The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
I spent much of the day on Thursday reading a volume of sermons by an eminent mid-century theologian. And though these sermons were written 50 or 60 years in the past, there is still a freshness and relevance to them. And that is unfortunate in some ways, because the moral and religious failings these sermons address are still with us.
When we celebrate Martin Luther King Day tomorrow, most of us in America will think of Dr. King as a great civil rights leader, which to be sure, he was. But that is not all he was.
Clayborne Carson, a professor of history at Stanford, writes, “The world saw him as a marching protest leader, but Martin Luther King, Jr., was first and foremost a preacher. ‘In the quiet recesses of my heart,’ he once remarked, ‘I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher.’”  And we know that Dr. King was a great preacher, but when you begin to read his sermons, you come to an understanding of the theology and the faith that informed who he was as a leader.
“As a young man with most of my life ahead of me,” King proclaimed, “I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow…. I’m not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age, but the God who has been our help in ages past, and our hope for years to come, and our shelter in the time of storm, and our eternal home.”  No one knew that King would not grow past middle age before being killed by an assassin’s bullet.
The other thing that was new for me was to understand his theological progressivism. I knew, of course, that he was steeped in the experience of the African-American church and its commitment to social and economic justice, but when you read Dr. King’s sermons, you learn that it really was about justice…not “just us.” His concern was not only for African-Americans, but for all people. Dr. King was also shaped by Colgate Rochester Divinity School, where a half century earlier the theology of the Social Gospel was enunciated most clearly by Walter Rauschenbusch, standing as a counterpoise to fundamentalism, and in many ways, King was the transmitter of the Social Gospel in the mid 20th century.
Like progressive Christians now, King identified a “widespread belief in the minds of many that there is a conflict between science and religion. But,” King writes, “there is no fundamental issue between the two.”  He was in no way a biblical literalist; in fact, many white Evangelical preachers in the South who stood against the civil rights struggle were literalists who used the Bible as a bludgeon, rather than as a source of grace and light.
King speaks in his sermons against materialism and in favor of a lived faith. “It’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life,” King claimed. “We say with our mouths that we believe in him, but we live our lives like he never existed.”  You probably aren’t going to hear that quote on the news tomorrow, because it’s “too religious” for our secular society. But if you don’t understand Dr. King’s faith, you cannot understand Dr. King in any deep and meaningful way.
“We just became so involved in getting our big bank accounts,” King preached, “that we unconsciously forgot about God – we didn’t mean to do it. We became so involved in getting our nice, luxurious cars, and they’re very nice, but we became so involved in it that it became much more convenient to ride out to the beach on a Sunday afternoon than to come to church that morning. It was an unconscious thing – we didn’t mean to do it. We became so involved and fascinated by the intricacies of television that we found it a little more convenient to stay at home than to come to church. It was an unconscious thing – we didn’t mean to do it.”  Thank God his parishioners didn’t have the temptations of the internet, Netflix, and skiing! Seriously, he was calling his congregation out to remind them of what it means to be faithful. In another sermon he claimed, “You are more concerned about making a living than making a life.”  Think of the contrast between Dr. King’s theology and today’s “prosperity gospel.”
I also discovered a short sentence that hit me like a rock. I want you to listen to this sentence and don’t think about the situation in the late 1950s…I want you to think about what it means today. “Social problems and racism in particular are moral and spiritual problems that create political and economic consequences.” Listen to that again: “Social problems and racism in particular are moral and spiritual problems that create political and economic consequences.” 
That we have a president whose administration imprisons children on our border…that is a moral and a spiritual problem: his and ours. That we have a shut-down government denying work to federal employees and contractors…that is a moral and a spiritual problem: his and ours. That we are witnessing a rise in hate crimes…that is a moral and a spiritual problem: his and ours. Do we have a moral and spiritual problem to address in this country?
Dr. King said, “One cannot worship the false god of nationalism and the God of Christianity at the same time. The two are incompatible.” We call the worship of false gods idolatry, and it is a violation of the first commandment. Can you say “America First” and call yourself a Christian?
The economic and political consequences that we live with today are the manifestation, the consequence, the result of the undealt-with moral and spiritual problems that haunt this nation. We need to deal with our national obsession with material things, with the avarice that drives our economy, with ongoing racism that eats away at our nation. These are moral and spiritual problems.
And one of the consequences that Dr. King didn’t live to see is that we are killing God’s planet as well as God’s people. We need a church that is willing to speak out as the conscience of our society, and we need a government willing to get tough, work across the aisle, and make hard choices that address the moral and spiritual problems that cause such suffering. “The church must be reminded,” King preached, “that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”  Congregations like ours must claim that mantle, but it means we need to focus not just on charity, but on the work of systemic justice, as we are doing on the border, with our police, with affordable housing.
One of the things that Dr. King knew and experienced is that doing the work of social justice requires risks and is incredibly taxing. It exhausts those who stand up for the oppressed. And he knew in the depths of his soul that his faith in God was what gave him and the movement the kind of spiritual resiliency that made change in the long term possible. Without roots extending deep into the soil of faith, the tree of social justice will wither and blow over in a strong wind.
When Mary tells her son that the wine has run out, Jesus says to his mother, “My time has not yet come.” In other words, his time to die is not yet arrived. But then he asks the steward to bring the jars and fill them with water. And he changes them into wine.
Jesus shows up at just the right moment, and even though time seems out of joint to him, he proceeds because he sees what is needed: the people need to taste and see that God is good. Sometimes situations call forth leaders who are needed in the moment, and I sense that God called Martin Luther King, Jr., into the moment when America needed him most. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a mystic, scholar, and activist said, “The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King.” The man had incredible gifts, talents and abilities that were ripe for that Kairos moment of American in the 1950s and 60s. He was not Jesus turning water into wine, but he was a prophet, showing this nation and the world a third way, a nonviolent path toward spiritual, moral, and social transformation.
Who will turn water into wine for our nation today?
There is much we can do today as the heirs of Dr. King’s spiritual legacy. We can use our faith as our bedrock as we lift our voices to speak out against racism, police violence, white nationalism, jingoism, economic injustice, and unjust immigration policy. But we need to lift every voice and sing…we need to stand up and let our voices be heard, in the halls of Congress, in the voting booth, in the public square.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him. O fear the Lord, you, his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.” 
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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