In honor of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I offer some excerpts from a sermon he delivered August 9, 1964 at Riverside Church in New York City. It is entitled “A Knock at Midnight.”
This morning I would like to have you think with me on the subject of a knock at midnight. Out text is taken from the very familiar parable as recorded by St. Luke:
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and he will answer from within, “Do not bother me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything”? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.’”
Although this parable is concerned with the power of persistent prayer, it may also serve as a basis for our thought concerning many contemporary problems and the role of the church in grappling with them. The first thing we notice is that it is midnight in the parable; it is also midnight in our world today and we are experiencing darkness so deep we can hardly see which way to turn.
It is midnight within the social order. As we look out on the international horizon we see the nations are engaged in a colossal and bitter contest for supremacy. Within a generation we have fought two world wars and the threat of another hangs ominously low. Atomic warfare has just begun and bacteriological warfare remains yet unused. That is the danger that all these things will yet conspire to bring an untimely death to the human family on the globe. It is midnight.
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But it is not only midnight in man’s external collective life, it also is midnight in his internal individual life. It is midnight in the psychological order. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Deep clouds of anxiety and depression are suspended in our mental skies. People are more emotionally disturbed today than ever before. The psychopathic wards of our hospitals are full and the most popular psychologists today are the psychoanalysts. Bestsellers in psychology are books such as “Man Against Himself,” “Modern Man in Search of a Soul,” and “The Neurotic Personality of Our Times.” Bestsellers in religion are such books as “Peace of Mind” and “Peace of Soul.” Often the most popular preachers are those who can preach nice soothing sermons on “How to Be Happy” and “How to Relax.” Some have been tempted to revise Jesus’ command to read, “Go ye into all the world, keep your blood pressure down, and lo, I will make you a well-adjusted personality.” All of this is indicative of the fact that it is midnight within the inner lives of men and women.
Not only that, it is also midnight within the moral order. Midnight is a time when all colors lose their distinctiveness and become merely a sullen shade of gray. Certainly in the modern world in so many instances moral principles have lost their distinctiveness. Right and wrong in so many quarters are merely relative to our likes and our dislikes and our appetites and to the particular community in which we live, and so we have reduced morality to group consensus. We have come to believe that you discover what is right by taking a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion. Everybody is doing it so it must be all right. This is the philosophy that pervades so many of our communities.
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As in the parable so in our world today the deep darkness of midnight is interrupted by the sound of a knock. On the door of the church millions of people knock. In this country the roll of church members is longer than ever before. More than one hundred and fifteen million people are at least paper members of some church or synagogue. This represents an increase of more than 100% since 1930, although the population has incread by only 31% during that time.
This numerical growth should not be overemphasized. We must not be tempted to confuse spiritual power and large numbers. But although a numerical growth does not necessarily reflect a concomitant increase in ethical commitment, millions of people do feel that the church provides an answer to the deep confusion that encompasses their lives. It is still the one familiar landmark where the weary traveler by midnight comes. It is the one house which stands where it has always stood, the house to which the man traveling at midnight either comes or refuses to come. Some decide not to come. But the many who come and knock are desperately seeking a little bread to tide them over.
The traveler asks for three loaves of bread. In the parable the traveler was asking for three loaves of physical bread. In the world today the weary traveler is in quest of three loaves of spiritual bread. He wants the bread of faith. In a generation of so many colossal disappointments, men have lost faith in God, faith in man, and faith in the future. In the midst of staggering disillusionment, men have lost faith in God, faith in man, and faith in the future. In the midst of staggering disillusionment many cry out for the bread of faith.
Then there are those who are seeking the bread of hope. Certainly all need this bread. Many people have concluded that life has no meaning. Many people find themselves crying out with the philosopher Schopenhauer that life is an endless pain with a painful end. But others cry out with Shakespeare’s Macbeth that “Life is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing.” * * *
And there is the deep longing for the bread of love. Everybody wants this bread. Everybody wishes to love and be loved. He who feels that he is not loved feels that he does not count. Liviing in a world which has become oppressively impersonal, many of us have come to see so many things to remind us of this. The mother who gives birth to a child is often maternity case No. 8343 and her child after being fingerprinted and footprinted becomes case No. 8225. The child grows up and gets a job. He becomes No. 5260 in some industrial plant. If he happens o go in the army he becomes No. 8575 in regiment 975. And finally when death comes, a funeral in a large city is an event in Parlor B with Class B flowers and at which Preacher No. 14 officiates and Musician No. 84 sings Selection No. 174.
Bewildered by this tendency to reduce man to a card in a vast index, man desperately searches for the bread of love. In the darkness of midnight thousands and millions of people find themselves in quest for the bread of faith, the bread of hope and the bread of love.
Now let us notice another thing in this parable. When the man in the parable knocked on his friend’s door and asked for the three loaves of bread, he received the impatient retort, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” So at the most difficult period in his life this man was left disappointed.
How often have men experienced a similar disappointment when at midnight they knock on the door of the church. Millions of Africans, patiently knocking on the door of the Christian church where they seek the bread of social justice, have either been altogether ignored or told to wait until later, which almost always means never. Millions of American Negroes, and other minority groups, starving for the want of the bread of freedom have knocked again and again on the door of so-called white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy.
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In the terrible midnight of war, men have knocked on the door of the church to ask for the bread of peace, but the church has often disappointed them. What more pathetically reveals the irrelevancy of the church in present day world affairs than its witness regarding war? In a world gone mad with arms buildups, chauvinistic passions, and imperialistic exploitation, the church has either endorsed these activities or remained appallingly silent. Oh, how tragic this is! It reveals that as people knock with determination, they are so often left disappointed. A weary world, pleading desperately for peace, has often found the church morally sanctioning war.
Those who have gone to church to seek the bread of economic justice have been left in the frustrating midnight of economic deprivation. In many instances the church has so aligned itself with the privileged classes and so defended the status quo that it has been unwilling to answer the knock at midnight. * * * The church must be reminded that it is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. If it does not participate actively in the struggle for peace and for economic and racial justice, it will forfeit the loyalty of millions and cause men everywhere to say that it has atrophied its will. But if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice and peace. Men far and near will know the church as a great fellowship of love that provides light and bread for lonely travelers at midnight.
This is its role. The God of the universe still speaks through his prophet saying the church that “justice roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” God is still speaking saying, “I am not concerned merely with your beautiful prayers and eloquent sermons.” “What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.” And if the church can capture this, and find this, it will give men and women a ray of hope, in the dark midnight parable.
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The psalmist is right. Midnight may come, “weeping may tarry for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” With this faith we will be able to move out of the dark and desolate midnight, and to a beautiful daybreak. With this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows and speed up that day when “every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough place will be made plain and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all of flesh shall see it together.” And when this happens morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.