I only have one story where Martin Luther King touched my life. I was five years old when he was assassinated in Memphis. The efforts of his life have undoubtedly made the life I’ve lived better in ways I haven’t perceived, but there is one time his words had a profound influence on me. I think I can honestly say I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.
In the late 1980s I was a newbie Ph.D. student in Athens, GA at the University of Georgia. It was the first time I’d been more than three hours from my family, which at this point pretty much meant my mom. I’d kind of wandered through undergrad studies and my master’s. Being at UGA to work on my Ph.D. was the result of the first choice about my life that wasn’t either forced on me or just the easiest path at the time. The day I was accepted into the program I’d been offered a research job at WXYZ TV in Detroit. I went to Georgia. Both paths terrified me. I knew more about being in school. I went to Georgia.
I had been waging a personal war on organized religion since my father died in 1979. Raised Roman Catholic, I couldn’t reconcile a belief system that was willing to dictate personal behavior to a very specific degree, but when asked “So then why does this bad stuff happen?” all you get is a shrug and something about God’s Will. This is me describing what the 25-year-old kid I was thought. I’ve got no complaints now about the priests who spent a lot of time with me back when my dad died. They were good guys and they did the best they could. But knowing that came years later.
Not too long after I got to Athens I read a story in the local paper about the Episcopal priest at the University Episcopal Center. His name was Ralph Marsh, and I cannot begin to describe the effect that man had on my life. The Last Temptation of Christ had just come out and, as you might expect, it was a real shitstorm in the Bible Belt. Ralph was quoted as saying how much he wanted to see the movie, and then went on to describe how the original novel was consistent with a lot of gnostic stories and he thought it was great that the movie had been made.
“OK,” I said to myself, “this is a church I need to check out.”
And I did. Any you might notice a lack of anything in this story about Martin Luther King. I’m about to clear that up.
So right after church got out, the campus radio station WUOG ran a show called “Martin Speaks.” It was recorded sermons and speeches by Dr. King. What was interesting is that the shows that ran tended to follow the Revised Common Lectionary. That meant that I’d hear Ralph preach on some topic and then when I was out in my truck deciding where to go get lunch, I’d often listen to Martin Luther King preach on the same topic. It wasn’t sermons every week, but it was a lot of the time.
Even though I was in my first year at Georgia, I was beginning to wonder what I was doing there. Most of my time was spent studying people who seemed to have some purpose in their lives. My teachers seemed to have real purpose. My fellow students were mostly older and left careers to come back because they wanted to do this thing. I was still trying to figure out why I was there.
So it came to be one Sunday that the Gospel for the day was from Matthew 25 where the parable is the one of the servants who are given money by their master. Two of them invest and get rewarded, one buries the money and is basically screwed. The actual passage isn’t the most important part of this story.
So Ralph preached on this topic and I’m sure it was good. He undoubtedly primed the pump. Then I listened to Martin Luther King give a sermon on the same passage. This was the MLK who’d come out against the war in Viet Nam. This was post-Poor People’s March MLK. Still non-violent — possibly even more, if there is a way that makes sense — but speaking more and more about how the poison of injustice didn’t stop at how whites treated blacks. And in this sermon he asked what the powerful would say when called before God and asked “What did you do with what I gave you?” What would LBJ say? That he killed how many Vietnamese? What would McNamara say? What would Dean Rusk say? I had learned just a few weeks before that Dean Rusk maintained an office in a little building on the quad, and it was not unusual for a student to go upstairs and ask him a question. I regret not doing that. But that came later.
There was something about that sermon on that day at that time in my life that has never left me.I still don’t know that I have a purpose in life. I know I do not talk about the theology that guides me. Judge me on what I do. But I will say that, because of the words that Martin Luther King spoke, I do live my life preparing for whatever day I’m asked “What did you do with what I gave you?” No matter who asks. I think I’m a better person for it.
It’s not why his birthday is a holiday. But it’s why I celebrate it.