As we celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we will examine his life of non-violent action that protested a culture and system that devalued the lives of Black Americans and consider how we are called to a life of love that stands up to injustice. As Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Let us drive out darkness and hate with God’s light and love.
1 Corinthians 13: 1-2
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
This week, we continue our sermon series on: “Love Is/Love is Not” with the first two verses in First Corinthians 13. This weekend, we also celebrate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
For our opening hymn, we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a reminder that the struggle for equality and justice for all Americans continues still today. This song was first performed in 1900, over 100 years ago, the words written by James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson. These two black men later contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, and James served as the first black Executive Secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
For those of you who don’t know, in 1919, the NAACP dubbed this song “The Black National Anthem” for its power in voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people. So we sing it today, remembering its history, our history, and the work we still need to do for every voice to truly be lifted up, heard, and honored the way God intended.
And so, it is fitting that a sermon series on love would dovetail together with MLK weekend in such a way. See, Dr. King’s life, his ministry, his resistance was rooted in love. And he truly believed and embodied these verses read aloud this morning.
He knew that even if he had all the eloquence of mortals and angels (which, quite frankly, he did) but did not have love, he would just be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. He knew that even if he were the prophet of and for his time, which many would argue he was, but did not have love, it would all be for nothing. Inspired by his Christian roots and by Mahatma Ghandi’s life and work, Dr. King chose to protest an unjust system through peaceful, nonviolent action.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Dr. King understood why people would resort to violence. He understood why those who were oppressed would harbor hate and resentment towards their oppressors. In a 60 Minutes interview from 1966, he said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He knew, intimately, the frustration, the pain, and the anger that could lead to violence and to rioting. He met with Malcolm X; he had people on his own counsel who couldn’t to march with him because they didn’t think they could uphold the nonviolence he called for.
But Martin Luther King, Jr. chose a different way, the way of love, the way of peace and nonviolence.
Now, that did not mean inaction; it did not mean we’d all hold hands and pretend everything was fine when it wasn’t. It didn’t mean he would simply accept injustices, gloss over wrongs, or be pacified into accepting the way things are or even waiting until a “better” or “later” time to call out the country’s ills.
But it did mean that he would not harbor hate or violence and spread vitriol as he did the work of justice. In fact, he lifts up five central understandings of the path of love and nonviolence that he chose:
Dr. King really emphasized this, that no one person was the embodiment of evil. But, rather, that they were caught in these webs of injustice and were unwilling to free themselves because of the lure of power and privilege… because they did not realize that (as he did that), “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” He knew that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly, ” and he sought to help others see that, too.
This method he chose is summed up in an often quoted line of King’s:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
So he chose the way of light and love.
But I think because of that, we sometimes we paint this safe, rosy picture of Dr. King: the pacifist, the dreamer, the martyr, revising history and forgetting that King did have a dream, but he fought for it, struggling to turn that dream into a reality until his dying day.
The photo of him on our bulletin cover this morning, not the pretty one that wraps the bulletin, but the grainy mugshot tucked away inside, is a reminder of how hard he fought and spoke out against unjust laws and broken systems. It’s the mugshot from his first arrest which would not be his last.
For King, love is not passive. Love is not accepting the world and people just as they are. Love is action; love is resistance and challenge. Love is loving the world and the people in it enough to expect more from them. Love is radical and revolutionary, and it is the only thing that can impact true and lasting change in this world.
And that is what we are called to do this day: to live a life of love. The problem is, this is so much easier said than done.
Back in July, Colleen Weems, a member of this congregation and spouse to John Weems shared her own personal struggle with this, confessing that she realized, she’d been reading Dr. King “all wrong, all this time.” Referencing the MLK quote that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, and hate cannot drive out hate…” she says, “Beautiful, right? I love it. But I’ve been doing it wrong. I’ve been reading it allllllll this time, and thinking, “Yeah, take that, idiots on the other side. I love love and you morons are screwing it up and securing your place on the wrong side of history. Me and Martin Luther King, Jr. are right again!”
