Martin Luther King was murdered, 45 year ago, on April 4, 1968, one month after giving this sermon Unfulfilled Dreams in his church in Atlanta, Georgia.
"...So many of us in life start out building temples: temples of character, temples of justice, temples of peace. And so often we don’t finish them. Because life is like Schubert’s "Unfinished Symphony." At so many points we start, we try, we set out to build our various temples. And I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we, like David, find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled.
Now let us notice first that life is a continual story of shattered dreams. Mahatma Gandhi labored for years and years for the independence of his people. And through a powerful nonviolent revolution he was able to win that independence. For years the Indian people had been dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated by foreign powers, and Gandhi struggled against it. He struggled to unite his own people, and nothing was greater in his mind than to have India’s one great, united country moving toward a higher destiny. This was his dream.
But Gandhi had to face the fact that he was assassinated and died with a broken heart, because that nation that he wanted to unite ended up being divided between India and Pakistan as a result of the conflict between the Hindus and the Moslems. Life is a long, continual story of setting out to build a great temple and not being able to finish it.
Woodrow Wilson dreamed a dream of a League of Nations, but he died before the promise was delivered.
The Apostle Paul talked one day about wanting to go to Spain. It was Paul’s greatest dream to go to Spain, to carry the gospel there. Paul never got to Spain. He ended up in a prison cell in Rome. This is the story of life.
So many of our forebearers used to sing about freedom. And they dreamed of the day that they would be able to get out of the bosom of slavery, the long night of injustice. And they used to sing little songs: "Nobody knows de trouble I seen, nobody knows but Jesus." They thought about a better day as they dreamed their dream. And they would say, "I’m so glad the trouble don’t last always. By and by, by and by I’m going to lay down my heavy load." And they used to sing it because of a powerful dream. But so many died without having the dream fulfilled.
And each of you this morning in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. It gets very disenchanting sometimes. Some of us are trying to build a temple of peace. We speak out against war, we protest, but it seems that your head is going against a concrete wall. It seems to mean nothing. And so often as you set out to build the temple of peace you are left lonesome; you are left discouraged; you are left bewildered.
Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: "It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is within thine heart. It’s well that you are trying." You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality. It’s well that it’s in thine heart.
Thank God this morning that we do have hearts to put something meaningful in. Life is a continual story of shattered dreams.
Now let me bring out another point. Whenever you set out to build a creative temple, whatever it may be, you must face the fact that there is a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil. It’s there: a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil. Hinduism refers to this as a struggle between illusion and reality. Platonic philosophy used to refer to it as a tension between body and soul. Zoroastrianism, a religion of old, used to refer to it as a tension between the god of light and the god of darkness. Traditional Judaism and Christianity refer to it as a tension between God and Satan. Whatever you call it, there is a struggle in the universe between good and evil.
Now not only is that struggle structured out somewhere in the external forces of the universe, it’s structured in our own lives. Psychologists have tried to grapple with it in their way, and so they say various things. Sigmund Freud used to say that this tension is a tension between what he called the id and the superego.
But you know, some of us feel that it’s a tension between God and man. And in every one of us this morning, there’s a war going on. It’s a civil war. I don’t care who you are, I don’t care where you live, there is a civil war going on in your life. And every time you set out to be good, there’s something pulling on you, telling you to be evil. It’s going on in your life. Every time you set out to love, something keeps pulling on you, trying to get you to hate. Every time you set out to be kind and say nice things about people, something is pulling on you to be jealous and envious and to spread evil gossip about them.
There’s a civil war going on. There is a schizophrenia, as the psychologists or the psychiatrists would call it, going on within all of us. And there are times that all of us know somehow that there is a Mr. Hyde and a Dr. Jekyll in us. And we end up having to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, "I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do." We end up having to agree with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. Or sometimes we even have to end up crying out with Saint Augustine as he said in his Confessions, "Lord, make me pure, but not yet." We end up crying out with the Apostle Paul, "The good that I would I do not: And the evil that I would not, that I do." Or we end up having to say with Goethe that "there’s enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue."
