Here are my thoughts for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Deuteronomy 34: 1 – 12, 1 Thessalonians 2: 1 – 8, and Matthew 22: 34 – 46.
When looking at the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, my first temptation was not to do what I had done in the past (see “What’s Next” and “What Is the Promise?”). But after watching a show on the History Channel about Moses and the journey from Egypt to Mount Nebo, I had second thoughts.
In this particular show, one of the commentators mentioned that it was very difficult not think of Martin Luther King’s “Mountaintop Speech” any time you read of Moses standing on the slopes of Mount Nebo and looking over the Promised Land.
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (http://www.afscme.org/about/memphist.htm)
As readers of this blog should know by now, Memphis is my home and I was a senior in high school that spring. So it is only natural that I should think about Dr. King and the words he spoke the night before he was assassinated.
But during these times when the economy is so mixed up and there are those who see the makings of another Great Depression (which almost makes me wish I had kept the term paper I had written that spring on that moment in American History), perhaps we need to review just exactly why it was that Dr. King came to Memphis and what that fateful trip some forty years ago means for us today.
During a heavy rainstorm in Memphis on February 1, 1968, two black sanitation workers were crushed to death when the compactor mechanism of the trash truck was accidentally triggered. On the same day in a separate incident also related to the inclement weather, 22 black sewer workers had been sent home without pay while their white supervisors were retained for the day with pay. (http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/memphis-v-mlk/)
On February 12th 1,375 workers (mostly sanitation workers but with other Department of Public Works employees) went out on strike for job safety, better wages and benefits, and union recognition. At the time of the strike, workers were paid $1.70 per hour and were asking for $2.35 per hour; the city’s offer was a 5% (or 8-1/2 cents) raise.
Dr. King was invited to Memphis to aid in the effort to bring about reconciliation between the workers and the city as well as bring attention to the disparity between classes. It should be noted that not many people outside of Memphis were aware of this strike. When this strike began a similar strike by sanitation workers in New York City had just ended. Even the respected New York Times did not consider a similar strike in a town of just 500,000 people to be newsworthy. The city of Memphis was able to keep the problem below “crisis-level” and out of the public’s eye.
So it was that on April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a gathering of strikers and supporters at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee and gave what has become known as his “Mountaintop” speech. This speech, which in part outlined the history of the civil rights struggle, concluded with the words that described what he saw as the future of this country.
Sadly, his vision that he would not complete the journey came true the next day and I have to wonder if, in the forty years since that day, we have decided that it is not worth the effort to complete the journey ourselves.
Interestingly enough, it has been forty years since Martin Luther King stood on his mountaintop and saw into the Promised Land of equality and freedom. For it was forty years between the time the people of Israel first saw their Promised Land and the time that they were allowed to enter it. Remember that the Israelites had the opportunity some forty years before the Old Testament reading but their fears and lack of faith in God kept them out.
In Chapter 2 of the Book of Numbers we read how they arrived at the edge of the Promised Land (verses 12 – 14) and sent spies into the land. In Chapter 13, the spies returned with their report that the land indeed flowed with milk and honey. But they also exaggerated the power of the people who lived in the land. While two of the spies (Caleb and Joshua) would report the truth and indicate that they could enter without difficulty, the others quickly supported the initial report.
In Numbers 14: 34, God punishes the people for their rebellion and lack of faith by having them continue their wandering for another forty years, one year for each of the forty days that the spies were in the land. Forty years of wandering as one generation died and another generation took its place. It has been forty years since Martin Luther King stood at the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land. It has been forty years but what do we see today?
No longer is it just a journey down the mountaintop and across the plains of Jordan to the Jordan River. For it seems that there is a chasm between where we stand on the mountaintop and the Promised Land; a chasm that once was a little crack but now appears to be a wide and impassable canyon.
In a report last Wednesday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was stated that the gap between the rich and poorer continues to increase. The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that the income for the top 10% continues to increase and is leaving the middle and lower classes behind as the incomes for those two groups stagnate. In the United States, the richest 10% earn an average of $93,000, while the poorest 10% earn an average of $5,800. The other point noted in this study (conducted over a twenty year period from 1985 to 2005) was that social mobility was lowest in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Italy. It also pointed out that the highest inequality and poverty were highest in the United States, Mexico, and Turkey. Finally, as other reports have noted, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened since 2000.
This report comes at a time when our political discussion is about whose taxes will be cut and whose will not; about whether money will be taken from the rich and given to the poor or whether those who have the most should be expected to pay a more equitable share.
