The date: January 27, 1956.
The time: Late at night.
The place: A pastor’s home in Montgomery, Alabama.
A phone ringing in the middle of the night does not usually signal good news. That was the thought of the 27-year-old pastor as he picked up the receiver and said, “Hello”. On the other end of the phone line a voice spoke violent words which threatened his life and the life of his family. The already weary young Baptist pastor who was serving his first church was filled with anger, frustration, and fear for his family.
Little did he know that he would one day earn the infamous distinction of being the American who had received the most death threats ever in our nation’s history. What that young pastor did next was what a person of faith does in such a situation—he bowed his head in prayer.
Perhaps you can recall a moment in your life where the stress of the hour, the sadness, doubts or despairing thoughts in your mind, drove you to prayer. Yes, having walked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down at the table, the young pastor reached out to God.
Would it surprise you to learn that the pastor who was feeling at the end of his rope, feeling alone and discouraged and full of self-doubt late that night, was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.? When people hear this story about Dr. King for the first time they are often surprised. I have more to tell you in a moment about that night in the kitchen.
Most Americans view Dr. King only as an outspoken, eloquent, highly confident and composed activist-preacher who feared nothing and whose faith seemed unshakable.
That can happen when a person becomes an icon—We can lose any real sense of the person’s humanity.
Over and over the media has shown and published Dr. King’s stirring words offered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: “I have a dream”…those four words, the whole speech, are a wonderful part of King’s legacy. But the Martin Luther King who spent many sleepless nights feeling fearful and discouraged is unfortunately lost in the acclaim.
Dr. King’s choice to pray that night reminds us that prayer is a vital element of our life of faith not only during worship but amidst our daily life. President Abraham Lincoln once said: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go." One of Dr. King’s heroes, Mahatma Gandhi, of India, has described prayer as “a longing of the soul.” Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, considered one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century once wrote: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” And in our first lesson this morning we heard 7th grader, Eli Pfost, share the blessings which come to one who turns to God in prayer.
The Apostle Paul encouraged the members of the church in Philippi to: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Friends, that was true not only for those first Jewish-Christians long ago--it’s true for us as well. When you open your heart to God, you will experience the peace of God, a peace which will keep you in Christ: strong, courageous, hopeful.
Martin Luther King Jr. sat in his kitchen late that night feeling no peace, feeling overwhelmed by the “disorder” in his life, feeling discouraged and teetering on despair, and he turned to God in prayer. It’s what his father and mother had always done.
How did Dr. King get into this deeply stressful situation late that night in his kitchen? Looking back on this time in his life Dr. King wrote: “When I went to Montgomery [Alabama] to serve in my first pastorate [at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,] I had not the slightest idea that I would [soon] become involved in a crisis...I simply responded to the call of the people for a spokesman [for the bus boycott]."
Friends, in 1955, when Martin Luther King Jr. agreed to be the lead person, the voice, of the now famous Bus Boycott in Montgomery…he was only 26-years-old. He was, to us who are now in our late fifties or older, practically a kid. A young man serving his first church, King did not feel ready to lead a controversial boycott of the city’s racist bus system.
But the elder Black pastors in Montgomery insisted that this was his calling—they would not take no for an answer. You could say that they knew that young Martin could “speak truth to power.”
Now, reaching the end of his endurance, a full year after the still unsuccessful boycott had begun, young Rev. King sat at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee at midnight trying to figure out how to get out of the movement without appearing a coward. The threatening phone call had pushed him over the edge--spiritually and psychologically.
What happened next in his kitchen, according to Dr. King himself, transformed him. It was a moment that Dr. King would draw upon for strength during the remaining 12 years of his brief and hectic life which as you know ended violently in 1968 at the too young age of 39.
Here in Dr. King’s own words is what happened that night: “I bowed [my head in prayer] over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it…I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now. I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”
Said King: “And it seemed at that moment that 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.” King concludes: “I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. [Jesus] promised…never to leave me alone. Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.”
Friends, 2000 years before the “kitchen conversion,” of 27-year-old pastor Martin Luther King Jr., another up and coming religious leader, a young rabbi in his early 30’s named Jesus, was in a similar predicament late one night. He wasn’t sitting alone in a kitchen with a cup of coffee ala King—he was in a garden with a few disciples he trusted and loved.
Full of great disappointment, deep frustration, some fear and trepidation, Jesus did the same thing that his disciple Martin Luther King Jr. would do centuries later: Jesus turned to God in prayer.
How upset was Jesus about the current circumstances of his life--about the threats he had received—the criticisms he had encountered? The writer of Mark’s gospel says that Jesus was “greatly distressed and troubled” and that “Jesus’ soul was sorrowful even to death…”
Friends, this is one deeply troubled young man. He is at the end of his rope and feels alone since all his disciples have fallen asleep. And in the dark night of his soul—Jesus falls to his knees in prayer.
I think about that moment which I looked at the stained glass window to my right of Jesus in prayer. Methodist theologian, Rob McKoy, speaking of this critical and transformative moment in Jesus’ life writes: “This story of Jesus in [the Garden of] Gethsemane may be the most important passage in all of the gospels. It is here that Jesus is most human. It is here that Jesus is most vulnerable. And it is here that Jesus is most courageous. What makes this passage so powerful is the idea that it could have gone either way. We have the luxury of reading the gospels knowing the end of the story. We know Jesus’ decision. We know how the story ends. [Easter!] But if we allow ourselves to enter the drama of [that moment in Gethsemane we can see Jesus struggling and then making the decision to go forward…]”
Friends, this was not a play with a script—this was history unfolding. Returning to McKoy, he continues: “[Jesus] knew [that night] that he would be killed…So he sat there in Gethsemane and he prayed. He prayed for another way out. He prayed in anguish. He prayed: Lord, take this cup away from me.”
Friends, with that statement Jesus meant: “Lord, allow me to fulfill my destiny without losing my life! Take this cup away from me, this destiny!Jesus didn’t have a death wish… He prayed not as a God [or an actor]--but as a man who could feel pain…and be hurt by betrayal…take this cup away from me! Jesus prayed as a person who knew that if he followed God’s will, he would be arrested, charged, convicted, mocked, beaten, humiliated, abandoned, and nailed to a cross. Knowing all of this, full well, still Jesus prayed, Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; [and here is the moment that changed human history] yet, not what I will, but what thou [wills.] Strengthened by his prayer and in the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus stood up, and he [embraced his destiny] and went to the cross. Friends, Jesus too had sensed, as his disciples slept, God’s will that he “stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. Jesus went to the cross as a person who had decided to follow God—come what may. Jesus went as one who would heal and forgive and love even to the very end.”
Friends, Let’s be clear: Jesus did not believe that God wanted him dead…a terrible Christology which has distorted the church’s mission for centuries. The scriptures suggest that Jesus believed that God wanted him to carry out his ministry of love, forgiveness, and non-violent change—no matter the cost. And to trust that not even the cross of Rome would prevent God from fulfilling what he had begun in Jesus.
It took Jesus until his last breaths in this life to fully trust God—for just moments before he died Jesus had prayed [words of abandonment]: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Followed by his last prayerful words—words of faith: “Into Thy Hands, I commit my Spirit.”
Friends, the ability to be faithful to God, to be sure of God’s love even in dark or challenging times, is communicated to us in the same manner it was communicated to Jesus and to Martin Luther King Jr. after him—it comes to us through prayer—from our own prayers and the prayers of others for us.
God bless all those who are members of our church’s prayer chain—your prayers make a difference—you truly are “instruments of God’s peace.” I believe that a life of prayer can help us to recognize the presence of those women and men whom God desires to use as instruments of peace--to love, encourage, comfort, and inspire us.
I close with this true story, which Dr. King told often of one such remarkable woman in his life—A woman, a grandmother, who actively participated in the Montgomery bus boycott. A woman who knew King well, he was her pastor, and she was known to her family and friends simply as “Mother Pollard”.
Most Americans, black and white, young and old, have heard of Rosa Parks—very few know the name: Mother Pollard. As you hear this true story I pray that during this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, you would be reminded of, and give thanks for, a person in your life, who, like Mother Pollard, was a blessing to you in the past, or is so today. Thanks be to God that there are several Mother Pollards sitting in our church sanctuary this morning—and others who are here in spirit.
Consider this: For over one year in Montgomery, Alabama, beginning shortly after December 1, 1955, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus--people who normally rode the bus, walked. They were tired of sitting in the back of the bus. Tired of being told to give up their seats for white folks. So they, refusing to give their hard earned money to a corrupt bus company, walked to work, to the store, to market, to the post office, to visit their family and friends. Later, they carpooled.
A remarkable old woman, an elder, a pillar in Dr. King’s church, often sought to remind the young preacher of God’s steadfast love. Speaking of Mother Pollard, King said fondly: “She was poverty-stricken and uneducated, amazingly intelligent and possessed a deep understanding of the meaning of the Civil Rights movement. “After having walked for several weeks [during our boycott of the racist bus system in Montgomery], Mother Pollard was asked if she were tired—she answered, “My feets is tired but my soul is rested.”
King goes on to tell [about] speaking at one of the mass rallies on a Monday evening. Said King: “During my speech I attempted to convey an overt impression of strength and courage although I was moderately depressed and fear stricken that particular night. [King dealt with bouts of depression often in the last years of his life.]
“At the end of the meeting Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ Said King: “I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. “Something’s wrong with you,” she said, “you didn’t talk strong tonight.” King says he sought further to disguise his fears. “No, no, Mother Pollard, nothing’s wrong, I’m feeling as fine as ever. You can’t fool me,” she said, “I know something’s wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing the things to please you or is it that the white folks is bothering you?”
Said King: “Before I could respond Mother Pollard looked directly into my eyes and said, ‘I done told you we was with you all the way.’ And then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, ‘but even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’”
Friends, may you through prayer, offered in the light of day or over a cup of coffee at midnight, through prayer, find the courage to stand up for righteousness, to stand up for justice, to stand up for truth, with the faith and trust that in life and in death, in good times and sorrowful times, you are loved, and you never stand alone.
Even if family or friends betray you or let you down—“God, who hears His people’s pain, is gonna take care of you.”