Home > Week of Prayer for Christian Unity > Prayer and Worship: Homily Notes, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day

JANUARY 18–25, 2018

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Homily Notes
By the Reverend Dr. Frank A. Thomas

2018 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

So the great contest . . . is not for human economic interests, or human political preferences, or even for human minds—not at the bottom. The true battle is being fought in the . . . human imagination. Imagination does rule the world.
  — Russell Kirk

            It might be that I am a child of the American experience of the 1960’s, and forever locked in a nostalgic timewarp. I carry the idealism, the hope, horror, grief, and the disappointment of America and the struggle for civil rights in the 1950’s and 1960s. At the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott movement in 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. said that if black people marched nonviolently, and in Christian love, that when history books were written in future generations, historians would have to pause and write: “There lived a race of people, a black people . . . who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.”1 Though I was eleven years old when King was killed, I believed him and so much more of what he said. When Jesus of Nazareth said in Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called children of God.” I believed him and so much more of what Jesus said. When I read our theme from Exodus 15:6 “Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power,” I remembered my Sunday School teacher telling me of the wonderful deliverance of the Hebrews by God’s breathtaking power in Exodus. I believed the text then, and I still believe it today. I believe in God’s saving power, God’s right hand, against all colonialism, racism, bigotry, hate, misogyny, exploitation, foreign domination, and all manner of mayhem and evil. Though God’s right hand is a metaphor for power, Gerald F. Rafferty says in the Commentary of the Scriptural Text, “. . . it must also be remembered that the right hand was the metaphor for relationship, hospitality, providence as well as power in battle.” I believe in God’s right hand of relationship, hospitality, providence, and power.

            When I say I believe in God’s right hand, I do not just mean that I believe it happened back there in Bible days. I believe because it happened back there, it stirs my imagination to believe that God can do it again, in this day, in this time, against all the forces of evil and oppression in the world. As Rafferty says:

. . . what God has done for a particular specific need or situation is extended into a belief that God also acts in the same way always and on all levels. The historical experience of salvation from bondage in Egypt by the destruction of Pharaoh’s army suggests that God will also act to save in other contexts of Israel’s experience. As God has acted in the past, He continues to do so today and will do so in the future.

The metaphor of God’s right hand in this text stirs my moral imagination for God’s activity in the world. Let me explain what I mean by moral imagination.

            According to Russell Kirk, moral imagination is the ability to “perceive ethical truth, and abiding laws in the seeming chaos of many events.”2 Kirk argued that “imagination rules the world” because imagination molds the clay of our sentiments and understandings. While it is often assumed that human beings understand the world through calculations, formulas, and logical syllogisms, the reality is that we understand the world through images, myths, and stories, and thereby, comprehend our relationship to God, nature, others, and the self.3 Kirk suggests that “not pure reason, but imagination—the high dream or the low dream—is the moving force in private and public life.”4 Imagination rules the world. Kirk explains:

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men (human beings) by virtue of the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men (human beings) look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.5

            My argument is when we believe in the power of God’s right hand, it stirs our moral imagination and that moral imagination bears witness in our preaching that raises the imagination of listeners and they believe the text. I define preaching from moral imagination as:

the ability of the preacher, intuitive or otherwise, in the midst of the chaotic experiences of human life and existence, to grasp and share God’s abiding wisdom and ethical truth in order to benefit the individual and common humanity.

            Many would define preaching from the moral imagination as prophetic preaching, or preaching from the prophetic imagination. Walter Brueggeman correctly and pointedly declares that the prophet brings to light “public expressions of those very hopes and yearnings that have been denied so long and suppressed so deeply.”6 Brueggeman further explains prophetic imagination by alluding to a novel entitled, Imagining Argentina. The key character Carlos Rueda, has the miraculous gift of creating futures by acts of anticipatory imagination. Brueggeman quotes Imagining Argentina:

Confronted with evidence of the miraculous, Carlos’ friends nevertheless remain skeptical, convinced that Carlos cannot confront tanks with stories, helicopters with mere imagination. They can only see the conflict in terms of fantasy versus reality. Carlos, on the other hand, rightly grasps that the contest is not between imagination and the real, but between two types of imagination, that of the generals and that of their opponents. The nightmares world of torture and disappearance of bodies is inseparable from the generals’ imagination of what Argentian and Argenitne are . . .7

            Carlos envisioned that his imagination was stronger than the imagination of the state. In writing this article for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Homily Notes these words are exactly my sentiment: the moral imagination of a world of peace and justice is stronger than colonialism, exploitation, and foreign domination’s imagination of what and who we are. This is why we celebrate Exodus 15:6: “Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power.” This is why we celebrate the world of God’s moral imagination as expressed in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: it stirs our moral imagination to imagine and both preach and act a new world.

