April 4 was the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I remembered that on Monday night when I heard a warning of strong thunderstorms threatening. Thirty-three years earlier in Memphis, when Dr. King delivered his final speech “I See the Promised Land,” they were also facing a stormy night. It turned out to be the eve of his death. King opened with the words, “I’m delighted to see each of you here tonight in spite of a storm warning. You reveal that you are determined to go on anyhow.”
In that speech, King imagines God giving him options to live at any point in time. He time-travels through many of the possibilities of history, but ultimately assures God he chooses to live in the second half of the twentieth century, the run that God had allotted him.
He clarifies his decision, “Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars… something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up…the cry is always the same– ‘We want to be free.’”
I wonder, are we that committed to our time and place, to the short lifetime in all its historical specificity that we’ve been dealt in life, to the service of our days as defined by the pressing challenges of our present? Are you accepting, challenged by the where and the when in which God has placed you to live? Have you taken on the what that God has called you to do? The burdens we are to bear; the crosses we are to pick up and carry?
It seems to me that we have a choice: we can either respond to the difficulties and limitations of our circumstances with resentment, “why me, Lord,” or we can attribute to them the form or discipline with which God has seen fit to give our service structure, “oh, so this is what I’m supposed to work on, God” (even when often, as certainly in King’s case, our “assignment” is just the contemporary incarnations of others’ sin or our society’s injustice).
Dr. King took up the causes of racial equality, economic justice and war. Sadly, needy causes seem to have multiplied; there are for us now enough to each have our favorite. But our Zeitgeist– or maybe the limits of what earth can bear– recommend to us growing climate change and the ever-widening divide between the world’s haves and have-nots. Dr. King rightly redefined the urgency of the crossroads we have come to: “it is no longer a question of violence or non-violence. Rather, it is a question of violence and non-existence.”
Dr. King exhorted the people of his day to unite in the cause of right. Referencing the great Exodus paradigm of Hebrew Scriptures, Dr. King warned that wanting to prolong slavery, Pharaoh causes disunity in the slave ranks. You all know my faith in community organizing. We must not allow ourselves to be divided from the greater, common good, even when so many personal prizes are dangled before us. There are many distractions; in truth they often turn out to be strategies of divide and conquer.
But before we can come together, in order to form a unified whole, we need first do some personal work. I cannot join the crowd marching towards a new day, if my back is still turned, and I am focusing on the darkness!
Do you see your life, especially its limitations, with resentment? Or as an opportunity? Only when we spiritually attain the latter do we really face the challenges of our day. “Not my will, but Thine, Lord.”
Jesus turns to Jerusalem– at least sensing, if not knowing full well, what was on his plate and the cup he was to drink from. Can we use these rest of Lent or the last days of our lives likewise? To recognize and to accept our callings, to rise to the challenges and make our sacrifices for the work that God has put before us?
Ultimately, the existential question is not what will happen to me, but what will happen to us? But first one must decide, will I go on anyhow?
See you in church,
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