Second Sunday of Easter, Year A,B,C

Seeing and Believing, 
the Faith of "Doubting" Thomas

   Acts 5:27-32
   Revelation 5:11-14
  John 20:19-31

John 20:19-31[1]
Text (with a little exegesis and commentary here and there)
When it was evening on that day,[2] the first day of the week,[3] and the doors of the house where the disciples[4] had met were locked for fear of the Jews,[5] Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”[6] 20 After he said this, he showed[7] them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced[8] when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”[9] 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them[10] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.[11] 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;[12] if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Jesus and Thomas[13]
 24 But Thomas[14] (who was called the Twin[15]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him,[16] “We have seen the Lord.”[17] But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark[18] of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas,[19] “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”[20] 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”[21] 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?[22] Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

The Purpose of This Book[23]
 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his[24] disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[25] that Jesus is the Messiah,[26] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Notes and thoughts on Preaching this Text
There are four resurrection appearances in John. This passage represents the second and third of those.
The first was in the garden and the fourth is on the beach in chapter 21. (Interestingly, John calls that fourth one the third appearance. Either he can’t count appearances or he can’t count women.)
There are dozens of interesting directions that this story could take you this week. I’ll try to keep my comments down to just three.

Saving or strengthening?
The first one has to do with a very interesting textual problem in verse 31, that might give you a two (or three) point sermon and an opportunity for a teachable moment with your congregations about the methods and history of translations.

Verse 20:31 reads “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (NRSV). However, “come to believe” in most of our translations has a footnote. The NRSV’s says, “Other ancient authorities read may continue to believe.

What is behind that qualifier is that the phrase in Greek has a slight, slight variant that can dramatically alter the meaning of the whole, so the translation committees decided to offer them both. A thin majority of ancient texts have hina pisteuēste, which is in the aorist tense and means “come to believe.” However, a slight but significant minority, have hina pisteuēte, which is present tense and means “continue to believe.” The difference is one letter. The USB critical edition of the Greek New Testament (1972, 2nd ed.) has the word with a bracket around that one letter, like this hina pisteuē[s]te.

Now, the significance of this is that the slight-majority reading says the gospel was written so that you will change and become a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. In that case it is meant as an evangelical statement. But the slight-minority texts say it was written so that you (who are already believers) will continue to believe, in which case it is meant as a support or strengthening statement. One wants you to become a believer, the other wants you to put that belief into practice. Translators are not settled on this, and the difference is not minor.

It seems to me that as a preacher/interpreter one could either throw ones hands up and choose according to your theology (Leon Morris’s conservative commentary claims John clearly means it as an evangelical statement, and Bultmann’s “liberal” commentary [which avoids the notion of Christ’s expiation] says it clearly is an existential statement), or one can use it as an opportunity to teach average church goers about the difficulties of translation and then preach a mini-sermon based on both.

I could envision a Fred Craddock-style “Not this, not this, but this” sermon in which you tell of the conflict, wax a few minutes about what it could mean for you and me if translated one way and then a few minutes on what it would mean if it was translated the other way, and then have an inclusive conclusion based on both.

Suffered like me?
The second has to do with Jesus identifying with our wounds. Usually when we read that Thomas wants to see Jesus’ wounds, we are saying that he wants tangible evidence of the existence of the risen lord. But maybe what Thomas is saying is that he refuses to follow a savior who does not have wounds. “Unless I see the wounds in his side, I will not believe in him. I will not follow a savior who has not suffered like the rest of us.”

Does this hearken back to the image in Isaiah of the suffering servant? Is Thomas saying that he can’t follow someone who has not borne the wounds of humanity? Or not suffered like other humans? Is he saying, “What good is a savior who has not suffered like I have?” This sounds similar to what Jesus was saying when he said that before he would be the Christ he would have to be arrested, tried, and executed. And similar to what the letter to the Hebrews meant when saying that to be our savior he must be tempted in every way, just like we were.

Hebrews 2:18: “Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

Imagine going to see a doctor and you said, “I have a pain here and there and I’m worried about it,” and the doctor said nothing but gave you a prescription and said “take this”? Compare that with a doctor who might say, “yeah, I’ve had that too, and I know exactly what you mean,” and then gave you a prescription. Which one would you be most likely to bond with?

In my own preaching I have on occasion told stories about women who were battered or abused in their relationships. Usually people sympathize and then yawn. But I once had a female guest pastor preach for me and she told her own story of abuse, and after the service five women came up and said they wanted to talk. Unless they saw that she had been wounded like they had, they wouldn’t trust the speaker.

On Seeing and Believing
Finally, quick word on seeing, but not really seeing. Thomas was a follower of Jesus and certainly would have wanted to believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead. But for whatever reason (redaction critics have had a field day trying to guess why John portrayed him this way) he seems to not want to believe based on the testimony of others, but only on the trustworthiness of his own eyes. In the end Jesus allows that to happen, but adds, “Have you believed because you have seen me?[27] Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Believing through seeing is fine, but sometimes conviction empowers understanding in a way that facts cannot.

Do you remember the old Ted Danson and Joely Richardson movie, “Loch Ness” that came out in the mid-nineties? It’s about a lonely, discredited, anthropologist, who goes to Scotland to see if he can prove the story of the Loch Ness Monster.  He rents a room from a widow and her daughter, and, of course, they eventually spark a relationship. At one point in the movie he has a talk with the daughter, played by Kirsty Graham, about the reality of the animal that no one has yet successfully proven the existence of. He tells her that he just can’t believe in something until he sees it (sound like Thomas?) and she responds that he’s got it all backwards. The truth is, you really can’t see it until you believe in it (sound like Jesus?). You can't really "see" truth, until you already "believe" truth. You can't really "see" the presence and actions and deeds and love of God through Jesus Christ, until you already "believe" that those things exist. The believing causes the ability to see. The ability to see doesn't have much effect on your ability to believe.

And after that, I guess, the pastor says “Amen.” 

