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A Knock at Midnight:
Inspiration from the Great Sermons of
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

Guidelines for a Constructive Church

I would like to preach from the subject: "Guidelines for a Constructive Church." Over the last several weeks now, we've been reading a good deal in our newspapers about guidelines. Now this word has been applied basically to the public school systems across our nation, particularly in the South. The Supreme Court of our nation rendered a decision back in 1954 declaring segregation in the public schools unconstitutional. And that next year in 1955 it came back stating that every school district was to integrate "with all deliberate speed." And yet we came into 1966 with the terrible realization that only 5.2 percent of the Negro students of the South had been placed in integrated schools, which meant in substance that we haven't made 1 percent progress a year. And if it continued at that pace it would take another ninety-six years to integrate the public schools of the South.

And so the Department of Education decided that the process had to be speeded up on the basis of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. And this department decided to set forth certain basic guidelines that had to be followed. The guidelines stated in substance that the process of integration had to be speeded up; that all grades had to be integrated; that even faculties had to be integrated. And this plan, or these guidelines, was submitted to every school district and that school district had to decide whether it would follow the guidelines. If it refused to follow the guidelines then federal funds would be cut off. If it complied with the guidelines then federal funds would be continued. And so today there is a great discussion all over the educational world and the public school system about whether a school district or a school board will follow the guidelines.

This morning I would like to submit to you that we who are followers of Jesus Christ, and we who must keep his church going and keep it alive, also have certain basic guidelines to follow. Somewhere behind the dim mist of eternity, God set forth his guidelines. And through his prophets, and above all through his son Jesus Christ, he said that, "There are some things that my church must do. There are some guidelines that my church must follow." And if we in the church don't want the funds of grace cut off from the divine treasury, we've got to follow the guidelines. (That’s right) The guidelines are clearly set forth for us in some words uttered by our Lord and Master as he went in the temple one day, and he went back to Isaiah and quoted from him. And he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me (Yes, sir) to preach the gospel to the poor, (Yes, sir) he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, (Yes) to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord." These are the guidelines.

You see, the church is not a social club, although some people think it is. (Make it plain) They get caught up in their exclusivism, and they feel that it’s a kind of social club with a thin veneer of religiosity, but the church is not a social club. (Make it plain) The church is not an entertainment center, although some people think it is. You can tell in many churches how they act in church, which demonstrates that they think it’s an entertainment center. The church is not an entertainment center. Monkeys are to entertain, not preachers.

But in the final analysis the church has a purpose. The church is dealing with man's ultimate concern. And therefore it has certain guidelines that it must follow.

Now I wish time permitted me to go into every aspect of this text, but I want to just mention a few. Let us first think of the fact that if the church is following its guidelines, it seeks to heal (Yes, sir) the broken-hearted. Now there is probably no human condition more tantalizing than a broken heart. You see, broken-heartedness is not a physical condition; it’s a condition of spiritual exhaustion. And who here this morning has not experienced a broken heart? I would say broken-heartedness comes basically from the trying experience of disappointment. And I don't believe there are many people here this morning under the sound of my voice who have not been disappointed about something. (Yes, That’s right)

Here is a young man or a young woman dreaming of some great career and setting out in school to try to make that career possible, only to discover that they don't quite have the mental faculties, the technical know-how, to achieve excellence in that particular field. And so they end up having to choose life’s second best, and because of this they end up with a broken heart. (Make it plain)

Here is a couple standing before the altar in a marriage that seems to be born in heaven, only to discover that six months or a year later the conflicts and the dissensions begin to develop; arguments and misunderstandings begin to unfold. (Yes, sir) And that same marriage which a year earlier seemed to have been born in heaven ends up in the divorce court, (Yes) and the individuals are left with a broken heart.

Here is a family, (Make it plain) a mother and father striving desperately to train their children up in the way that they should go. Working hard to make their education possible; working hard to give them a sense of direction, praying fervently for their guidance. And yet, in spite of all of this, one or two of the children end up taking the wrong road, (Yes) moving toward some strange and tragic far country. And the parents end up having to acknowledge that the children that they raised are prodigals lost in a far country, and they end up with a broken heart.

