Four days before gun violence took his life on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, Martin Luther King was at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., giving one of the most astonishing sermons of his lifetime.[i] This far-reaching speech has remained remarkably fresh for being over 48 years old.
Like Mary, at Jesus’ feet, attuned to the moment, King, after some significant successes with civil rights had begun to pivot his attention toward poverty and the scourge of endless war. He was beginning to advocate for underpaid garbage workers and laborers. He was speaking out against the Vietnam War and the way it was ravaging so many young lives. He understood, you see, something that was central to the gospel.
Through “scientific genius” humans have “been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains,” the great preacher said. “And our jet planes have compressed into minutes, distances that once took weeks and even months. All of this tells us that our world is a neighborhood.”
Imagine what he would have thought with recent advances!
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers [—and sisters, we might add] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
And then he summed it all up:
For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
The shorthand of our sacraments remind us of this. Every time we come to the table and share the body of Christ that is freely revealed to us in the common bread and the common cup we remember our life is no longer our own but shared with the human family and the whole of creation. So it is at the font where we are raised from the waters to new life. And as Colossians reminds us, we who have “been raised” to new life with Christ “have died, and [our] life is hidden with Christ” who has become “our life.”[ii] Our life is fundamentally redefined.
Everywhere we look around here we see reminders that we belong to each other, that we are connected, a part of the same web of life. We are brothers and sisters, we belong to the same Spirit of Life, and I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
And that, it seems, is what this rich fool has forgotten. He thinks he is his own man. He thinks he is not connected to those on whose backs he has made his riches. He has forgotten that he has not caused the crops to grow, but simply drawn on the generosity of a land that produces abundantly so that life may go on symbiotically. He somehow thinks that he can live his life freely moving in and out of relationship according to his own whims without doing or being harmed. He thinks he has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps so what he has somehow belongs to him.
What a poor man.
Jesus evokes Isaiah 22, when the man, apparently lacking the good advice of trusted friends, has such limited vision, imagining his best response to his bumper crop is to build a tower to himself. “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.” Then I’ll be set: “relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But the man has neglected his scripture memorization and no one is around to correct him. “Let us eat and drink,” Isaiah says, “for tomorrow we die.”[iii]
And what will his legacy be?
One of the formative events in King’s life was a trip he took to India where he was exposed to heartbreaking poverty. It opened his eyes to the poverty all around, even in the richest country in the world, and it fueled his empathy and it sparked his turn to combatting poverty—seeing how it kept everyone down, understanding he could not be what he ought to be until everyone could be what they ought to be.
“How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes evidences of millions of people going to bed hungry at night?” King asked the congregation at the National Cathedral. “How can one avoid being depressed when he sees with his own eyes God’s children sleeping on the sidewalks at night?” But then, perhaps recalling Jesus’ parable, he remembered, “we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food”—remember this was 1968!—“and I said to myself, ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.’"
In this particular story, Jesus does not lay out a series of policy statements clarifying what is involved in “being rich toward God.” But we could argue that Luke does.[iv] In Luke 10, the Samaritan is rich toward God when he stopped along the road and used his resources to help his neighbor in need.[v] Mary was rich toward God when she gave herself to listening to Jesus rather than be distracted by other things.[vi] In Luke 11, the shameless host is rich toward God when seeing that his surprise guest is hungry, he knocks and knocks on his sleeping neighbor’s door until the neighbor finally gets up and gives him bread, knowing that to deny the hungry guest would be a greater shame.[vii] We are rich toward God according to Luke chapter 12 when, considering the lilies, we give up worry and live joyfully trusting our well-being to God.[viii] We are rich toward God when we sell our possessions and give generously as a means of establishing more lasting treasure in heaven.[ix]
I came across a quote I want to share with you from one of the speeches at the recent ceremony in Dallas honoring the five slain police officers. “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples,” the speaker said,
while judging ourselves by our best intentions. And this has strained our bonds of understanding and common purpose. … We have never been held together by blood or background. We are bound by things of the spirit, by shared commitments to common ideals. … This is the bridge across our nation’s deepest divisions. And it is not merely a matter of tolerance, but of learning from the struggles and stories of our fellow citizens and finding our better selves in the process.[x]
President Obama was there, of course, along with a host of statesmen and women, along with grieving families. But these words were spoken by a local who perhaps has also come to understand our deep connection as a result of his faith—former president George W. Bush.
We are connected. The roots of our destruction grow when we forget this. But as the psalmist says, let those of us who are wise consider God’s steadfast love. There is a spirit in and around us that is strong and unshakable and it forever stirs in us. “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” King told the congregation at the National Cathedral four day before his life was taken from him. “It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. So we must help time and realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
Beloved children of God, this is a long work that we do, and it is easy to get weary and it is hard to find our way amidst all the noise. But the truth is resilient and the way has been well marked by those who have gone before us. And our labor and our sweat and our love and our longsuffering make a difference. Our trying as we seek to be co-workers, co-conspirators with God—as imperfect as it is—makes a difference. Believe the gospel!
The parable seems to be a response to the question posed in Luke 9: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”[xi]
It seems the man with all the barns and such limited vision was truly poor. But there is such richness in a life lived in the human community and the web of life. Certainly King’s life bears witness to this—and so many others whose lives shine like a beacon in the darkness. Let your light shine too.
So “do not worry” and “do not be afraid, little flock; it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
[i] “Remaining Awake at the Revolution” Delivered at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on 31 March 1968. Congressional Record, 9 April 1968. Accessed on July 26, 2016 at https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-king-jr-10.
[ii] Colossians 3:1-4.
[iii] Isaiah 22:13.
[iv] Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Kindle Location 11425). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
[v] Luke 10:25-37.
[vi] Luke 10:38-42.
[vii] Luke 11:1-13.
[viii] Luke 12:22-31.
[ix] Luke 12:32-34.
[x] U.S. News and World Report, “READ: George W. Bush’s Remarks at Dallas Memorial Service.” Accessed July 26, 2016 at http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-07-12/transcript-george-w-bushs-remarks-at-dallas-memorial-service.
[xi] Luke 9:25.