[1] 20:19-23 “Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples brings his bestowal of peace and of the Spirit, with assurance of his commissioning them to carry forward the work God gave to him, and the right to forgive or retain (hold them blameworthy for) the sins of members of the community” (Keck). “This appearance is astounding because Jesus apparently penetrated the closed room and manifested himself in their midst. He could do this because resurrection and the subsequent glorification had altered his form. In resurrection, he had become life-giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-45). At the same time, he still retained his humanity—but a glorified one. In resurrection, he was the same person in a different form (see Mark 16:12). In this new spiritual form, he was able to transcend all physical barriers. He was able to penetrate matter and even penetrate men.” New Commentary on the Whole Bible, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, General Editor: J. D. Douglas New Testament Editor: Philip W. Comfort (1995).
[2] That day, may have eschatological implications. In the OT, occasionally the term refers to the “day of the Lord.” Cf. Isaiah 52:6, “My people shall know my name; on that day they shall know it is I who speak.” John often uses this note of time (1:39; 5:9; 11:53; 14:20; 16:23, 26). John is using Roman time, not Jewish, for here evening follows day instead of preceding it. Note that NIB makes no reference to the eschatological possibilities, but instead says that its purpose here is to connect it with the previous story of the empty tomb where it is also used. Are these two theories mutually contradictory?
[3] First day of the week. John puts this event on the first day of the week, and the appearance to Thomas on the first day of the week, suggesting that the chronology may have been influenced by later Christian custom of celebrating the Lord's supper on the first day of the week. See Acts 22:7, 1 Cor. 16:2.
[4] “Disciples” (μαθητής/mathētḗs, masc. noun). From manthánō, to learn, to understand. A learner, pupil. It certainly included his disciples, but not necessarily only them, and may have included the women followers as well. “Though in the NT μαθητής generally refers to men, it is neutral as to sex distinction, and thus in a few instances in the NT also includes women (as in Ac 6.1, πληθυνόντων τῶν μαθητῶν ‘the number of disciples kept growing’).” Louw and Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible societies, 1989), 1:470.
[5] For fear of the Jews, See John 7:13 for the phrase; cf. 12:42.
[6] Peace be with you (eirēnē humin). The usual salutation as in verses 21, 26; Luke 24:36. However, here it probably also is the fulfillment of with John 14:27, where Christ promised them his peace. Stoffregen says that it is usually used in John as a relational term, i.e. “may a peaceful relationship exist among you.” It doesn’t mean be calm, or have world peace. It means get along. “Whenever I see this word in the NT, I begin by defining it as a description of a type of relationship between people rather than a personal inner tranquility. The verbal form [ειρηνεύω - eirēneuō] always refers to relationships between people in the NT (Mk 9:50; Ro 12:18; 2C 13:11; 1Th 5:13). Given John’s emphasis on the disciples’ love for one another (13:35), I think it highly possible that it has a communal meaning. It is clear in 16:33 that peace does not mean “not having troubles in the world” -- which would tend to rule out the meanings eirene adopted from the Hebrew shalom.” 
[7] “Showed” (edeixen, εδειξεν). First aorist active indicative of deiknumi, “This body, not yet glorified, retained the marks of the nails and of the soldier’s spear, ample proof of the bodily resurrection against the modern view that only Christ’s “spirit” arose and against the Docetic notion that Jesus had no actual human body. Luke (24:39f.) adds feet to hands and side.” (Word Pictures of the Greek New Testament)
[8] Rejoiced (echarēsan). Second aorist passive indicative of chairō.  Thayer’s has rejoicebe exceedingly glad, to be well, and thrive. Strong’s adds “be full of cheer.” 
[9] This is one of the three “commissions” given by the Risen Christ (another on the mountain in Galilee (Matt 28:16-20; 1 Cor 15:6), another on the Mount of Olives (Luke 24:44-51; Acts 1:3-11).
[10] He breathed on them (enephusēsen, first aorist active indicative of emphusaō). “Here only in N.T., though eleven times in the LXX and in the papyri” (Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament). “In Greek, pneuma means both breath and spirit. In Genesis 2:7, God breathes into the nostrils of Adam, giving him earthly life; the Septuagint translation uses pneuma here” (Haslem). “It occurs also in Ezek 37:9. See Christ’s promise in John 16:23. Jesus gives the disciples a foretaste of the great Pentecost” (Word Pictures). “Jesus’ breathing into them recapitulates God’s breathing into Adam (see Gen. 2:7, LXX, where enephusÎsen is used) and thus denotes that Jesus’ infusion inspired a new genesis, in which he regenerated the disciples (see 1 Peter 1:3)” (New Commentary on the Whole Bible). Compare Ezekiel 37:5.
[11] There is an article that is missing here. The gift bestowed was not that of the personal Holy Spirit, but rather an earnest of that gift; an effusion of the Spirit.
[12] “They are forgiven them” (ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς). “Despite the present and the future tenses in many MSS, the variant apheōntai (perfect passive, ‘they are forgiven’) is probably original” (Barton, John and John Muddiman, The Oxford Bible Commentary, (London: Oxford University Press) 2001).
[13] 20:24-29  “Thomas, the absentee among the disciples, is first dubious about the resurrection claim, but then through a second appearance to the disciples he is shown the pierced hands and side of Jesus, and acclaims him as Lord and God” (Leander Keck).
[14] “Thomas.” (Thomás). “Twin.” Note that Didymus, below, means all but exactly the same thing. 
[15] “Twin” (Didymus). From äßò (twice); means double, that is, twin old Greek word. Note that the term “twelve” is still applied to the group, though Judas is dead. The same expression applied to Thomas in 11:16; 21:2, but nowhere else in N.T. (Robinson, Word Pictures in the Greek New Testament).
[16] “The other disciples told him.” Note that it is the imperfect that is actually used here, “The other disciples kept telling him that ‘We have seen the Lord’.” The implication is clearly that they have repeatedly spoken to Thomas several time throughout the week.
[17] “We have seen the Lord” (heōrakamen ton kurion). This is the very language in the plural that Mary Magdalene had used (20:18) when no one believed her.  
[18] “The mark” (τὸν τύπον). The print or stamp made by the nails. The fact that he wants to see it implies the disciples had told him that they had seen the typon of the nails in his hands and the spear in his side.
[19] “Then he said to Thomas” (eita legei tōi Thomāi ). Jesus turns directly to Thomas. The impression is given that the purpose for this visit is to speak to Thomas. He lists the very tests that Thomas had named (verse 25).
[20] “Do not doubt, but believe”( mē ginou apistos). “Although many translations include “doubt” in v. 27 -- and thus lead to the phrase “Doubting Thomas”, there is no Greek word for “doubt” in the verse. The contrast is between apistos and pistos—the only occurrence of both these words in John” (Brian Stoffregen). The word play is between apistos/ἄπιστος (disbelieving) and pistos/πιστός (believing), but not between doubting and believing. The KJV has “Be not faithless” (KJV), which means something like, “stop disbelieving; start believing.”
[21] “My Lord and My God” C.K. Barrett sees in this phrase a portion of “the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith.” A literal translation might be, “Lord of me (i.e. Jesus of history), God of me (i.e. Christ of faith).” “In 13:13–14 Jesus used ‘teacher’ and ‘lord’ as synonyms, but now ‘my Lord’ designates the risen Christ. ‘My God’ resumes the description of Jesus in the Prologue as ‘God’ (1:1, 18). In the OT Lord and God are associated terms (e.g. Ps 7:2–3; 30:3). This is more likely to be the background than the pagan acclamation of the emperor as Lord and God (but see Suetonius, Dom. 13: ‘dominus et deus noster’) (Oxford Bible Commentary).
[22] “Have you believed because you have seen me?” “Both verbs are perfect tense, which implies …a past action with continued effect in the present. This sentence also poses a punctuation problem: Is it a question as the nrsv translates it or a declaration as the niv translates it (“‘Because you have seen, you have believed’”)? We have the declaration: “Seeing is believing.” It’s not always true, but we say it” (Brian Stoffregen).
[23] 20:30-31  “The original conclusion of John's Gospel. The author indicates that he has chosen to report this group of Jesus' signs in order to persuade his readers that Jesus is the Messiah and to show them that through trust in him they may obtain life as God intended it to be” (Keck) .
[24] Although most MSS, including several important ones (𝔓66 א C D L W Θ Ψ f1, 13 33 𝔐 lat), read αὐτοῦ (autou, “his”) after τῶν μαθητῶν (tōn mathētōn, “the disciples”), the pronoun is lacking in A B K Δ 0250 al. The weight of the witnesses for the inclusion is somewhat stronger than that for the exclusion. However, the addition of “his” to “disciples” is a frequent scribal emendation and as such is a predictable variant. It is thus most likely that the shorter reading is authentic. NA27 puts the pronoun in brackets, indicating doubts as to its authenticity.” NET Bible: First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2005).
[25] “Come to believe.” nrsv note: Other ancient authorities read may continue to believe. A thin majority of ancient texts have hina pisteuēste, which is in the aorist tense and means “come to believe.” However, a smaller but significant minority, have hina pisteuēte, which is present tense and means “continue to believe.” The difference is one letter. Most critical editions of the Greek New Testaments (mine is UBS 1972, 2nd ed.) have the word with a bracket around that one letter, like this hina pisteuē[s]te. The significance is that the slight-majority reading says the Gospel was written so that you will change and become a believer in Jesus as the Messiah. In that case it is meant as an evangelical statement. The slight-minority texts say it was written so that you (who are already believers) will continue to believe, in which case it is meant as a support or strengthening statement. One wants you to become a believer, the other wants you to put that belief into practice. One is written to bring you into the community, and the other is written be the community, that is, live up to what the community was meant to be.
[26] nrsv Note: Or the Christ
[27] It doesn’t change the overall meaning much, but the phrase “Have you believed because you have seen me?” (NRSV) could also be punctuated as a declarative statement, not as a question which would give, “Because you have seen, you have believed” (NIV).

