Thanks to everyone who attended the Listening to Rising Generations discussion with Mark Yaconelli, Bishop Mariann, and the Rev. Canon Anne-Marie Jeffery on Friday, January 28. We heard powerful testimonials from four young adults of the diocese and Mark Yaconelli cast a Holy Spirit infused-vision of what’s possible when elders take the time to make genuine connections with the youth and young adults in our communities.
As we continue the work of prioritizing rising generations, we seek your engagement and reflections on how this evening has inspired you.
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Want a replay of the event? Here’s the recording on our YouTube channel.
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Creciendo Joven: 6 Estrategias Esenciales para Ayudar a los Jóvenes a Descubrir y Amar a Tu Iglesia
Todas las iglesias envejecen. Las iglesias estratégicas se vuelven jóvenes.
-Kara Power, Jake Mulder y Brad Griffin, autores de Growing Young (Creciendo Joven).
El sentimiento más común que escucho en las visitas congregacionales es el deseo de atraer a los jóvenes, como si estuvieran en un planeta lejano. Pero, de hecho, hay jóvenes en nuestras congregaciones, en nuestras familias y en nuestros vecindarios.
Es cierto que la mayoría de nuestras congregaciones tienen una edad mediana mucho más mayor que sus vecindarios. Y que la pandemia y sus consecuencias han afectado especialmente a los jóvenes y a las familias con niños. Por lo tanto, a medida que dirigimos nuestra mirada colectiva como una diócesis al ministerio con y entre las nuevas generaciones, tenemos algo que escuchar y orar.
¿Por dónde mejor comenzar que con los jóvenes adultos en nuestras congregaciones? Este viernes por la tarde, como inicio de nuestra Convención Diocesana, escucharemos los testimonios de cuatro jóvenes adultos en nuestra diócesis. La conversación será guiada por nuestro orador invitado, Mark Yaconelli, fundador y director ejecutivo de The Hearth, que tiene 20 años de experiencia trabajando con los jóvenes y las personas que los atienden.
Todos son bienvenidos. Si aún no se ha registrado, puede hacerlo aquí. Mi esperanza es que la reunión del viernes nos inspire a escuchar de nuevo los pensamientos, sentimientos y experiencias de vida de los jóvenes que conocemos y amamos, y luego imaginar cómo nuestras congregaciones pueden convertirse en comunidades que sirven bien a las generaciones venideras. Es una de las principales prioridades de nuestro plan estratégico que comenzamos a abordar con seriedad este año.
Además de escuchar a los jóvenes en nuestras vidas, podemos aprender de congregaciones cuyos esfuerzos entre las generaciones crecientes están dando fruto. Un recurso excelente es de un estudio nacional de más de 250 congregaciones que están involucrando exitosamente a jóvenes adultos (edades 15-29) y como resultado están creciendo espiritual, misionera y numéricamente. Sus conclusiones son capturados en el libro Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Creciendo Joven: 6 Estrategias Esenciales para Ayudar a los Jóvenes a Descubrir y Amar a Tu Iglesia).
Es un estudio alentador, porque las congregaciones destacadas son diversas en tamaño, denominación, geografía e identidad cultural / racial (más de la mitad eran congregaciones de color).
Más buenas noticias: las estrategias identificadas no nos obligan a convertirnos en algo que no somos. Sin embargo, requieren un compromiso para invertir en los jóvenes. Para aquellos de nosotros que ya no somos jóvenes, nos piden que renunciemos con gracia a nuestra primacía en la vida congregacional. Como escriben los autores, “tomar la decisión intencional de priorizar desproporcionadamente a los jóvenes es el punto de inflexión entre el crecimiento joven y el crecimiento viejo”.
Las estrategias son 6:
- Desbloquear el acceso al liderazgo para capacitar a otros, especialmente a los jóvenes.
- Empatizar con los jóvenes de hoy, poniéndose en los zapatos de esta generación.
- Tomar en serio el mensaje de Jesús y dar la bienvenida a los jóvenes en una forma de vida centrada en Jesús.
- Alimentar una comunidad de calidad y aspirar a experiencias significativas entre pares e intergeneracionales.