There’s a tension at the heart of human nature. And whenever we set out to dream our dreams and to build our temples, we must be honest enough to recognize it.
And this brings me to the basic point of the text. In the final analysis, God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives. In the final analysis, God knows that his children are weak and they are frail. In the final analysis, what God requires is that your heart is right. Salvation isn’t reaching the destination of absolute morality, but it’s being in the process and on the right road.
There’s a highway called Highway 80. I’ve marched on that highway from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery. But I never will forget my first experience with Highway 80 was driving with Coretta and Ralph and Juanita Abernathy to California. We drove from Montgomery all the way to Los Angeles on Highway 80—it goes all the way out to Los Angeles. And you know, being a good man, being a good woman, does not mean that you’ve arrived in Los Angeles. It simply means that you’re on Highway 80. Maybe you haven’t gotten as far as Selma, or maybe you haven’t gotten as far as Meridian, Mississippi, or Monroe, Louisiana—that isn’t the question. The question is whether you are on the right road. Salvation is being on the right road, not having reached a destination.
Oh, we have to finally face the point that there is none good but the father. But, if you’re on the right road, God has the power and he has something called Grace. And he puts you where you ought to be.
Now the terrible thing in life is to be trying to get to Los Angeles on Highway 78. That’s when you are lost. That sheep was lost, not merely because he was doing something wrong in that parable, but he was on the wrong road. And he didn’t even know where he was going; he became so involved in what he was doing, nibbling sweet grass, that he got on the wrong road. Salvation is being sure that you’re on the right road. It is well—that’s what I like about it—that it was within thine heart.
Some weeks ago somebody was saying something to me about a person that I have great, magnificent respect for. And they were trying to say something that didn’t sound too good about his character, something he was doing. And I said, "Number one, I don’t believe it. But number two, even if he is, he’s a good man because his heart is right." And in the final analysis, God isn’t going to judge him by that little separate mistake that he’s making, because the bent of his life is right.
And the question I want to raise this morning with you: is your heart right? If your heart isn’t right, fix it up today; get God to fix it up. Get somebody to be able to say about you, "He may not have reached the highest height, he may not have realized all of his dreams, but he tried." Isn’t that a wonderful thing for somebody to say about you? "He tried to be a good man. He tried to be a just man. He tried to be an honest man. His heart was in the right place." And I can hear a voice saying, crying out through the eternities, "I accept you. You are a recipient of my grace because it was in your heart. And it is so well that it was within thine heart."
I don’t know this morning about you, but I can make a testimony. You don’t need to go out this morning saying that Martin Luther King is a saint. Oh, no. I want you to know this morning that I’m a sinner like all of God’s children. But I want to be a good man. And I want to hear a voice saying to me one day, "I take you in and I bless you, because you try. It is well that it was within thine heart." What’s in your heart this morning? If you get your heart right . . . [gap in tape]
...On this morning, if I can leave anything with you, let me urge you to be sure that you have a strong boat of faith. The winds are going to blow. The storms of disappointment are coming. The agonies and the anguishes of life are coming. And be sure that your boat is strong, and also be very sure that you have an anchor. In times like these, you need an anchor. And be very sure that your anchor holds.
It will be dark sometimes, and it will be dismal and trying, and tribulations will come. But if you have faith in the God that I’m talking about this morning, it doesn’t matter. For you can stand up amid the storms. And I say it to you out of experience this morning, yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin-breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul. But I heard the voice of Jesus, saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me. Never to leave me alone.
And when you get this faith, you can walk with your feet solid to the ground and your head to the air, and you fear no man. And you fear nothing that comes before you. Because you know that God is even in Crete. If you ascend to the heavens, God is there. If you descend to hell, God is even there. If you take the wings of the morning and fly out to the uttermost parts of the sea, even God is there. Everywhere we turn we find him. We can never escape him."
Martin Luther King, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, 3 March 1968