This is a real sermon this week.
By that, I mean
and letting the texts
speak for themselves
without a lot of interpretation
or 21st century chiropractic adjustment.
Of course, it isn’t every week
I have Martin Luther King, Jr. helping me out.
Just as the culture has secularized Christmas
we have secularized
The REV. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He’s known as DR. King these days,
when not MLK.
People forget he was
a preacher by profession first,
and then of course, a prophet
by his actions
and his sacrifices.
The secular world —
which is largely an economic arena
in which people and things
to measure their value —
doesn’t really have a way of measuring
the value of preachers and prophets
so they just don’t mention them.
But because they teach this speech in schools,
almost everyone in the USA
knows the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech —
even though it was as much sermon.
It was delivered
on the eve of the Memphis
sanitation worker’s strike,
a civil action that King was warned
not to attend or participate in,
but that he felt compelled to do.
So even though he didn’t know it,
the sermon he preached that night
and what he said,
turned out to really about him.
to help the man on the road
and was killed for it —
which of course, he noted,
the priest and Levite
were precisely afraid of.
But King’s last speech
was indeed a sermon
and I will prove it
by reading some of it to you.
It is better than anything
I could tell you about the Good Samaritan story.
In a couple of paragraphs
King nails it.
So, this is an excerpt
from The REV. Martin Luther King’s sermon
on April 3, 1968
at Mason Temple, which
was the Church of God in Christ
headquarters in Memphis.
King says this:
“Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.
One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of 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….
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.
And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him.
And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, 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 project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down 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 ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony.”
And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem — or down to Jericho, rather to organize a “Jericho Road Improvement Association.” That’s a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me. 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 at 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?”
I don’t know if you
feel like I do
when I read that sermon,
but it calls me into a kinship
with Rev. King
that is intimate —
as intimate as we are
sitting around this worship space.
Maybe it is because I am a preacher too,
but to me, it is like seeing the ordinary
in the midst of the extraordinary
and realizing the sacred
has been there all along.
Because, you see,
it is just an ordinary old sermon
about a story we have heard a thousand times,
and he reminds us of what it is about
in ways both unique to him —
to his stature —
and also as familiar and cozy
as old shoe to us church-goers.
It is familiar old church-talk
and a familiar old story
wrapped in an extraordinary moment
that the whole world
would come to know
He was one of us,
just an old preacher
doing what Christians do
when they tell a story that is primal to the memory
of what we are all about.
So this story
it is now a touchstone
to a man who did what Jesus did —
died for us
or because of us.
Died because he asked
the right question
instead of, “What will happen to me?”
The irony of course,
is that the Good Samaritan story
was all about race —
even though race didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.
Race is, of course,
a made up construct
to monetize people and enslave them.
But in Jesus’ day
there was indeed, historic hatred
between Judeans and Galileans
and people from Samaria.
It was a hatred that went back centuries
to the civil war that divided Israel
when Israel had actually existed as a nation.
So it works
as a story about racism
even though race didn’t exist yet,
because it is about crossing the stupid boundaries
human beings erect
for selfish and evil purposes.
Then there is Amos.
Amos might be my favorite prophet
but we don’t get to hear from him much
in the Revised Common Lectionary.
He is perhaps the first
of the great prophets
and gets buried under the amazing
poetry of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.
But Amos adds a perfect bookend
to the Good Samaritan story,
framed by Martin Luther King, Jr. on the other side.
The thing about Amos
is that he wasn’t a prophet.
He was a migrant worker —
the guy who picked fruit in the orchard
He was out doing his work one day
and God, out of no where,
told him to go to the northern kingdom
of Israel, and prophesy
against the king up there.
a lowly peasant laborer
was to go into another territory
to the king of another tribe,
that that king
would not like.
Come to think of it,
that is not unlike
what Martin Luther King, Jr. did.
He was preaching to white clergy
and white church folks
we did not like to hear.
Anyway, this bit we read from Amos today
is him telling King Jeroboam
that his whole kingdom would be smashed
and he, the king, would die.
The king and his kingdom
was a wall
that the the plumbline of righteousness
showed to be falling down.
Think about it.
It is kind of like God showing up
in front of that guy who is our neighbor
who sits out on the front step smoking cigarettes.
It is as if God would tell him
to go to the Supreme Court
and say God has issued a judgement
upon those nine robed vectors.
First of all,
he couldn’t get near those nine justices.
And the only way Amos
got near King Jeroboam was through trickery.
That is another part of the story I really like
but we’ll have to save it
for another day.
Anyway, the Revised Common Lectionary
played a trick on us this week.
By pairing Amos
with the Good Samaritan
it makes it impossible
to romanticize the Good Sam story
as if it is just another example
of Jesus being a nice guy.
Amos being sent
to be a truth-teller
of hard truths
even into the court of a king
stands this Samaritan story up
to be the tough
hard truth that it is.
The people Jesus was telling the story to
the way some white folks
hate anyone who isn’t white.
Or like any one of us
who hate anyone
who we don’t think
should be allowed to be
in the United States.
Or hate anyone — anyone —
and then act it out
socially, politically, or economically.
It is a story
told against hate,
and told against righteous indignation
and told against,
anyone with a sense of moral superiority.
Our wall isn’t straight
and we are falling down
if we are built on hatred,
or built on keeping people out,
or built on keeping people down,
or built on holding people back,
or built on seeing any other human being
as somehow less than
or signficantly different than
When the question we ask
is what will happen to him or her
if I do not act,
then any presumed
and ridiculous boundary or border
is stripped away.
What will happen
if I do not act?
Just that one question
narrows the boundaries
we have drawn or been given
and gets us close
to being the neighbor
Jesus invites us to be.
“We shall love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul,
and with all our strength, and with all our mind;
and our neighbor as ourselves.”
So if we are here
saying to ourselves,
”Well I don’t hate anyone,”
dig a little deeper.
If we are here
saying to ourselves,
”Well I don’t keep any boundaries
between myself and
any other socio-economic,
racial, or ethnic group,”
dig a little deeper.
If we are here
saying to ourselves,
”Well I wouldn’t be afraid
to go help a downed Samaritan,”
dig a little deeper.
That is part of what we are meant to do
as a spiritual community
gathered in the name of Jesus:
dig a little deeper
in thought, word, and deed.
Any group that has the chutzpah
Amos, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus
to preach to them,
has the Chutzpah
to dig deeper
and to measure itself
with a plumbline