A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, dedicated to the memory of Dr. Washington Gladden and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and always to the glory of God!
Romans 9:30-10:4; John 1:29-42
This morning, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, I would like to reflect on the theology, the actions, and the beliefs of Dr. King and Dr. Washington Gladden. I believe there are points of contact between these two great preachers and social prophets which traversed time and racial differences. Their point of greatest connection was in their understanding of salvation and the coming of the Kingdom of God. I hope and pray I do justice to both of these social justice giants.
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Many years after he started preaching in this church which occupied a central role in our state's capital city, Dr. Washington Gladden would write these words about his fifty years as a pastor and preacher. In 1909, in - Recollections, Dr. Gladden, First Church's Senior Minister for more than 30 years wrote:
I do not believe there is anyplace of influence in the world in which a man can be as free as in the Christian pulpit. There are churches, no doubt, in which limitations would be imposed upon the preacher, if the preacher would submit to them, and there are preachers who habitually wear the halter and are waiting to be told what not to say. Unquestionably there is cowardice and subserviency in the pulpit, as everywhere else. But there need not be . . . I have not always commanded the assent of my auditors, but they have recognized my right to speak, and never sought to muzzle me. (Gladden, Recollections, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston/New York, 1909, p. 416).
In fact, Dr. Gladden would say of First Congregational Church, Columbus, "A more united and harmonious church than this has been, I never knew." (Ohio State Journal, and his letters and papers, found in Jacob Dorn's, Washington Gladden, Prophet of the Social Gospel, OSU Press, Columbus, Ohio, 1967, p. 107). To which he added on the celebration of his 70th birthday, "there was no pulpit in Christendom I would have exchanged for that of First Church." (Ibid, p. 108).
His impact on coal workers' strikes, street car workers strikes, active opposition to the death penalty in Ohio and nationally, injustices in the public schools, and inequities and injustices in the public square related to health care for the poor, racial divides, religion and the civic fairness were legendary in his generation and prophetic for our generation! Dr. Gladden's last sermons and writings in 1917 and 1918 - published only eight months before his death were sent to the White House for President Wilson to read as the most convincing arguments to keep our nation out of World War I. Having been a chaplain in the Civil War, Gladden was preaching a pacifist resistance to the war as he believed our nation would suffer tremendous human and economic loss from which it would take generations to recover.
I often think of the comparisions of the pulpit between Dr. Gladden and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. . And I think of the moment in Mountgomery. Alabama when Dr. King was in his study one day. Into his study walked one of his parishioners. She asked to speak with him to which he assented. She said, "What is wrong with you? You act and you speak like you are afraid of something. You act as though somethig is troubling you." This was during the Mountgomery Bus Boycott and he said, "Yes, I am very troubled." She said, "Do you not understand that the Spirit of the Lord is upon you and he has anointed you to preach good news to the poor. Do not be afaid of the pulpit." He recalled that story many times and as he did he said, "The most important work I did was as a pastor and a preacher.
Now, whether Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ever read the works of Washington Gladden, I do not know. I do know however, that Dr. King was a great believer in Walter Rauschenbusch's theology of the social gospel. And, it was Gladden in the pulpit and Rauschenbusch in the classroom who were the chief spokespersons for the social gospel. Writing in his 1958 book Strides Toward Freedom, (p. 91) Dr. King said of Walter Rauschenbusch: "It was his insistence that the gospel deals with the whole (person), not only his soul, but his body; not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being that has left an indelible imprint on me. It has been my conviction ever since reading The Scocial Gospel byRauschenbusch that any religion which professes to be concerned about the souls of (people) and is not concerned about the social and economic conditions that scar the soul, is a spiritually moribund religion only waiting for the day to be buried."
Although Drs. Gladden and Rauschenbusch may have been accused of excessive optimism while writing and speaking about the coming of the kingdom of God on earth, they were clear that when the kingdom of God was to come, believers like you and I would need to be the torchbearers for its entry! Moreover, we would have to see to it that strides forward were permanently achieved and indelibly inscribed in just laws and statutes in our cities, states, and nation!
Gladden's view on the church and salvation could be summed in this statement: The church exists, not to rescue individuals from a sinful world and prepare them for heaven, but to herald and assist the transformation of earthly society into the Kingdom of God. As such, its vision must extend beyond the spiritual needs of the individual only to the challenges and progress of that kingdom coming! The message of that kingdom was two-pronged: First, to the individual, it gave the assurance of God's love and taught truths of vital to Christian experience. Second, to society it proclaimed a law of love, righteousness, and justice that would bring corporate redemption. (Quoted in Washington Gladden: Prophet of the Social Gospel, p 79). To meet this two-pronged message of the Kingdom, Dr. Gladden would preach in the morning services on the virtues of Christian faith and our call to be converted to Christ, while during the evening sermons he would preach on the challenges of living a "saved" life in the social, economic and political world in which we live. Interestingly enough, the evening services were 80% packed with men while the morning services were 70%+ women and children. In the evening services, pastors and civic leaders from all over central Ohio would attend to hear what Gladden had to say. These sermons were published the next day in The Ohio State Journal, a daily paper which was published in a building adjacent to the church on capital square.
