Because Martin Luther King, Jr. was so important in our country, politically, leading the Civil Rights Movement, it may be easy to forget that his title was Reverend. His roots and life lay in Christianity and spirituality. All the wonderful speeches he made that are still well-known today, 40 years after his assassination, sprang from Dr. King’s life in the Baptist Church. His beautiful oratory resonates with the poetry and images of the King James Bible. (See, for instance, “I have a Dream” (State Dept. Text and Text and Video at American Rhetoric.com ) Or Rev. King’s powerful “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Text at Stanford University)
You can reconnect with the Reverend side of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a wonderful website hosted by Stanford, A Knock at Midnight, Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a small selection of the many sermons Reverend King delivered during a life that centered on pastoring in the Baptist Church. You can order a book of that title, or browse through a selection of sermons from two decades, with transcripts and audio excerpts. I recommend sampling either a full speech or at least some audio excerpts. Unless you have heard the powerful rhythms of King’s oratory, you are only experiencing a shadow of his speeches. This was a man who lived the great oral traditions of American preachers.
I want to feature a snippet from Rev. King’s sermon on March 3, 1968, “Unfulfilled Dreams.” The timing and title are poignant, as Dr. King was assassinated on April 4 that same year. Recognize that this text is a transcript with occasional comments in parentheses from the congregation.
So many of us in life start out building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them. Because life is like Schubert’s "Unfinished Symphony." At so many points we start, we try, we set out to build our various temples. And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.King goes on to illustrate unfulfilled dreams in King David’s dream to build a temple in Israel, Ghandi’s efforts to unite the Indian subcontinent, President Wilson’s efforts to build the League of Nations, and the Apostle Paul’s dream to carry Christianity to Spain. He continues,...
And each of you this morning in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes. Some of us are trying to build a temple of peace. We speak out against war, we protest, but it seems that your head is going against a concrete wall. It seems to mean nothing. (Glory to God) And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered.As the congregants would say, Amen, Yes, sir!
Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: "It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. (Yes) It’s well that you are trying." (Yes it is) You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. (Yes) It’s well that it’s in thine heart.
. In the final analysis, God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives. In the final analysis, God knows (Yes) that his children are weak and they are frail. (Yes, he does) In the final analysis, what God requires is that your heart is right. (Amen, Yes) Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it’s being in the process and on the right road. (Yes)
And the question I want to raise this morning with you: is your heart right? (Yes, Preach) If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today; get God to fix it up. (Go ahead) Get somebody to be able to say about you, "He may not have reached the highest height, (Preach it) he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried." (Yes) Isn’t that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? "He tried to be a good man. (Yes) He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. (Yes) His heart was in the right place." (Yes) And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, "I accept you. (Preach it) You are a recipient of my grace because it was in your heart. (Yes) And it is so well that it was within thine heart." (Yes, sir)
I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. (Yes, sir, That’s my life) You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. (Yes) I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children. But I want to be a good man. (Yes, Preach it) And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, "I take you in and I bless you, because you try. (Yes, Amen) It is well (Preach it) that it was within thine heart.”
Oh this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure that you have a strong boat of faith. [laughter] The winds are going to blow. (Yes) The storms of disappointment are coming. (Yes) The agonies and the anguishes of life are coming. (Yes, sir) And be sure that your boat is strong, and also be very sure that you have an anchor. (Amen) In times like these, you need an anchor. And be very sure that your anchor holds. (Yes, Glory to God)
It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come. But if you have faith in the God that I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter. (Yes) For you can stand up amid the storms. And I say it to you out of experience this morning, yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. (Yes, sir) I’ve heard the thunder roll. (Yes) I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus, saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, (Yes, sir) never to leave me alone. (Thank you, Jesus) No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me. Never to leave me alone. (Glory to God)
And when you get this faith, you can walk with your feet solid to the ground and your head to the air, and you fear no man. (Go ahead) And you fear nothing that comes before you. (Yes, sir) Because you know that God is even in Crete. (Amen) If you ascend to the heavens, God is there. If you descend to hell, God is even there. If you take the wings of the morning and fly out to the uttermost parts of the sea, even God is there. Everywhere we turn we find him. We can never escape him.