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Jesus, MLK, and Us

January 19, 2020

JESUS, MLK, AND US

©Wendell Griffen, 2020

New Millennium Church

Little Rock, Arkansas

January 19, 2020 (Second Sunday after Epiphany and MLK Observance)

 

Matthew 7:12-27

12 ‘In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

13 ‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15 ‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” 23Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

24 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’

 

Steadfast God,
you have enriched and enlightened us
by the revelation of your eternal Christ.
Comfort us in our mortality
and strengthen us
to walk the path of your desire,
so that by word and deed we may manifest
the gracious news of your faithfulness and love. Amen.

 

       The Sermon on the Mount is the longest continuous expression by Jesus in the Bible, spanning Chapters 5 thru 7 in the Gospel of Matthew. In that passage, we read some of the most profound statements associated with the religion of Jesus.  Chapter 5 contains the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-11), the call to be salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13-16), teachings on nonviolence (Matthew 5:38-42, and ends with a deep lesson about universal and unifying love (Matthew 5:43-48).  In Chapter 6, Jesus spoke about piety (Mt. 6:1-8) before introducing the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9-13) in order to warn against allowing concern about possessions to take priority over inner and social harmony (Mt. 6:19-34).  In Chapter 7, we find the Golden Rule (Mt. 7:12) before a challenging warning about “false prophets” (Mt. 7:15-23). 

 

But we hardly ever hear people mention the Sermon on the Mount.  In his last book titled A Man without a Country, writer and humorist Kurt Vonnegut, shared the following observation.

 

For some reason, the most vocal Christians among us never mention the Beatitudes.  But, often with tears in their eyes, they demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings.  And of course that’s Moses, not Jesus.  I haven’t heard one of them demand that the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, be posted anywhere.

 

“Blessed are the merciful” in a courtroom?  “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Pentagon?  Give me a break! (Kurt Vonnegut, A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY, Random House:  New York, 2005, p. 98)

 

Notice that emphasis in the Golden Rule (In everything do to others as you would have them do to you…).  Doing, not professing, is what Jesus stressed in his warning about false prophets (You will know them by their fruits).  Throughout the Sermon, Jesus emphasized that how we treat others – what we do – proves whether we know God and are living in harmony with God.  And Jesus ended the Sermon by saying that the acid test for religion is what people do, not what they claim to believe. 

 

Perhaps one another reason we don’t hear many people who talk so much about their “religious values” mentioning the Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus called people who profess faith they refuse to practice “false prophets” (Matthew 7:15).  Near the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus described them with even stronger language. 

 

  • At Matthew 23:13-29, he called them “hypocrites.”
  • At Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus said they “are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” 
  • And at Matthew 23:35, Jesus called the “hypocrites” who “build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous” of earlier times but who rejected prophets of their own time and place “snakes” and “brood of vipers.”

 

Jesus wasn’t fooled by people who strutted around talking about their values while they practiced injustice.

 

Like Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t fooled by the hypocrites of his time.  He wasn’t fooled by hypocrites who practiced segregation in their churches, synagogues and communities every day.  He wasn’t fooled by the “snakes and “brood of vipers” who professed devotion to the Bible while they discriminated against their non-white neighbors. 

 

Like Jesus, King wasn’t fooled by false appeals to patriotism.  A year to the day before he was assassinated, King publicly defined the war in Vietnam as a civil rights issue in an address titled “Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence” which he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City. 

 

In the last Sunday morning sermon Dr. King delivered, on March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution”), he said that getting rid of racism is the most urgent work for government, institutions (including religion), and individuals in our society.  More than anyone else of his time, Dr. King pointed out the gap between what government, institutions, and individuals in our society say and the way they behave concerning social justice and human dignity. 

 

Most of the politicians and commentators who quote Dr. King don’t quote what he said during his last Sunday morning sermon.  But I’m going to quote what King preached that Sunday because it is even truer today than it was when he said it.

 

Consider King’s challenge that the people of this society “develop a world perspective.” 

 

No individual can live alone, no nation can live alone, and anyone who feels that he can live alone is sleeping through a revolution.  The world in which we live is geographically one.  The challenge that we face today is to make it one in terms of brotherhood.

 

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made … this world a neighborhood and yet…we have not had the ethical commitment to make it … a brotherhood.  But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.  We must all learn to live together as brothers.  Or we will all perish together as fools. 

 

You also won’t hear many people quote what Dr. King said about affirmative action.  However, here is what he said in that last Sunday morning sermon.

 

There are those who still feel that if the Negro is to rise out of poverty, if the Negro is to rise out of slum conditions, if he is to rise out of discrimination and segregation, he must do it all by himself.  And so they say the Negro must lift himself by his own bootstraps.

 

They never stop to realize that no other ethnic group has been made a slave on American soil…[B]ut beyond this they never stop to realize the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery 244 years.

In 1863 the Negro was told that he was free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation being signed by Abraham Lincoln.  But he was not given any land to make that freedom meaningful… And the irony of it all is that at the same time the nation failed to do anything for the black man – through an act of Congress it was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest – which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor.