If you weren’t at church the Sunday she shared this from her blog the Fulcrum Chronicles, I invite you to go back and listen to the service online from July 10th. She’s honest and funny and real about how hard it actually is to live this way. And she commits herself to a “remodel,” as she calls it, to allow God to change and transform her, to make new spaces within her that are truly loving and for the accepting and entertaining of “friends and strangers.”
That initial commitment, that awakening that we just may have been doing it all wrong is necessary for transformation. It spurs us to another way, encourages us to reset, to remodel, to re-turn to God and God’s way.
But oftentimes, even after we’ve woken to this new way of being, things can hold us back, can’t they?
There never seems to be quite enough time to make room for love. Or, if we find moments here and there, maybe we’re just too tired, or in that particular moment just a little too angry and cynical to make that jump to love.
And sometimes, even when all the conditions are right, we’re well-rested, feeling positive, and pumped up from a great Sunday worship, fear takes over. Fear of being judged, fear of coming across like a hypocrite, fear that what we say or do might cause offense; fear that, in the end, we won’t be capable of that kind of love, that it’s just not possible.
I know, for me, there are many times when I’m afraid to be truly loving. For all the reasons previously mentioned, yes. But also because so much of my persona and who I’ve created to survive in this world is made up of humor and cynicism and eye rolling.
For the hyper-sensitive like me, who also have perfectionist and people-pleasing tendencies, it’s what keeps me from crying every night; it’s what allows me to just roll with it and move on. So don’t get me wrong; we all need some humor and cynicism sometimes, too, it’s survival skills.
But not so much that we build walls around our hearts that are impenetrable. Not so much that we fear the vulnerability it takes to love one another. Not so much that we become purveyors of the hate and the darkness that is already so prevalent in this world.
So let’s face it. If we’re going to actually try and live a life of love, if we are going to choose the way of Christ, the way that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr followed, we’re also just going to have to accept the fact that we’re probably going to mess up a whole lot along the way, that all of our fears will most likely be realized one way or another.
We’re not always going to get it right, we’ll stumble and fall and maybe even be judged for our failures.
But Courtney Walsh wrote this amazing poem that’s hanging right next to my desk in the office. And I hope it gives you the courage and strength to just go and love the best you can for today. She writes:
You’ve got it all wrong.
You didn’t come here to master unconditional love.
This is where you came from and where you’ll return.
You came here to learn personal love.
Infused with divinity.
Lived through the grace of stumbling.
Demonstrated through the beauty of… messing up.
You didn’t come here to be perfect, you already are.
You came here to be gorgeously human. Flawed and fabulous.
And rising again into remembering.
But unconditional love? Stop telling that story.
Love in truth doesn’t need any adjectives.
It doesn’t require modifiers.
It doesn’t require the condition of perfection.
It only asks you to show up.
And do your best.
That you stay present and feel fully.
That you shine and fly and laugh and cry and hurt and heal and fall and
get back up and play and work and live and die as YOU.
So just go and be present and be you.
Do what you can. Show up. Participate.
March if you feel called to so. Call your representatives if you feel called to do so.
Donate to a cause you believe in. Reach out to a friend or family member who disagrees with you; read with others; cry with others; laugh with others; listen to those who are feeling afraid; open your doors and your hearts to a stranger, to someone seeking refuge, to someone who speaks a different language than you.
Snuggle a baby; cook a meal for someone who’s hungry; pick up trash off the beaches.
And when you need to, just sit and veg and take care of yourself because self-care is revolutionary love, too.
All of that, whatever you can give, it’s enough. It’s plenty.
You can do this. Because we were created for this.
We were created for love, for we are created in the image of a God who is Love.
 Touré (November 17, 2011). Society It’s Time for a New Black National Anthem”. Time Magazine.
 Washington, James M., ed. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice.” Harper One, (1986).