Salman Rushdie, one of India’s best known and most successful authors, captured my imagination in his novel, Midnight’s Children. His fictional account of 1001 children born at the stroke of midnight on the day India gains her independence, posits the notion that the time we are born into says something about the person we will become. Midnight’s children are endowed with extraordinary gifts and have the potential to be of great service. Not all of them use their abilities in noble or noticeably useful ways.
The gospel of John contains one of my favorite passages of scripture. The 12th verse of the 14th chapter says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” God’s children are endowed with extraordinary gifts and have the potential to be of great service. Not all of them use their abilities in noble or noticeably useful ways.
As we reflect today on the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Salman Rushdie, John’s gospel, and King’s life capture my imagination. We too, the priesthood of all believers, are endowed with extraordinary gifts and the potential to be of great service. Where, in our lives, are the intersections of extraordinary gifts, great works, and the times we have been born into?
I’m extremely fond of the youthful photo of King above. It holds the exuberance and possibility of what he might become. In his hopeful expression is all the potential of what could be when gifts and God come together.
I reflect today on the life of my 8 year-old nephew born in the seminal weeks following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. What will Eli create from the joining of his gifts and that enormous event in the course of his life? Another nephew, Dorrian, was 11 years-old when two planes flew into the World Trade Center. He still hates the sound of low flying planes but recently graduated college caring deeply about international business relationships. Did the coming together of religion and political rhetoric call him beyond the borders of his own country and faith? I can’t say with certainty, but who he is becoming, out of his giftedness and the historical time in which he was born, intrigues me.
Dr. King was in Memphis, Tennessee supporting striking sanitation workers when he was assassinated in 1968. He was 39 years-old, and I was an 8 month old baby. A portrait of the civil rights leader has hung in my childhood home all my life, and the values King stood for, shape much of who I am. He shows up often in my sermons, was a central figure in my graduate school application, and recently inspired my growing activity in efforts to end gun violence.
As people of faith, we locate our story within a larger story, our gifting within the God who is the giver of gifts. The important thing to know about the larger story in which we are located, is that we weren’t around for the beginning and, like King, won’t be around for the end. That’s important because it means our job, like Dr. King’s and other members of the priesthood, is to simply move the story along. In the grand scheme of the faith story, our appearance is a cameo. We move a small piece of the story forward, and our purpose is to figure out what piece is ours to move.
King lived the greatness Jesus proclaims in John’s gospel for those who believe in him. It’s not glamorous work. It could get us killed. It is the greatness, however, that we are extraordinarily gifted for – great service for the times we have been born into.
In his sermon, The Drum Major Instinct, King quotes the gospel hymn If I Can Help Somebody. It is, I believe, a fair summation of the priesthood of all believers as well as King’s extraordinary response to God’s call to serve.
If I can help somebody as I pass along
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong
Then my living will not be in vain
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought
If I can spread the message as the Master taught
Then my living will not be in vain