he said, “Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator – something we call death. We all think about it and every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think about it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself what it is that I would want said and I leave the word to you this morning. If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy tell him not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want him to say.”
King continued, “Tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize – that isn’t important. Tell not to mention that I have 300 or 400 other awards – that’s not important. Tell him not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe the naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. Yes, if you want to, say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.
And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that is all I want to say. If I can help somebody as I pass along, if I can cheer somebody with a well song, if I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong, then my living will not be in vain.”
Friends, I truly believe that King’s life and ministry can be captured in the title of our sermon today. It was a ministry of reconciliation. King invested his life trying to both reconcile humans to their fellow humans and to their Creator, to God. He strived to reconcile God’s reality with today’s reality. King’s faith in a God who is active in history, a God who isn’t done with our world, was instrumental and foundational to the civil rights movement. In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul tells us that our mission and ministry of reconciliation is not done yet. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation … And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” Followers of Christ, may we never grow weary carrying this ministry of reconciliation inspired by wonderful people who have gone ahead of us like Dr. King. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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