To Know and Follow Jesus: Lessons from King’s Life
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. ‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
I’m honored to be here, to pray with those who are to be confirmed, received, and are reaffirming their faith, and to worship God with all the congregation of St. John’s, Beltsville. Before I say more, let me express my gratitude to your good rector, the Rev. Joseph Constant, for his ministry, and the good clergy, staff, and lay leaders who serve alongside him. I also want to thank those who serve in diocesan leadership from St. John’s. As a congregation, you are a blessing to us all.
I’d like to speak directly to those who will soon stand before God to make a public affirmation of faith. Today is meant to be an occasion of blessing for you, as you publicly state your commitment to live as a follower of Jesus. This isn’t an endpoint for you in faith, as if you were graduating from Sunday School, or having learned all you need to know about following Jesus through a six-week course. This is one moment–an important one–in a lifelong journey of faith. Like any journey it will have twists and turns, unexpected circumstances and new opportunities, and most significantly, the ongoing invitation to grow in your knowledge of God, grow your sense of God’s love for you and your love for God, and deeper appreciation of how God is guiding you toward the fulfillment of your life’s purpose.
Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, whom some of the young people being confirmed today had the opportunity to meet a few years ago, likes to tell about the time when he, as a teenager, was having a bit of conflict with his father, who happened to be an Episcopal priest. The Presiding Bishop admits he was a rebel in those years, and also lazy. And in a moment of frustration, his father said to him “You know, son, God didn’t put you on his earth merely to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide.” His father reminded him that he had a God-given reason for being alive and he needed to figure out what that purpose was. Our Presiding Bishop never forgot father’s words, and it helped him take his life more seriously, as the gift that it is, and the responsibility he had for living it well, as God would have him live.
Today we are all holding you and your precious, singular lives before God. When you come forward and I pray for you, I will ask that God’s Holy Spirit may be revealed to you in personal and powerful ways over the course of your life, so that you know without a shadow of a doubt that you are precious in God’s sight and here on this earth for holy purposes.
Yesterday when we met, I encouraged each of you to stay close to Jesus, and in particular, to make a regular practice of reading and meditating on his life and teachings that are recorded in the New Testament. In the Bible, there are four accounts of Jesus’ life, each with a distinct perspective on this man whose entire life–his birth, his teachings, the way he interacted with others, and his death and rising from the dead–that gives us a window into the heart of God. As the Apostle Paul says in one of the letters of the New Testament, “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” It’s important for you to know his story, not just as a body of information, but as a means to be in relationship with him. As you read and meditate and question and discuss his teachings, Jesus will speak to you. You will hear him, not always, but at significant times in your life, speaking to you through the words of Scripture, as if they were written for you.
I’d also like to underscore something we talked about yesterday, and that is the gift of Christian community. While there are always challenges in any community, and no church is perfect, one of the great benefits of being part of a congregation like St. John’s is that you get to spend time with some truly remarkable people, whose life and faith are inspiring. And you have the opportunity to learn about other Christians who through their example show us what it looks like to live and love like Jesus.
Today we remember one such person, arguably the most influential Christian leader in the history of the United States: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow is a federal holiday to honor King, the closest Monday to the day of his birth, which was January 15, 1929. Had he lived, he would have celebrated his 93rd birthday yesterday. As it was, he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 when he was 39 years old.
I don’t know how much you know about Dr. King’s life. He is now recognized as the spiritual leader of what we call the Civil Rights Movement, a sustained effort to overturn laws and customs in this country that deprived African Americans of basic civil rights and gestures of human decency. In many parts of the United States, it was illegal for African Americans to sit in the front seats of buses or trains; it was illegal to drink from the same water fountains as white people. It was perfectly legal in Washington, DC to deny persons of color the right to purchase a home in certain neighborhoods, including the neighborhood I live in now and I daresay some of the neighborhoods you live in. All that changed in the 1950s and 60s, thanks to the leadership of people like Dr. King and thousands of people who insisted on change. King was one who insisted, in the name of Jesus, that those protests be non-violent and dignified.
Looking back, this country honors King as a hero. But during his lifetime a lot of people hated him and what he stood for. He had to endure all manner of threats against his life and his family. It must have been so disorienting, for he was also a celebrity. Where he spoke, thousands of people would show up to hear him. He inspired a generation to believe that people of different races could live together in peace and goodwill. Yet in the eyes of some, he was the most dangerous man in America.