And then there comes life’s ultimate tragedy, that something that always makes for a broken heart. Who this morning hasn't experienced it? When you must stand before the bier of a loved one. (Yes, sir) That day when the casket rolls down the aisle. That experience called death, which is the irreducible common denominator of all men. And no one can lose a loved one, no one can lose a mother or father, sister, brother, a child, without ending up with a broken heart. Broken-heartedness is a reality in life.

And Sunday after Sunday, week after week, people come to God’s church with broken hearts. (Yes, sir) They need a word of hope. And the church has an answer—if it doesn't, it isn't a church. (Yes) The church must say in substance that broken-heartedness is a fact of life. Don’t try to escape when you come to that experience. Don't try to repress it. Don't end up in cynicism. Don't get mean when you come to that experience. (Make it plain) The church must say to men and woman that Good Friday (Yes, sir) is a fact of life. The church must say to people that failure is a fact of' life. Some people are only conditioned to success. They are only conditioned to fulfillment. Then when the trials and the burdens of life unfold, they can't stand up with it. But the church must tell men (Yes, sir) that Good Friday’s as much a fact of life as Easter; failure is as much a fact of life as success; disappointment is as much a fact of life as fulfillment. And the church must tell men to take your burden, (Yes, sir) take your grief and look at it, don't run from it. Say that this is my grief (Yes, sir) and I must bear it. (Yes) Look at it hard enough and say, "How can I transform this liability into an asset?" (Yes)

This is the power that God gives you. He doesn't say that you're going to escape tension; he doesn't say that you're going to escape disappointment; he doesn't say that you’re going to escape trials and tribulations. But what religion does say is this: that if you have faith in God, (Yes) that God has the power (Yes, sir) to give you a kind of inner equilibrium through your pain. So let not your heart be troubled. (No, sir) "If ye believe in God, ye believe also in me." Another voice rings out, "Come unto me, all ye that labor (Yes, sir, Yes) and are heavy laden." As if to say, "Come unto me, all ye that are burdened down. Come unto me, all ye that are frustrated. Come unto me, all ye with clouds of anxiety floating in your mental skies. Come unto me, all ye that are broke down. (Yes, sir) Come unto me, all ye that are heartbroken. (Yes) Come unto me, all ye that are laden with heavy ladens, and I will give you rest." And the rest that God gives (Yes) is the rest that passeth all understanding. (Yes it does) The world doesn't understand that kind of rest, because it’s a rest that makes it possible (Yes) for you to stand up amid outer storms, and yet you maintain inner calm. (Yes) If the church is true to its guidelines, (Yes) it heals the broken-hearted.

Secondly, when the church is true to its guidelines, it sets out to preach deliverance (Yes, sir) to them that are captive. (Yes, sir) This is the role of the church: to free people. This merely means to free those who are slaves. Now if you notice some churches, they never read this part. Some churches aren't concerned about freeing anybody. Some white churches (Make it plain) face the fact Sunday after Sunday that their members are slaves to prejudice, (Yes, sir) slaves to fear. You got a third of them, or a half of them or more, slaves to their prejudices. (Yes, sir) And the preacher does nothing to free them from their prejudice so often. (Make it plain, Yes) Then you have another group sitting up there who would really like to do something about racial injustice, but they are afraid of social, political, and economic reprisals, (Make it plain) so they end up silent. And the preacher never says anything to lift their souls and free them from that fear. (Make it plain) And so they end up captive. You know this often happens in the Negro church. (Yeah) You know, there are some Negro preachers that have never opened their mouths about the freedom movement. And not only have they not opened their mouths, they haven’t done anything about it. And every now and then you get a few members: (Make it plain) "They talk too much about civil rights in that church." (That’s right) I was talking with a preacher the other day and he said a few of his members were saying that. I said, "Don't pay any attention to them. (Make it plain) Because number one, the members didn't anoint you to preach. (Yeah) And any preacher who allows members to tell him what to preach isn't much of a preacher." (Amen)

For the guidelines made it very clear that God anointed. (Yes, sir) No member of Ebenezer Baptist Church called me to the ministry. (No, sir) You called me to Ebenezer, and you may turn me out of here, but you can’t turn me out of the ministry, because I got my guidelines and my anointment from God Almighty. And anything I want to say, I'm going to say it from this pulpit. (Make it plain) It may hurt somebody, I don’t know about that; somebody may not agree with it. (Tell them) But when God speaks, who can but prophesy? (Amen) The word of God is upon me like fire shut up in my bones, (Yes, That’s right) and when God’s word gets upon me, I've got to say it, I’ve got to tell it all over everywhere. [shouting] (Yes) And God has called me (Yes) to deliver those that are in captivity. (Yes, sir)

