On this Sunday, when we honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, I want to remember not only his soaring oratory, but his scholarship and insight into the lives of his folks and the life of the church. And so, I am going to read many of his words, and add a few of my own. Imagine, if you will, this church,
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on a hot August morning in 1957. The topic for the morning is “Conquering Self-centeredness,” and I am working from an audio transcript of the morning worship service. Luckily, the transcript captures some of the worship service before the sermon. Dr. King begins by saying:
I want to make two or three announcements as quickly as possible so that we can move on with our worship service and not stay here too long in the midst of extreme heat. Unfortunately, we do not have an air-conditioned church, I imagine that got a laugh; hardly any churches had air-conditioning in 1957! so we find ourselves suffering the consequences. And I will try to keep that in mind this morning and make our services as brief as possible. You will notice on your bulletin that Deacon Turner, who was a deacon in this church for many, many years, passed this past week. And now Dr. King, like any local pastor, details the arrangements for the homegoing of this beloved leader: Now I’m urging each member to respond by being present at the funeral tomorrow. Especially, I am asking the choir to be there, as many of you as possibly can, and all of the deacons. I would like to ask the deacons to serve as the pallbearers. As you probably know, Brother Turner does not have any relatives. I understand that he has a son but we have no way of getting in touch with him. So I had to do the arranging of the funeral. And I want to urge every deacon of this church to be present tomorrow and to serve as pallbearers. In the midst of all the work he was doing, Dr. King was still in the business of making arrangements and enlisting members to be the church.
And then, like every pastor, he is worried about finances The financial statement will be out after the morning worship. You can receive it then. And I would like to say that I noticed several members are behind in their pledges for some reason. I don’t know why that is, but I would like to urge you to catch up in your pledges, for our responsibilities are the same. We have a budget to carry out in the summer months, just as in any other period of the year. And I’m urging you to do that and to bring those pledges up before too long, so that we can face the many responsibilities that we have ahead in our church.
So even at Dexter Memorial, in the midst of the civil rights struggle, the church had to go on. Rev. King was not some ivory tower academic who didn’t understand the challenges of church life. But even these very important matters are not the point of Dr. King’s remarks. Instead, he delivers a very detailed sermon on the topic for the day: “Conquering Self-centeredness”. Dr. King trained at Boston University, where much new scholarship was done on the connections and intersections of psychology and theology. He was trained to think in psychological categories about the life of faith. And so, in this working class congregation in Montgomery Alabama, he preached about 60 minutes about human development. I won’t read it all to you, even though we do have air conditioning, but I will read some exerpts. He begins with this:
An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow horizons of his particular individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity. And this is one of the big problems of life, that so many people never quite get to the point of rising above self. And so they end up the tragic victims of self-centeredness. They end up the victims of distorted and disrupted personality. Life has its beginning and its maturity comes into being when an individual rises above self to something greater. Few individuals learn this, and so they go through life merely existing and never living.
And Dr. King gives real-life examples. Now you see signs all along in your everyday life with individuals who are the victims of self-centeredness. They are the people who live an eternal “I.” They do not have the capacity to project the “I” into the thou.”^ They do not have the mental equipment for an eternal, dangerous and sometimes costly altruism. They live a life of perpetual egotism. And they are the victims all around of the egocentric predicament. They start out, the minute you talk with them, talking about what they can do, what they have done. They’re the people who will tell you, before you talk with them five minutes, where they have been and who they know. They’re the people who can tell you in a few seconds, how many degrees they have and where they went to school and how much money they have. We meet these people every day. And so this is not a foreign subject. It is not something far off. It is a problem that meets us in everyday life. We meet it in ourselves, we meet in other selves: the problem of self-centeredness.
Dr. King then goes on to teach a little on child development; a topic that was not well understood in the 1950’s, but was explored by writers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick and WH Burnham.
Now, we can say to a certain extent that persons in this situation are persons who have really never grown up. They are still children, at a point. For you see, a child is inevitably, necessarily egocentric. He is a bundle of his own sensations, clamoring to be cared for. And, to be sure, he has his own social context. He be-
longs to his mother, but he cares for her only because he wants to be fed and protected. He does not care for his mother for her sake but he cares for his mother for his own sake. And so a child is inevitably egocentric, inevitably self-centered.
And that is why Dr. Burnham says that during the first six or seven years of development, the ego is dominant within the child. And both in behavior and in attitudes, a child is a victim of self-centeredness. But when one matures, when one rises above the early years of childhood, he begins to love people for their own sake. He turns himself to higher loyalties. He gives himself to something outside of himself. He gives himself to causes that he lives for and sometimes will even die for. He comes to the point that now he can rise above his individualistic concerns, and he understands then what Jesus meant when he says, “He who finds his life shall lose it; he who loses his life for my sake, shall find it.”’ In other words, he who finds his ego shall lose his ego, but he who loseth his ego for my sake, shall find it. And so you see people who are apparently selfish; it isn’t merely an ethical issue but it is a psychological issue.They are the victims of arrested development, and they are still children. They haven’t grown up. Whew! Teaching and exhortation, all in one package.
Now one will inevitably raise the question: How then do we conquer self-centeredness? How do we get away from this thing that we call self-centeredness? How can we live in this universe with a balance and with a type of perspective that keeps us going smoothly and we are not too absorbed in self? How do we do it?
Let me make two or three suggestions and I can assure you that these suggestions will not at all solve the problem. For you will have to solve it, in many points, for yourself. Dr. King is challenging his folks to think for themselves; something that most preachers avoid, then and now. But at least these things, I hope, will give you some guidance.I think one of the best ways to face this problem of self-centeredness is to discover some cause and some purpose, some loyalty outside of yourself and give yourself to that something. The best way to handle it is not to suppress the ego but to extend the ego into objectively meaningful channels.” And so many people are unhappy because they aren’t doing anything. They’re self-centered because they aren’t doing anything. They haven’t given themselves to anything and they just move around in their little circles. As true now as it was then! Find some great cause and some great purpose, some loyalty to which you can give yourself and become so absorbed in that something that you give your life to it. Men and women have done this throughout all of the generations. And they have found that necessary ego satisfaction that life presents and that one desires through projecting self in something outside of self. As I said, you don’t solve the problem by trying to trample over the ego altogether. This is a very detailed analysis for a hot Sunday morning! That doesn’t solve the problem. For you will always have the ego and the ego has certain desires, certain desires for significance.And the way to solve this problem is not to drown out the ego but to find your sense of importance in something outside of the self. Remember he is preaching to people who do not have the right to vote, who stand in the back of the bus, and go around to the back of the restaurant to order food! And the preacher is calling these people to have a sense of importance that is built not on themselves, but on something outside themselves. And you are then able to live because you have given your life to something outside and something that is meaningful, objectified. You rise above this self-absorption to something outside.
And now the preacher uses examples from history:
We look through history. We see that biography is a running commentary of this. We see a (William) Wilberforce. We see him somehow satisfylng his desire by absorbing his life those who are victims of the slave trade. We see a Florence Nightingale. We see her finding meaning and finding a sense of belonging by giving herself to a great cause, to the unnursed wounded. We see an Albert Schweitzer who looks at men in dark Africa who have been the victims of colonialism and imperialism and there he gives his life to that. He objectifies himself in this great cause. And then we can even find Jesus totally objectifying himself when he cries out, ‘Ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
And now, another antidote to self-centeredness –An individual gets away from this type of self-centeredness when he pauses enough to see that no matter what he does in life, he does that because somebody helped him to do it. And he then gains the type of perspective and the type of balance which keeps him from becoming self-centered. He comes to see that somebody stands in the background, often doing a little job in a big way, making it possible for him to do what he’s doing. Can you believe that? That no matter where you stand, no matter how much popularity you have, no matter how much education you have, no matter how much money you have, you have it because somebody in this universe helped you to get it. And when you see that, you can’t be arrogant, you can’t be supercilious. You discover that you have your position because of the events of history and because of individuals in the background making it possible for you to stand there.
And then Dr. King talks about his own struggle with self-centeredness. He is well aware that he is a rock star. He knows that people drop everything when he comes to town. He is keenly aware of the perils of his fame. And he is humbly confessing those struggles to his congregation.
And then, in conclusion, a great image:
And when you come to see that, you see that your existence is adjectival; it is dependent on something else. That sentence stopped me in my tracks. Not only is it amazing wordsmithing; it is a word of truth that I needed to hear. And then, this follows:
And when you take this attitude, you go into the room of your life and take down the mirrors because you cannot any longer see yourself. But the mirrors somehow are transformed into windows and you look out into the objective world and see that you are what you are because of somebody else.
This is what we need to do as a church. We need to grow out of our self-centeredness. We have spent way too much time looking in mirrors and not nearly enough time looking through the windows. If we want to grow, we need to quit being self-centered. Some of that is because of me. As I watched what has been happening with the finances and our membership, my anxiety about the changing world has led me to look in the mirror far too often. We need to find once more the work that is larger than ourselves, larger than our preferences, larger than our fears, larger than our egos. We need to look out of the windows of the church to see the world that we are called to serve. Now I know that we have lovely tinted windows, and you can’t see much through them. But we also have doors, so maybe we need to walk through those doors and a good look outside.
We need to do what will change the world in which we live, and devote ourselves to something larger even than the survival of this church. Dr. King was preparing his congregation to change the world. And they did it, because they were willing to sacrifice everything for a better world. Now there are no longer two water fountains or a line at the back of the restaurant, and we all can vote. This church has so many advantages that the faithful folk at Dexter Avenue did not have. We have air-conditioning! We are incomparably rich and privileged in comparison with that congregation. But if all we ever do is gather on Sunday mornings and sing a few hymns and eat together, our time will have been wasted, and we will have missed the value of Dr. King’s teaching. Being the church – supporting one another in loss, eating together, raising money for our mission – that’s only the preparation. It would be like cutting up all the vegetables for a dish and then walking away without cooking it. If we can look out the window at the world Christ loved, and commit to serving the world for which Christ died, every hour you have spent, and every dollar you have given, and every worry you have had about this church will be worth it. Windows, not mirrors!
So today we are going to make some difficult decisions. We face some real challenges. Let us commit together to grow in grace and maturity as those at Dexter Avenue were called to do, and let us serve God faithfully in this time and this place, with the resources we have and the power of the Spirit.