What Will Happen to Me?

Today’s Gospel includes Luke’s account of the well-known parable often referred to as The Good Samaritan.

Martin Luther King spoke of this parable in his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the day before he was assassinated. Talking about the need for us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness,” he addressed the question of why the priest and Levite didn’t stop to help the man who fell among thieves. After cataloguing some of the answers often given to that question, he shared what his own imagination told him.

It’s possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

And that, King suggested, was the question his listeners needed to ask themselves:

That is the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

It is the same question we need to ask ourselves today.  What will happen if I don’t help those who are suffering?

King Channeling Paul to Speak to American Christians

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the film Selma with my undergraduate honors students. Notwithstanding criticisms of the historical accuracy of certain aspects of the film, it is a powerful portrayal of a slice of the history of this country and of a man who gave his life to the fight to end racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination, and he did so through nonviolent means.

Today we celebrate the life of that man, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Among other things, King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another. Today I re-post an excerpt from one of his speeches that seems particularly fitting for our country today. This is taken from King’s 1965 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Philippian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so, some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

You can listen to King deliver the letter here.

He Had A Dream

Today is the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream Speech. In that speech, Dr. King, eloquently and powerfully, set forth his dream of justice, equality and freedom arising from a land of slavery and hatred.

The speech is widely hailed as a masterpiece of rhetoric. If you haven’t listened to it, you should.

Martin Luther King’s Challenge

Today we commemorate one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. We remember him for his commitment to work for the end of racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another. One that I think is particularly salient to us today is his 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so, some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

Remembering Martin

Today the United States commemorates the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., as it has done every year since 1986, when President Reagan signed a bill creating, for the first time, a federal holiday in honor of a private citizen.

On the day he signed the bill, President Reagan talked about King’s work to promote racial equality and about the strides our country had made to combat racial discrimination since the day Rosa Parks refused to ride on the back of the bus. However, he also reminded the American people that the dream of which King spoke had not been realized. His words, uttered on November 2, 1983, are as fitting today as they were then:

But traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: Thou shall love thy God with all thy heart, and thou shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us—if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King’s dream comes true, and in his words, “All of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning, ‘… land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'”

Traces of bigotry (and perhaps more than “traces”) still mar America – not only on racial grounds, but on the grounds of religion, gender and sexual orientation. It is fine to congratulation ourselves on the strides we have made, so long as we are honest in recognizing the ways in which we have failed and in the work that still needs to be done.

To say that bigotry still mars America says that bigotry still exists in our hearts. Thus, I think Reagan’s simple statement of the prescription for overcoming that bigotry is correct: love. Learning to love as God loves – unconditionally and universally. Reagan ended his remarks by talking about King’s goal “to create the love community,” saying that “Martin Luther King, Jr., and his spirit live within all of us…May we make ourselves worthy to carry on his dream and create the love community.”

May it be so.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Loving Our Enemies

Today, the United States celebrates Martin Luther King Day, one of the very few U.S. holidays commemorating an individual person. We celebrate King for his commitment to nonviolence in his protest of racial discrimination, a commitment that was rooted in his Christian faith.

King preached magnificently on many topics, including Jesus’ command that we love our enemy. In a sermon he gave in 1957, he rejected out of hand the suggestion that the Jesus didn’t really mean that we should love our enemy or that it represented a utopian dream. Instead, he called love of enemy “an absolute necessity for the survival of our civilization” and claimed that in giving that command “Jesus wasn’t playing,” but was quite serious.

For King, a key to our ability to love our enemies is to discover the element of good in them, the starting point for which is recognizing that none of us is either all good or all bad. He said:

I’ve said to you on many occasions that each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. And there is something of a civil war going on within all of our lives. There is a recalcitrant South of our soul revolting against the North of our soul. And there is this continual struggle within the very structure of every individual life. There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Ovid, the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.” There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, “There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.” There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Apostle Paul, “I see and approve the better things of life, but the evil things I do.”

So somehow the “isness” of our present nature is out of harmony with the eternal “oughtness” that forever confronts us. And this simply means this: That within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls “the image of God,” you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.

Neither the command to love our neighbor nor King’s call for us to find the good in all people is always easy. But we see from the state of the world in which we live the consequences of our failure to do so. King may not be guilty of hyperbole when he said that if we are to survive we must learn to do this.

Martin Luther King, Jr. – Thy Will be Done

I posted an excerpt from one of MLK’s talks on Thursday, the actual day of his birthday. However, there is so much King preached that is so incredibly powerful that I thought I’d add another excerpt today, on this day that we, as a nation, celebrate his birthday. This comes from a King sermon titled, Garden of Gethsemane, delivered in 1957 when he was 28-years old. It exhorts us to the faith and trust exhibited by Jesus hanging on the cross:

I can hear Jesus himself, standing amid the agony and darkness of Good Friday, standing amid the darkness of the Cross. And out of the pain and the agony and the darkness of that cross, we hear a voice saying, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit.” And then we can hear him saying, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” Now you got to learn that, my friends, and when you learn that, you can stand up amid any condition, because you know that God is with you, no matter what happens. You can stand up amid despair. You can stand up amid persecution. You can stand up amid disappointment. You can stand up even amid death. But you don’t worry because you know God is with you.

…Not my will, but thy will be done! And when you can cry that, you stand up amid life with an exuberant joy. You know that God walks with you. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you know that God is there. Even though you stand amid the giant shadow of disappointment, you don’t despair, because you know God is with you.

MLK to American Christians

Although our national celebration of the day is not until Monday, today is the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the principal leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1964, he became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in recognition of his efforts to end racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful orator and if you haven’t heard his I Have a Dream or I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speeches, you should listen to them, or better yet, watch them. (These and other of King’s speeches are easily available online.) As I was checking out some of this writings and speeches, I came across one I had not previously been familiar with: King’s 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. The words are as salient now as they were then. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

These are words we can all profitably spend some time reflecting on. It seems to me worthwhile for each of us to ask ourselves: Where am I being called to take a stand? What is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself?