Encounters: “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool” Part II

Lessons from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

March 19, 2021 by

praying hands
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

As the year 2020 breathed its last I was drawn to an African American spiritual, birthed in suffering yet pointing to the Source of healing, which had in turn inspired a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The song is “There is a Balm in Gilead”; the sermon that closed with these words of affirmation and hope is “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.”

When King rose to give voice to what was stirring in his heart on that Sunday in Chicago, he was well aware that the movement he led was embattled and that the path ahead was not going to be easy. Less than six months earlier he had publicly voiced his opposition to the war in Vietnam for the first time, no doubt one source of the “extensive criticisms” from within the ranks that he referenced from the pulpit. He spoke, too, of “living every day under the threat of death,” not knowing that he had only seven months to live. There was still so much to do:

As you know, we are involved in a difficult struggle. It was about a hundred and four years ago that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the Negro from the bondage of physical slavery. And yet we stand here one hundred and four years later, and the Negro still isn’t free. One hundred and four years later, we still have states like Mississippi and Alabama where Negroes are lynched at whim and murdered at will. One hundred and four years later, we must face the tragic fact that the vast majority of Negroes in our country find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred and four years later, fifty percent of the Negro families of our country are forced to live in substandard housing conditions, most of whom do not have wall-to-wall carpets; many of them are forced to live with wall-to-wall rats and roaches. One hundred and four years later, we find ourselves in a situation where even though we live in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal, men are still arguing over whether the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character. Now this tells us that we have a long, long way to go.

And lest King’s listeners forget what empowered the movement in the face of conditions that just didn’t seem to change, he made it clear that at its very core this was a God movement, not a political endeavor; his only motivation was fidelity to the gospel of Jesus Christ:

And I’m going to still need your prayer, I’m going to still need your support. Because the period that we face now is more difficult than any we’ve faced in the past. But this morning I did not come to Mount Pisgah to give a civil rights address; I have to do a lot of that; I have to make numerous civil rights speeches. But before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel. This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. You know, actually all that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry. I have no other ambitions in life but to achieve excellence in the Christian ministry. I don’t plan to run for any political office. I don’t plan to do anything but remain a preacher.

Fast forward to March 2021. King’s words are radical! A leader asking for prayer? Fidelity to the gospel trumping the culture wars? Ministry separated from politics? Just last month Charles Moore blogged that as Christians “we have become far too animated over issues that aren’t Christ’s deepest concerns” and have “embraced agendas and lesser lights that have, over time, convoluted and compromised our true calling,” looking everywhere except “to Christ and his cause.”

Even as Charles grappled with the reality that too many of his fellow believers in Denver “prefer not to be in each other’s company,” something else was happening on the other side of the globe: pastors and members of a dozen churches in and around the small town of Inverell, Australia, were gathered at the Danthonia Bruderhof, specifically around Christ and his cause.

It was a simple affair in true Aussie style: informal food and fellowship, a word from the Inverell Mayor and a handful of other civic leaders, an open mic that engendered open and honest sharing, and a good chat over a “cuppa” and a slice. There was intention, too, beginning with a heartfelt acknowledgment from the gathered church of the region that we have been too slow in truly supporting our civic and public leaders in the challenges they face on a daily basis, and that we all face together.

The immediate context, too, could not have been more poignant. Planned a few months prior, yet the event fell exactly a week after a teenage death in town; a photo and a lit candle in the corner of the hall spoke, better than words could ever have conveyed, our shared grief and our deep desire to do life better together.

Twenty years ago a gathering of this kind would have been unimaginable as denominational divisions ran too deep amid accusations of “sheep stealing” and, for a tiny but vocal minority, Danthonia represented “a dubious American import.” But something else was at work. Over many years, quietly, persistently, and invisibly, a core group of prayer warriors had prayed for the town. Through a series of events this led to a movement of repentance and reconciliation among the churches, culminating in a memorable reconciliation service five years ago this May.

The seeds of the Spirit flourish in the soil of mutual brokenness and a shared understanding that real repentance leads to true and lasting reconciliation. And the fruits of the Spirit must become realities that are tangible and visible to all.

This is what inspired a small group of Inverell pastors to connect with Movement Day, best described as “the whole church with the whole gospel for the whole city” – that is, the acceleration of a gospel movement “determined to find solutions to ‘stubborn facts’ like crime, poverty, apathy, failed educational systems, and unemployment plaguing cities and towns across the world.”

Roger Sutton of Movement Day UK was present at the launch of Movement Day Australia a few years ago and heard the Inverell story. In his book, A Gathering Momentum, he explains that this is not about “ecumenicalism for its own sake, but real relational unity for the sake of mission. The mission is to see spiritual transformation, with people’s lives being changed by meeting Christ, but also to see cultural and social transformation, where a town or city can be affected by the kingdom of God.”

The following lines (emphasis added) were shared among us in early December 2020 as we prepared and prayed for what became the February event. They are from A Disruptive Gospel by Mac Pier who, with Tim Keller, organized the first Movement Day event in New York City in 2010:

As leaders are increasingly present to one another, God is increasingly present to the city. God’s presence is what distinguishes Christianity from every other major world religion. Leaders being physically together fosters the kind of unity in which God’s presence is more palpably experienced. The vibrancy of the gospel in a city is proportionate to the depth of relationship between Christian leaders in the same city. As the unity of the church deepens in a city, so grows the vibrancy of the gospel in that same city.

And so it was that at the first meeting of the Inverell Ministers Fellowship in 2021, three weeks before the gathering at Danthonia, I read these words from King’s 1967 sermon. Think “the new Denver, the new Washington, DC, the new Inverell”:

And what I’m doing in this struggle, along with many others, grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul, but his body. It’s all right to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about the earth. It’s alright to talk about long white robes over yonder, but I want a suit and some shoes to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about the streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven, but I want some food to eat down here. It’s even all right to talk about the new Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.

About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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