- Priorizar a los jóvenes (y a las familias) en todas partes y buscar formas creativas de apoyarlos, recursos e involucrarlos en todas las facetas de su congregación.
- Ser los mejores vecinos y equipar a los jóvenes para que sirvan a otros, tanto a nivel local como global.
He aquí una invitación: Si desea reunir a un grupo pequeño o patrocinar un estudio de toda la congregación de Growing Young, la Escuela de Fe Cristiana y Liderazgo proporcionará hasta cuatro copias gratuitas del libro. Nuestra única estipulación es que usted identifica al grupo de antemano, identifica sus metas en la lectura, y cuando termine, déjenos saber lo que usted ha aprendido y la intención de qué hacer como resultado. Por favor envíe un correo electrónico a la Reverenda Jenifer Gamber para más información.
Me doy cuenta de que nuestras congregaciones que disfrutaron de ministerios con jóvenes animados, jóvenes adultos y familias antes de COVID han visto una disminución dramática en su compromiso. Ha sido desalentador, pero eso no significa que debamos rendirnos. Seguramente hay maneras en que podemos aprender a llegar, con corazones abiertos y atentos.
Al igual que con los objetivos estratégicos que hemos abordado hasta ahora, nuestro enfoque en las nuevas generaciones no será un tema que se debe controlar, sino una inversión sostenida hacia un futuro preferido. Tampoco estamos empezando de cero, porque somos bendecidos con muchos líderes jóvenes talentosos y apasionados. Lo nuevo es el nivel de nuestra intención, compromiso y medidas de rendición de cuentas. Que 2022 sea el año que recordemos como nuestro punto de inflexión y el cambio hacia el crecimiento joven.
The 6 Commitments of Churches Growing Young
All churches grow old. Strategic churches grow young.
–Kara Power, Jake Mulder, and Brad Griffin, authors of Growing Young
The most common sentiment I hear on congregational visitations is a desire to reach young people, as if they were on a far off planet. But in fact there are young people in our congregations, in our families, and in our neighborhoods.
It’s true that most of our congregations have a median age much older than their neighborhoods. And that the pandemic and its consequences have hit young people and families with children particularly hard. Thus as we turn our collective gaze as a diocese to ministry with and among rising generations, we have some listening and praying to do.
Where better to begin than with the young adults in our congregations? This Friday evening, as the start to our Diocesan Convention, we will listen to the testimonies of four young adults in our diocese. The conversation will be guided by our guest speaker, Mark Yaconelli, Founder and Executive Director of The Hearth, who has 20 years’ experience working with young people and the people who serve them.
All are welcome. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do so here. My hope is that Friday’s gathering will inspire us to listen anew to the thoughts, feelings and life experiences of the young people we know and love, and then imagine how our congregations can become communities that serve rising generations well. It is one of the top priorities of our strategic plan that we begin to address in earnest this year.
In addition to listening to the young people in our lives, we can learn from congregations whose efforts among rising generations are bearing fruit. An excellent resource is from a national study of over 250 congregations that are successfully engaging young adults (ages 15-29) and as a result are growing spiritually, missionally and numerically. Its findings are captured in the book Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church.
It is an encouraging study, because the congregations highlighted are diverse in size, denomination, geography, and cultural/racial identity (over half were congregations of color).
More good news: the strategies identified do not require us to become something we are not. They do, however, require a commitment to invest in young people. For those of us who are no longer young, they ask us to gracefully give up our primacy in congregational life. As the authors write, “Making the intentional decision to disproportionately prioritize young people is the inflection point between growing young and growing old.”
The 6 strategies are:
- Unlock keychain leadership to empower others, especially young people.
- Empathize with today’s young people, stepping into the shoes of this generation.
- Take Jesus’ message seriously and welcome young people into a Jesus-centered way of life.
- Fuel a Warm Community and aim for meaningful peer and intergenerational experiences.
- Prioritize Young People (and Families) everywhere and look for creative ways to tangibly support, resource and involve them in all facets of your congregation.
- Be the best neighbors and equip young people to serve others, both locally and globally.
