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MLK Birmingham jail letter basis of stirring PC(U.S.A.) service

Louisville pastor and college president tells Presbyterians to use their imaginations to empathize with oppressed people

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Worshipers light candles Wednesday before the Presbyterian Center Service of Commemoration for the Life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — Martin Luther King Jr. did not have to go to Birmingham.

He had options, Rev. Dr. Kevin W. Cosby recalled Wednesday morning during the annual Presbyterian Center Service of Commemoration for the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Well on his way to becoming the youngest Nobel Prize winner in history, to that point, King seemed poised for the pulpit at his home church in Atlanta, or maybe the presidency of Morehouse College.

Birmingham was a powder keg, known as “Bombingham” because of the pervasive race-based violence in the Alabama city. But after prayer, King told his father and his mentor that his place was with “the suffering people of Birmingham,” Cosby said. “He went down there and was arrested.”

And that is where he wrote the iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail, which formed the basis for Wednesday’s worship service at the third floor chapel with the Ohio River serving as a backdrop. The letter was excerpted in the Call to Worship, Confession and other readings and responsive readings during the service.

“This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never,’” King’s words echoed through the chapel, at this point in the service read by Gail Strange, communications strategist for the PC(USA)’s Racial, Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries. “We must come to see that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

Cosby observed, “If there was another book that could be added to the canon, I believe that Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” should be the 28th book of the New Testament. It captures the essence of what kingdom-living is all about.”

The Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby delivered the sermon at the Presbyterian Center Service of Commemoration for the Life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday. (Photo by Rich Copley)

Cosby is the senior pastor of St. Stephen Church in Louisville, a congregation of 14,000, making it one of the 100 largest churches in the United States. He is also the president of Simmons College of Kentucky, registered as one of the United States’ Historically Black Colleges & Universities, which he helped revive, starting in the late 1990s.

“This was a pep rally for my soul,” the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), said of Cosby’s sermon. “And the message given here today was one that was much needed here in the 21st century. Some of you all here have witnessed it, have seen it at the border, have seen it down at McAllen, Texas, have seen it in places outside of this country … yet we have also seen it right here in Louisville.”

The Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), delivers closing remarks during the service. (Photo by Rich Copley)

The central message of sermon was sit where struggling and oppressed people sit or use your imagination to empathize with their struggles.

See video of the 2019 Presbyterian Center Service of Commemoration for the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

“You can always tell when someone had captured the spirit of Jesus Christ, because when you have truly captured the spirit of Jesus Christ, you are infused with a spirit of empathy,” Cosby said.

“Imagination, when it’s used for Christian purposes, says ‘I wonder what it’s like to be this other person. I wonder what it’s like to be a black person, when all the images around you are white images.’ You cannot cross a bridge in Louisville without the celebration of whiteness: John F. Kennedy, Sherman Minton. You cannot take the loop around Louisville without being reminded of white supremacy, because it was named after Henry Watterson, who was a racist. ‘I wonder what that’s like if I was a black person, and all the images around me — the norm and the standard for everything — was whiteness.”

He went to on to ask the same question about women and the LGBTQ community, and pointed out that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not about, “the misdeeds of the thieves … but the missed deeds of the priest and the Levite,” who passed by the man who had been robbed and battered. The Samaritan, he said, could imagine himself in the man’s place, because he had been beaten up and ignored too.

“The Samaritan was riding on his ass,” Cosby said. “He got off his ass and picked him up and put him on his ass, because the only way you can help somebody is you’ve got to get off your ass.”

Cosby said in conclusion, “To truly be Christian is to sit where the other person sits and to view life through their lenses. That is what Dr. King is calling us all to do, not only Dr. King, but that’s what Christ is calling us to do.”


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