Podcast Episode 6 | 14 min
Preaching with Courage
Overcoming the controlling aspect of fear in your preaching.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when every tongue shall confess, when every knee shall bow, and all over the world we will sing it like we did this afternoon. Hallelujah, hallelujah. He is King of kings, he is Lord of lords.
Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher, and that was the voice of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was preaching at Cornerstone Baptist Church on May 29, 1966. Our guest host for today is Rev. Lawrence Aker III. Lawrence is a friend of mine from Brooklyn, New York, and he is the current senior pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church, where Dr. King gave that sermon. Lawrence, it's great to have you with us today.
Lawrence Aker III: Thank you, Matt, honored to be a part of it.
MW: So you've told me before that Dr. King often stopped at Cornerstone Baptist Church at various points in his life and ministry. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the connection between Dr. King and the church where you pastor right now?
LA: Yes, well, the pastor at the time, Dr. Sandy Frederick Ray, had a long relationship with the King family. He went to Morehouse College with Daddy King, Martin L. King Sr. Actually, Dr. Ray was referred to as Uncle Sandy by young Martin Luther. So as their relationship progressed, as ministry progressed, they had a strong mentor/mentee relationship.
MW: So May 29, 1966, Dr. King came to Cornerstone Baptist Church to preach a sermon. What was the occasion for the sermon?
LA: That was actually a grand day in our church history. The church had completed a stewardship program that they called the Mountain Climb to build a state-of –the-art community center. So this was phenomenal for the mid-60s for an African-American church to do something like this. So Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York was the speaker for that morning, and then for the afternoon it was topped off by none other than this great American prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
MW: So this is an original sermon, it's never been published anywhere else, and a little back story in our history, how we came to put this on PreachingToday.com: I was visiting you and your wife Cynthia and your family out in Brooklyn, New York, and you guys had me over for some amazing catfish and greens. By the way, I'm available to come out anytime.
LA: Standing invitation.
MW: Thank you, Lawrence, I appreciate that. We were talking about a couple things, we were talking about preaching, we were talking about Cornerstone Baptist Church, and you showed me this CD of this sermon from Dr. King, and I said, “Has that ever been transcribed and published?” Then what happened from there, Lawrence?
LA: Yes, it's something that's in our archives and a few seminaries have it in their archives. It was a great historical day and we are honored that more people get the chance to hear Dr. King in this context.
MW: So give us a little bit about the historical context behind this sermon. Put it in the timeline of Dr. King's life. What was going on in his life?
LA: As you said, this is May 29, 1966. Historically we know that Dr. King will live basically two more years. He's in the prime of his life, he's already been Time magazine Man of the Year, he's led the epic Montgomery bus boycott, he's won the Nobel Peace Prize, he's done the historic March on Washington in 1963. So this is a few years removed. Right now he is going around, great adulation, if you will, from the African-American community. But he also has an X on his back, because he's dealing with bomb threats, he's dealing with death threats, he's dealing with the FBI, he's dealing with the Ku Klux Klan. He's dealing with all types of white supremacists who were telling him daily that tomorrow will be your last day of life. His family is being threatened. So he is living in between two zones. He's not in a comfort zone, but he is going as a prophetic force of God.
MW: Really powerful. Well, let's listen to this clip and then we'll break it down.
MLK: “There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” Then there came with another verse that I like: “Sometimes I feel discouraged …” I'm not going to fool you this afternoon. Sometimes I feel discouraged. Living every day under the threat of death, sometimes I feel discouraged. Having to stand amid the surging moment of life's restless, sometimes I feel discouraged. Having to face the problems and the frustrations, sometimes I feel discouraged. Many days in Alabama, I felt discouraged. Many days in Mississippi, I felt discouraged. Many days in the ghettos of the North, I felt discouraged. Many days as I've lived life, I've felt discouraged. And there have been times when it was difficult to sleep at night. I go on and sing this song. Sometimes I feel discouraged, and feel my works in vain. But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again, I've seen the lightning flash. I've heard the thunder roll. I've felt sin breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. I heard the voice of Jesus promise never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach the gospel to the poor, and preach the acceptable year of the Almighty God.
