“Called to Carry On”
I don’t know if Martin King Jr., named Michael Luther King at birth, believed—as did the prophet Isaiah—that God had called him and named him even before he was born.
But by the time the boy who had been re-named Martin Luther King Jr. was just 15 years old, he had decided to become a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He went to college and seminary, even came up north to get his Ph.D. But when the time came to answer God’s call to serve the church, he went back to the South, to a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama. He had been there barely a year when a seamstress named Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man.
Before he knew it—and only because he believed God had told him to—this 27-year-old preacher was leading the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted 381 days. The boycott grew into the civil rights movement, and again, Martin Luther King Jr. was at the forefront—preaching equality and nonviolence. But it was dangerous work.
One night in 1957, after Rev. Dr. King had gone to bed, the phone rang. He picked it up and heard an angry voice, saying, “Listen. We’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”
Martin King got up, went to the kitchen, made a pot of coffee, and tried to think his way out of his problem. After a while he realized that he needed help.
"I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right,” he prayed out loud. “But now, I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength or 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 them alone."
“At that moment,” Dr. King said later, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, "‘Martin, 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.’
“Almost at once my fears began to pass from me,” King recounted. “My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me an inner calm.”
Three nights later, the home of Martin and Coretta Scott King and their children was bombed. But God’s comforting and challenging word—“Do what I’ve called you to do. Be who I’ve made you to be. I’ll be standing right beside you”—had made Dr. King whole and given him a sense of purpose and peace that would ground him the rest of his days. There would be for him no turning back or turning around.
Within a few years, Dr. King would become the leading force of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a role that would take him north to Massachusetts, to Amherst, to the First Congregational Church, to a church supper in our basement dining room, where at this very moment some of our members are helping to prepare a delicious meal for the needy in our community.
Maybe, on this day that might have been Dr. King’s 94th birthday, someone will notice the plaque on the back wall that reminds us that he once stood in that space.
Over the next few years Dr. King and his role in our national life would continue to evolve—from church pastor to local protest leader, from drum major for justice to movement shaper and nationally known speaker, from upstanding citizen to jailbird to moral conscience and unrelenting prophet. Over the course of 11 years that would begin to change our nation’s laws (if not the racism inherent in its institutions), Dr. King’s focus would shift—from ending segregation to securing voting rights, from promoting nonviolence to arguing for economic empowerment and equity, from recruiting allies and building community to opposing militarism in general and, in searing particularity, the Vietnam War.
God never stopped speaking to Dr. King and, even more important, Dr. King never stopped listening.
To be called by God, you see, is not a one and done thing. And while we remember during the season of Epiphany our common call to follow Jesus, discipleship is not a seasonal or static enterprise. It is a lifelong commitment, a humble willingness to follow the course of justice and love, to pursue union with the God who is love and oneness with all people and creation.
What that means at any particular time and place can shift as needs, circumstances, and understandings change. To be true to our calling to follow Jesus is to continue to listen for the voice of our still-speaking God, to continue to seek out the lost and gather in those left out, to continue to work at discerning what our highest and purest purpose is at any given moment.
The work of love and liberation, community-building and peace-making never ends. Indeed, if we continue to listen, following Jesus will take us on a journey farther, deeper, longer, and wider than we can imagine. Which is not to say that the road will be easy.
For Dr. King, the movement he and others had worked so hard to build was beginning to unravel in what became the last three years of his life. Dr. King’s prophetic calls for economic justice and an end to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam were tanking his popularity and influence and increasing the government’s actions against him. Within the movement itself, there was a growing impatience with his emphasis on nonviolent action and loving one’s enemies.
And yet Dr. King did not grow weary in doing good. Or perhaps it would be more truthful to say that even though he did grow weary, even though he surely felt discouraged at times, he did not give up.
Because he, like all of us, was called by God to carry on. Called to keep on keeping on. Called to keep listening and following and discerning his ever-evolving purpose.
And so it is with us as we continue to live out our congregational covenant to be an to anti-racism church, to pursue our collective call to work for racial justice—even as we continue to grow in our understanding of how hard that is, even as our hearts are also broken by all the other suffering and injustice in the world.
Let us not grow weary in doing what is right, Paul writes to the Galatians, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.
Because we cannot do this work alone. Because, if we had nothing but our own willpower and plans, we would surely give up. Because when we decide to follow Jesus in loving our neighbors, we need a community of folks with whom to travel, folks who will help us listen and discern, folks who will keep us on the path, and encourage us when we feel like giving up.
Beloveds, God calls us to carry on together. We are called together to be a light to the nations, God’s hands and feet, the very body of Christ.
So let us keep on keeping on, together, loving God and giving thanks as we walk the road together.