A sermon by Keith Davis
Holy Eucharist for Racial Reconciliation and Healing: April 1, 2022.
St. John’s the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN.
Holy Spirit, Fill our hearts with overflowing love and compassion this day and always. AMEN.
FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 1968
The morning confirmed what many refused to believe the day before. The nightmare was real. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, a champion of social justice and equality for all, had been mortally stricken by an assassin’s bullet at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN. Shock and utter disbelief had given way to fear, outrage, and anger in many communities. Grief once again paired with violence and souls and neighborhoods were damaged, some beyond repair.
On that day, school was canceled in my hometown of Gary, IN. What would normally have been a joyous respite from the rigors of multiplication tables was anything but relaxing. I accompanied my parents to the Brown Kettle restaurant, a local black owned business. The usual raucous and good-natured banter was replaced by a solemnity I’d not known. Radio stations like WMPP and WVON (The Voice Of The Negro now The Voice of the Nation and still an active station) aired excerpts of Dr King’s speeches, as well as gospel hymns from the likes of Mahalia Jackson and the Fairfield 4. Women and men sat in booths and tables audibly weeping, lamenting openly what had come to pass: LORD, THEY GOT HIM! WHAT NOW? WHO’S NEXT? Others lingered over the newspapers covering the counters as if they were viewing a body at a wake. I asked my mother if this was how it was when President Kennedy was killed. She said no, this is worse.
A fear entered my body that I could not verbalize until later. My fear was that all Black bodied people were in danger of being killed because we admired Dr. King. Or because we spoke up. Or simply because we were Black. How do you love your enemies when your enemies are trying to eliminate your very existence? This is a lot for an 8-year-old to process.
I watched Dr. King’s funeral along with my family and millions around the world. I remember how long that funeral was, the sight of a widowed Coretta Scott King holding her daughter Bernice (a Pulitzer Prize winning image later captured by photographer Moneta Sleet Jr for Ebony magazine), as well as the many visibly distraught VIPs.
These were the first thoughts that raced through my mind after Fr. Craig asked me to consider preaching at today’s Racial Reconciliation Eucharist. I was concerned I could not do justice to a man whose words and actions brought courage, strength, and hope to the unjustly served in the United States and abroad. Fr. Craig and one other mentor gave me two simple pieces of counsel: Be guided by the Holy Spirit and make the message personal. Here I am, Lord. Lead me, guide me.
For me, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. epitomizes and embodies the word SERVICE. He selflessly and tirelessly served God through both words and actions. Not only did he talk the talk, he walked the walk. Being a Christian and a follower of The Way of Love is not a passive pursuit. It requires one to be engaged, to actively participate in thought, word, and deed. Dr. King protested for civil rights, brought attention to the inhumane and immoral conditions suffered by the marginalized, called on America, the land of the free, to remove the legal shackles keeping all of its citizens from enjoying the benefits this nation has to offer. He served Christ by serving humanity and striving for a more equitable society.
Like Christ, his message and calls to action were not always heeded or welcomed. I am reminded of the passage in the Gospel of Luke when Jesus is rejected in Nazereth: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (Lk 4: 2 NRSV) Dr. King withstood calls to “slow his roll,” to not agitate the powers that be, to give desegregation time, stop stirring up trouble, etc. These calls not only came from the those in power but also from those he was trying to serve. Some of the elders in my immediate circle believed that Dr. King’s ways of protesting were either too aggressive and should be dialed back or contained, or too passive and deferential and should be more militant, demanding, and unrelenting. Other elements in the struggle for equality were coming to the fore and demanding to be recognized. POWER TO THE PEOPLE! Dr. King, however, continued to be Dr. King. He spoke out against America’s involvement in Vietnam and asked the president to reallocate those financial resources to the poor and the homeless. He continued standing in solidarity with those who were considered “less than.” He was in Memphis that fateful April to support striking garbage workers’ right to a fair wage.
Martin Luther King was inspirational. Like his contemporary, John F. Kennedy, he made a people, a nation believe that the impossible was possible. As Maya Angelou said, “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I could take issue with Dr. Angelou about the first two points as they pertain to Martin Luther King but without question, I agree with the last. Dr. King stirred your soul! How? Let’s start with the voice!
That rich, authoritative, baritone voice commanded my undivided attention. The cadence, that of a wise and seasoned southern Black preacher and teacher, encouraged me to listen with intent. I didn’t want to miss a single syllable. At age 13, I heard his sermon THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT. I had to listen to the sermon twice because I was mesmerized by the voice: THIS MORNING I WOULD LIKE TO USE AS A SUBJECT FROM WHICH TO PREACH, THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT, THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT. Bad impression notwithstanding, I was hooked! I didn’t know this particular sermon’s destination but I was pretty sure I would enjoy the journey.
