Monday, January 21, 2013

Infusion Rerun: Martin Luther King on preaching

This entry was originally posted January 17, 2011.

I still remember listening to tapes of MLK's sermons while driving across country. It was the first time I'd heard anything beyond the I Have a Dream or I've Been to the Mountaintop speeches.

It was so amazing to hear that voice again, saying things I had never heard him say before. As I listened to King's sermons, I felt like I was following him from church to church, hearing him tell some of the same stories and make the same points, but hearing new things, too. He definitely got better as he went along: his delivery was more polished and his message became deeper and more urgent, but without anxiety. More broken, too, in some ways, as you shall see.

This morning I thought it would be interesting to find out what King had to say about the ministry of preaching itself. And the King Papers Project turned up a treasure trove, let me tell you.

Take, for example, this outline King wrote for his first semester preaching course when he was a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. Prepare to be shocked by King's atrocious spelling and grammar, and blown away by how consistent his thinking is with what he eventually did.

Oh, heck, I'm just going to copy the whole last part:
I fell that preaching is one of the most vital needs of our society, if it is used correctly. There is a great paradox in preaching, on the one hand it may be very helpful and on the other it may be very pernicious. It is my opinion that sincerity is not enough for the preaching ministry. The minister must be both sincere and intelligent. To often do our ministers possess the former but not the latter. This, I think, is a serious problem facing the ministry.

I think that preaching should grow out of the experiences of the people. Therefore, I as a minister must know the problems of the people that I am pastoring. To often do educated minister leave the people lost in the fog of theological abstractions, rather than presenting that theology in the light of the people’s experiences. It is my conviction that the minister must somehow take profound theological and philosophical views and place them in a concrete framework. I must forever make the complex, the simple.

Above all I see the preaching ministry as a duel process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slumms, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the socal gospel.
One year later, notes on Preaching Problems That I Have Encountered. Problem number 1: "Difficulty in preaching on special days that appear in the Christian year." Oh, honey. I hear ya. But you're going to see much bigger difficulties than that.

Which leads us to his sermon delivered June 5, 1966: Guidelines for a Constructive Church. Beautiful, and still relevant, and much of it has to do with the ministry of preaching.

We remember King as a great orator and a great social activist, but it seems pretty clear from this sermon that in King's mind, those two things are married together: preaching is social activism. It's that "duel process" (I kind of like the misspelling, there) of changing souls and changing the world. And as I mentioned last week, words have a funny way of going out there and doing things, more than you might imagine.

I read this sermon and I hear 20 years worth of dueling, and it has taken its toll. When King talks about the broken-hearted, I am sure he includes himself among them.

I encourage you to read the whole thing, or listen to it. Here is a smattering, a far better way to end this entry than anything I could say.
And Sunday after Sunday, week after week, people come to God’s church with broken hearts. (Yes, sir) They need a word of hope. And the church has an answer—if it doesn't, it isn't a church. (Yes) The church must say in substance that broken-heartedness is a fact of life. Don’t try to escape when you come to that experience. Don't try to repress it. Don't end up in cynicism. Don't get mean when you come to that experience. (Make it plain) The church must say to men and woman that Good Friday (Yes, sir) is a fact of life. The church must say to people that failure is a fact of life...

But what religion does say is this: that if you have faith in God, (Yes) that God has the power (Yes, sir) to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain. So let not your heart be troubled. (No, sir) "If ye believe in God, ye believe also in me." Another voice rings out, "Come unto me, all ye that labor (Yes, sir, Yes) and are heavy laden." As if to say, "Come unto me, all ye that are burdened down. Come unto me, all ye that are frustrated. Come unto me, all ye with clouds of anxiety floating in your mental skies. Come unto me, all ye that are broke down. (Yes, sir) Come unto me, all ye that are heartbroken. (Yes) Come unto me, all ye that are laden with heavy ladens, and I will give you rest." And the rest that God gives (Yes) is the rest that passeth all understanding. (Yes it does) The world doesn't understand that kind of rest, because it’s a rest that makes it possible (Yes) for you to stand up amid outer storms, and yet you maintain inner calm. (Yes) If the church is true to its guidelines, (Yes) it heals the broken-hearted.