Murders and Killings and Who Gets Charged with the Crime

Lent 3 C, Year C

Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

First the text and notes, followed then by my own commentary and sermon suggestions.   

Luke 13:1-9

Repent or Perish

13 1At that very time[1] there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.[2] 2 He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered[3] in this way they were worse sinners[4] than all other Galileans?[5]

3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent,[6] you will all perish as they did.
4 Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders[7] than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent,[8] you will all perish just as they did.”

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree[9] planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7 So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down![10] Why should it be wasting the soil?’
8 He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9 If it bears fruit next year,[11] well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”[12]

Commentary and Sermon Suggestions

As usual, our Gospel reading for this week, Luke 13:1-9, lifts up some very difficult theological issues. But that’s why we preach, isn’t it? That’s why preaching is important. If the ideas were easy, they wouldn’t hire people like you and me to untangle the knots and make sense out of them. J
This week I will only talk about the first half of the Gospel reading. For one thing, the first part, about death and sin and repentance, raises some powerful issues in and of itself, and probably, originally had nothing to do with the second half, about the survival of a fig tree. For another, I'm lazy and spent all week on the first half and will have to wrestle with fig trees another time. 

According to the narrative arc that Luke is following or creating, this is the very last part of a much longer “speech” (or loose collection of sayings), that Jesus delivers after dinner at the home of a Pharisee. It was evidently a fairly large gathering because there were a number of people from the town present. The total speech runs from Chapter 12:1 to 13:9 and covers a number of topics roughly woven together (some more smoothly than others) around a larger theme about being vigilant in the face of crisis. Some of the issues included keeping their faith, and remaining morally and ethically strong, even under difficult conditions.
For example, the speech contains the statement that we shouldn’t spend our lives worrying about what we should wear or eat. So, Jesus says, “Remember the lilies of the fields: they neither toil nor spin, yet even Solomon in all his glory was not arraigned like one of these” (12:27). On another, he says to not give up on your faithfulness just because times are hard. And there's the story of the servants waiting for their master to come home after his wedding, who eventually got tired waiting and gave up on him. Jesus says, “blessed are those [servants] whom the master finds when he comes” (12:37).
Finally, here in 13:1-9, he comes to something of a climax in his talk. It is a call to repent and change our ways, a “change of heart and life manifest in fruitful lives” (New Interpreters' Study Bible). As I mention in the notes on the text above, Luke mentions repentance more often than any other book in the Bible. In fact, close to more often than all of the rest of the New Testament combined.  
Then, that evening, presumably after dinner, someone in the crowd raises a question about a recent tragedy concerning some grizzly deaths that had occurred in the temple. Evidently Pilate had punished some Galileans for an unspecified crime (likely their involvement in an insurrection plot) by killing them and sprinkling their blood in with the blood of the sacrifice on the Temple altar. Incidentally, we have no other record of this happening, however it is very much in keeping with the gruesome policies of Pilate. Jesus’ response to it indicates that the questioner was probably suggesting that God had caused the deaths as a punishment for their being “worse sinners” than others.

Background “Riffs”
As an aside, here are a couple of “riffs” that you could go off on in your sermon that could flesh out the background of this simple two-sentence story. First would be to think about the possible underlying emotions driving this question. For example it could have reflected a basic prejudice by those in Jerusalem against the lower class Galileans who they believed should be considered sinners, prima facie, solely because of their class. An attitude that still lies just under the surface in much of our discourse about race and nationality and gender today. Or you might mention a frequent attitude among marginalized peoples that any opposition to the government is out of line and sinful. “Those people,” they might say, “could have put the lives of the rest of us in jeopardy by that action; they should have just stayed in their place and not tried a protest.” But in either case, the first thing Jesus says is no. I’ll come back to the second half of Jesus’ response in a moment.
A second riff could be to give a little primer on sacrifice as the mode of worship in the first century. It may have been more bloody than our modern methods of worship, but no less significant. In ancient Israel, sacrifices were gifts to God as a thank offering for the bounty that God had given them. And they saw it as a transformation of something temporal (the animal) into something transcendent (the smoke, the spirit from the animal). [13] We retain a lot of the symbolism of sacrifice in our worship today, but without the (bloody) physical actions behind them. It’s not our 21st century mode of worship, but don’t let the bloody aspects of it derail us from looking at Pilate’s even more bloody response and the moral and theological issues that the story raises.
Traditional location of the "Pool of Siloam"
The second story raised that evening came from Jesus himself. It was about a time when a tower in Siloam[14] by the waters fell over on top of people and killed 18 of them. This was probably tower that guarded the aqueduct bringing water to the pool of Siloam, that formed part of the old wall of Jerusalem.[15]
It was a terrible tragedy. Greg Jenks, a New Testament scholar at St Francis Theological College, in Australia, believes that both of these stories may be related. At about the same time that Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem, Pilate began an aqueduct project to bring more water to the city. That’s a good thing, but he was going to pay for it by stealing money from the Temple treasury and many local Jews protested that. So, the first group who died could have been enraged Jews who protested against the robbery, and then paid for it with their lives. And the second group could have been the workers on one of the towers related to the water project.[16] So, Jesus asks, were they suggesting that the people who Pilate killed and had their blood mixed with the Temple sacrifices were worse “sinners”? And that those who died in the tower collapse worse “offenders” for what they had done?
He asks both of these questions in a rhetorical way, The implication in both was yes, that is exactly what they were suggesting. Yes, they believed that because these poor people died the worst possible deaths, therefore they must have been the worst possible sinners.

Jesus’ responses to these two stories
The first part of his response to both questions is simple, of course not. And that answer is very helpful. God is not a killer. Thinking so is nice when you are talking about a Saddam Hussein or Bashar al Assad (brutal dictator of Syria) dying, but the argument gets a little weak when you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Haiti during its earthquakes and floods and cholera epidemic (which was, by the way, introduced to the island by the United Nations earthquake relief workers). Did they sin more than us, and therefore God destroyed their country? Of course not, and Jesus makes that plain.
But the second part is more difficult. I can understand his saying that you need to have a life of repentance and new meaningfulness, but it at least sounds like he is adding that if you don’t repent you will die just like those Galileans did, or you’ll die the way that they did. It’s the “like they did” part that remains troubling.
I don’t think he means that if you are a sinner, you will die in the same manner that they did. That is, you’ll have your blood mingled with some kind of Jewish blood-offering in a temple. And I don’t think he means that if you don’t repent, you’re going to die too. That one doesn’t actually make any sense, because of course you’re going to die. Everyone dies. It’s the end of life. It comes. Get over it. It doesn’t mean you’re a sinner if you die. It means you are mortal and your clock ran out. 
But surely he does mean that if you don’t repent then you will die in some way that is similar to those guys. And that’s your biggest take home for a sermon from this passage. If you die and you have not turned your life around (Greek: metanoia) then it could, in fact, be argued that you will die cut off from God and from hope and peace in your bones, the very way that these people (might have) died. I say “might have” because since none of them lived to do interviews about their spiritual life we have to just say, “for the sake of argument, let’s say that none of them had a meaningful connection with God, and if you don’t turn you lives around, then you will die with the same lack of meaning." Jesus is not saying that that unless you repent (turn your life around) you’ll die too, just like they did, because you certainly will eventually die like they did, no matter what your repentance status is. But he is saying that when you die it will be a cut-off, soul-evacuated life—like theirs (probably) was.    

One thing that might be helpful is to point out that, while the literal meaning of the word "perish" (apóllymi), refers to dying or eternal punishment, in the New Testament it is also often used to mean something closer to being lost or estranged or separated. For example, Mark 8:35: "those who want to save their life will lose (apolesei) it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." Or the three parables of Jesus in Luke 15, the shepherd who lost a sheep, the woman who lost a coin, and the father who lost his son, all use the word, apóllymi for the thing that is lost, and clearly none of the stories are about someone who is being punished for eternity for their sins.[17]

A more nuanced (and more accurate) reading of Jesus' words here about how we should respond to the deaths of the workers and protesters is to separate the two clauses. On the one hand, no, those people did not die for their sins. And on the other hand, you should not die separated from God. They are not closely related thoughts. You should turn your life around in meaningful, God-related, way now, because you may die estranged, alienated, separated from the love of God and others and yourself. 

There are two things going on here.
The first, I think, is the deeper meaning that you shouldn’t throw blame around when you see suffering. That’s not only rude and in poor taste, it’s also a wrong use of the event. Instead use it as an occasion to change your own life. 
When you see a car accident, don’t say, “whew! Those stupid bozos. I’m sure glad I’m not like those guys.” A better response would be to feel shaken and torn inside and think to yourself, “how awful that was. It makes me realize how fragile and temporary life is. I should take life more seriously and meaningfully.” The most important “learning” that we should find in a death (if indeed there is one, and sometimes I’m not sure), is not that the person who died deserved to die, or that God “Took him home.” It’s silly and unproductive to think that God picks and chooses who to kill off according to the level of sinfulness in the deceased, or from some dark divine plan that only God understands.
When I preach on this story, I often use a real story of an exchange I heard at the collation following a funeral years ago. A lot of well-intentioned people were milling around saying it was sad, and all, that old John died, but y’know, he was a rounder back when he was a kid, and God probably gave him that diabetes and gangrene that took him, as a punishment for all that.” After two or three of these exchanges, an old Methodist on-the-wagon alcoholic, who knew a thing or two about “rounders” and sin, glowered at them over the punch bowl and said, that if God strikes down people for the sins of their youth, then every single man and woman in this town would be walking around with a limp.”
I love that story. As Paul says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Whenever we blame someone’s death on their sin, or on God’s capricious taking them home, or because it was “their time,” we tread in dangerous, almost evil waters.
There are only two potentially “good” responses to death (note the cautionary use of quotes and italics, because any good response can be abused if we try hard enough). One would be to ask how can I turn my life around and become a better person in light of the death of this loved one? Or “How can I celebrate this person’s life by creating a better life?” The second is like it. “How can I create a world in which there is a smaller number of children washing up on the shores of Greece or Spain or Britain, or emergency rooms or jails or homeless shelters in the US?”
So, it’s most likely that when Jesus says that without repentance, you will die as they did, he was saying something like, “unless you repent and turn your life around you will die—not in the manner they did, but in the spiritual state that they did. That is, not that repentance will keep you from dying at all (which it clearly will not), or that repentance will keep you from dying with a tower falling on your head (which would be interesting but silly for the story), but from dying while lost, alienated, and separated from God. Unless you change and return to God, you will die cut off from God as (presumably) those people did. So, repentance is not related to their death, it’s related to their life. Their sin (of separation) had nothing to do with their deaths. It had to do with their lives.

Conclusion, summary and difficult issues
Someone in the crowd raised this issue because he or she believed that there was a direct correlation between sin and suffering. These people suffered horrible deaths. Does that mean that they must have been terrible people? It is the question found in Job, Psalm 37 and 73 and others. John 9:2. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?”
We (you and me) occasionally raise that question too. And occasionally there appears to be a link between the two. But on the whole, hunting down that link is a bad direction to go in. The clarity of the down side is far worse than the ambiguity of the up side. If we say that God punishes those who are sinners and rewards those who are saints, then we get dangerously close to saying that the people who died in the 9-11 tragedy (or in the plane crash in Ethiopia, or the racist mass killing in New Zealand...or whatever) were somehow more guilty than the rest of us. And if we say that God rewards those who are good, then we slide overly close to saying that some people are financially successful because they were somehow more morally good than the rest of us. I don’t know about you, but I’m not prepared to say that. How about Martin Shkreli, the hedge fund manager, who bought up the rights to Daraprim, an important and inexpensive life-saving drug, and then jacked up the price 5,000 percent, actually putting at risk the lives of thousands of people? And who had absolutely no remorse for his actions later when questioned about it in Congress. 
Jesus brushes aside that theology and recasts the issue: If you don’t change your ways, and live a life of repentance and trust in God, then you are going to approach death with a life that has no meaningful connections to life eternal, a meaningless life. Without a life of repentance, all of the rest of life is empty and lost. I think that’s a more fruitful direction in which to go, and I think it was what Jesus was getting at: don’t dwell on whether God did this awful act; dwell on pondering what we are going to be like in light of it? Who am I going to be in light of it? How is it going to change me?
Occasionally we see people who are wonderful people and successful and healthy and we can think we see a direct relation between their moral life and their checkbook or health. And occasionally we’ll see a real scumbag who died young or badly with some degree of justice. However, we all can also remember examples of truly decent people who died long, protracted, awful, unjust deaths. So don’t ascribe the hand of God in those. It just isn’t there. What Jesus calls us to is the quality of life, the relation with God life. Not a financially or medically rewarding life. Don’t ask a theological question about the ethics or morals of people who died in an accident, ask how that accident can bring us to change our relationship with God and with our world. This is the theological question that makes the most sense. You all are going to die anyway, just like the people whose blood Pilate mingled with the blood at the altar and who died under the crushing collapsing building. You don’t have a choice in that. But you do have a choice in how you live your life before you get there.

[1] “At that very time” (en autōi tōi kairōi). A frequent idiom of Luke’s. Emphatic about the particular time: “At that very time “at the time itself.” The kjv has “at that season.” There have been a number of guesses as to what “time” he was referring to, but there’s no consensus on them. Fitzmyer says that while “The transition creates the impression of a report about something that has recently happened,” it may just be “a transition composed by Luke to join this episode to the foregoing.
(Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., The Gospel according to Luke X–XXIV: Introduction, Translation, and Notes, vol. 28A, Anchor Yale Bible [New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008], p. 1006.
[2] “Whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (hoôn to haima Peilatos emixen meta toôn thusioôn autoôn). The verb emixen is first aorist active (not past perfect) of mignumi, a common verb. The net and niv have “mixed.”
[3] “Suffered” (peponthasin). Second perfect active indicative third plural from paschoô, common verb, to experience, suffer. The tense notes that it is “an irrevocable fact” (F.F. Bruce).
[4] “Sinners” (“öåéëÝôáé). From QìáñôÜíù, hamartanō (to miss the mark [and so not share in the prize]), i.e., sinful, missing where we should be in terms of righteousness.
[5] “Worse Sinners than all other…” (hamartoôloi para pantas). Para means “beside,” as in being placed beside the Galileans for comparison, and so beyond or above (with the accusative). Lit. they sinned beyond all the Galileans.
[6]“Unless you repent” (ean meô metanoeôte,ìåôáíïyôå). Have a change of heart, change one’s ways. Lit.: Unless you reform your lives and the way you live…. Present active subjunctive of metanoeoô, to change both one’s mind and conduct, and keep on changing. Calls to repent are much more common in Luke than in other NT writers.
[7] “Offenders” (öåéëÝôáé, opheiletai). Literally, debtors, not sinners as in v. 2, and as the kjv has. See 7:41; 11:4; Matthew 6:12; 18:24-34. One who is under obligation, One who owes something to another. That is, a person indebted, a debtor. Translated as sinner, or offender, because debtors were considered transgressors of the law by virtue of their not paying their debts. From “öåßëù, “öåéëÝù, opheiloô  opheileoô, to owe (pecuniarily); figuratively to be under obligation (ought, must, should); morally to fail in duty.
[8] “Unless you repent” (ean meô metanoeôseôte). First aorist active subjunctive, immediate repentance in contrast to continued repentance, metanoeôte in verse 3, though Westcott and Hort put metanoeôte in the margin here. The interpretation of accidents is a difficult matter, but the moral pointed out by Jesus is obvious. Again, calls to repentance are mentioned more often in Luke than in any other gospel.
[9] “Fig tree” Fig trees in the Hebrew scripture were often symbols for Judah or Israel. Cf. Hos 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jer. 8:13; 24:1-10). 
[10] “Cut it down!” ἔκκοψον [οὖν] {C} “In order to reflect the balance of external evidence for and against the inclusion of οὖν, as well as the absence of any compelling consideration relating to transcriptional and intrinsic probabilities, the Committee felt obliged to retain the word in the text, but to enclose it within square brackets, indicating a measure of doubt that it has a right to stand there.”  Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition.
[11] “If it bears fruit next year” (kan men poieôseôi karpon eis to mellon). Aposiopesis, sudden breaking off for effect (Robertson, Grammar, p. 1203). See it also in Mark 11:32; Acts 23:9. Trench (Parables) tells a story like this of intercession for the fig tree for one year more.
[12] “At the end of this verse there is added in some manuscripts, ‘as he said this, he called out, ‘Let the one who has ears to hear take heed.’” (Fitzmyer, p. 1009).
[13] See for background, William K. Gildershttp, “Sacrifice in Ancient Israel” Retrieved, 02/27/16
[14] See “The Locations of the Pools of Siloam,”
[15] Fitzmyer, p. 1008.
[16] His thoughts on this, and extensive quotes from Josephus’ writings about Pilate’ brutality on the Jews, can be found here:
[17] Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1985), p. 67.

Hold Fast to the Dream

A Presentation for Two Readers and Choir
of the Life and Words, of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The author gratefully acknowledges the help and advice of Joe Bradley, Tinker Monroe, Laura Delaplain, Erma LaPierre, René LaPierre, and Beverly Latif Duncan for their work in either presenting or critiquing earlier drafts of this manuscript, and the adult choirs of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls and the United Church of Christ in Abington, Massachusetts for their roles in its first performances.

Introductory Notes

“Hold Fast to the Dream” was first written for a Sunday morning service of worship, perhaps taking the place of the Sermon. Later it was expanded to make it adaptable for a longer presentation of the type that might be used as an afternoon or evening event in which the music and readings comprised the entire program. For example, the Sunday of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is often the same Sunday as Martin Luther King Sunday, and would be a good occasion for a presentation such as this. The expanded portions are set off by double lines. When doing the short form, simply skip those sections. In the expanded form, add them.
A word on music. Many of the hymns suggested in “Hold Fast to the Dream” can be found in various hymnals and other collections. Most are in public domain and will be free. One fine collection that contains all of the music here is Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs, by Guy and Candie Carawan (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corporation, 1990). However, before using music from this or any other collection in a public presentation of “Hold Fast to the Dream,” you should first contact the publishers for permission. Normally there will be little difficulty gaining permission to use their work. But, if for some reason you are unable to attain the music or apply for permission, the song, “We Shall Over Come” can be nicely substituted throughout with little loss to the overall program. In this text, both “We Shall Over Come” and a second option (which can be found in Sing for Freedom and other collections) are always given whenever a piece of music is suggested.
Note that preceding each of the readings, there is a heading which usually contains a title, date, and place of its delivery. For most of the readings, these headings are for the benefit of the readers only. The context usually introduces the reading adequately. One exception is the excerpt from the proclamation for Martin Luther King day at the end. This is not introduced in the text and will be confusing without the title given. However, the titles can also be useful if a particular reading is taken out of this presentation and used separately in another occasion as a smaller individual reading.
It should also be noted that the proclamation at the very end has troubled some people who have participated in this presentation. The president who said these words was Ronald Reagan, who frequently opposed King's work philosophically and also opposed the founding of “Martin Luther King Day,” for which these words were written. Some, therefore, have felt it hypocritical to use his words to honor Rev. King. To be sensitive to that criticism, here are three options. First, in this version we have introduced the proclamation by saying (truthfully) that these words were written, not by the president, but for him to read (by speech writer Peggy Noonan), and the name of the president is not mentioned. A second option is to simply end with the last words of King to Abernathy as he lay dying. The dramatic conclusion is a good ending by itself. Finally, if anyone in your troupe is creative, feel free to write a conclusion of your own with our blessing.


