Moses looks out over the Promised Land. He will never quite get there. Moses freed the Israelites, parted the Red Sea, received the Ten Commandments, and led his people through the wilderness for forty years. He will never step foot upon the ground toward which he has trudged a thousand miles. He looks out over the Promised Land. God’s gift to Moses is a glance of what is yet to come. Moses, of whom scripture claims, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses.” Moses looks out from the top of the mountain down upon a landscape whose distinct markings are the fulfillment of his own dreams. So close yet so far, he breathes his last.
There may not be a story from all of scripture that is more reflective of American history – our shared national history – than this: the glance of the Promised Land yet to come and the reality of our distance.
Frederick Douglass, describing the Emancipation Proclamation said this about the moment when it was signed: “Unquestionably, the first of January, 1863, is to be the most memorable date in American annals. The Fourth of July was great, but the First of January, when we consider it in all its relations and bearings, is incomparably greater. This concerns the national life and character and is to determine whether that life and character shall be radiantly glorious with all high and noble virtues or infamously blackened forevermore.”
Douglass, like Moses, standing upon the Mountaintop, seeing the American potential for the role of a global moral exemplar. Great potential. In many ways so close, in some ways, still so far.
Dwight Eisenhower too has a say in this story, a glimpse of another American society on the other side of the Jordan. He, the General turned President, mourns the cost of war, even the necessary war. He mourns the toll taken on the body of the soldier and the toll taken on the body of the nation.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”
Eisenhower’s words. The violence that seeps toward the borders of Canaan. The collective American Abraham wavering. Isaac is our future. Sheath the knife. Stay the terrible sacrifice. The plea from the mountaintop.
And this weekend we celebrate the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King Jr. We celebrate King’s prophetic ideal- this, “inescapable network of mutuality,” the single garment of history that ties all of us together, (all of us) our celebrations become the joys of all. Our neighbor’s suffering is our own. Integration, equality, peace… the reasons for the sit-ins and the nights spent in jail, the ideals stronger than the bite of a dog or the bruising force of the fire hose… the catalysts for the marches arm-in-arm. We march toward Washington and toward the peaceable kingdom. We are held accountable for the work of today and the results of tomorrow. We are “living in the colony of time,” King preached in a sermon, “and we are ultimately responsible to the empire of eternity.”
Every year, when Martin Luther King Jr. weekend rolls around, I find it important to speak a particular refrain and it is as follows:
It is of vital importance that we lift up the life of Martin Luther King Jr. in the church. It is of vital importance that we lift up the life of King not just in school classrooms, community centers, or the halls of government. To not remember the legacy of King in the pews of the church does not grant King’s memory the spirited honor it deserves. More importantly, to not remember the legacy of King in the pews of the church greatly diminishes the story of the power of Christianity, the love of Christ in America, at one of its finest hours.
The oft-forgotten truth about the civil rights movement and the cries for peace is that the church remained the passionately beating heart that allowed the minds of women and men to transcend a history of hate. The church remained the passionately beating heart that fortified the shoulders that bore the weight of an anxious hope for the next generation. The church remained the beating heart that pressed the arms, chest, legs forward on that long walk to freedom.
Here is the pivotal point. Here is the story that is far too valuable to lose as we mistakenly secularize King’s dream. Reverend King, Reverend Abernathy, Reverend Shuttlesworth – the very beginning of a long list of the faithfully afflicted leaders – were not directed by the ideals of the American forefathers – not of those of July 4, 1776 or even January 1, 1863. These figures of history were well recognized and honored in sermons, speeches, and letters. But it wasn’t the pen of Jefferson or the oratory majesty of Lincoln that turned the tides of this chapter of history. Christ, Alpha and Omega. It was first and foremost Christ. Finally, lastly, and eternally Christ.
King continually emphasized non-conformity to norms of a world tossed by anxiety and shackled by greed. He recognized the inherent dangers of non-conformity, a defining characteristic of the carpenter from Nazareth. He turned to his faith, saying, “Christianity has always insisted that the cross we bear precedes the crown we wear.” First and foremost Christ. Finally, lastly, and eternally Christ.
King knew of the great dangers that faced progress, not just the robbers on the road, but the priest and the Levite that pass by the wounded sisters and brothers of the world. The closed eyes and the turned head stifle the coming of the Kingdom of God just as much as the clenched fist. “We must recognize that Jesus was nailed to the cross,” King preached, “not simply by sin but also by blindness. The men who cried, ‘Crucify him,’ were not bad men but rather blind men. The jeering mob that lined the roadside which led to Calvary was composed not of evil people but of blind people. They knew not what they did. What a tragedy!” The apathy of Good Friday. First and foremost Christ. Finally, lastly, and eternally Christ.