Secondly, when the church is true to its guidelines, it sets out to preach deliverance (Yes, sir) to them that are captive. (Yes, sir) This is the role of the church: to free people. This merely means to free those who are slaves. Now if you notice some churches, they never read this part. Some churches aren't concerned about freeing anybody. Some white churches (Make it plain) face the fact Sunday after Sunday that their members are slaves to prejudice, (Yes, sir) slaves to fear. You got a third of them, or a half of them or more, slaves to their prejudices. (Yes, sir) And the preacher does nothing to free them from their prejudice so often. (Make it plain, Yes) Then you have another group sitting up there who would really like to do something about racial injustice, but they are afraid of social, political, and economic reprisals, (Make it plain) so they end up silent. And the preacher never says anything to lift their souls and free them from that fear. (Make it plain) And so they end up captive. You know this often happens in the Negro church. (Yeah) You know, there are some Negro preachers that have never opened their mouths about the freedom movement. And not only have they not opened their mouths, they haven’t done anything about it. And every now and then you get a few members: (Make it plain) "They talk too much about civil rights in that church." (That’s right) I was talking with a preacher the other day and he said a few of his members were saying that. I said, "Don't pay any attention to them. (Make it plain) Because number one, the members didn't anoint you to preach. (Yeah) And any preacher who allows members to tell him what to preach isn't much of a preacher." (Amen)


And then the church, if it is true to its guidelines, must preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) You know the acceptable year of the Lord is the year that is acceptable to God because it fulfills the demands of his kingdom. Some people reading this passage feel that it’s talking about some period beyond history, (Make it plain) but I say to you this morning that the acceptable year of the Lord can be this year. (Yes) And the church is called to preach it.


These are our guidelines, and if we will only follow the guidelines, we will be ready for God’s kingdom, (Yes) we will be doing what God’s church is called to do. We won’t be a little social club. (Make it plain) We won’t be a little entertainment center. But we’ll be about the serious business (Yes) of bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe smiling and speaking to this church, saying, "You are a great church (Glory to God) because I was hungry and ye fed me. You are a great church because I was naked and ye clothed me. You are a great church because I was sick and ye visited me. You are a great church because I was in prison and ye gave me consolation by visiting me." (Yes, sir) And this is the church that’s going to save this world. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Yes) because he has anointed me to heal the broken-hearted, to set at liberty them that are captive, (Amen) and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."


Art Deco said...

Above all I see the preaching ministry as a duel process. On the one hand I must attempt to change the soul of individuals so that their societies may be changed. On the other I must attempt to change the societies so that the individual soul will have a change. Therefore, I must be concerned about unemployment, slumms, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the socal gospel.

He spent the last night of his life in the company of three different women. Bayard Rustin had to talk Norwegian constabulary out of arresting members of his traveling party cavorting with prostitutes when he went to collect his Nobel Peace Prize. You think the peculiarly intense problems with his individual soul were a function of social conditions?

LKT said...

Probably no more so than your perverse pleasure in trolling unimportant blogs like mine. Seriously, don't you have anything better to do? Sheesh! Get a life, dude.

Art Deco said...

1. I have no perverse pleasures. I occasionally look in at your site. If you do not want anyone to read what you write, you can take it down.

2. You post opinions and reflections, you get responses. Not all of them are 'affirming'.

3. Do you have an answer, or just maladroit insults?

4. The man had feet of clay. This was, according to his biographers distributed around his camarilla, though not implicating everyone. He was, in certain respects, highly abnormal among the men of his own life and times and, when you come right down to it, among those who came after. His bad behavior was not banal nor was it odd and episodic. The closest contemporary analogue might be Fr. Marciel Maciel, the founder of the Legionnaires of Christ. Perhaps the Legion or Regnum Christi are still publishing his remarks...

5. So, what kind of ministry was his? To what degree can 'social gospel' function as a distraction from the challenging day to day discipline of living?

LKT said...

I am giving you the benefit of the doubt, here, that you do not realize that you are a troll and may not even know what trolling is.

A troll is "someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community in order to provoke an emotional response."

That fits your comment to a T. This is not about an affirming response. It's about saying something that is actually, you know, useful.

By my lights, you are trolling. Therefore, your question deserves no response. My blog, my rules. Trolling is not welcome. Bu-bye.

Art Deco said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.