 

But not only did it give the land, it built land-grant colleges to teach them how to farm.  Not only that, it provided county agents to further their expertise in farming:  not only that, as the years unfolded it provided low interest rates so they could mechanize their farms.  And to this day thousands of these very persons are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies every year not to farm.  And these are so often the very people who tell Negroes that they must lift themselves by their own bootstraps.

 

But King wasn’t finished preaching.  In his final Sunday morning sermon he also challenged the nation to rid itself and the world of poverty.  King talked about poverty and hunger in the United States and around the world and mentioned the parable Jesus taught about a rich man who went to hell because he disregarded a poor, hungry, sick man named Lazarus and a long-distance call between Abraham in heaven and the formerly rich man in hell because the rich man “allowed his brother to become invisible” and “because he sought to be a conscientious objector in the war on poverty.”  In that last Sunday morning sermon, Dr. King said “[t]here is nothing new about poverty.  What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty.  The real question is whether we have the will.” 

 

And like Jesus, who wasn’t fooled about the difference between talking and doing, Dr. King added these words.

 

One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done.  Yes, we will be able to say we built gargantuan bridges to span the seas, we built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies.  Yes, we made our submarines to penetrate oceanic depths.  We brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power.

 

It seems that I can hear the God of history saying, “That was not enough!  But I was hungry and ye fed me not. I was naked and ye clothed me not.  I was devoid of a decent sanitary house to live in, and ye provided no shelter for me.  And consequently, you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.  If ye do it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me.”  That’s the question facing America today.

 

And even after all that, King wasn’t finished challenging the nation in his last Sunday morning sermon.  He called on our nation to “find an alternative to war and bloodshed,” and said “Anyone who feels, and there are still a lot of people who feel that way, that war can solve the social problems facing mankind is sleeping through a revolution… The world must hear this.  I pray God that American will hear this before it is too late…” 

 

Then Dr. King mentioned that the U.S. was spending $500,000 to kill every Vietcong soldier while only spending $53 a year for every person characterized as poverty-stricken in what he called “the so-called poverty program which is not even a good skirmish against poverty.” 

 

Near the end of his last Sunday morning sermon Dr. King mentioned what he told a news reporter who said to him, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy?  As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization and people who once respected you have lost respect for you?” 

 

Here is how Dr. King responded to that reporter.

 

I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me.  I’m not a consensus leader.  I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup poll of the majority opinion.  Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.”

 

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient?  And then expedience comes along and asks the question—is it politic.

 

Vanity asks the question—is it popular?  Conscience asks the question—is it right?

 

There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.  I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.” 

 

That obsession with how we treat others made the life and ministry of Jesus challenging for his time and place, and made Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and ministry challenging for our society and world.

 

Unlike revivalist preachers, Jesus and Dr. King didn’t talk about professions of faith.  Jesus and Dr. King talked about faithfully practicing what we claim to believe.  They knew that the only professions of faith worth believing are professions by people who are practicing what they claim to believe. 

 

Time and again, King pointed out how people in the United States claimed to believe in justice, but practiced bigotry and discrimination.  King not only talked about the gap between how religion was practiced and how people professed their faith, he exposed the  gap and identified that it was caused by racism, greed, and militarism, what he denounced as the “giant triplets” of American empire. 

 

So on this Sunday after what would have been Dr. King’s 90th birthday, let us do what he and Jesus did. 

 

Let us challenge one another and the world to live by the Golden Rule. 

 

Let us caution one another to beware of Hateful Faithful “false prophets” who practice bigotry, deceit, fear-mongering, discrimination, and violence towards others, often in the name of religion. 

 

And let us call out the “false prophets,” “hypocrites,” “whitewashed tombs,” “snakes,” and brood of vipers” who claim to love God at the same time they are behaving hatefully towards God’s children who are not wealthy, God’s children who are not white, God’s children who are immigrants and asylum seekers, God’s children who are LGBTQI, God’s children who pray and worship in different ways, God’s children who are Palestinian, and God’s earth, God’s air, God’s water, and God’s other creatures throughout the world. 

 

Then we will be followers of Jesus.  Then we will honor the life and ministry of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Then we won’t have to make professions of faith.  People will know what we believe without us having to tell them we believe it, and will believe we mean what we say because we are doing it.

 

God of Liberty and Justice,

You have called us through Jesus to do to others as we would have them do to us.

You have called us through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to become a worldwide community – a global neighborhood.

 

Thank you for reminding us, through Jesus and Dr. King, that you have not called us to make professions of faith, but to practice love and justice.

 

Thank you for reminding us, through Jesus and Dr. King, to recognize and beware of “false prophets” and “hypocrites” who try to hijack the gospel of universal love, justice, community, and peace to advance their hatefulness, bigotry, fear, greed, and lust for war. 

 

Thank you for reminding us to live what we say we believe, and to do it boldly. 

 

Grant us strength through your Spirit to live this way for your glory.  Grant us to live this way and demonstrate your justice.  Grant us to live this way and show we belong to your empire-busting realm of grace, justice, peace, liberty, and joy.  We ask this through Jesus Christ.  Amen.