Every Palm Sunday for the past few years I have thought about a sermon my grandpa gave in 1968. He was a Lutheran pastor. My mom found a copy of his original typewritten sermon a few years ago and scanned it and sent it around to the family. I asked her for it again today. My grandpa, Richard Dahlin, gave this sermon in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1968, just ten days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s an amazing window into history, and a wonderful testament of my grandpa’s courage and willingness to preach boldly in a time of so much fear and hatred.
Here’s a note from my mom Toni Thorson, which provides some context for this sermon:
Wow, I just read it again and I am moved to tears. Proud of my dad. He was very brave to speak those words to a congregation that was full of very prejudiced upper middle class people. Many of whom owned businesses in Milwaukee where rioting was happening and where their businesses were in danger. I still remember clearly being picked up by a woman from our church to babysit at her house. As we were driving in her car, she said to me, “That nigger deserved to die.” Of course, I had no idea how to respond to that. I was only 10 years old. My other clear memory of that time was the day MLK was killed. I really didn’t know much about MLK, but that day I realized that something very important and very tragic happened when I saw my dad sitting at the kitchen table with his head in his hands, weeping. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen my dad cry.
As I read this again today, I got chills thinking about how relevant his words still are in 2016. We’ve made progress, but not enough. Racism is alive and well in this “land of the free.” I think this is also a wonderful example of a white man leveraging his power and privilege, risking his reputation and even his position in the church, to call his congregation to take a stand against the injustices against black people. I wanted to share it here so that others can benefit from the wisdom my grandpa shared 48 years ago.
((Sermon is retyped from the original, but left unedited. Bolded emphasis and photos added by me.)
WE KEEP BUILDING CROSSES
A sermon by Richard Dahlin on Palm Sunday 1968.
I usually approach Palm Sunday with a degree of exhilaration, with a sense of triumph. Not like Easter to be sure, for the cross yet looms before us, Black Friday casts its shadow on this day. But yet we normally kind of celebrate this day in commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
But today we are filled with a sense of apprehension. We are now questioning our own destiny. We find ourselves torn within as we are called on to make great decisions.
When I began to study the Palm Sunday text earlier this week I had the feeling that I was reading something that was taking place right here and now. And reading the newspapers these last two days has been just like reading the Bible. Never in my life have I seen contemporary events so closely parallel a portion of Scripture. Let me show you what I mean.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem was a non-violent demonstration. By this time the religious authorities were filled with hatred toward Jesus. His teaching, His revelation of God was a threat to their establishment. If He was allowed to continue, their whole religious system, their jobs, their social standing, their whole way of life was in grave danger of crumbling. They had decided that Jesus must be done away with.
This was also the time of the feast of the Passover. Thousands of pilgrims, devout Jews from all over the Mediterranean world were in Jerusalem for the celebration of this great feast. National feelings always ran high at this time of year. The Jews longed for independence from Rome and were always looking for the opportune time and the opportune leader to lead them in revolt.
It was into this kind of an excitable, tension-filled situation that Jesus came when He entered Jerusalem that day. He didn’t just sneak into the city. He entered like a king. He came on a mount. A crowd went before Him and a crowd followed after Him. They spread their garments before Him and hailed Him as a King. But his mount was not a horse, the mount of war, but rather an ass, the mount of peace. He wore no sword. He called for no army. He did not call for the people to revolt against Rome. But He went to the temple and turned over the tables of the money changers and chased them out. He demonstrated against the ungodly practices that were being carried out in the name of God.
Four nights later as He was with His disciples in the Garden praying, He was arrested by men dressed in armor and carrying clubs and swords. And the next day after an unjust trial in a kangaroo court, He was killed on a cross.
Ten days ago a man who throughout his life was dedicated to peace, love and brotherhood, who during the past twelve years had led hundreds of non-violent demonstrations in protest of racial injustices in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Illinois and Washington, D.C., this man led a protest in Memphis, Tennessee.
Thursday night as he was leaving his motel room to go get a bite to eat, he was killed by an assassin’s bullet. A man who preached and taught and lived nonviolence was violently killed. He now has joined that long list of those who have died violently at the hands of white racists—Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Mrs. Louzzio and the four Sunday School pupils in that Birmingham church, plus many, many others.
The comedian Dick Gregory has said:
“It’s amazing how we come to church every Sunday and cry over the crucifixion of Christ, and we don’t cry over these things that are going on around and among us. If Jesus were here now and saw these things, He would cry. And He would take those nails again, for us, for this problem. It just so happened that in His day and time, religion was the big problem. Today it is color.”
You and I helped kill Martin Luther King. We are a part of our society which breeds men like his assassin. Our society is riddled through with hatred, prejudice and violence. For the first time since Abraham Lincoln, our President has spoken publicly about divisiveness which is tearing our nation apart. We are divided and torn apart over the war in Viet Nam and over race.
