You can't be a good Christian if you don't love Al Sharpton
The way this preaching thing works is that most often, a preacher writes a sermon and after it’s all done, she or he thinks about a title, trying to come up with a few words that might serve to interest someone in hearing the sermon. Usually, the sermon comes first. The title comes second.
The title for today’s sermon (“You can’t be a good Christian if you don’t love Al Sharpton”) came to me literally years ago, long before I imagined a sermon to attach it to. I was listening to Cable News performers and politicians who were no champions of civil rights say all sorts of things about Rev. Sharpton who was speaking out on some of the most troubling social justice issues of the times. They didn’t like what he had to say and so they said things designed to make him the issue rather than racial justice or police shootings or income inequality or voting rights.
What he said sounded “Christian” enough to me and a title for a sermon came to mind, but I just couldn’t figure out a sermon to go with the title, that is until Professor Fredrick Douglas Dixon sent me a document he found in Martin Luther King’s FBI file, a memo to J. Edgar Hoover filling the boss in on what the Bureau had been doing to discredit Dr. King.
It’s noteworthy that much of King’s family believes Hoover had a role in the assassination. He was indeed behind much of the effort to destroy King’s reputation. I am reading a new biography of Malcolm X, which discloses that the disdain the Nation of Islam had for King was so great the Ku Klux Klan and its FBI informants felt comfortable enough to approach them about being part of a conspiracy to kill Dr. King. Proving the idea of eliminating King was on their mind if not on their agenda.
If you came of age after 1968, you’d think Martin Luther King was always beloved and revered. A day off work on his birthday. Monuments. Streets and schools named for him. Annual reruns of his “I Have a Dream” speech. But, the hard truth is that before his death, when he still had a voice and the courage to use it, he was largely despised.
During his lifetime, the top law enforcement agency in the country spent a great deal of its valuable time planning and carrying our dirty tricks and even unlawful acts to make King look bad to his own followers. They proudly memorialized it in that secret FBI report to Hoover. No awareness that one day their grandchildren might find out what they were up to and what kind of people they were.
Hoover put King on a list of Black leaders who QUOTE “must be destroyed” imploring FBI agents to do whatever it took to QUOTE “prevent the rise of a messiah.” Sound familiar? It does to those who read the Gospel story of the conspiracy to assassinate Jesus. What was it Caiaphas said about killing Jesus? “It is better that this one man should perish than the whole nation?” It’s exactly what J. Edgar Hoover thought about Martin Luther King.
As much as the political establishment hated Dr. King, if they thought about it at all, they would never have considered the possibility that the day would come when he would be considered a great American hero.
The memo is reprinted in part on your bulletin. Note the date in the upper right-hand corner. “April 4, 1968.” The very day Martin Luther King was murdered. The next day and in the coming years, those in power reluctantly began granting permission to Americans to start loving Dr. King. You see, so long as he was breathing and speaking and demanding justice, he was a threat that had to be defanged. Those who opposed racial justice worked hard to put a stain on his image. It worked.
According to an early 1968 Harris Poll, the man whose half-century of martyrdom we celebrate this week died with a disapproval rating of 75 percent. Just before the assassin murdered Dr. King, not only did three out of every four Americans dislike King, 60% of all African Americans disapproved of him and what he was trying to accomplish.
Or to put it in a context we can understand. More people approve of Donald Trump today than approved of Martin Luther King the month before he was shot to death.
The Baptist preacher had been expelled from the National Baptist Convention in 1961. His approval rating dropped farther between the day John Kennedy was killed and when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He became more unpopular when he advocated a 50-billion-dollar program to end poverty because he coupled it with a call for unity between poor whites and poor blacks. Such a coalition was terrifying to the ruling white elite.
King called it “a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of values.” Hoover and others called it Communism. Then, he joined the call to end the Vietnam War in a speech written by Vincent Harding, a seminary professor under whom Kurt Borgaard and I studied, one who dramatically influenced the way we see ministry and Christianity.
It was a bold speech that added more fuel to the angry fire around which his detractors gathered, and it broke the back of the already small minority of Americans who supported his civil rights work.
The speech Dr. Harding wrote was delivered by Dr. King at Riverside Church in New York, on April 4, 1967, precisely a year before he was killed. He connected the dots between the Gospels and his opposition to America’s war in Vietnam. With 3,000 people in the pews, he said, “I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight, because my conscience leaves me no other choice.”
I read those words in my junior year in seminary, 30 years after they were spoken. For me, they were “the way, the truth and the life” as I was trying to figure out what it would mean to become an ordained minister. Dr. Harding’s eloquent writing collided with the oratorical skills of Dr. King, and I saw that a genuine preacher could preach about genuine matters, controversial issues, and apply them to Scripture and the higher calling of the church to be the body of the crucified Christ.
