Homily Notes for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
January 20, 2003
the Rev. John L. McCullough, United Methodist Church
Executive Director, Church World Service and Witness


The tragic events of September 11, 2001, the war against terrorism in already desolate lands, and the deep chasms of human incivility project the harsh reality that unity remains a noble, and yet difficult goal. In any year, during any age, the truth of this conclusion is sure. The highest ideal of human society requires a living and breathing tolerance of difference.

Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth used the refrain, “we do not lose heart”, recognizing that “affliction and anguish of heart” (2:4) are often wrought in the strain of human relationships. It is human nature to view life through different lenses, and to attempt to exact value systems for one self and others. It is the imposition of views and values un-embraced by the other that causes tension. We are reminded of how easy it is to feel a sense of vulnerability, disconnection or brokenness.

The Apostle summons Christ’s church to a higher level of consciousness and courage to overcome anything that would dissuade belief in a better day, or deprive the community of a sense of wholeness. Expansion and contraction are elastic qualities necessary for the human drama. They can make all the difference between losing and maintaining heart. Paul wrote, ‘We have this treasure... in earthen vessels’. Here he acknowledged the treasure represented in community as a manifestation of Divine activity and presence. Yet, he also described the fragile nature of society – the motif of humaneness besieged by powers and principalities unable to attain the heights of heaven. I remember handling a pot fashioned from the earth, and my awareness that one careless moment could result in the broken fragments of a masterpiece. The challenge is to preserve the unity, this treasure in earthen vessels.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. struggled with US involvement in the Vietnam War. In part he believed that America’s participation reflected this nation’s values and contradictions. “In the wasteland of war, the expenditure of resources knows no restraints; here our abundance is fully recognized and enthusiastically squandered”.1 Though not the intended consequence, King understood that this war provided a diversion from attending to the matters of justice, equality, and dignity for Negroes. He could not ignore the reckless handling of the Negro community, this earthen vessel - sent into battle on behalf of a nation yet unwilling to support their cause for freedom.

Martin King’s popularity suffered with his stance on the war. Some were concerned that his message was becoming diffused, and distracted by events that had nothing to do with his crusade. Others felt he was being unpatriotic in his criticism of the American war effort. To this he responded:

In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character. We must begin to ask, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in a nation overflowing with such unbelievable affluence?’ Why has our nation placed itself in the position of being God’s military agent on earth… Why have we substituted the arrogant undertaking of policing the whole world for the high task of putting our own house in order?2

He would agree that consistency of purpose and unity were essential qualities in the struggle for civil rights. He would disagree that somehow he was off message, or misguided. He would agree that as an American he should support his country’s effort to instill the values of civil society and democratic process. He would disagree that the issues of poverty, unemployment, and equal rights in America should be set aside in the interest of foreign affairs. “The bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities for a decent America”.3 His message was about human dignity. He wrote, “Instinctively we struck out for dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt than material privation”.4 King was acutely aware of the fragility of both Negroes in America, and also of America’s place in global society. He did not “segregate moral concerns”.5 He was afraid of that one careless moment when the flexibility of the Negro might be tested beyond its ability to stretch any further. He was concerned that America might assume more than it is capable of taking responsibility for. He could envision the snap, the “gift” exploding into millions of fragmented pieces. “The casualties he mentions, beyond the appalling loss of life, are the United Nations Charter, the spirit of self-determination, the Great Society, the humility of our nation, the principle of dissent, and prospects for mankind’s survival”.6 Unity is born of the treasures of respect, and what Paul called “transcendent power.” “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (4:8-9). Paul acknowledges human capacity. His statement is triumphant; but Dr. King knew intimately that humans, however honorable, are less than God. Even the freedom marchers had a limit to the amount of injury and insult they could endure. Unity cannot to be confused with baseless agreement or the absence of dissent. Let us be those creative dissenters who will call our beloved nation to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness”.7

Paul’s letter, and Martin’s example calls for Christians to find their voice, especially when the community of nations and the moral fabric of society is being torn apart. All persons are of sacred worth, and are entitled to rights equivalent to that of any other person, without regard to those characteristics distinguishing us one from another. We are called to be the voice of dissent in the face of injustice, and the word of compassion in welcoming the stranger. “I believed, and so I spoke” (4:13). That is the representative characteristic of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

1Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 101.
2Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 151.
3Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 157.
4Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 157.
5Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience, p. 24.
6Ira G. Zepp, Jr., The Social Vision of Martin Luther King, p.166.
7Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here, p. 157.

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