One hundred years ago our forefathers fought a war to end that inhuman and un-American institution—slavery. Now we are on the brink of another Civil War to decide whether or not we are going to give the Negro the freedom we promised him a hundred years ago. They have been an exceedingly patient people. They have endured more indignities, injustices and persecution than any other people on the face of the earth. And this in a supposedly free and Christian nation. We are now facing an hour of great peril.
Dr. Martin Luther King led non-violent protests in the face of violence from the white establishment—in Birmingham, Montgomery, Selma, Chicago and other places. In these cases it was the Negro community that acted like Christ. No bricks, stones, clubs or guns were in their hands. They were spit upon, kicked, clubbed by the police, flattened by powerful fire hoses, and locked up in cold, dirty jails. Thousands were threatened, many killed.
Now the apostle of non-violence is dead and there are many in the Negro community who are advocating and striking out in violence. Now we, the white community, are being called on by God to react in a non-violent, Christian way. The question is, do we have the moral courage to take the hatred and rage of the black community upon us without striking back? Do we have enough Christian love to suffer-innocently at the hands of their hatred, even as they in the past took it when we were handing it out? This time we are now facing is far more difficult for us, the white community than it was before Dr. King died. He led his people in the way of Christ. All that was asked of us was that we give them justice.
But now with the black community beginning to erupt in violence we are called on to be Christian, to suffer innocently, to turn the other cheek. It we will not return evil with good, then I am afraid that we shall have civil war, blood for blood, gun for gun, black against white, brother against brother.
We are a sick nation. Racism must be exterminated from our hearts or we shall perish in bloodshed. For the last twenty years we have been hung up on fighting the Communists around the world, and especially in the last four years in Viet Nam, while all along we have been rotting within. Nineteen of the twenty-one world’s civilizations died, not from an outside enemy, but from internal decay. Are we going to be the twentieth?
Isn’t it ironic and tragic that Barabbas, a murderer, a violent man, an insurrectionist, was released due to the demands of the crowd, while the nonviolent, innocent Christ was crucified at their insistence? Today Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael are free spreading hatred and violence while Dr. Martin Luther King, a man of peace and justice is dead.
The truth is that our sinful world will accept, tolerate and even encourage a Barabbas or a Carmichael, but cannot endure a Christ or a King!! Because a Christ or a King prick our consciences and show us that evil dwells within us. They call for us to repent and change. While an evil man calls only for revenge and hatred which we all harbor plenty of in ourselves. They call for change in others while justifying their own evil deeds. And in our opposition to them we feel justified in our hatred and violence toward them in return.
Our sick world cannot tolerate a Christ or a Dr. King for they show us what we are. For such men we build crosses.
It took a crucifixion to begin a new creation. Dr. King need not have died in vain if his death now spurs us as a nation to repent of our sins and to begin again. If we do nothing our country will be destroyed before our eyes. We can no longer afford to sit on the side lines and watch. To do so is to be like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. We must act, and act now!
First, become informed. Go home and read your newspapers. James Reston has a tremendous column in today’s paper. Find out about the causes of our racial problems. Find out what it is like to be a Negro in America. I purchased 30 some dollars worth of books on Friday to make them available to you following the service. I challenge you to do your passion reading this week not by reading the Bible, but by reading about the suffering of our Lord in the black people of our nation. I have ten copies of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders which gives a factual account of the racial situation in our country today. Ten copies of’ “Nigger” by Dick Gregory, which gives a graphic picture of his life, of the struggles of a Negro in America. I also have a few copies of Dr. Martin Luther King’s books.
I also challenge you to write a letter to our congressman, William Steiger, urging immediate passage of’ the Civil rights bill which the House has been sitting on for the last month, but is due for a vote in committee on Tuesday. A sample letter will be handed out to you as you leave church today.
Let’s quit building crosses! Let’s burn all of the hatred and violence out of our nation with love. We have had enough crucifixions! Let’s not nail Christ to any more crosses. He died to free us from hatred. He died to put an end to prejudice. He died to make all men free, black and white, red and yellow, American and Viet Namese, capitalist and communist. Sing your Hosannas, your praises to this humble, non-violent, demonstrating King, Jesus Christ. But it you do, then be ready to give up all bigotry, your prejudice, your claim to your rights. Be willing to die that men might live!!
If you aren’t ready to go the second mile, to give the Negro his rights, then be sure that you are a part of a new Good Friday crowd, crying out for Christ’s blood. Palm Sunday celebrations are grand and glorious it you know what you are doing, if you mean what you say, and if you go with Christ all the way, even unto the Holy hill.
Update: I called my grandpa after I posted this to let him know what I did and he shared more about this. He said that the congregation was dead silent as he preached and some even stood up and walked out, some never to return. But he said he was more “on” that day than ever before. He KNEW he had to preach this.