by Rev. Joseph Connolly
“God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!’” — Exodus 3:5.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a child of the church— a P.K., a preacher’s kid, the child of a pastor. And, in part because of the leadership offered by King in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and the 1960s, we sometimes forget he was also a pastor. He served the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Two years before his untimely death at the hands of an assassin, Dr. King offered a sermon at Ebenezer which started with this sentiment (quote:) “I would like to preach on the subject: ‘Guidelines for a Constructive Church.’”
Then King said— and to be clear I am editing and paraphrasing this; I wouldn’t think of myself as standing in King’s shoes— then King said, he would like to submit since it is we who are followers of Christ it is we who must keep the church going and keep it alive. Therefore, somewhere behind the dim mist of eternity, God has set forth guidelines.
Through the prophets, and above all through Christ, God said that, “There are some things my church must do, some guidelines my church must follow.” The guidelines are clearly set before us, said King, in some words uttered by Jesus, who went to the synagogue one day, and quoted Isaiah.
“The Spirit of God is upon me, because I am anointed to preach the gospel— Good News— to the poor. God has sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of God’s favor.” These are the guidelines of the church.
You see, insisted King, the church is not a social club, although some people think it is. Those who think it’s a social club are the ones who get caught up in exclusive-ism and feel it’s a club with a thin veneer of religiosity. But the church is not a social club.
And the church is not an entertainment center, said King, although some people think it is. Through their own actions people in some churches demonstrate they think it’s an entertainment center. Movies are meant to entertain, not church members, not preachers. The church is not an entertainment center.
Having said that, King turned to the work the church needs to do in the world by addressing what Jesus said. When following its guidelines, he continued, the church first seeks to heal the broken-hearted.
Next, when it is true to its guidelines, the church sets out to preach deliverance to those who are captive— to free people. Why? We need to remember some people are slaves, captives, to prejudice and to fear and to their own possessions.
Then King came to what I think was the real point of the sermon by addressing what the acceptable year of God’s favor is about. The acceptable year of God’s favor can be this year, said King. This year is the year— and the church is called to preach it.
Pastor King then started to reel off in a rhythmic rhetoric so often associated with preaching this litany. (Slight pause.) The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we decide to do right. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we stop lying and cheating. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we refuse to spread malicious gossip, false rumors.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we stop throwing away the precious lives God has given in riotous living. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we stop killing people engaged in the process of seeking their constitutional rights.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we learn to live together as sisters and brothers. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year all the leaders of the world sit down at a conference table and realize unless humankind puts an end to war, war will put an end to humankind.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks and nations do not rise up against nations or study war. The acceptable year of God’s favor is when we allow justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we send to the Congress and to the state houses of our nation people who will do justice, people who will love mercy, who will walk humbly with God. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we work on making the rough places plain, the crooked places straight.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we do onto others as we would have others do onto us. The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we love our enemies and bless them that curse us.
The acceptable year of God’s favor is any year we discover that we are one race made by God to dwell upon the face of the earth. This— this— is the acceptable year of God’s favor.  (Slight pause.)
“God said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!’” (Slight pause.)
First, I probably need to apologize because I am sure I have not done the words of Dr. King justice. The original sermon is one of great power. When this sermon is posted online there will be a footnote where you can go find that sermon.
Next, I need to recognize the truth of what King had to say about the church. We have guidelines. Last, I need to say I believe the guidelines do come from a singular place: we— each of us— needs to realize the reality of the presence of God. We need to realize we constantly stand on holy ground.
And when I say we stand on holy ground I want to emphasize I am not addressing location. You have heard me say dozens if not hundreds of times this building is not a church.
In our congregational tradition this building is called a meeting house. Why? We, you and I— the congregation— we are the church.
And rumor to the contrary that word— congregation— does not only mean a method of governing ourselves— bottom up. The word contains a larger idea than that.
The term congregation has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. The words for assembly, company and congregation in the Hebrew Scriptures all become one word in the Greek — ekklesia. And that word is commonly translated in the New Testament as church.
But what does ekklesia mean? In one sense it means what was actually indicated in the Hebrew. It means a gathering of citizens called out from their homes to some public place— a public place.
You see, we— the church— like it or not— are here for a public purpose. We are here to serve. We are here to love. We are here to, in the words of Dr. King, “learn to live together as sisters and brothers.” (Slight pause.)
All of which is to say I once again agree with Dr. King. We, the church, we do have guidelines. You’ve heard me repeat the simple version of those guidelines over and over and over. Love God; love neighbor.
But yes— a version which is both more complex and more subtle has to do with Dr. King’s proclamation: the acceptable year of God’s favor is now— right now. That we stand on holy ground means that we are not a social club or an entertainment center.
That we stand on holy ground means God calls us to action right now. That we stand on holy ground means God’s realm is right now.
That we stand on holy ground means God’s is present with us right now. And we do stand on holy ground now. We do stand on holy ground now because the church is not the building. That is not the holy ground.
We— you and I together are holy ground. And we— you and I— the church together— we have guidelines. And the prime guideline is to realize and to understand the fact that now— right now— is holy; holy— set apart to do God’s will. And now— right now— is a time for action. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “In the famous I Have a Dream speech, Dr. King reminded people of (quote:) “…the fierce urgency of Now.” I think too often we, the church, do not understand that it is we who need to act. And I think too often we, the church, do not understand now is when we need to act. Why? We are the holy ground.”
BENEDICTION: Through God’s grace, by being attentive to God’s will, our deeds and our words will change our world for we will discover ways to proclaim release from the bondage or narrowness. Let us seek the God of Joy whose wisdom is our God. Let us go in peace to love and serve God. Amen.
 This sermon “Guidelines for a Constructive Church” (5 June 1966), Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia can be found here:
To reiterate, I have edited this somewhat and paraphrased this somewhat. I do not believe I have done severe damage to the message Dr. King offered in what I have done and I am clear in my text that this is not a direct quote. If I have done damage to the text of Dr. King, I beg forgiveness.