Dr. King said those who QUOTE “break the silence of the night have found the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.” He challenged religious leaders QUOTE to move beyond smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”
King said the path leading him to oppose the war started with the Gospels and the writings of the prophets. It was, he said, QUOTE “about my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ” and his own calling to be “a son of the living God.”
The part of Dr. Harding’s speech that said it was the job of a pastor to give a voice to the voiceless, clarified, for me, what it meant to preach the Gospel. Right now, there are 2 separate voicemail messages from two different men, left for me on the church phone saying, both of them, QUOTE “I hope you rot in hell,” demanding to know how a “man of God” can say such things, referring to my speaking out about the rights of the LGBTQ community and the other to my connecting vaccinations to Jesus’s command to love our neighbors.
But Harding’s words, spoken by one of the nation’s greatest orators, continue to inspire me and other fearful preachers and their congregations. Listen to how relevant they are half a century later.
When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.
Martin Luther King told fellow preachers they must use the Gospels like a mirror and hold them up so that people can judge their own conduct by the words of Jesus. The preacher learns quickly that a lot of people don’t like those mirrors, either holding them up or looking into them.
As lofty and life-giving as were those words, immediately after the speech, Dr. King was thoroughly marginalized by friend and foe alike because he was not just taking on easy villains like Bull Connor but now, he was taking on the vast American war machine. Most regretful were the white Christian pastors who decried King’s opposition to the war. Many joined people like George Wallace and Orval Faubus in the tidal wave of criticism that came in the wake of that speech.
A year later, he was dead and after he was safely put away, six feet under, and could no longer be heard speaking truth…then and only then came the boulevards and schools and libraries named for him and the monuments and the parks and a holiday to remember his birthday. As he silently lay in the grave, his approval rating rose from 25% to more than 90% and today, even the racists quote him.
So, what does that have to do with Al Sharpton? What does loving Rev. Al have to do with being a good Christian?
I often hear people lament that they didn’t invest in amazon or Apple in the beginning. Oh, they say, if only I’d invested a thousand dollars back then, I’d be a multi-millionaire today. Consider this. If the church had invested itself in the words of the living Martin Luther King, how spiritually wealthy would our country be today? Imagine the dividend that investment would have reaped.
Too many Christians back then chose to believe the haters who drowned out what King had to say about peace and justice. While King lived and breathed and preached, they quoted Hoover, calling King a “Communist” but couldn’t quote a word King said about racial injustice. They remembered his mug shot but not his teachings.
It’s the Jesus story. The cheers of the crowd on Palm Sunday, became cries of “crucify him” by week’s end after those who wanted him silenced spread rumors and lies about his ministry because they were heavily leveraged in poverty and war and violence.
It was much the same for King. Those invested in racism and white supremacy, who profited from war and poverty were horrified by the threat that we’d listen to King. They coupled his flaws with their slanderous tongues to turn even the followers of Jesus against one who understood more than most what it means to serve the least of these.
Al Sharpton is a flawed man, as flawed as Dr. King or the murderer Moses or the rapist King David or Rhab the prostitute, or the deceitful Jacob, or the Disciple Peter who denied knowing Jesus and as flawed as the other disciples who fled in fright as Jesus was led to the cross.
Those who don’t like the message work at getting us to focus on the messenger’s flaws in order to destroy the message.
Underlying much of the Bible is a message that resonates today. That message? God chooses flawed human beings to deliver God’s message. Why? Because we are all flawed. God has no other choice and that presents us with the choice to have the courage and wisdom to hear what it is that God wants us to hear even if the messenger is flawed.
You don’t have to look too deep to find flaws in Al Sharpton or the Apostle Paul or Harvey Milk or Jacob, Judas, Russell Means or Malcolm X or Betty Friedan or Caesar Chavez or John Shelby Spong or Abraham, Martin, and John. But when those who don’t want you to hear the message are busy making noise, you do have to work at looking deeper to find God’s message in their words.
You must be intellectually honest enough to put it all within the context of God’s hope for the world and reach a personal understanding of what it means in the furtherance of those hopes.
I think that being a Christian means loving a person who says, as did the Rev. Al Sharpton, “What I profess to do is help the oppressed and if I cause a load of discomfort in the white community and the black community, that means I'm being effective, because I'm not trying to make them comfortable.”
For all his flaws, that’s what Al Sharpton and other belittled Black leaders of the day believe and how they live…as it was what Martin Luther King believed and how he lived during his life but never forget…that’s why 75% of white Christian America hated him when he lived and spoke and led the church to the middle of the civil rights movement of the 60s.
Today, I’m betting that most would agree you can’t be a good Christian if you don’t love Martin Luther King. How different the world would be if that had been a criterion for calling oneself a Christian six decades ago.
And so it is, that you can’t be a good Christian if you don’t love Al Sharpton.
At long last, my sermon title found its sermon just as our life must find its message. If we seek to do God’s will, that message will be found by those willing to look beyond the messenger’s flaws to find a kernel of truth. AMEN