Some people are suffering. (Make it plain) Some people are hungry this morning. (Yes) [clap] Some people are still living with segregation and discrimination this morning. (Yes, sir) I'm going to preach about it. (Preach it; I’m with you) I’m going to fight for them. I’ll die for them if necessary, because I got my guidelines clear. (Yes) And the God that I serve and the God that called me to preach (Yes; Amen) told me that every now and then I'll have to go to jail for them. (Make it plain) Every now and then I’ll have to agonize and suffer for the freedom of his children. (Yes) I even may have to die for it. But if that’s necessary, I'd rather follow the guidelines of God (Yes) than to follow the guidelines of men. (Yes) The church is called to set free (Yes) those that are captive, (Yes, sir) to set free those that are victims of the slavery of segregation and discrimination, those who are caught up in the slavery of fear and prejudice. (Make it plain)

And then the church, if it is true to its guidelines, must preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Yes, sir, Make it plain) You know the acceptable year of the Lord is the year that is acceptable to God because it fulfills the demands of his kingdom. Some people reading this passage feel that it’s talking about some period beyond history, (Make it plain) but I say to you this morning that the acceptable year of the Lord can be this year. (Yes) And the church is called to preach it.

The acceptable year of the Lord is any year (Amen) when men decide to do right.

The acceptable year of the Lord is any year when men will stop lying and cheating. (Amen, Make it plain)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when women will start using the telephone for constructive purposes (Yes) and not to spread malicious gossip and false rumors on their neighbors. (Right)

The acceptable year of the Lord is any year (Any year) when men will stop throwing away the precious lives that God has given them in riotous living. (Make it plain)

The acceptable year of the Lord (Yes) is that year when people in Alabama (Make it plain) will stop killing civil rights workers and people who are simply engaged in the process of seeking their constitutional rights. (Make it plain)

The acceptable year of the Lord (Yes) is that year when men will learn to live together as brothers. (Yes, sir)

The acceptable year of the Lord (Yes) is that year when men will keep their theology abreast with their technology.

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when men will keep the ends for which they live abreast with the means by which they live. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year (That year) when men will keep their morality abreast with their mentality.

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year (Yes) when all of the leaders of the world will sit down at the conference table (Make it plain) and realize that unless mankind puts an end to war, war will put an end to mankind. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord [clap] is that year when men will beat their swords into plowshares, (Yes) and their spears into pruning hooks: and nations will not rise up against nations, neither will they study war anymore. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year (That year) when men will allow justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when we will send to Congress and to state houses of our nation (Yes, sir) men who will do justly, (Yes) who will love mercy, (Yes) and who will walk humbly with their God. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year (Yes, sir) when every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain will be made low; the rough places would be made plain, and the crooked places straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when men will do unto others as they will have others do unto themselves. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when men will love their enemies, (Yes) bless them that curse them, pray for them that despitefully use them.

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when men discover that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. (Yes)

The acceptable year of the Lord is that year when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess the name of Jesus. And everywhere men will cry out, "Hallelujah, hallelujah! The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah, hallelujah!"

The acceptable year of the Lord is God’s year. (Yes)

These are our guidelines, and if we will only follow the guidelines, we will be ready for God’s kingdom, (Yes) we will be doing what God’s church is called to do. We won’t be a little social club. (Make it plain) We won’t be a little entertainment center. But we’ll be about the serious business (Yes) of bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe smiling and speaking to this church, saying, "You are a great church (Glory to God) because I was hungry and ye fed me. You are a great church because I was naked and ye clothed me. You are a great church because I was sick and ye visited me. You are a great church because I was in prison and ye gave me consolation by visiting me." (Yes, sir) And this is the church that’s going to save this world. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Yes) because he has anointed me to heal the broken-hearted, to set at liberty them that are captive, (Amen) and to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."

 

 

Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 5 June 1966. MLKEC.

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 © The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr.