Today in the United States we are honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., commemorating his extraordinary life and way he changed US society for the better. We have by no means realized the “dream” for which King is so famous, nor have we realized the beautiful community he envisioned, but because of the lingering power of his words and his work, we are still marching on, working to make his dream a reality.
As I have been thinking about him in these past few weeks, I have been going back and re-reading many of his letters, speeches and sermons—boy, could that man preach! And, for whatever reason, this time what struck me the most was how strongly rooted his vision and his passion were in his deep faith and his sense of calling; and it’s his sense of call that I want to focus on here.
There is no question that King was called by God to do amazing, transformative work—work that ultimately got him killed. And, in reading King’s words, I was struck by how, throughout his writings, even as he is exhorting his supporters to continue their work for peace and justice, he returns again and again to his confidence in God’s support and abiding presence.
In his “Give Us the Ballot” address at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, he says the following. “Let us not despair,” he proclaims, for in the “struggle for justice and freedom, we have cosmic companionship.” And repeatedly in his calls for love over hate, he roots the strength of that love in Christ, and rests his hope in the transformative power of that love in God’s in-breaking into our here-and-now.
Throughout his ministry, over and over again, King deflected attention off himself and back to God—God was King’s rock: the source of his inspiration, his determination, and his courage. King was able to do remarkable things—things that continue to reverberate in our society today—not because he was an extraordinary man (although he was an extraordinary man), but because of his extraordinary faith in an extraordinary God, and because God worked wonders through him.
All of us who are called by God can continue to learn from King today, I think, to make that same turn—focusing attention on God and God’s work, instead of thinking that we have to do it all on our own. This is something we see over and over again in Scripture, and only those who give the Bible a mere cursory reading would assume that God calls the worthy, the virtuous, the fit. Because if you take just a little bit of a deeper dive into the Bible, a very different picture emerges. For example, in what is surely one of the most powerful call experiences of the Bible, God calls Moses—a murderer—from a burning bush. In what is surely one of the most significant call experiences for the Jewish people, God calls David—a voyeuristic predator and at the very least a murderer by proxy. God calls Rahab, a prostitute, and makes the Israelites’ entry into Canaan dependent on her faithfulness. God calls Paul, a violent religious zealot, who has to be knocked senseless before he is able to hear the word of God and respond. And, in my favorite call narrative, that of Isaiah, after Isaiah bemoans his unworthiness, a live coal is placed on his lips by a seraphim, such that when God speaks the timeless question God asks of God’s people over and over again, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” Isaiah is able to respond,“Here am I. Send me!”
I find all this very reassuring. God calls all of us into this motley assortment of servants—not because of anything we have done, but because of what God is doing in us; not because of who we are, but because of who God is. A calling isn’t a reward for good behavior; it is a free gift of grace that both invites us into God’s work and makes it possible for us to accept God’s invitation. God calls us not because God sees who we are, but because God knows what we can be through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As a Lutheran, I must admit that there are some things about Luther’s theology that I don’t like at all—his Anti-Judaism, in particular—but, not surprisingly, there are some things that I really love. And his understanding of who God calls and why is something I treasure. We see Luther’s thinking here paradigmatically in his Sermon on the Magnificat, and his discussion of Mary. In that text, he manages to simultaneously wrench Mary off the high, high theological pedestal the Catholic Church of his time had placed her, and instead set her in a privileged place of honor where she stands as a model for us in our own relationship with God and God’s call.
In Luther’s reading, God calls Mary—a poor, backwater unwed teenager to be theotokos, the Mother of God. And, for Luther, what is of supreme importance in the exchange between the angel and Mary is not any state of supposed holiness or purity or virginity that Mary herself possessed, but rather simply that God regarded her. And in that “regard”—God sees her, knows her and chooses her, chooses her as God’s partner, a “co-creator” (small “c”) in the work of the incarnation. Thus, her elevation has nothing to do with some kind of extraordinary moral standard that she supposedly embodies but rather what God is doing in and through her.
We see this so clearly in King’s life, I think; in my view, he wonderfully embodies Luther’s insight. In King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (August 28￼, 1963), after describing that dream, he says, “This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation in to a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.” The impossible is made possible not because of his own inherent abilities, but because of what God was doing in King and in others like him.
You and I probably will not change the world the way the King did, but there are many ways to change the world, and we are needed with our own gifts, in our own spaces no less than King was. What a gift, then, that God continues to work wonders through us, too; and that in spite of our flaws, our sin, our brokenness, God makes us worthy to be God’s heart and hands in the world. On this MLK Day, we do well to remember that we, too, have been called, and God is with us still.