In 1934 a number of significant events happened in Germany. The state passed the "Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring" which allowed for the compulsory sterilization of anyone with “questionable” genetic traits – for example, mental illness, blindness, deafness, alcoholism, as well as any number of inherited diseases.
In 1934, in Germany, all the police forces came under the direction of Heimlich Himmler, the leader of the “SS” -- the paramilitary organization of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
In 1934, a minority of German Christian leaders opposing the church’s support of the Nazi movement issued the Barmen Declaration.
In 1934, beginning on June 30, the “Night of the Long Knives” occurred, where Nazi operatives murdered key political opponents. At least 85 people were assassinated in this 3-day purge; some scholars put the total number upwards to 1000. Shortly after the Night of the Long Knives, on August 2, Adolf Hitler is declared Fuhrer or head of state, as well as Chancellor of Germany.
In 1934, the Baptist World Alliance held its conference in Berlin, just shortly after Adolf Hitler rise to power. Many Baptists spoke boldly against the racism, nationalism and militarism so prevalent in the Germany of 1934. The Baptist World Alliance also passed a strong resolution on the separation of church and state. Others however, praised Hitler. They praised his prohibition of women wearing red lipstick in public. They praised Hitler because he did not smoke or drink. One prominent Baptist leader extolled that: It was a great relief to be in a country where salacious sex literature cannot be sold; where putrid motion pictures and gangster films cannot be shown. The new Germany has burned great masses of corrupting books and magazines along with its bonfires of Jewish and communistic libraries (Watchman-Examiner XXII 37 (September 13, 1934).
Present for these deliberations was the Rev. Michael King Sr., Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. King, who already had a reputation as a civil rights leader, returned home and decided to change his name, and the name of his five-year old son, from Michael to Martin Luther, the name of the prominent German reformer who sought to purify the church from corrupt practices back in 1517. So, Rev. Michael King, in the face of Nazism, in the face racism in the United States, renamed himself and his son with the name of a powerful reformer.
“Little Mike” known to us as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister following his father’s footsteps in ministry and leader in the civil rights movement, did not know as a six year old the mantel his father placed on his shoulders. That mantel could be summed up in King Sr.’s address to his colleagues with the words of Jesus, taken from the prophet Isaiah: -- We must not forget the words of God that describe the true mission of the Church: ‘‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor.… In this we ﬁnd we are to do something about the brokenhearted, poor, unemployed, the captive, the blind, and the bruised’’ (King, Sr., 17 October 1940).
Today we acknowledge our spiritual debt to King, Sr. and Jr. Disciples are not born – they are molded by other faithful people. Disciples are forged in response to the love of God and in reaction to the evils happening in the world around them. Disciples are called: “Come and see!” Jesus told Andrew and his friend, and Andrew in turn told his brother “Come! We have found the messiah!”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was called to faith by many people, especially is father. Today, as we remember and give thanks for so many of his deeds and accomplishments in the civil rights movement, we remember one of his most important tasks that remain today. That task is to call us to come and see, his fellow brothers and sisters, the ministry of righteousness, justice and reconciliation in a world where racism, poverty and war still exist. Dr. King saw this as a natural, sacred duty that flows naturally from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
On March 31, 1968, King preached his last sermon at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington DC. It was appropriately titled, “Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution.” King began his sermon recounting the tale of Rip Van Winkle who fell asleep for 20 years. When Rip fell asleep the picture of King George the III was on a sign board. Twenty years later, the picture on the sign board was George Washington. Rip didn’t know who he was or what had happened. He had slept through a revolution. Now King’s final church sermon to those people of faith who came to worship that day was the prophetic message which rings true to us today:
“…one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”
King in his legacy, teaches us to be disciples, true followers of Jesus. Before he was assassinated, King began to not only see the interrelatedness of all life and the threat of what he called the “the triplet evils of racism, materialism and militarism.” In his last sermon King reminds us “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.” Our life of faith is molded by others. Additionally, our life is molded in how we respond to others. So, part of King’s concern was awakening the white conscience – what he called the “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time." The time is now to do what is right.
In his last sermon, King explained what awakened his faith to the human revolution taking place. It was seeing the poor throughout Latin America; Africa; Asia; coming to the realization that God’s children went to bed hungry at night; slept on sidewalks at night. Brothers and sisters of ours with no beds to sleep in; no houses to go in. The vast majority who have never seen a doctor or a dentist. These people brought him more deeply to faith.
King said, as he noticed these things, something within him cried out, "Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?" he started thinking of the fact that in America millions are spent to store surplus food, and he thought, "I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night."
In that last sermon King notes that his discipleship was fashioned by 40 million people in our own country that were poverty-stricken. In the ghettos of the North; in the rural areas of the South; in Appalachia – King found deplorable situations that left him crying. What ate at King’s heart was the knowledge that we have the resources to get rid of poverty. We lack however the will.
King was awakened to the fact that nothing would be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion and became true disciples of Jesus. Because King noted: “There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. I believe today that there is a need for all people of goodwill to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. with a federal holiday tomorrow, it’s important to remember that back in the 1960s, King had many, many critics. He was considered the most dangerous man in America by the FBI. Most of the country didn’t like him. He was trashed, rejected, and dismissed. He was hated and maligned. He would probably be stunned at the turn-around of his image, and he would probably be disturbed, perhaps think his message sanitized for popular consumption. Jesus said in Mark 6:4, "Prophets are honored by everyone, except the people of their hometown and their relatives and their own family." Just as Martin was maligned in his day. we recall that Jesus was also criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners, he was constantly tested, plotted against and ultimately put to death by the religious and political establishment that felt so threatened and challenged by him. Being a disciple of Jesus, like Martin was, means being willing to stand alone. To take the heat. To be rejected, dismissed, criticized, have people talk behind your back. To plot against you. Discipleship means taking the narrow path. The hard path. To carry the cross.
Today, through King’s words that were spoken 55 years ago, we are awakened to faith. We are called to reform in us what isn’t in line with the gospel of love, truth and righteousness. Like King Sr., who was awakened in Germany as Hitler took control -- we must be awakened in the trials of our time – that very same issues of racism, poverty and warfare. Will we be like Rip, busy with our technological distractions, and not see what is happening around us? A revolution of conscience is taking place. It is calling us. Let us hear the call: “Come and see.” Let us take on the mantle of discipleship and follow Jesus, Like Martin – both father and son. Amen.