MW: So Lawrence, listening to this sermon now about fifty years later and knowing the historical context, what are you feeling as a preacher, as a pastor?
LA: Well, it's mixed emotions. I think in many ways it's a message of courage and encouragement, but also I think this particular sermon because it is at Cornerstone, you get homiletical chill bumps because you realize this happened right in our community, and it's very encouraging. I think on the flip side of it the amazing thing, maybe the more tragic sense is that a lot of the social ills that Dr. King is speaking of in terms of poverty, educational challenges, we are still fifty years later facing a lot of these same societal ills and challenges: crime, inequities with education, housing challenges. So these are still battles that we are fighting fifty years later.
MW: What strikes me is there is a real sense of heaviness on his heart, and a real sense of pressing into those things and pressing into those issues, and how they are impacting him personally. It's very, very raw honesty, and yet there is this crying out to the Lord that seems unquenchable in him. Lawrence, what would you say about preaching with courage based on Dr. King's life and his ministry? How did he exemplify a preacher who preached with courage?
LA: Well, if you think about the prophets of the Old Testament, for instance Ezekiel. Ezekiel went to the river and he was among the people. Dr. King is not removed, he is not in an ivory tower, he's not a professor or making recommendations or citing these challenges; he is living through them. He is not tucked away in the suburbs of a particular city, but he lives and faces discrimination every day. In his "I Have a Dream" speech, he talks about how he has a dream that his children will be able to go to amusement parks and that they will be able to enjoy the same benefits. He's lived these challenges. So his courage comes from seeing some of the victories. He's still engaged with battles with Lyndon Baines Johnson, and he's talked with JFK and RFK, he's had relationships with them. He's been a frequent guest at the White House. So he is right in the mix of one of the greatest revolutions in the history of America. So he's seen some improvement, but he has not seen a lot. And yet still, he's encouraged to go all the way.
MW: Someone has defined courage as not the absence of fear, but it's not letting fear control you. You see that in MLK, and that's really remarkable and a great lesson for us as a preacher. You know, Lawrence, what would you say for most of us as preachers? I mean, we're not getting death threats, the FBI is not hounding us. What does it mean to preach with courage for most of us preachers who aren't in the same context as Dr. King?
LA: Well, I think one would have to assess their own zip code. You have to look at your own situation and ask—looking at the scope of the United States today, looking at the scope of the world—what can I personally do to be a change agent. Preaching and ministry is venue specific. So looking in your own context, there's always a need. So asking and being mindful of the resources that you've been blessed with, the talent that you've been blessed with, are you maximizing it? What can you do for someone else? I think that was one of the great things about Dr. King, that he had the great songstress, Mahalia Jackson. He said don't talk about my degrees, don't talk about my awards, but just make it plain—say that Dr. Martin Luther King helped others. That if I could help somebody along the way then my living will not be in vain. That was a song that they sang at his funeral: "If I can Help Somebody."
MW: You know, Lawrence, it doesn't sound like Dr. King thought a lot about himself being really courageous. It sounds like he was thinking much more about along the lines of “I want to be faithful to the Lord and his calling in this particular time.” Does that sound right?
LA: I would think so, because he was living under a death warrant, so he never knew when his actual last day would arrive, but he knew the threats that were lurking in every city, and yet still he pressed forward and continued the civil rights agenda, continued talks about the beloved community which he was in search of. Just a quick-sighted quest to get there and to push and to make this a reality.
MW: Lawrence, I want to ask you real personally: What does preaching with courage look like to you?
LA: For me today, in the context of Brooklyn, New York, great borough, great place for ministry, but we have urgent needs. As I said, a lot of things that Dr. King spoke about fifty years ago, they're still prevalent in society and in our community. So for me, preaching and collaborating with other pastors, other groups and associations that can stand and try to eliminate these ills. That's what it looks like for me.
MW: Lawrence, thanks so much for being our guest host today, telling us about Dr. King and what it was like for him preaching on courage.
LA: Thank you for having me.
MW: This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher, and preachers, we pray that the Lord would fill you with his courage to preach in your zip code the message that the Lord is laying on your heart.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, a prolific author and speaker, and a key leader in the American Civil Rights Movement.