January 19, 2020
Praying with our feet – J. Barry Vaughn – Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday – Jan. 19, 2020
Dr. King’s march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery, was in many ways the climax of the civil rights movement. One of its most significant features was the participation of religious leaders from so many different traditions. In photographs of the event you can see nuns, rabbis, round and tab-collared priests, Eastern Orthodox bishops, and men and women wearing crosses.
One of the people who participated in that march was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most significant Jewish thinkers of the day. Rabbi Heschel taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and wrote many important books, including The Prophets, a study of Israel’s prophets that we used in a class here a couple of years ago. When Rabbi Heschel returned from Selma, he was asked by someone, “Did you find much time to pray, when you were in Selma?” Rabbi Heschel responded, “I prayed with my feet.”
What Heschel was saying, of course, is that we can pray not only with our lips, not only in the silent recesses of our hearts, but when he marched with Dr. King and hundreds of others for voting rights, every step of that march was a prayer.
All of us can pray with our feet, our hands, our arms, our legs, our entire bodies.
I’ve recently been reading a book about Dr. King’s spirituality. One of the things that we have failed to understand and emphasize about Dr. King is that he was a man with a profound spiritual life.
Too often we believe that Dr. King was an activist who pressed religion into the service of a political agenda. In fact, he was a Christian minister who was reluctantly recruited to lead a great social movement, but I believe that for him the spiritual dimension always came first.
At the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, Dr. King had a powerful experience of the presence of God. On Friday night, Jan. 27, 1956, Dr. King came home after a long strategy session, and found his wife asleep. Then the phone rang, and a sneering voice on the other end said, “Leave Montgomery immediately if you have no wish to die.” Terrified, Dr. King hung up the phone, walked to his kitchen, and sat down at his kitchen table.
I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward. In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud.
The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. “I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and 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 it alone.”
At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: “Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.” Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (from King, Stride Toward Freedom)
Three days later a bomb blasted his house and his family narrowly escaped harm. “Strangely enough,” King later wrote, “I accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”
News of the bombing drew a crowd A mob formed within the hour. And they pressed up against the shattered house and shouted for vengeance. King mounted the broken porch and raised his hands. “We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop because God is with this movement. Go home with this glorious faith and radiant assurance.” And thus, the mob dissipated, their mood disarmed and their ears ringing with the message of gospel non-violence.
Eleven years later, King retold the story of his epiphany in the kitchen. “It seemed at that moment, I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘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.’ I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”
Dr. King came to national prominence in the late 1950s. We remember the 50s as the age of Leave it to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and grandfatherly President Dwight (“I like Ike”) Eisenhower.
Historian of religion Mark Noll argues that complacency characterized American religion the 50s: “Conservative evangelicals… translated the gospel into forms of entertainment that looked as much like versions of youthful diversion as alternatives to it. Mainline Protestants… were also busy creating a religion of the lowest common denominator with less and less that was distinctly Christian”. (Noll, p. 441)
And then suddenly, in this decade of complacency, Martin Luther King appeared.
One of King’s greatest accomplishments was to be a “public Christian”. What I mean is that Dr. King brought the teachings of the Christian faith to bear on public issues, especially the most important issue of the 50s and 60s, full and equal civil rights for African Americans. In doing so, Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith.
Many American intellectuals thought of the Christian faith as intellectually bankrupt and as having little or nothing to say about the great issues of the day.
Dr. King never spoke simply as a politician; he spoke as a preacher informed by the Old and New Testament. He spoke as one who could see God’s hand at work in human history and who gave voice to God’s demands upon human life, both individual and corporate. In his very first public statement as leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, he said, “We must keep God in the forefront. Let us be Christian in all of our action.” The protestors must not hate their white opponents but be guided by Christian love while seeking justice… “Love is one of the pinnacle parts of the Christian faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation”. (Garrow, Bearing the Cross, p. 24)
At the same time that Dr. King gave new credibility to the Christian faith to those who regarded it with suspicion and skepticism, he also provided a model for Christians to speak out on the great issues of the day. His example inspired and encouraged any number of other Christians to apply the Christian faith to the great issues of the day, especially the anti-war movement.
Dr. King stood on that blurry line dividing the sacred and the secular, the church and the world. He reminded the world that God is active in its history, whether the world recognizes God’s presence or not, and he reminded the church that God created and loves the world and calls us to engagement in the world on behalf of the poor and the powerless.
You and I are living through a great turning point in the history of Christianity. Unlike the 1950s, when people were joining churches in great numbers, today people are leaving churches in great numbers.
You have heard me say this before, but it bears repeating: Studies show that over the last twenty years American churches have lost twenty percent of their members.
By the way, we should be proud of Christ Church. Our numbers are stable. We have had at least fifty funerals since I came here as your rector seven years ago, but we have replaced those who have died or moved away. Our Anglo membership has not declined, and our Latino membership is growing.
Why are American churches declining? I’m sorry to say this, but I believe that one of the reasons for the decline in American Christianity is that conservative churches have allied themselves with right wing politics. The most visible and vocal Christians are those who stand up and speak out for right wing causes. And I believe that that is a toxic combination.
Theologian Mark Labberton, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, says that “The American Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis . . . because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”
Christians should acknowledge the profound damage that’s being done to their brand by its alliance with the political right. Until followers of Jesus are once again willing to speak truth to power the crisis in American Christianity will only deepen, its public testimony only dim, its eﬀort to be a healing agent in a broken world only weaken. (paraphrased from “The deepening crisis in evangelical Christianity” by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic.)
In other words, we need another Dr. King. King did not let his movement be co-opted by any politician or party. Although he praised Pres. Lyndon Johnson for securing passage of the civil rights act of 1964 and the voting rights act of 1965, but later he rebuked Johnson for his leadership of the war in Vietnam.
Prophets such as Dr. King are few and far between, but I want to challenge all of us to pray that we will find another leader like him. And I want to challenge all of us not only to pray with our lips and our hearts but also with our feet, our hands, our heads, with all of our being and with all that God has given us.
I want to conclude with one of Dr. King’s prayers:
O God, our Heavenly Father, out of whose mind this great … universe has been created, toward whom the weary and perplexed of all generations turn for consolation and direction, we come before Thy presence thanking Thee for the many blessings of life. We come recognizing our dependence on Thee. We also come, O God, with an awareness. The fact that we have not always given our lives to that which is high and noble. In the midst of all of the high and noble aspects of justice, we followed injustice. We stand amid the forces of truth and yet we deliberately lie. We stand amid the compelling urgency of the Lord of love, as exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ, and yet we live our lives so often in the dungeon of hate. For all of these sins, O God, forgive. And in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in scope and chaotic in detail, give us penetrating vision, broad understanding, power of endurance and abiding faith, and save us from the paralysis of crippling fear. And O God, we ask Thee to help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color. …All of these things we ask in the name and spirit of Jesus the Christ. Amen.