An orator with few peers, Martin Luther King, Jr. towers as a shining example of speech and homiletics (the art of preaching). What I would give to hear him speak in the flesh! I remember in elementary school watching a recording of his famous “I Have A Dream” speech before MLK holiday. Despite my barely workable English then I was in trance as he repeated “I have a dream that one day…” I thought then and still do today: this man can speak!
King is a magnificent man, though not perfect (we do well to keep in mind some of his glaring mistakes and praise Coretta Scott King for her charity). He saw with piercing clarity refracted by deep love for all humanity, affectionately called “the beloved community.” This short collection of sermons exhibits King’s expert qualities.
King is a model-worthy preacher for many reasons. He repeats but is not repetitive; he decorates each repetition differently to make them feel novel yet familiar. He touches his audience in real-time; King is aware of the day-to-day of his listeners. He expands local sight to global perspective, and vice versa; he connects individuals to the world: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly” (“The Man Who Was a Fool”). He also expands the now to include the not-yet; King acknowledges the present and painful evils of racism, poverty, and militarism but also sees in and beyond them the long arm of God’s justice and love at work: “The dawn will come.” He tightly weaves social action with spirituality; instead of some physical force, King encourages “soul-force,” or a kind of resilience that only comes from spiritual maturity and charity.
All 16 sermons are useful and delightful, but four stand out in particular: “On Being a Good Neighbor,” “Loving Your Enemies,” “Antidotes for Fear,” and “The Drum Major Instinct,” especially this last one—I’ve read it multiple times, and it never fails to move me. Nearly 60 years since still his words ring frightfully relevant:
And I would submit to you this morning that what is wrong in the world today is that the nations of the world are engaged in a bitter, colossal contest for supremacy. And if something doesn’t happen to stop this trend, I’m sorely afraid that we won’t be here to talk about Jesus Christ and about God and about brotherhood too many more years. (“The Drum Major Instinct”)
The highlight for me is when he shared what he hoped his eulogy would say:
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to be able to say that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Dear, King, I’d say it. You did love deeply, and I hope for the same thing for myself that day.