            In order to make my meaning as plain as possible, I want to list four qualities of the moral imagination in preaching:

  1. Envision equality and represent that by one’s physical presence
  2. Empathy as a catalyst or bridge to create opportunities to overcome the past and make new decisions for peace and justice
  3. Sources of wisdom and truth in ancient texts, the wisdom of the ages
  4. The language of poetry and art lifts and elevates the human spirit by touching the emotive chords of wonder, hope, and mystery

I am suggesting that if we would preach from the moral imagination, we must include these four qualities in our sermon. To further clarify these qualities, I want to illustrate them in the final speech/sermon of King’s life, the night before he was killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, April 4th, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Let me quickly set the scene of the speech.

            At the request of James Lawson, King and his staff came to Memphis, Tennessee to help the sanitation workers, hoping to revive the spirit and tone of nonviolent victories, such as 1963 in Birmingham, and prove once again the value of the strategy of nonviolence. A march was organized on March 28, 1968 in support of the sanitation workers. City officials of Memphis estimated that twenty-two thousand students skipped school to participate. King arrived late and found that the massive crowd was disorganized and on the edge of chaos. Violence broke out in the back of the march, King called off the demonstration, and was taken away from the march for safety. Lawson told the mass of people to turn around and go back to the Clayborn Temple church. In the chaos that followed, downtown shops were looted, and a sixteen-year-old was shot and killed by a policeman. Police followed demonstrators back to the Clayborn Temple, entered the church, released tear gas inside the sanctuary, and clubbed people as they lay on the floor to get fresh air. A dejected King met the media to defend nonviolence, and another march was announced for April 5. It was this march that brought King to Memphis on April 4, 1968, the night of his death.

            When King mounted the pulpit at Mason Temple, the night before his death, he had significant challenges and much to accomplish. King faced an audience full of doubts about whether it was worthwhile to continue the struggle in such a hopeless situation, given the reality of the intransigence of Mayor Loeb and the fact that the last march, on March 28, 1968, for the Memphis sanitation workers had turned violent.

            While, there is not the time and space to go through the speech in detail, in summary, suffice it to say that based in moral imagination King met the challenge by a claim that God would resolve, in God’s eschatological time, all difficulties of the moral order. In his moral imagination, only a cosmic resolution from God would establish freedom and equality, a form of biblical eschatology. Racism, materialism, and militarism would not win because God would bring the people to “the promised land.” King then became Moses to close the speech/sermon with these unforgettable words of hope and healing:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!8

King is masterfully performing Moses to encourage himself and his audience. In so many words, King said: Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power.

            Now, let us look at the four qualities of the moral imagination that we listed before in the speech/sermon.

1. Envision equality and represent that by one’s physical presence

            In regard to equality envisioned and represented by physical presence, the most obvious fact is that the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech/sermon was only possible because King brought his concern and physical presence to Memphis to help sanitation workers. This was an act of solidarity in a long list of acts of solidarity for movements of freedom and equality starting in 1954 with the Montgomery bus boycott. King put his concern and physical presence on the line in numerous ways every day of the civil rights movement as he was jailed; stabbed; assaulted with rocks and bricks; battered psychologically with jeers, hate-filled names and messages, death threats, pressure, harassment, and manipulations; this even from his own government. King was ultimately shot and killed because of his work for peace and justice, because of his concern for the vulnerable, and in this instance, the sanitation workers in Memphis.

            We underestimate the power of physical presence and the moral imagination that makes it a necessity that one shows up. Showing up creates the opportunity for empathy and understanding. The preacher that preaches with moral imagination must show up, not just for a photo op, but as the result of a moral imagination of equality, genuine empathy, and compassion for the people.

2. Empathy as a catalyst or bridge to create opportunities to overcome the past and make new decisions for peace and justice

            The second category of moral imagination is empathy as a catalyst or bridge to create opportunities to overcome the past and make new decisions for peace and justice. Once we show up, and if we hear and listen to the pain and suffering of people, and we operate out of equality, genuine empathy, and compassion for people, we see the possibility of making new decisions for peace and justice. Moral imagination is the ability to harness the challenge of colonialism, foreign domination, etc. as a significant opportunity for all to see their common humanity and create a better community. Where some see violence, disruption, revenge, fear, mistrust, and hatred, empathy allows us to see an opportunity for new community. If we show up, listen and understand, we will develop empathy and make different decisions for peace and justice.