Today I’d like to tell you two stories from King’s life that give you a sense of his spiritual connection to God, and how he drew his inspiration and strength from Jesus’ life and teachings.
This first comes from a time when Dr. King, as a very young pastor, was chosen to be the leader of what was called the Montgomery Improvement Association. This was the group that organized a bus boycott in the city of Montgomery, Alabama to protest laws that made it illegal for Black people to sit with whites, and relegated them always to seats in the back. That boycott lasted over a year, which meant that African Americans had to find other means of transportation to work (very few owned cars). A lot of people did a lot of walking.
On January 27, 1956, near midnight, King was sitting at his kitchen table alone. He couldn’t sleep because of his worry and fear. He knew that as a leader he was in way over his head. Everyone was exhausted, and the boycott strategy didn’t seem to be working. He had good reason to be afraid, because he had received numerous abusive calls and death threats targeting him and his family. The latest call had come earlier that evening, with a sinister voice assuring him they would be sorry if he and his family didn’t leave Montgomery within a week.
With his head in his hands, Martin Luther King, Jr. bowed over the kitchen table and prayed. Later he would say that his prayer started like this: “Lord, I am afraid. I am taking a stand for what I believe is right. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I have come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
In that moment, he would later say, he experienced the presence of the Divine as never before. It was as if he could hear a voice saying: “Stand firm, Martin. I am with you and will never leave you. Trust your instincts and carry on.” He rose from the kitchen table a different man, with a new sense of confidence, ready to face whatever came.1
I want each of you to know that when your life is really hard and you don’t know where to turn or what to do next, you can pray the way Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed. Tell God everything that’s on your heart. Then wait and listen for what comes to you. It may be that God will say something similar to what God said to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Stand firm. Trust your instincts. It may be some other word: Ask for help. Call someone you trust. Or perhaps It’s time to let go. But whatever you hear–and it may not be hearing, exactly, but a sensation of God’s presence–you will know that you are not alone. God is with you and for you. Moments like these are the foundation of a life of faith, upon which everything we say and do in church is built. Without that foundation, nothing else makes sense.
The second story comes from the end of King’s life, the night before he was assassinated. He had come to Memphis, Tennessee to lend his support to the sanitation workers of the city. These were people who collected garbage from homes and businesses, and they were on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. All the front line sanitation workers in Memphis were Black. They were paid what could only be described as starvation wages, and the trucks they drove were so unsafe that workers routinely lost limbs, and two men had recently died. Yet the city leaders refused to make any concessions. Like the Montgomery bus boycott years before, the sanitation workers strike went on far longer than anyone anticipated. The mood in the city had turned violent. The white leadership made it clear that King was not welcome.
No one in KIng’s family or inner leadership circle thought it was a good idea for him to keep going back to Memphis, but he went anyway, three times within the course of a month. He had a lot of reasons for going to Memphis, but in the last speech of his life, he spoke of the most important, which had to do with Jesus and his teachings.
Before thousands of people who had gathered to hear, King reflected upon one of Jesus’ most famous parables. This is what he said:
One day a man came to Jesus and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters in life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base. Instead of answering the man directly, Jesus told a story about a certain man traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho fell among thieves who beat him, took his money, and left him for dead. Two religious leaders came down that road at different times, saw the wounded man, but passed by on the other side—they didn’t stop to help. Finally, a man of another race came by. He got down off his beast, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to be concerned about his brother.
Now, you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the two religious leaders didn’t stop to help the man. At times we say they were on their way to a church meeting, and they had to get on to Jerusalem so they wouldn’t be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that one who was engaged in religious ceremonies was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It’s possible that these men were afraid. You see, the Jericho Road is a dangerous road. It’s a winding, meandering road, conducive for ambushing. And you know, it’s possible that the priest and Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And so the first question the priest asked, the first question 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?” That’s the question before you tonight. The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I don’t stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”2
King took his cues from Jesus and his teachings, choosing to do what he thought was loving and just. What happened to King will happen to us when we, too, take Jesus’ stories to heart and try to apply them in our lives. We become more like him, with love like his, compassion like his.
It is an easy life, being a follower of Jesus? No, but it’s a life worth living, a life with purpose, and a sense of his presence with us, and the guiding light of his teachings. It’s a life to which you are now saying yes, and we reaffirm our commitment to follow him alongside you. Stay close to Jesus, and remember we are right here by your side.
1As told in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (Simone & Schuster, 1988).
2Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” in A Testament of Hope, 284-285.