Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Prayer and Worship: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

JANUARY 18–25, 2019

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Homily Notes
By Father Daniel O. Kingsley

Parochial Vicar of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant

"Saint" Martin Luther King, Jr.

2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

"In all the communities which the Lord, your God, is giving you, you shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes to administer true justice for the people. You must not distort justice: you shall not show partiality; you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes even of the wise and twists the words even of the just. Justice, justice alone shall you pursue, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you."
  — Det. 16: 18-20 (NAB)

When I attended graduate seminary, the best theologizing did not occur in the classroom. Rather, they happened on long walks on the vast grounds. It was on one such walk that a confrere named Dave---now a priest in Long Island---asked why the Catholic Church did not canonize Christians of other communities and traditions. Back then, the question seemed silly. Why would the Church declare saints those who did not receive the Word from her pulpits or the Sacrament from her altars? They may have led lives of heroic virtue and Christ-like sanctity, but communion with the Catholic Church is a necessity not an afterthought. Our conversation quickly turned to that great drum major for justice, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Why couldn’t he be canonized with great fanfare in St. Peter’s Square? After all Dr. King at great risk, ultimately shedding of his blood, championed for the rights of African Americans and other marginalized peoples.

Among the world’s Christians, the invocation and veneration of the saints is a thorny, church dividing issue. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians stress that we pay them due honor and respect as by their lives, teaching, and some cases, suffering and death, point us not to themselves, but to Christ the Savior. They are the great cloud of witnesses who surround us night and day. Protestant Christians argue that such piety undermines the role of Christ as the sole mediator between man and God, some going as far as to call it idolatry. Within Anglicanism, the opinion is split. Some side with their Roman brethren others with Geneva. The Reverend Stephen Gerth, rector of St. Mary the Virgin, in New York, made clear the Book of Common Prayer’s position, “[it uses] “saint” in the New Testament manner, to refer to the baptized, and they give the title “Saint” to the holy women, men, angels of the New Testament.”2 Interestingly enough, Martin Luther King, Jr. is commemorated---with prayers and readings--- in the Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts liturgical supplement.

Our appointed text from Deuteronomy highlights the central theme of not only Dr. King’s life, but that of nearly every prophet and saint, justice. Here Moses exhorts the Israelites to observe God’s laws. It is not enough them to offer God right worship, they are to be mindful of right relationship. In the Hebrew Scriptures, these two polarities exist in tension. The patriarch, in Exodus, gives the people the Decalogue, the first three commandments concern the respect and honor due to God, whereas the remaining seven govern social relationships. Our text is nestled between prescriptions on how to observe the great Jewish feasts of Passover and Booths, but also a condemnation of illicit worship. The God of all justice, mercy, and truth demands that His people’s worship transform them through and through. In offering Him joyful praise, Moses tells them to invite their “son and daughter, male and female slave, and the Levite within your gate, as

well as the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow among you."3 They may be free from Pharaoh’s tyranny, but not from the inequality that often plagues human relations.

Right worship and right relationship is not foreign to the New Testament. They are given flesh in Jesus Christ. When asked by a scribe what the greatest commandment is, the Lord responds:

"The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these."4

The metaphor of God’s right hand in this text stirs my moral imagination for God’s activity in the world. Let me explain what I mean by moral imagination.

Jesus reminds the scribe of Moses’ teaching, the very crux of their faith.5 It is not enough to love God in worship, one must also love Him in other people. Even the scribe, whose aim is to challenge Jesus, confesses that such love is worth more than offerings and sacrifices. At the conclusion of their exchange, Jesus remarks that the scribe is not far from God’s kingdom. Ultimately, right worship and right relationship are linked as one not only informs and enrich each other, but they also speak to the intimate communion God desires with His human creatures.

The saints in all times and places--- Blessed Mary, Francis of Assisi, Martin de Porres, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Teresa of Calcutta--- testify that right worship and right relationship call us to seek justice. And this truth was not lost on Dr. King. It scandalized him that a presumably Christian nation would deny rights to a segment of her populace because of race. In one sermon, given in the vein of a Pauline epistle, he rebuked American Christianity’s acceptance of segregation:

There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name" and "Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind," you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is.

I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah's curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for. I must say to you as I have said to so many Christians before, that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus." Moreover, I must reiterate the words that I uttered on Mars Hill: "God that made the world and all things therein . . . hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth."6

Christians actualize Sunday worship by the treatment of their neighbors on Monday morning. It is not enough to recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer full gusto from the pew. We are called to pray and work for a fair and equitable society. And in doing so, demonstrate that the radical love of Jesus Christ demands radical witness. God’s nearness to us is proved by the Incarnation, our solidarity, as the saints attest, proves the same to the downtrodden. We not only help others carry their cross, but also denounce evil by name. In the pursuit of justice, Dr. King had no qualms calling out oppressive structures, whether it was the segregation of Birmingham or the violence of Vietnam. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. King once wrote from the Birmingham City jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in single garment of destiny.”

What makes a saint a saint is final perseverance. Their reward is not the earthly city, but kingdom that is both here, but not yet. On the night before he died, Dr. King invoked Moses of old, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”7

Dave’s question stayed with me for many years after that long walk. Imagine if April 4th on the Roman calendar was the feast of St. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher and martyr? I am mindful of reality. The unity of Christian believers, like that of the Kingdom is a matter for the Parousia. Yet, there are statues in Dr. King’s memory in churches like Washington’s National Cathedral and London’s Westminster Abbey. It is undeniable that Dr. King’s example has spurred others to champion human rights around the world. While, I hold the veneration of the saints near and dear, I must confess we are sometimes relegate them as distant figures enshrined in marble and stained glass. We do this as if their life stories have no bearing on us. We must never lose sight that their fallen humanity came into contact with the redeemed humanity of Jesus Christ. The saints embody for us, in the here and now, the holiness and justice we are all called to!

All holy men and women, saints of God, pray for us! Amen.

Father Daniel O. Kingsley, ordained in 2015, is a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn. He presently serves as parochial vicar of St. Martin de Porres Parish, Bedford-Stuyvesant.

  1. Hebrews 12: 1.
  2. The Angelus, Volume 21, Number 2, https://www.stmvirgin.org/the-angelus-our-newsletter/2018/12/10/volume-21-number-2.
  3. Deuteronomy 16: 11.
  4. Mark 12: 29-31.
  5. Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.
  6. Paul’s Letter to American Christians, the text of this sermon can found at Stanford University’s The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at the following link: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-1.
  7. I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, the text of which can be found at the following link: https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.