Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"I Have a Dream" turns 50 today.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It would be more accurate to call it a sermon.

Time Magazine's latest issue is dedicated to remembering this historic American moment and does an excellent job of allowing participants of the march to tell their stories. The issue is worth picking up. Reading it, I was struck by how many of the participants understood the march in the context of their faith.

Jerome Smith, one of the Freedom riders, recalled "It was a procession of church. It was never, ever a march. It was a congregation that was answering the call."

I learned that at a particular moment in the speech, King began to struggle with his material, material that had been assembled by a committee of people. It wasn't until King heard from behind him the voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson saying, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin. Tell 'em about the dream" that King set aside his prepared text and transformed this speech into a sermon.

As Martin set aside his notes, one of his speech writers, Clarence Jones, turned to the person next to him and said, "These people don't know it, but they're about ready to go to church."

Indeed. Among the many things Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us that day is the often forgotten truth: a good sermon can turn the world upside down.


There are many great biographies of MLK. The only one I know of that focuses on his preaching is Richard Lischer's The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. I found the book fair in its treatment of Martin Luther King as an actual human being and not simply a non-human icon of some sort. It is also an excellent look into the rich history of African American preaching in our country.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Preach like it matters

As we draw near to the first day of school, I find myself thinking back over my own school year. I had some great teachers through the years. Most of them cared about the material they were teaching and most of them cared about me. In fact, there seemed to be a direct correlation between those who cared for the material and those who cared for me. The handful of teachers who seemed to not give a rip about what they were teaching also seemed not to care about whether or not I improved as a person one bit.

There's a lesson there. One of the primary ways we convey that our people matter is by making sure that we are conveying that our sermon material matters. If it appears that we don't think our sermon matters (either through lack of preparation or enthusiasm), not only will we communicate that the gospel story doesn't matter, we'll inadvertently convey that our listener's don't matter either!

John Claypool tells a story about a friend who was assigned to an airborne division during WWII. This terrified his friend because he'd never even been in an airplane much less jumped out of one! He said it was funny, no one had to tell him to pay attention to his instructor. He hung on every word the man said. Plus, the instructor was a seasoned paratrooper himself, so he spoke of these literal issues of life and death with an urgency that only comes from one who trusts his material matters greatly.

Claypool summarizes, "Here was a human being sharing with other human beings what he knew about a subject of vital concern. I would suggest that this provides a getter description of what the preaching event ought to be than for some casual academic dilettante to pass out information that, even if correct, is of little existential moment. We are called to be and do far more than merely to pass out information" (John Claypool, The Preaching Event, 61).

Every week we stand up and share with other human beings what we know concerning a subject of vital concern. Let's do far more than just pass out information!