Here is an invitation: if you would like to gather a small group or sponsor a congregation-wide study of Growing Young, the School for Christian Faith and Leadership will provide up to four free copies of the book. Our only stipulation is that you identify the group in advance, identify your goals in reading, and when finished, let us know what you’ve learned and intend to do as a result. Please email the Rev. Jenifer Gamber for more information.
I realize that our congregations that enjoyed ministries with lively youth, young adults and families before COVID have seen a dramatic decline in their engagement. It’s been discouraging, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. Surely there are ways we can learn to reach out, with open and listening hearts.
As with the strategic goals we addressed thus far, our focus on rising generations will not be an item to check off, but a sustained investment toward a preferred future. Nor are we starting from nothing, for we are blessed with many gifted and passionate young leaders. What is new is the level of our intention, commitment, and measures of accountability. May 2022 be the year we remember as our inflection point and shift toward growing young.
“Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness”
For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.
Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6, 810.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ… If one member suffers, all suffer together.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Jesus… Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
In the name of God, Amen.
On the day that I am here because of a painful parting and resulting confusion and grief at the center of your congregation, the appointed Scripture texts remind us why people of faith gather in community at all. Each in their distinct contexts describe the powerful faith experiences that can occur in a communal setting and, in the case of St. Paul’s image of a body made up of dependent parts, why we need each other. We’re connected to each other, he writes, whether we realize it or not. When one suffers, we all suffer.
While this is only the third Sunday in the liturgical season of Epiphany, a time when the Scripture readings in church invite us to consider the ways Jesus makes himself known to us as light for the world, it seems that the next liturgical season, that of Lent, has come early for St. Paul’s, Rock Creek.
Lent, you may recall, is patterned on Jesus’ forty days of trial and testing in the wilderness and the forty years the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness before entering their promised land. To be sure, due to the pandemic, the entire world has been in a prolonged season of trial and testing. Now, as a congregation, you have been thrust into your own particular wilderness time, for some of you with seemingly little or no warning. For others, however, it’s been a wilderness at St. Paul’s for quite a while.
One of the defining characteristics of a wilderness experience is not knowing how or when it will end. Forty in Scripture is a symbolic number, signifying a long, uncertain time. While there will be guideposts and processes to guide you, the journey ahead is full of unknowns, including how long it will last. On the other hand, thankfully, wilderness experiences, however long, are not meant to last forever, even though it may seem that way while we’re in one. We’re actually heading somewhere else.
When we find ourselves in a wilderness that we did not choose to enter, the first thing we have to decide is if we can accept that we’re there. Acceptance is not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, or at the same time for everyone. That’s okay. You may never agree as to how and why St. Paul’s landed in this wilderness, and that’s understandable. But you are here now, and if it’s any comfort, so am I. I’m here with you.
Another decision we have to make is how we will travel through the wilderness. One way is to get through it as fast as we can, which is what we all would prefer. Choosing to move quickly has the advantage of being here for as short a time as possible, presuming everything goes well. With a bit of luck, we make it through the wilderness and arrive safely on the other side, not much changed by the experience. What’s difficult about this approach is the emotional impact that can occur when things don’t go according to plan. Then this get-through-it-as-fast-as possible mindset can lead to added frustration, anger, and despair.
Another way to travel through a wilderness is to turn around and leave the way we came in. This is only an option in the wilderness experiences that we enter by choice, when it’s still possible to change our minds. I think about this a lot in terms of lifestyle choices. We can enter the wilderness of making uncomfortable changes in advance of a crisis–adjusting our health practices, or investing in our relationships, or facing an inevitable change sooner rather than later so as to have more options. But in those instances, having entered the wilderness by choice, we can also choose to turn around. Perhaps we underestimated the cost, and the changes were way harder than we realized. Maybe we got scared. Making the choice to enter the wilderness before it is thrust upon us is a good idea, but it’s really hard to do. If we don’t, however, invariably the wilderness will come to us–in the form of a medical crisis, or a permanently ruptured relationship, or a forced change.
Of course this is easier to see in other people’s lives than it is in our own. For over five years my sister and I begged our mother to make changes in her life as she aged. She would dabble in the possibility of selling her nearly 200-year old house on 7 acres of land, find a less remote place to live, and tend more carefully to her health. But she couldn’t bring herself to follow through on any of those changes. Then she got really sick and almost died, and my sister and I had to move in and make all those changes for her, which she hated and I don’t blame her.