It only seems fair that the rich and the powerful should be the ones to enter the Promised Land; after all, they have twisted and turned the words of the Bible to justify everything they have done, from destroying this planet’s environment to denying human rights to selected classes and groups of people. They have taken words of the Bible that call for fairness, equality, and concern for the less fortunate and turned them into words against fairness, equality, and concern.
I am not going to comment on the validity of the tax plans offered by either Senator Obama or Senator McCain; suffice to say which ever plan becomes the law of the land will have sufficient loopholes and considerations for special interests so that not much will be different from what it is now. But the words that we hear echo across our country should not surprise us, for we have heard them before.
When Susan Hamill proposed a new tax code based on Judeo-Christian ethics for the State of Alabama in 2003, it was the Christian Coalition and the conservatives of the state who opposed the plan (See “Do as I Say? Or Do As I Do?”). The mantra of the lower taxes crowd, it seems, is that we want lower taxes but we do not want equality nor do we want people to pay their fair share.
What good is opportunity for all if we treat one person with less respect than we demand for ourselves? What good does it do us to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and end with the pronouncement that our Republic stands for liberty and justice for all if we are going to deny liberty and justice to some people.
There were those among the Israelites who told the truth about the Promised Land but they were denied the opportunity to enter because it was their people who rebelled against God, not individuals. So too does it seem that our completion of the journey must be the journey of a nation, not just a few select souls.
In the Gospel reading for today Jesus reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and then love our neighbors as ourselves. What does it say about what is in our hearts and our minds and our souls if our words are full of hatred and we show no respect for our neighbors? What does it say if we are far more concerned with our own well-being than we are with the well-being of others?
Do I help someone who has the ability to help themselves but doesn’t do anything? Of course not; after all, even God refused to do that. When the children of God were wandering in the wilderness, God made sure that they had sufficient food to eat each day. Those who took more found out that the extra spoiled. And on the day before the Sabbath, when God commanded the people to take two portions to get them through the Sabbath, those who did not quickly found out that there was nothing for them to eat that day. The covenant between the people and God works two-ways; both parties have to be involved.
But what if the person is unable to take care of themselves; what if they are a new-born baby or an elderly person? Do we ignore them just because they cannot do the work? What if we pass laws that restrict the ability of a person to do things (in the state of New York, they teach felons how to be a barber; yet, the licensing laws prevent felons from obtaining the proper license to cut hair)?
When I was a senior in high school in Memphis, Tennessee, there were laws and regulations designed to limit the ability of people to get a better education. Remember “separate but equal?” The laws and regulations of the city limited the ability of people to earn enough money to feed and clothe their families. Are we to say that things are better now?
I believe in the social component of Christianity. While there is a need for an individual to come to Christ, there is also a need to reach out to others in the name of Christ. And to be truthful, I read and hear the words of many who claim the name of Christ but do not live the life of Christ.
I read Paul’s words to the church of Thessalonica and I read about the words of a man who gave up the good life so that others could have it as well. He didn’t do it for profit or for selfish reasons; he did it because he was called to do so.
We stand on the mountaintop and we see the Promised Land. But between where we stand and where we want to go is no longer the River Jordan. Now, it is a big, wide chasm that grows because we do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves. It is a big, wide chasm that grows each day because too many of us are more concerned with what we have and what we might lose than we are with what others don’t have and what others have already lost.
The question of the moment is not necessarily who shall enter the Promised Land but rather will we ever enter the Promised Land? We can but we need to change our tune.
As I was finishing this, I was thinking of the words “the River Jordan is deep and wide”, words from “Michael, row the boat ashore.” But in my search, I found this hymn which I think is more appropriate.
River of Jordan (Peter, Paul, and Mary)
I traveled the banks of the River of Jordan to find where it flows to the sea. I looked in the eyes of the cold and the hungry and I saw I was looking at me. I wanted to know if life had a purpose and what it all means in the end. In the silence I listened to voices inside me and they told me again and again.
There is only one river. There is only one sea. And it flows through you, and it flows through me. There is only one people. We are one and the same. We are all one spirit. We are all one name. We are the father, mother, daughter and son. From the dawn of creation, we are one. We are one.
Every blade of grass on the mountain, every drop in the sea, every cry of a newborn baby, every prayer to be free, every hope at the end of a rainbow, every song ever sung is a part of the family of woman and man and that means everyone.
We are only one river. We are only one sea. And it flows through you, and it flows through me. We are only one people. We are one and the same. We are all one spirit. We are all one name. We are the father, mother, daughter and son from the dawn of creation, we are one. We are one.