Early Years


On one very cold and very cloudy Saturday morning, January 15, 1929, just three months after the beginning of the worst economic depression in the history of the United States, Alberta Williams King and her husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., gave birth to their first child.
They named him Martin, after his father, and he would grow up to make it one of the most famous names in all of American history. Little Martin Luther King Jr. would, in his lifetime, change the way people understood democracy, religion, race relations, and human relations, throughout the entire world.
Young Martin grew up in a relatively middle class home but in a very segregated Atlanta, Georgia. Though he never wanted for food or clothing, he knew that whenever he walked out of his door into white America, he would always be considered “colored,” and therefore always second class.
He could not buy a Coke or a hamburger at any of the downtown stores. He could not sit at a lunch counter. He could not drink water at the “whites only” water fountains, he could not use the “whites only” restrooms, and he could not ride on the “whites only” elevators. If he went to a theater he would have to enter from the “colored” entrance. If he rode a bus he would have to sit in the back, in the “colored” seats, and if he wanted to go swimming, golfing, or play tennis, he simply couldn’t because all of the pools, courses, or courts had “whites only” signs in front of them.
Here are some of his own reflections on what it was like to grow up in a segregated world.

KING: (“Growing Up Negro”)
[Growing up] a Negro in America is not a comfortable existence. It means being a part of the company of the bruised, the battered, the scarred, and the defeated. Being a Negro in America means trying to smile when you want to cry. It means trying to hold on to physical life amid psychological death. It means the pain of watching your own children grow up with clouds of inferiority in their mental skies. It means having your legs cut off, and then being condemned for being a cripple. It means seeing your mother and father spiritually murdered by the slings and arrows of daily exploitation, and then being hated for being an orphan. Being a Negro in America means listening to suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists. It means being harried by day and haunted by night by a nagging sense of nobodiness and constantly fighting to be saved from the poison of bitterness. It means the ache and anguish of living in so many situations where hopes unborn have died.[1]
CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 1
We shall overcome,
      we shall overcome,
      we shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
      I do believe,
      that we shall overcome some day.

NARRATOR: [Music over, melody only, of “We Shall Overcome”]
When he graduated from high school, he went on to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then Crozier Seminary in Pennsylvania. There he made straight “A”s and received a scholarship to go on to graduate school. He chose Boston University School of Theology, where he again made straight “A”s and received a Ph.D. in Theology.
In later years it was discovered that King copied several quotations from another dissertation into his own without citing them correctly. The act was unfortunate because it has allowed critics to unfairly smear his intelligence in spite of his obvious brilliance.

In Boston he met a young woman named Coretta Christine Scott, who was a graduate student at
the New England Conservatory of Music. At first he was unsure about her because he’d heard that she wasn’t too religious; and she was unsure about him because she had heard that he was too short. But after they got to know one another, he grew to believe that her faith was not showy but deeper on the inside than anyone’s he ever knew. As for her concerns, he never grew any taller on the outside, but on the inside he became a giant.
And on June 18, 1953 they were married.


Six months later, in January of 1954, King was invited to come to Montgomery, Alabama, to interview for pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, what would become his first full-time pastorate. And on April 14, he accepted the call to the church.
May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education ruled that racial segregation of public schools was unconstitutional.
November 17, after Martin and Coretta had arrived and begun to get settled in with their church and new home, their first child, Yolanda, was born.
And on December 1, as he was making plans for a series of sermons on the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas, a black seamstress in Montgomery, named Rosa Parks, after a long day at work, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus. She had taken the first seat in the “colored” section of the back of the bus, but the bus filled up, and by law whites could demand that any black person give up their seat at any time. And she had done so before, but today she was tired. She also thought to herself that the Supreme Court has just desegregated the public schools, so if desegregation is good enough for children, it is good enough for adults. So she refused to give up her seat. The bus driver called the police, the police came and arrested her, and the town exploded.
Montgomery was one of the most racially divided cities in the south in those days, and treatment of blacks on buses was especially terrible. Once a black blind man took too long getting on, so the driver closed the door with his leg in it and dragged him for two blocks. Another time a black man argued with the driver over the fare and the police came and shot him dead for arguing with a white man.
Blacks were wanting to riot and whites were wanting to kill blacks who were wanting to riot. So, the black community elected young father, young preacher, young seminary graduate Martin Luther King to organize them to respond to the crisis.
Over two thousand people rallied in front of a church that night to decide what they would do. The air was tense and explosive. It was a dangerous night for both blacks and whites. Rev. Martin Luther King stood up to speak to them that night and here are some of the words that he said. [music stops]


KING:   (Montgomery Bus Boycott Speech)

(December 5, 1955, at the Holt St. Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama)
We are here this evening for serious business. We’re here in a general sense because first and foremost, we are American citizens, and we are determined to acquire our citizenship to the fullness of its meaning. We are here also because of our deep-seated belief that democracy transformed from thin paper to thick action is the greatest form of government on earth.
But we are here in a specific sense because of the bus situation in Montgomery....And we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, then the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a Utopian dreamer who never came down to earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie...
But in our protests, there will be no cross burnings. No white person will be taken from his home by a hooded Negro mob and brutally murdered. There will be no threats and intimidation. We will be guided by the highest principles of law and order...the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal....If we fail to do this our protest will end up as a meaningless drama on the stage of history, and its memory will be shrouded with the ugly garments of shame. In spite of the mistreatment that we have confronted, we must not become bitter and end up by hating our white brothers. Let no people pull you down so low as to make you hate them.[2]



[Music over]
So, instead of a riot, they organized a boycott of the Montgomery buses, with car pools taking people to work. Non violently they brought the city to its knees. The city took them to court arguing for segregation all the way to the Supreme Court. Finally, after over a year of attacks and threats and thousands of daily hate letters and phone calls, after his home was bombed and the police refused to investigate, and after King himself was arrested and jailed twice for speeding and had to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and had his auto insurance policy revoked, after the movement had to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and bail, after all of this and more, the Supreme Court declared that segregation of public transportation facilities was unconstitutional.
CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome” verse 2.
We’ll go hand in hand,
      We’ll go hand in hand,
      We’ll go hand in hand, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
      I do believe,
      that we shall overcome some day.

Or: “If You Miss Me From the Back of the Bus.”
If you miss me at the back of the Bus,
      and you can’t find me nowhere,
      Come on up to the front of the bus,
I’ll be riding up there,
      I’ll be riding up there,
      I’ll be riding up there.
Come on up to the front of the bus.
I’ll be riding up there.


[Music over]
King and his movement became internationally famous after that. Together with Ralph Abernathy and others, they founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and began organizing voter registration throughout the South. At that time, less than ten percent of blacks in America were registered to vote, and in most cases in the South, they were not allowed to register.
In 1960 four black college students in Greensboro North Carolina went into a “Whites only” department store and tried to sit down at the lunch counter and be served. They were arrested, but they took it to court and a nation wide protest movement called “Sit-ins” were born.
In October of that year, Rev. King and several others joined a “sit-in” in Atlanta, Georgia and demanded to be served food just like white people. They too were arrested. Later all were freed but King, who was found to be on “parole” for a traffic violation, and he was sentenced to four months of hard labor in the Reidsville State Prison, the harshest maximum-security facility in the South.
While in prison, wearing leg irons, eating rancid food, in an unheated room, infested with bugs, Martin wrote this letter to his wife, Coretta:
[music stops]

KING:  (Letter to Coretta)
(October 26, 1960, in Georgia’s maximum security prison for a traffic violation after being arrested at a sit-in in Atlanta, Georgia.)
October 26, 1960

Hello Darling,
Today I find myself a long way from you and the children...I know this whole experience is very difficult for you to adjust to, especially in your condition of pregnancy, but as I said to you yesterday this is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people....
I have the faith to believe that this excessive suffering that is now coming to our family will in some little way serve to make Atlanta a better city, Georgia a better state, and America a better country.
Just how, I do not know yet, but I have faith to believe it will. If I am correct then our suffering is not in vain.
I understand that everybody—white and colored—can have visitors this coming Sunday. I hope you can find some way to come down....
Give my best regards to all the family. Please ask them not to worry about me. I will adjust to whatever comes in terms of pain. Hope to see you Sunday.
Eternally yours,


[Music over]
But King did not spend the four months in prison. As it happened, a young U.S. Senator and presidential candidate named John F. Kennedy personally called the judge who had sentenced him and talked him into reversing his decision. Interestingly, when he got out he held a press conference and praised Senator Kennedy for his help. The word spread, and a few days later he received hundreds of thousands of votes from black voters who had never voted in an election in their entire lives. Kennedy won that presidential election by only 110,000 votes.


CHOIR: “We Shall Overcome” verse 3,
We are not afraid
      We are not afraid
      We are not afraid, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
      I do believe,
      that we shall overcome some day.

“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” verses 1,2.
Paul and Silas bound in Jail
Had no money for to pay their bail
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.
      Hold on.
      Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize,
Hold on.
Paul and Silas began to shout,
the jail door opened and they walked out.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....



[music over]
The reputation of Martin Luther King and the movement grew larger and larger through the early sixties. There were more sit-ins, there were more boycotts, there were more protests, all slowly tearing down the most visible excesses of the walls of oppression and discrimination in America. Through it all King began to increasingly see that the struggle was no longer just for civil rights, but that it had become a movement for human rights. For when one part of humanity is held down and repressed, then all of humanity is harmed and made less because of it.
But perhaps the turning point in his life, and the life of the movement, took place in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama.
Birmingham was arguably the most oppressive and thoroughly segregated city in the nation in those days. It had such a long history of brutality and violence against its black citizens, that it was known by some as the “American Johannesburg.” The homes of blacks in one section of town were bombed by whites so often it got the name “Dynamite Hill.”
Birmingham was so bad that it banned a story book about friendly white and black rabbits. It also banned what they called, “nigger music” on white stations. By that they meant Ray Charles. King once said that about the only thing in town that both blacks and whites shared together were the streets and the sewer system.
The police commissioner of Birmingham was Eugene Connor, known as “Bull” Connor in the area. He was an angry, forceful racist who openly bragged about how many blacks he had beaten and killed in his lifetime. He promised that “blood would run in the streets” before Birmingham would desegregate its public facilities.
On April 3, 1963, the protest of Birmingham began, with boycotts, lunch-counter sit-ins, and daily marches, all done quietly and calmly, completely nonviolently. “Bull” Connor began arresting protesters but hundreds more came. Over the weeks the Birmingham jail filled to over three thousand people and yet more still came. King himself was one of those arrested early in the marches. Ironically he was taken to jail on April 13, Good Friday, one hundred years to the day from when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. King spent the next ten days running the campaign from in the Birmingham Jail.
While there, he had been given a newspaper in which a number of white clergy, Christian and Jewish, had written a public letter criticizing him for pushing integration too quickly. He sat down in his cell and on pieces of newspaper, rags, toilet tissue, and backs of envelopes, he wrote a public response. His response became known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and has become one of the most famous statements about non- violent civil disobedience written in this century. And here is a portion of what he said.
[music ends]

KING:   (“Letter from Birmingham Jail”)
(April 16, 1963, while imprisoned in the Birmingham City Jail for protesting the segregation of eating facilities. In response to a letter in the newspaper by local Protestant and Jewish clergy who criticized him for pushing integration too quickly.)
April 16, 1963

My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in Birmingham jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.”...Since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
[You are right when you note that we are outsiders coming in to your community, but we have come to Birmingham because there is terrible injustice here and we must respond like the Apostle Paul did to the Macedonian call for help.] Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects us all indirectly....Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
[You also mentioned the demonstrations in Birmingham, which you deplored, but you did not mention the horrible conditions that made them necessary: the unsolved bombings, the killings, the whole ugly record of brutality that made Negro life here so grossly unjust. You advised us to negotiate our problems with the city fathers, something that we have frequently attempted to do, only to have them break their promises time and again.] As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.

[You told us that our protests were “untimely” and that we should trust you and “wait.” For centuries the Negro has heard “wait,” and “wait” has nearly always meant “Never.”]  We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights...Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will, and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers [and sisters] smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television;...when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are)...; and your wife and mother are never given the respected title of “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.[4]



[Music over]
Outside, “Bull” Connor seemed intent on proving that racism could be even more evil than King had described it in his letter. He had firemen turn fire hoses on the marchers, which sent columns of water crashing into children and adults, knocking them down, ripping their clothing, smashing them against the sides of buildings, sweeping them off of the streets, bloodying their bodies and throwing them into parks and alleys. Then he let loose German shepherd dogs trained to attack and bite and tear at running people. Day after day television cameras showed a shocked world the horrors, but day after day the carnage continued, and day after day the marchers continued marching for freedom.
The turning point occurred on Sunday, May 5, 1963, when three thousand children went on a prayer vigil to the Birmingham jail, where King and others were being held. When they arrived, the police threatened them and screamed at them, but all they did was kneel in prayer. Finally, one of the protesters stood up from his prayer and said to them, “We’re not turning back. We haven’t done anything wrong. All we want is our freedom....How do you feel doing these things?”
“Bull” Connor yelled at his men to turn on the hoses, but nobody moved. The children continued praying. His men were silent. He yelled again, but they dropped their hoses. One of the firemen began crying. “We can’t continue to do this,” one of them said. The children continued silently praying. Nobody spoke again, and nobody got hurt. That event was the moral turning point of the struggle. Soon after that, the businesses of Birmingham agreed to integrate.

“The Storm is Passing Over”
Or: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 4.
Our God will see us through,
      Our God will see us through,
      Our God will see us through, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
      I do believe,
      that we shall over come some day.

Or: “Keep your Eyes on the Prize,” Verses 3, 4, 5.
The only Chain that we can stand,
is the chain of hand in hand...
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.
Hold on.
Hold on.
Keep your eyes on the prize, Hold on.

The only thing that we did wrong,
was stay in the wilderness too long.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....

The only thing we did right,
was the day we started to fight.
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on....



The next few years were a whirlwind. In the space of just one year the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in Birmingham was unconstitutional. Martin Luther King was invited to have an audience with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican, and he led a successful 125,000 person “Walk for Freedom” in Detroit. He received the Nobel Prize for Peace. He was named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.” Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And on August 28, 1963, he took part in the largest civil rights demonstration in history, in Washington DC. At that march, King was the major speaker and gave one of the most powerful and lasting statements in his life on his philosophy and hopes and his dreams for all of America. It has come to be known as the “I have a dream speech.”
[music ends]

KING:   (“I Have a Dream”)
(August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, DC)
...I say to you today, my friends...even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day “every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. 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 work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning “My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let Freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”[5]

CHOIR: “Free At Last”
Or: “I Want to be Ready”
Or: “We Shall Overcome,” verse 5.
The truth shall make us free,
      The truth shall make us free,
      The truth shall make us free, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
      I do believe,
      that we shall overcome some day.


[music over]
Over the next few years the dream of King seemed to go bad. Protesters who promoted violence seemed to be on the rise and people who promoted love and peace among all people seemed to be on the decline. Riots in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and others seemed to undermine all that he had worked for. More and more of the momentum of the early civil rights movement seemed to be slipping away.
Increasingly during this time King was growing to believe that race is only one of the issues which was at the core of America’s problems. Its violent nature and general disregard for poor people seemed to him to be the larger issues which stood over race. So for the summer of 1968 he planned to hold the biggest march on Washington ever. This time the march would not be specifically about black people or civil rights, but also about poverty. He called it the “Poor People’s Campaign.” This would be a chance, he thought, to reframe the movement in a much broader context, and to regain its moral tone and direction that had seemed to be waning in recent years.
But right in the middle of his plans for the march, he was asked to come to Memphis, Tennessee, to lend support to striking sanitation workers. Even though his schedule was brutal and he was too tired, too busy, and was growing sick with the flu, he agreed to go. By the time that he arrived, he had grown so ill he was unable to prepare a formal speech and he even tried to beg off of talking at all to the group at a pre-strike rally. His friend Ralph Abernathy agreed to go address the group instead, but when he got there he found two thousand people clamoring to hear Rev. King speak, not Ralph Abernathy. So he went to a phone and called King saying that if he had any energy left, could he come out to these people and at least say a few words to them. King relented. He drove to the church that night in driving rain, stumbled weakly to the podium, and without notes or manuscript or any idea of what he was about to say, he delivered one of the most stirring speeches of his life. He gave what has become known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech. These are some of the words that he said, on April 3, 1968.
[music ends]

KING: (“I’ve Been To The Mountain Top”)
(Last speech, before a rally in support of the Memphis garbage strike, April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. He was assassinated the following day, April 4.)
...We have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that people have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival forces us to grapple with them. For years now people have been talking about war and peace. But now no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world, it is nonviolence or nonexistence.
[Begin music over of “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”]

That is where we are today. And also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed.
...If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand some of these illegal injunctions. Maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. but somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right. And so, just as I say we aren’t going to let any dog or water hose turn us around, we aren’t going to let any injunction turn us around. We are going on.
...Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.
...I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. 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 God’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 I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing anyone. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[6]


[No music]
The next day, April 4, 1968, King and Abernathy and several others spent most of the day in their room at the Lorraine Motel planning for the big events of the next few days. He met with some of the organizers of the march, and tried to streamline events so that they would not get out of hand. He met with a group of violent black youths to see if he could talk them into laying down their clubs and rocks and working with him as non-violent marshals of the march. They refused. He met with Andrew Young, who spent most of the day in court making arrangements so that the march would be considered a legal protest. He even took time to visit with his brother AD who was visiting in town, and together they got on separate phones and called their mother.
At about 5:00, they all began to change clothes and get ready for dinner. They were going to the home of a local pastor who had invited all of them over for dinner. A few moments before six, the pastor arrived and people began to gather outside to leave. King stood at the doorway and yelled in to Abernathy, “Are you ready?” Abernathy said back, “Let me put on some after shave lotion.” King said, “Ok. I’ll be standing out here on the balcony.”
At 6:05 that evening, Martin Luther King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and several others were standing on the second floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, waiting to go to dinner. The car that was to drive them pulled up. He recognized the driver as Ben Branch, the young man who was to sing for them after the dinner. He yelled down. “Ben,” he said, “Make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.” Ben yelled back, “Okay, Doc, I will.”
At 6:09 they heard the sound of a shot ringing out. The sound of a .30-06 high-powered rifle. King slammed backwards against the wall of the balcony and then fell forward onto the balcony floor. Ralph Abernathy rushed out to him. Someone else found a pillow to put under his head. A secret service agent held a towel to the wound in his neck to try and stop the bleeding. Others were running up the stairs, some were running for cover, some were screaming.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

During the next few minutes Ralph held the head of his dearest, closest friend in his lap while waiting for an ambulance to arrive, and watching the life bleed out of him. He spoke to Martin several times during those minutes, but Martin could only respond with his eyes. Years later Ralph said that he heard much from those eyes that night. Martin Luther King looked at him very awake, and very alert, and with his eyes he seemed to be speaking very clearly. He was saying, “Ralph, it isn’t over. It’s only in other people’s hands now. Don’t give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” ...And then he died.



Written to be read by the President of the United States, November 2, 1986. Read, or compose your own conclusion using local allusions.
“Let all Americans continue to carry forward the banner that...fell from Dr. King’s hands. Today, all over America, libraries, hospitals, parks and thoroughfares proudly bear his name. His likeness appears on more than 100 postage stamps issued by dozens of nations around the globe. Today we honor him with speeches and monuments. But let us do more. Let all Americans of every race and creed and color work together to build in this blessed land a shining city of...justice and harmony. This is the monument Dr. King would have wanted most of all.”[7]

 “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” verses 1,2,3.
Precious Lord, take my hand,
      lead me on, let me stand,
      I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
      precious Lord, linger near,
      when my life is almost gone,
Hear me cry, hear my call,
      hold my hand, lest I fall:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

When the shadows appear
      and the night draws near,
      and the day is past and gone,
At the river I stand,
      guide my feet, hold my hand:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Printable versions of the program:

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First, click here for a small booklet version (set your printer for "booklet," and print on both sides of the paper and to flip on the short end)

However, because systems can vary, the booklet may not print out well for you. If that is the case, a simple, upright, "Portrait," letter-size, version can be found by clicking here.


Ayres, Alex. The Wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Meridian Books, 1993.
Carawan, Guy and Candie, eds. Sing For Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through its Songs. Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Corporation, 1990.
Garrow, David. “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influences and Commentaries,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, (Vol. XL, No. 4, 1986).
King, Coretta Scott, ed. The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: New Market Press, 1987.
Oates, Stephen B. Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1994.

[1] Coretta Scott King, ed., The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.  (New York: New Market Press, 1987), p. 31.
[2] Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Harper & Row, 1994), pp. 70, 71; and David Garrow, “The Intellectual Development of Martin Luther King, Jr.: Influences and Commentaries,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review, (Vol. XL, No. 4, 1986), p. 15.
[3] Alex Ayres, ed., The Wisdom of Martin Luther King (New York: Meridian Books, 1993), pp. 183, 194. Toward the end of this letter, King requested that Coretta bring him several books to read while in prison. They were deleted from the presentation because the names would be unfamiliar to most audiences. However, if your presentation group feels that your particular audience would recognize the names and be interested in knowing them, feel free to return them to the letter. The following is the deleted portion:
“Please bring the following books to me: Stride Toward Freedom, Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology Vol. 1 and 2, George Buttrick’s The Parables of Jesus, E. Stanley Jones’ Mahatma Gandhi, Horns and a Halo, a Bible, a Dictionary, and my reference dictionary called Increasing Your Word Power....”
[4] Let the Trumpet Sound, pp. 223-230.
[5] Words of Martin Luther King, pp. 95-97.
[6] Words of Martin Luther King, pp. 93-94.
[7] Wisdom of Martin Luther King, pp. 226, 227.