Sometimes we can choose to enter a wilderness; sometimes it comes to us. I daresay one of the dynamics at St. Paul’s, and in The Episcopal Church writ large, is coming to terms now with issues we ought to have dealt years ago, but didn’t. Now we have to face them because we have no choice.
A third way to travel through the wilderness is to make our peace with where we are. We don’t often begin the wilderness journey with this attitude; it comes to us when we realize that we’ve gone too far to turn back, the horizon is still beyond our sight, and we are going to be where we are for a while. It’s a sober realization, but it allows us to relax into the experience, and learn from it what we need to learn. This is when the wilderness can change us, so that when we leave, we are different people. Sometimes it feels as if we’ll never leave, but we learn to make our peace with that prospect, too. A yoga teacher once described this to me as “finding peace in a difficult position.”
In both the passage from Nehemiah and the Gospel of Luke, it strikes me that the people gathered are hearing sacred words read to them that they’ve heard many times before. But they are hearing them now with new ears, as if for the first time, because of their circumstances. In the case of the people of Israel, the words of Torah had been lost to them through the trauma of exile and return, the loss of their mother tongue, and the lack of consistent spiritual leadership. Now as Ezra stood before them, reading the old familiar words, the people wept. They wept for joy and for grief, for all that they had lost and all that lay before them. In the midst of their tears, Ezra said to them. “The joy of the Lord,” he said, “will be your strength.”
Similarly, the people gathered in the synagogue the morning Jesus got up to read had heard the words of Isaiah before, but they heard them differently because he was reading them. More than that, he embodied them in a way they had never experienced before. The words were fulfilled in their hearing, and even before Jesus said it, they knew it was true. Now, as you will hear next week if you come to church, the people didn’t like what Jesus had to say after that and they kicked him out. It turns out that we’re all slow learners when it comes to following Jesus. There’s room for humility all around.
In the weeks ahead, should you remain faithful in worship at St. Paul’s, you will hear words you’ve heard before, because there will be a new person speaking them. You will hear yourself recite familiar words in a new way because of where you are now as a church. And it won’t be just the words in church, but everywhere. You do well to pay attention to the familiar things now, because in the wilderness they are all new.
After all, what does one do in a wilderness time? What is the work?
The first task is to pay attention, not necessarily to do anything differently right away, but to listen and observe the world, and ourselves in it, from this new vantage point.
About 12 years ago, my husband gave me a book of poetry by Mary Oliver for Christmas, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I already owned a copy. Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t looked at the book since I bought it several years before, and that maybe it had something new to say to me. I had been through a lot in the year before that Christmas, including a really big disappointment in my vocation. (This is when I came in second in the bishop’s election in Minnesota, where I had served as a rector for 15 years.)
I opened the book of poetry to read it from this new vantage point in my life. The first line of the first poem took my breath away: “My work is loving the world.” She goes on: “Are my boots old? Is my coat torn? Am I no longer young and still not half-perfect? Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.”1 There’s something about the wilderness that stops normal life in its tracks, and that’s a good thing. It enables us to see the world around us, and to hear familiar words, as if for the first time.
Another wilderness task is to take stock of our lives, and in this instance, your life as a community of faith. Taking stock is an excellent way to keep our focus where we can actually do something productive, rather than wallowing in self-pity or blaming others for our lot. The Benedictine author Joan Chittister puts it this way: “Courage, character, self-reliance, and faith are forged in the fire of affliction. We wish it were otherwise. But if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”2 As we learn these things, we can face almost anything. And that, by the way, is the hallmark of coming out of a wilderness: you are stronger, more resilient for having lived through it, so that you can face the future without fear.
One last wilderness task that I’ll mention for today: tend to the most important things. There’s little time for trivia in the wilderness–this is a time to remember why you are here. I realize that the range of emotion and interpretation of what has happened is broad among you, and it would be tempting to walk away from your community. I pray that you won’t, and that you retreat to corner tables of observation and critique. I pray that you tend to the priceless, and at times costly gift of Christian community and what, at its best, it offers you and through you can offer others: a path to walk and a light to go by; a different reference point from what the world teaches about success and failure and self-worth; and most especially, the invitation to draw closer to Jesus as your Savior and friend.
