Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. . .
If I were to ask you to name Americans who have had the greatest positive impact on our country in the last 100 years, near the top of our collective list would surely be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King and the social movement he led forever changed the laws of our land, securing basic civil rights and legal protection for African Americans. He worked to dismantle segregation and other oppressive policies. He challenged the racist assumptions of the dominant culture. Moreover, he believed in nonviolence as a the only viable method of social change. Only love, he said, can transform an enemy into a friend. He believed, at a time when few others did, that people of different races could be friends.
Tourists from other countries have little doubt of Dr. King’s importance when they visit Washington, D.C. We have streets, schools and libraries named after him. There is a stunning monument to his legacy and the power of his words. We have a national holiday in his honor.
Thus it’s easy to forget–or, for those of you born after he died, never to know–that at the height of his influence King was a controversial, even despised figure. In the year before his assassination, he was strongly criticized not only by his political adversaries, but also his allies. Many who supported his cause disagreed with his tactics. Some people thought he was pressing too hard for social change; others thought he wasn’t pressing hard enough. His life had been threatened several times. Public opinion had turned against him. Younger African Americans activists dismissed him as politically naive.
In the last week of his life, he preached two sermons. The first one he preached here, at the invitation of Dean Francis Sayre, on Palm Sunday 1968. Many Cathedral supporters were not happy. Among the things King said that day was that it was possible to remain asleep during a great revolution. There weren’t portable phones, video games, and the constant distractions of social media back then, but there were plenty of other ways to remain oblivious to the winds of social change and the needs of one’s fellow human beings.
King then left Washington and went to Memphis, against the advice of nearly everyone in his family and close circle of leadership. He was tried, fighting a cold, and depressed. Resistance to his message was growing. Death threats were increasing. They didn’t understand why he felt he needed to go to Memphis.
But King knew why he needed to go. You see, the sanitation workers in Memphis–the people who pick up other people’s garbage and haul it to wherever garbage goes–were on strike for better pay and working conditions. Being a garbage collector is pretty tough job now; it was really tough 60 years ago. Most sanitation workers then, as now, were African American or immigrants. Working conditions were truly miserable and dangerous, and the pay was terrible.
This isn’t your fight now, Martin. You have other things to work on, his advisors told him.
You’re sick, Martin, his family and friends told him. Stay home and rest.
But he went anyway. Why?
On the night before his death, he preached one last time. And he told Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan to explain why he was there.
Three people encountered a near fatally wounded man on the side of the road. Two of them, religious leaders with important work to do, crossed to the other side of the road kept going. The third man–who belonged to a despised race–stopped to help him.
The first two men, King said, were afraid. They asked the question, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” The third man had compassion. He asked a different question: “If I don’t stop to help this man, what will happen to him?
King didn’t ask himself, “If I go to Memphis, what will happen to me?” Rather he asked, “If I don’t go Memphis to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”
Your chaplains invited me to speak to you today on the theme of friendship, which, I’m honored to do.
You will surely make, or have established already, friendships on the Cathedral Close that will endure a lifetime. Some of your friendships will be a surprise to you because you didn’t start out as friends. It’s also quite likely that you will cross paths with someone later in life that you were not friends with while in school together but who will become your close friend then.
How do these friendships begin, and how are they sustained? Friendships are often based on common interests and experiences. We enjoy one another’s company. We feel affirmed and validated in one another’s presence. Much of friendship is transactional: we receive from our friends; we give to them in return. There is nothing wrong with the give and take of friendship.
But there is another question at the heart of it all: what kind of friend are you? What kind of friend am I?
In the Book of Proverbs, found in the Jewish Bible, there is a sober warning: “There are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble.” “Faithful friends,” the text continues, in contrast, “are a sturdy shelter. Whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price.”
A faithful friend is kind. A faithful friend shows up, not simply when it’s convenient, but when it’s not, for the sake of a friend. A faithful friend is someone with the capacity to care, even when there’s nothing to be gained by caring. A faithful friend may begin by asking him or herself, “If I offer to help another, what will happen to me?” But a faithful friend goes on to ask, “If I don’t offer help, what will happen to my friend, my classmate?
In your years on the Cathedral Close, I urge you to take good care of one another. Be faithful friends. Be kind whenever possible, and, you know, it’s always possible. Show up for each other not only when it’s easy, but when you’re needed. May you be the kind of person about whom others can say, “there goes my true and sturdy friend.”