The prayer of one of my spiritual mentors frequently included the sentences, "O God, Thou hast never left us without a witness of Thyself. In every generation and in every situation Thou hast given us light for the darkness." This prayer expresses the hope of Ancient Israel at the time of God?s call to the prophet Samuel. These were troublesome times. A time when people needed new eyes to see the light of God. A time for unblurred vision to give guidance for the way ahead. A time for uniting a loose confederacy into a nation. It was time for insight to enable nomads to become settlers. It was also a time for change in religious leadership from Eli to Samuel ~ priest to prophet. When the Philistines defeated the Israelites, captured the Ark of the Covenant, and destroyed the sacred space at Shiloh, it signaled the time for new understandings of Yahweh. For such a time Yahweh called Samuel. Samuel responds, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening."
A witness for God is a ?seer?, proclaiming the end of the old order and the beginning of the new. God?s witness is the angel announcing Yahweh?s faithfulness in and through change. Samuel was there for God when Israel became a new nation with its kings. Samuel was there for God when a new priesthood was established. In, The Singing of Angels, Howard Thurman wrote:
"Despite all the crassness of life, despite all of the hardness of life,
despite all the hard discords of life,
life is saved by the singing of angels."
"...SAVED BY THE SINGING OF ANGELS" is what God calls witnesses to be and to do in this world. Against the dispiriting realities of the time, God brings hope through the lives of those who know that the lamp of God is burning and who sing of God?s liberating hand.
At his baptism, Jesus heard the voice of God:
"You are my Son, the Beloved;
with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11)."
Following God?s calling, the Spirit carries him to the wilderness. In this dessert place he wrestles with the Tempter, comforted by God, and empowered for witness. The Gospels describe both the nature of the proclamation and the character of the witness: In Galilee Jesus proclaimed:
"The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe the good news (Mark 1:14-15)."
For his vision of the kingdom of God and of his earthly ministry, he read from the Isaiah scroll:
"The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord?s favor." (Luke 4:18-19)
Israel was a colony of Rome. In these times Israel practiced its religion under the searing scrutiny of foreign power. Here, Israel?s poor were without standing in the society. They were without civil rights. Survival was the priority. The daily task was staying alive! For such times as these does God say yes in Jesus. Near the end of Jesus? life one senses something of the depth of his commitment for God and for us. Mark records Jesus saying:
"Abba, for you all things are possible, remove this cup from me;
yet not what I want but what you want." (14:36)
The world rejected the kingdom of God and executed the Son of God. But there is more to the story! God raised Christ from death. By faith through grace we have come to see that God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to the Creator. In Jesus we experience God?s love for us. In Jesus we learn how to love God by loving each other. In Christ God prepares us for a present and future witness in the kingdom.
In May, 1954, God called Martin Luther King, Jr. to the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Alabama. Montgomery was the ?Cradle of the Confederacy.? Here, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy was inaugurated and the Confederate flag had its debut. Within view of the Dexter Avenue congregation was the State Capitol building. What symbolism! The Capital, the sign of the centuries of suffering by African Americans from legalized slavery and Jim Crow. The Church, the sign of God?s liberation and the testimony to the dignity of all God?s children. Dexter Avenue Church and the Capital surely were descriptive of the challenge that lay ahead.
On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Rosa Parks was arrested. After a long day at Montgomery Fair Department Store, where she worked as a seamstress, she was at last homebound on the city bus. With tired feet she sat in the first row of seats reserved for "colored".
According to the pattern of segregation, when white passengers needed additional seating black passengers were to relinquish their seats to move farther toward the back of the bus. When seats were unavailable in the "colored section" or the bus was filled, black people had to stand. The bus driver demanded that Mrs. Parks give her seat to a boarding white passenger. She refused and was arrested. Her courageous witness inspired the Montgomery Black Community to mobilize a unified boycott in protest for accumulated years of humiliation resulting from racial segregation. It is said that the tired feet of Rosa Parks became the marching orders of a people tired of racial injustice.
The religious nature, the story of the South, the call to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and the courage of Rosa Parks along with the Montgomery community were among the ingredients which prepared Dr. King for the leadership needed for the time.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a man of faith. He was a Christian. What does the life and ministry of Jesus mean for the transformation of Montgomery from the "Cradle of the Confederacy" to the cradle of freedom and justice? About the nature of religion he wrote:
"... a religion true to its nature must be concerned about (human?s) social condition. Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. Religion operates not only on the vertical plane but also on the horizontal. It seeks not only to integrate (people) with God but to integrate (people) with (people) and each (person) with himself (or herself). This means, at bottom, that the Christian gospel is a two-way road. On the one hand, it seeks to change the souls of (persons), and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand, it seeks to change the environmental conditions of (persons) so the soul will have a chance after it is changed. Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of (persons) and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion." (p. 36, Stride Toward Freedom)
And of the means for transformation, he was committed to the nonviolent ethic of Jesus. Dr. King preached:
"Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be the regulating ideal. Once again we hear the words of Jesus echoing across the centuries: ?Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you.? If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame." (p. 62, Stride Toward Freedom)
The Montgomery Story was a successful one. An old order was ended. A new day had come. Not just for Montgomery but for nation and for a world. Wherever people are on the march for freedom the legacy of Montgomery Story and the witness of Martin Luther King, Jr. lives again. Such is the nature of celebration of his birthday.
In 1985, M. Kenn Carmichael penned these words for a stewardship theme, "Called to be Disciples":
Pray justice may come rolling down as in a mighty stream,
With righteousness in field and town, to cleanse us and redeem.
For God is longing to restore an earth where conflicts cease,
A world that was created for harmony and peace.
This is our present hope. The spiritual man prayed, "O God, Thou hast never left us with a witness of Thyself. In every generation Thou has given light for the darkness." "Samuel, Samuel!" "Ghandi, Ghandi!" "John, John!" "Rosa, Rosa!" "Martin, Martin!" "Oscar, Oscar!" "Yitzhak, Yitzhak!" "Teresa, Teresa!" Be Still! Listen! God calling your name!