In closing, let me assure you that there is no one right way to experience the wilderness. As you face what lies ahead, it’s good to remember that there is always more than one right answer, always more than one possibility before you, and always a chance to start again. That’s especially comforting when things don’t go as we hoped or planned. There’s always a Plan B.
The author Anne Lamott once offered these words as her Plan B at a time when she was at a loss for what to do next. They strike me as a good Plan A in a wilderness time:
Remember God is in charge.
Do your inner work.
Be of service.
Gracious God, I hold before you the people of St. Paul’s, Rock Creek and ask that you would make yourself known to each one in a powerful way. Guide them through this wilderness time; assure them of your presence with them through Jesus, and give them a glimpse of the preferred future you have in mind for them. Help them to breathe, remember that you are in charge, do their inner work, breathe again, and give thanks. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
1“Messengers,” by Mary Oliver, in Thirst (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006), 1.
2Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 33.
3Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (San Francisco: Riverhead Books, 2005), p. 314.
To Know and Follow Jesus: Lessons from King’s Life
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I’m honored to be here, to pray with those who are to be confirmed, received, and are reaffirming their faith, and to worship God with all the congregation of St. John’s, Beltsville. Before I say more, let me express my gratitude to your good rector, the Rev. Joseph Constant, for his ministry, and the good clergy, staff, and lay leaders who serve alongside him. I also want to thank those who serve in diocesan leadership from St. John’s. As a congregation, you are a blessing to us all.
I’d like to speak directly to those who will soon stand before God to make a public affirmation of faith. Today is meant to be an occasion of blessing for you, as you publicly state your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus. This isn’t an endpoint for you in faith, as if you were graduating from Sunday School, or having learned all you need to know about following Jesus through a six-week course. This is one moment–an important one–in a lifelong journey of faith. Like any journey it will have twists and turns, unexpected circumstances and new opportunities, and most significantly, the ongoing invitation to grow in your knowledge of God, grow your sense of God’s love for you and your love for God, and deeper appreciation of how God is guiding you toward the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of the young people being confirmed today had the opportunity to meet a few years ago, likes to tell about the time when he, as a teenager, was having a bit of conflict with his father, who happened to be an Episcopal priest. The Presiding Bishop admits he was a rebel in those years, and also lazy. And in a moment of frustration, his father said to him “You know, son, God didn’t put you on his earth merely to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” His father reminded him that he had a God-given reason for being alive and he needed to figure out what that purpose was. Our Presiding Bishop never forgot father’s words, and it helped him take his life more seriously, as the gift that it is, and the responsibility he had for living it well, as God would have him live.
Today we are all holding you and your precious, singular lives before God. When you come forward and I pray for you, I will ask that God’s Holy Spirit may be revealed to you in personal and powerful ways over the course of your life, so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are precious in God’s sight and here on this earth for holy purposes.
Yesterday when we met, I encouraged each of you to stay close to Jesus, and in particular, to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings that are recorded in the New Testament. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ life, each with a distinct perspective on this man whose entire life–his birth, his teachings, the way he interacted with others, and his death and rising from the dead–that gives us a window into the heart of God. As the Apostle Paul says in one of the letters of the New Testament, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s important for you to know his story, not just as a body of information, but as a means to be in relationship with him. As you read and meditate and question and discuss his teachings, Jesus will speak to you. You will hear him, not always, but at significant times in your life, speaking to you through the words of Scripture, as if they were written for you.
I’d also like to underscore something we talked about yesterday, and that is the gift of Christian community. While there are always challenges in any community, and no church is perfect, one of the great benefits of being part of a congregation like St. John’s is that you get to spend time with some truly remarkable people, whose life and faith are inspiring. And you have the opportunity to learn about other Christians who through their example show us what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Today we remember one such person, arguably the most influential Christian leader in the history of the United States: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow is a federal holiday to honor King, the closest Monday to the day of his birth, which was January 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday. As it was, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was 39 years old.
I don’t know how much you know about Dr. King’s life. He is now recognized as the spiritual leader of what we call the Civil Rights Movement, a sustained effort to overturn laws and customs in this country that deprived African Americans of basic civil rights and gestures of human decency. In many parts of the United States, it was illegal for African Americans to sit in the front seats of buses or trains; it was illegal to drink from the same water fountains as white people. It was perfectly legal in Washington, DC to deny persons of color the right to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhood I live in now and I daresay some of the neighborhoods you live in. All that changed in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the leadership of people like Dr. King and thousands of people who insisted on change. King was one who insisted, in the name of Jesus, that those protests be non-violent and dignified.
Looking back, this country honors King as a hero. But during his lifetime a lot of people hated him and what he stood for. He had to endure all manner of threats against his life and his family. It must have been so disorienting, for he was also a celebrity. Where he spoke, thousands of people would show up to hear him. He inspired a generation to believe that people of different races could live together in peace and goodwill. Yet in the eyes of some, he was the most dangerous man in America.
Today I’d like to tell you two stories from King’s life that give you a sense of his spiritual connection to God, and how he drew his inspiration and strength from Jesus’ life and teachings.
This first comes from a time when Dr. King, as a very young pastor, was chosen to be the leader of what was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was the group that organized a bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama to protest laws that made it illegal for Black people to sit with whites, and relegated them always to seats in the back. That boycott lasted over a year, which meant that African Americans had to find other means of transportation to work (very few owned cars). A lot of people did a lot of walking.
On January 27, 1956, near midnight, King was sitting at his kitchen table alone. He couldn’t sleep because of his worry and fear. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, and the boycott strategy didn’t seem to be working. He had good reason to be afraid, because he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.1
I want each of you to know that when your life is really hard and you don’t know where to turn or what to do next, you can pray the way Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed. Tell God everything that’s on your heart. Then wait and listen for what comes to you. It may be that God will say something similar to what God said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Stand firm. Trust your instincts. It may be some other word: Ask for help. Call someone you trust. Or perhaps It’s time to let go. But whatever you hear–and it may not be hearing, exactly, but a sensation of God’s presence–you will know that you are not alone. God is with you and for you. Moments like these are the foundation of a life of faith, upon which everything we say and do in church is built. Without that foundation, nothing else makes sense.
The second story comes from the end of King’s life, the night before he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis, Tennessee to lend his support to the sanitation workers of the city. These were people who collected garbage from homes and businesses, and they were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. All the front line sanitation workers in Memphis were Black. They were paid what could only be described as starvation wages, and the trucks they drove were so unsafe that workers routinely lost limbs, and two men had recently died. Yet the city leaders refused to make any concessions. Like the Montgomery bus boycott years before, the sanitation workers strike went on far longer than anyone anticipated. The mood in the city had turned violent. The white leadership made it clear that King was not welcome.
No one in KIng’s family or inner leadership circle thought it was a good idea for him to keep going back to Memphis, but he went anyway, three times within the course of a month. He had a lot of reasons for going to Memphis, but in the last speech of his life, he spoke of the most important, which had to do with Jesus and his teachings.
Before thousands of people who had gathered to hear, King reflected upon one of Jesus’ most famous parables. This is what he said:
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Instead of answering the man directly, Jesus told a story about a certain man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho fell among thieves who beat him, took his money, and left him for dead. Two religious leaders came down that road at different times, saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side—they didn’t stop to help. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down off his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the two religious leaders didn’t stop to help the man. At times we say they were on their way to a church meeting, and they had to get on to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonies was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. It’s a winding, meandering road, conducive for ambushing. And you know, it’s possible that the priest and Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And so the first question the priest asked, the first question the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”
But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” That’s the question before you tonight. The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”2
King took his cues from Jesus and his teachings, choosing to do what he thought was loving and just. What happened to King will happen to us when we, too, take Jesus’ stories to heart and try to apply them in our lives. We become more like him, with love like his, compassion like his.
It is an easy life, being a follower of Jesus? No, but it’s a life worth living, a life with purpose, and a sense of his presence with us, and the guiding light of his teachings. It’s a life to which you are now saying yes, and we reaffirm our commitment to follow him alongside you. Stay close to Jesus, and remember we are right here by your side.
1As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simone & Schuster, 1988).
2Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 284-285.