3. Sources of wisdom and truth in ancient texts, the wisdom of the ages

            The third quality of moral imagination is wisdom found in ancient texts and sources of truth. For King, the Bible was the chief source of wisdom and truth, particularly the Hebrew prophets and Jesus. Lischer suggests that following the Selma march of 1965, King appealed less to the Constitution and Declaration of Independence and leaned more heavily on the Bible.9 On numerous occasions of the movement and marches, over and over again in his speeches and sermons, and even in this final speech/sermon, with the parable of the good Samaritan from Luke as an example, King consults the Bible as the source of wisdom and truth for wise and just living. In Memphis, and in every civil rights struggle, King appropriated the Bible in support of the local struggle for equality, and in this instance, for garbage workers in Memphis. If we would engage the fight for peace and justice, we must likewise consult the wisdom of the ages. For me, the wisdom of the ages is the Christian Bible that reveals Jesus the Christ.

4. The language of poetry and art lifts and elevates the human spirit by touching the emotive chords of wonder, hope, and mystery

            The fourth quality of moral imagination is addressing the audience in the language of poetry and art that lifts and elevates the human spirit by touching the emotive chords of wonder, mystery, and hope. Given the rhetorical power of King’s oratory, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” is only one of the many fine examples of rhetorical and theological imaginative genius of King’s oratory to evoke wonder, mystery, and hope. Richard Lischer called King the most influential orator of the twentieth century that sought to “redeem the moral and political character of a nation.”10

            If we would preach from the moral imagination, then we must

  1. Envision equality and represent that by one’s physical presence
  2. Empathy as a catalyst or bridge to create opportunities to overcome the past and make new decisions for peace and justice
  3. Sources of wisdom and truth in ancient texts, the wisdom of the ages
  4. The language of poetry and art lifts and elevates the human spirit by touching the emotive chords of wonder, hope, and mystery

            These homily notes on the ability of Exodus 15:6, Your Right Hand, O Lord, Glorious in Power and the moral imagination that this text inspires in us is a summons, a clarion call to conscience and the preaching of moral imagination. Many are wondering what and how to preach given the massive rise and overwhelming forces of evil. There are even preachers openly endorsing, supporting, and engaging these forces to forward their pet moral agenda, while ignoring the broader call of justice, compassion, and inclusion for the vulnerable and marginalized. The temptation is to get locked into a kind of despair that leads to inactivity, or anger and rage that lead to unprincipled and unproductive action. Many clergypersons choose to be silent, realizing that “politics” is polarizing, and the best thing is not to offend anyone by saying or doing anything that remotely could be conceived of as “controversial.” Some preachers resort to name-calling and condescending rhetoric that titillates an assenting and fawning audience, but effects no real change because it does not call people to the depths of their moral imagination for the potential of sustained and effective action and resistance. As a thought-leader in preaching, neither of these alternatives is attractive to me, and therefore these homiletical notes are meant to help preachers preach as Martin Luther King, following Jesus and the biblical text, from the moral imagination.

(These Homily Notes are adapted from Thomas’ new and upcoming book, How To Preach a Dangerous Sermon published by Abingdon Press to be released in February, 2018).

Rev. Dr. Frank A. Thomas is the Director of the PhD Program and African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana and the author of the classic preaching handbook, They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr., “The Montgomery Bus Boycott,” (1955) BlackPast.org Blog, accessed August 31, 2017, http://www.blackpast.org/1955-martin-luther-king-jr-montgomery-bus-boycott.
  2. Darrin Moore, “Russell Kirk and the Swords of Imagination,” The Imaginative Conservative, May 16, 2012, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2012/05/russell-kirk-and-swords-of-imagination.html.
  3. Gleaves Whitney, “The Swords of the Imagination: Russell Kirk’s Battle with Modernity,” The Imaginative Conservative, December 14, 2015, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/12/timeless-essay-the-swords-of-the-imagination-russell-kirks-battle-with-modernity.html.
  4. Jon M. Fennell, “What is the Moral Imagination?” The Imaginative Conservative, April 11, 2016, http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/04/what-is-the-moral-imagination.html.
  5. Moore, “Russell Kirk and the Swords of Imagination.”
  6. Walter Bruggeman, The Prophetic Imagination, Second Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001) 65.
  7. Ibid, xix.
  8. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm.
  9. Richard Lischer, The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 17.
  10. Lischer, Bookcover.