Dr. King took on this same two-pronged approach when speaking in his generation some 60 years later. In a speech entitled "Man in a Revolutionary World," delivered to our United Church of Christ, General Synod on July 6, 1965, Dr. King took the occasion to speak to the church's unique calling. He said, "As chief moral guardian of the community, the church must work with passionate determination to solve our racial problem. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable "must" confronting organized religion. It has always been the responsibility of the church to broaden horizons, challenge the status quo and break the mores when necessary . . . We are called to be thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society, not the thermometers that merely record and register the temperature of majority opinion." (Quoted in Martin Luther King, Jr., by William Robert Miller, Weybright and Talley, New York, 1968, p. 226).
King believed the church had an undeniable prophetic calling. He continued, "In the midst of a nation rife with racial animosity, the church has too often been content to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. Called to combat social evils, it has often remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows." (Ibid, p. 226). How true!
King and Gladden acted on their beliefs. From the pulpit to the streets; from parish halls to city halls; from stained-glassed beauties to steel-barred prison cells, both men were unafraid and unashamed to move from the realm of ideas to the arenas of life. They tackled issues of housing, education, the conduct of civic leaders all while realizing that no man-made laws assured justice. As King put it, "No code of conduct ever compelled a father to love his children or a husband to show affection for his wife. The law courts may force him to provide bread for the family, but it cannot make him provide the bread of love." (Ibid, p. 227). So, in both Gladden's and King's generation (and ours!), the church's hard challenge and sublime opportunity is to let God work in our hearts toward fashioning a truly great and just nation. To do this, we as the church need to free ourselves from the shackles of a deadening status quo. We need to allow God to enkindle the imagination of humankind and the fire of the human soul. In so doing, the glowing and deep love of truth and justice will burn in church and society forever!
In scripture, we learn that the kingdom of God is both within us and outside of us! It is not one only. Nor is it the other, only. To be about the work of bringing in the kingdom of God is our calling as the church of Jesus Christ! Essentially, we have no other calling. And our most powerful weapon in this battle is a Rock!
Now this in not just any Rock! Ours is the Rock of Salvation! In Romans 9:33, Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16 in saying, "I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a Rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame!" Ours in Jesus, the Christ, our rock of salvation! And often we get confused about salvation, just as we have been confused about the coming of the Kingdom of God. Just as the Kingdom message is both internal and external; so too is salvation both individual and social.
Conservative religion has often produced a cultural theology that fosters an acceptance or at least an acquiescence to the cultural and political status quo. Jesus is proclaimed as savior but the implications of his lordship over all of life are not drawn out, or are simply spiritualized into a state of convoluted irrelevance. Jesus is often depreciated into an overly pietized deity. When well-meaning folks who have done this to my lord and savior ask me if I have been saved, I answer, "Not by your Jesus!" And it's true! The Greek word for salvation comes from the root word for "Healing" or "Anointing for complete health." A savior who saves us for individualistic salvation while not calling us to discipleship is not the savior whom the prophets foretold! He is not our Savior.
Salvation must be both Individual and Social! When the individual's salvation is dissociated from its corporate dimensions then evil is too easily seen as something that only happens to me or to you! Whereas, in reality, evil is connected to social systems and institutional arrangements, as well. For the Rock of Salvation to impact our lives, he must touch us in our personal as well as our societal contexts! When Amos declares, "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream" he intends for the reign of justice to come over all systems, institutions, societies, and people - as well as individuals.
The kingdom of God, the reign of salvation - these are important living realities for each of us to live into in our personal and corporate lives. In his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Marcus Borg explains that Jesus frequently spoke of the kingdom of God in the language of impossible or unexpected combinations. The Kingdom, something great, is often compared to something very tiny. It is like "a grain of mustard seed." Moreover, mustard seed is like a weed, so the Kingdom of God is like a weed. The Kingdom is for children, who in that world were nobodies, therefore the kingdom is for nobodies. The Kingdom of God is a banquet for outcasts or nobodies. And many who expect to be in the kingdom will not be - they will come from the east and west and many of those who expect to be in the kingdom won't be. Moreover, the kingdom is not somewhere else: it is among us, inside of us, outside of us! (See Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Harper, San Francisco, 1994, pp. 80-81).
It is important to be reminded of the impossible and unexpected combinations of reality which permeate Jesus' words about the Kingdom of God. It is also important to remember that although the slumbering giant of the American conscience for racial and economic justice was awakened by both Gladden and especially by King, the actual work to redeem the soul of America is still before us! To get there will take the idealism and hope of our greatest visionaries and the most determined action of each one of us seeking and living into our highest purpose as people of faith.
When Dr. King was a boy of 13, there was a girl of the same age who was facing persecution as a Jew thousands of miles away from Atlanta, Georgia. As he faced the hatred of racial injustice, Anne Frank was writing these words in her diary, which would not be discovered until after the war was over and her life light was extinguished by Nazi Germans, with which I close:
Anne wrote: "I can feel the suffering of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come out right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I will be able to carry them out." The time is now for us to live out our ideals. May God give us the strength and power to do so. Amen.
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