When I was in seminary, I took voice lessons because I wanted to learn to sing better. We had a musical school that offered voice to non-majors, so I went and asked and they agreed. One of the songs I learned was “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked,” which was sung from the vantage point of one walking through Palestine and being in all the places where Jesus once was. At the time, the song was something to help me learn to sing. Some years later, Ginger and I got to go to Israel and Palestine. When we walked from the Mount of Olives up to the small stairs that entered the Old City on the way to Caiaphas’ house, our guide said, “I can tell you for a fact Jesus walked up these stairs. Much has changed since those days, but these stairs have always been in use. Ginger and I scooted our feet across every inch of the stones and wept, overcome that we had walked that day where Jesus had also walked.
I thought about that song in church this morning as we focused our worship around the life, words, and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. One of our older members, a retired minister, gave the children’s message and talked about King coming to Durham and Chapel Hill to meet with thirty-five white ministers who wanted to know how they could help. When he got to town, they realized there was not a restaurant in the area that would allow them to eat together, so Dewitt said, “Come over to my house.” He went on to say when they got to the house they offered Dr. King his choice of the chairs in the room and he chose this rather unassuming one (which was next to Dewitt at the front of the church this morning). I wasn’t fast enough to get the picture of Ginger quickly sitting down in the chair as the children returned to their seats.
Ginger split her sermon time with Bill, who had come to the South as a college student to help with voter registration. As he told about things that happened over forty years ago, his emotion was completely present tense. Then Ginger told her story of being born in Birmingham, Alabama on May 9, 1963, just down the street from the Birmingham Jail and days after King had written his letter from his cell. Ginger had researched and recounted to us all that happened in her hometown the week she was born. After she finished, Ginger, Bill, Carla (our associate pastor), and I read excerpts from King’s letter. Here’s the part that stuck with me:
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
When we finished, I wanted to scoot across the stairs that lead up to the altar because I felt as though I walked today where Martin walked, and not in days long ago, but in my lifetime. One of the most significant implications of the church being named the Body of Christ is we are the incarnation of God’s love and grace in the world. We are God’s hands and feet and eyes and ears. Martin moves me because he lived like he believed that to be true, all the way to his own death. That doesn’t make him a hero; it makes him faithful.
sometimes I feel like
I’ve never been nothing but tired
and I’ll be walking
till the day I expire
sometimes I lay down
no more can I do
but then I go on again
because you ask me to
As Jesus called Martin and both call to us, may we call to one another to go on again, choosing to work for others rather than protect ourselves and truly incarnate the God who created every last one of us.