King embraced non-violence. The Civil Rights movement turned on the axis of peaceful protest, though Bull Connor and George Wallace and anonymous men in white sheets tried time and again to crush the peaceful spirit. The demands of discipleship. Turn the other cheek. King reflected upon the scripture time and again. The demands of discipleship. Love thine enemy. King’s words, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and will shall continue to love you.” First and foremost Christ. Finally, lastly, and eternally Christ.
We Christians would do well to remember the noise from Memphis. Not just the ring of the gunfire that echoed outside the Lorraine Hotel. Not just the last heartbeat. We would do well to remember the tears of mourning, the muted breaths, the questions of what happens now, and what happens next? We would do well to remember King’s last request of his friend Ben Branch, to play the hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, as “pretty as he could”.
What does the noise from Memphis do to us? What does it do to our nerves? Our sensitivities? Our emotions? Does it cause us to duck and cover? Do we become paralyzed? Do our voices grow quiet and silent? Does the noise in Memphis stir up ancient recollections? The sounds of the stones thrown at Stephen outside Jerusalem? The click of the locks that chained Paul to his fate under his arrest in Rome? The cries, time and again, of those who chose the teachings of the church over the empty values of their culture? Of those who chose to bear the cross?
Logic and reason rest here- in this frightful state. The Lorraine Hotel was a reminder of the Calvaries of old and the Calvaries yet to come. If full participation in the transcendent life of the church means full participation in a life of conflict… if the loud tenors of the prophetic voice are met with vocal or physical hostilities… isn’t it logical to resign our faith to the shelters of our homes… resign our faith to the familiar walls of the church?
Sisters and brothers, we have made a mistake in our attempts to identify the threat to the modern day church.
Other religions of the world? Different symbols, different prayers, different songs, different sacred words that define the meaning and purpose of their lives? Different cultures? Sometimes teaching, listening, and learning… sometimes colliding. Different names for the divine? The purple bumper stickers that encourage co-existence are often reflective of the diverse multitudes of the faithful life. On our better days we don’t simply co-exist. On our better days we all flourish. The religions of the world are not the real threat to the modern day church.
What about non-belief? The scientific challenge whose figurehead is still Darwin? The religiosity of Christopher Hitchens that is ironically far more evangelical than the mainline Protestant Church? Most commonly and thus most importantly, what about the significant population that searches the world for truth and with thoughtful, faithful examination finds it nowhere within the Christian story? We can’t claim their narratives anymore than they claim our own. But God’s grace never excludes a prodigal son. The populated path of non-belief is not the real threat to the modern day church.
And, perhaps most pressing to the church where we worship today, what about the numbers? The lower numbers in a projected budget and the higher numbers of unfilled pews? We know that our blessings far outnumber our shortcomings. We know that as we strive to improve the life of our church – we are improving upon a church life already tremendously vibrant. God will provide. Take a look around. The hurdles of the church’s aspirations and the church’s bottom lines are not the real threat to the modern church.
The greatest threat to the modern church is our own resignation. It is our own surrender to the challenges we must face that leave a void in the public square where Christians once preached as Christ did: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.” The void that we leave is quickly occupied by those who also claim Christ as Messiah, but stir up fear rather than provide comfort. The void that we leave is quickly occupied by those who also claim Christ as Messiah, but make great declarations of judgment and not celebratory promises of God’s grace. The void that we leave is quickly occupied by those who also claim Christ as Messiah, those who descend from a shameful tradition of blocking children from their schools, wrestling men from diner counters, finding with a blinded heart the darkest corner in a Birmingham church. The void that we leave is quickly occupied by those who turn too quickly toward violence and away from the assured blessings of the peacemaker, the promise of the peaceable Kingdom, and the words from the lips of the Prince of Peace again and again overflowing with the words of incomparable, unconquerable love.
King’s legacy calls the American Christian church to accountability. The noise from Memphis must not call to order a continual time of silence. The noise from Memphis, decades down the road, must still serve as a rallying cry to those who claim the Christian church and the Christian God as “home”. We are not just members of the body of Christ. We are vital organs of the body of Christ. We are weary yet tireless seekers of justice. We are, each of us, testimonies to God’s radical love…a radical love that defied hate – a radical love that conquered death.
The noise from Memphis that silenced one voice called others to ring aloud. “…When we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
Moses stood atop the mountain and looked out toward the Promised Land. From the Colorado peak, the American Christian does the same. From the banks of the Ohio River, the American Christian does the same. From the New York skyscraper, the American Christian does the time. From the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel. From Birmingham, Waco, Laramie, Oakland, Columbine, Sanford, Ferguson, Oklahoma City, Newtown – King’s dream, Christ’s promise, God’s kingdom rests distantly but firmly fixed on the horizon. The compass that points towards mercy, justice, and love, points toward the end of this journey of generations. There the weary pilgrims may rest in the everlasting arms, and collectively sing the first words that were King’s public last – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Amen.