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. –Luke 6:35-36

Today is the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday; had he lived, he would be 91. This weekend, across this nation, people will be gathered for prayer and community service to give thanks for Dr. King’s life, ministry and witness. Unfortunately, I fear that a people once clearly reminded of Dr. King’s dream have begun to forget and succumb to the notion that this is nothing more than a well-appreciated holiday weekend.

In my study at our Synod Office, a portrait of Dr. King hangs over my desk, opposite a portrait of his namesake, Martin Luther. That portrait, a gift from the Black Student Union at Gettysburg College in 1999, reminds me of mine and our collective responsibility to embody a daring hope for justice, equality and reconciliation in every generation.

“I have a dream.”

“Let freedom ring.”

“I’ve been to the mountaintop.”

Dr. King’s legacy looms large over those of us who preach, in season and out. His prophetic fire and pastoral voice continue to challenge us to a deeper, richer understanding of God’s vision for the world; and inspires us from comfortable places of civility to courage and action for sake of God’s love for us and neighbor. It’s easy to be inspired and stirred by Dr. King’s life and witness.

Henry Hampton, who directed Eyes on the Prize, tells a story about how Martin Luther King Jr., who wasn’t interested in becoming the leader of the civil rights movement, took those first tentative steps into the fray. King thought it wasn’t time, and he wondered about the integrity of the worshipping community and political activity; he thought the strategy of boycott and sit-ins might not be well received and would divide the church. As a youngish, new pastor of a congregation, he didn’t want to stir up the waters – not just yet. He wanted to establish himself, make sure he could secure his job and be able to help his community from a stronger position. Dr. King was a reluctant leader, an unlikely prophet – and a nervous parish pastor.

Despite King’s misgivings, some elders in the church went ahead with planning a church meeting anyway, essentially announcing to him, “We’re having the meeting tomorrow night, whether you’re there or not. Hope to see you there.”

King was set up. If he didn’t show, he would look like a young pastor who didn’t really know what was happening at his church, didn’t show leadership, and didn’t support very necessary community events. If he did show, his credibility, his reputation, his job – and his life – were all at stake.

Most of Dr. King’s confreres testify that he didn’t agree with all of the strategies of the civil rights movement and that he wrestled over the call to be pastor, prophet and leader in community. He wasn’t certain, he was faithful; certainly not knowing where all this would lead.

I have been especially struck by these words of Dr. King from “The Death of Evil upon the Seashore” (May 17, 1956): Let us not despair. Let us not lose faith in man and certainly not in God. We must believe that a prejudiced mind can be changed, and that man, by the grace of God, can be lifted from the valley of hate to the high mountain of love.

Let us remember that as we struggle against Egypt, we must have love, compassion and understanding goodwill for those against whom we struggle, helping them to realize that as we seek to defeat the evils of Egypt we are not seeking to defeat them but to help them, as well as ourselves.

God has a great plan for this world. His purpose is to achieve a world where all men will live together as brothers, and where every man recognizes the dignity and worth of all human personality.

God is seeking at every moment of His existence to lift men from the bondage of some evil Egypt, carrying them through the wilderness of discipline and finally to the promised land of personal and social integration.

May it not be that this is entirely within the realm of possibility? I prefer to live by the faith that the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

We live and die by wrestling with the same uncertainties Dr. King experienced, central to our careers and relationships, central to our search for meaning and relevance, central to our desire to live lives that make a difference. Faith invites us to carry these questions with us; faith invites us to act on these questions, for the love of God and neighbor.

As we observe the King Commemoration this weekend, similar issues and chaos surround us 50+ years later. Economic injustice is rampant. War looms large. The marginalized are still pressed in the margins. The church is feeling those tensions. I sense, perhaps, we need to wrestle with the same questions that Dr. King knew in his time and place.

Courage, friends: this is God’s church – and God’s world – may we go as God leads; stirred from comfort into action, from complacency to love.

Jesus said, “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.” –Luke 6:27-36