As he preached, I noticed a change in my posture. My bearing became more erect, shoulders back, feet flat on the floor. My focus sharpened with each sentence and phrase. It occurred to me later I felt a sense of pride listening to this eloquent scholarly Black man, perhaps as the elders had when they first heard Dr. King. I felt encouraged, inspired, wanting, if not ready, to affect a positive change in the world around me.
Now, a messenger having a commanding and eloquent voice is meaningless without a message to deliver. I’m sure we’ve all heard that speaker who had nothing to say and a lot of it. I hope that is not the case at this moment. That never seemed to be the case with Dr. King. His words mattered.
Dr. King was human, mortal, as we all are. As it is with any life, surely mistakes were made along his journey. I will not speculate as to what those mistakes may or may not have been. He who is without sin, cast the first stone and I am not that person. What seems clear to me is that this man of deep and abiding faith returned to the path God had prepared for him. Whatever his failings, through Christ, he has been forgiven.
Dr. King’s life, for me, echoes the request Christ makes of Peter after the Resurrection and before the Ascension: Feed my lambs, Tend My Sheep, Feed My Sheep. Dr. King did and his example continues to feed us in these uncertain days.
In March of 2014, I had the opportunity to be in Atlanta. My best friend had died and I attended her funeral. I decided to stay in ATL a couple of extra days. A former classmate who makes his home there offered to give me a tour of the city. Asked what I wanted to see, my first request was a pilgrimage to the King Center and the original Ebenezer Baptist Church. At the time, the original Ebenezer was maintained the way it was when the Reverend King, both father and son, preached there. I sat on one of the pews and wept. I don’t know if it was sensing Dr. King’s spirit, the sanctuary’s place in history, penned up emotions from losing my friend, or all of the above and then some. As I sat, I gave thanks for the ministry and witness of this martyr of the civil rights movement. I gave thanks to a loving God for sharing God’s angel with me, with us, at this time in history.
In his final sermon from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his thoughts on how he wanted to be remembered. Here is that excerpt from THE DRUM MAJOR INSTINCT. (The Drum Major Instinct-35:25).
An only child, Keith Davis was born and raised in Gary, Indiana, the son of a high school biology teacher and stepson of a production supervisor for United States Steel. His families have deep roots in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, as well as Indigenous America, Africa, and Ireland.
Keith has been a member of St John The Evangelist Episcopal Church for 22 years and also has a relationship with St Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral (long story!). He currently serves as Lay Eucharistic Minister ( LEM), verger, occasional usher, and has served on several committees including Liturgy and the Re-Opening Task Force. A Twin Cities resident for 42 years, Keith’s pride and joy are his daughter Simone and his granddaughter Addison Jacqueline.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on January 15th, 1929, in Atlanta. As the son and grandson of Baptist preachers, he was steeped in the Black Church tradition. Following graduation from Morehouse College (Atlanta, Georgia) in 1948, King entered Crozer Theological Seminary (Chester, Pennsylvania), having been ordained the previous year into the ministry of the National Baptist Church. He graduated from Crozer in 1951 and received his doctorate in theology from Boston University in 1955.
In 1954, King became pastor of a church in Montgomery, Alabama. There, Black indignation at inhumane treatment on segregated buses culminated in December, 1955, in the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat to a white man. King was catapulted into national prominence as the
leader of the Montgomery bus boycott. He became increasingly the articulate prophet, who could not only rally the Black masses, but could also move the consciences of Whites.
King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference to spearhead non-violent mass demonstrations against racism. Many confrontations followed, most notably in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, and in Chicago. King’s campaigns were instrumental to the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965, and 1968. King then turned his attention to economic empowerment of the poor and to opposition to the Vietnam War, contending that racism, poverty, and militarism were interrelated. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his commitment to non-violent social change.
King lived in constant danger: his home was dynamited, he was almost fatally stabbed, and he was harassed by death threats. He was even jailed 30 times; but through it all he was sustained by his deep faith. In 1957, he received, late at night, a vicious telephone threat. Alone in his kitchen he wept and prayed. He relates that he heard the Lord speaking to him and saying, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice,” and promising never to leave him alone—“No, never alone.” King refers to his vision as his “Mountain-top Experience.”
After preaching at Washington Cathedral on March 31st, 1968, King went to Memphis in support of sanitation workers in their struggle for better wages. There, he proclaimed that he had been “to the mountain-top” and had seen “the Promised Land,” and that he knew that one day he and his people would be “free at last.” On the following day, April 4th, he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet.