Last week the country honored Martin Luther King, Jr., a peace activist. A legend. Now here I will just say that Martin Luther King, Jr, was not Jesus. We know that. Most of the time, anyway, we know that, right? I will say though that MLK is really high on my list of people I admire. Maybe yours, too. ON MY list, at the very top, is Jesus, and I’m not just saying that because I am a pastor and I have to say that. He really IS at the very top. After Jesus, in no particular order, there’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Paul Farmer, who is still alive and is a doctor whose mission it is to end cholera and other epidemics in poor countries, including Haiti. Mohammed Yunis, who came up with the idea and now offers micro loans to poor people (mainly in India) so they can work their way out of poverty; and Mother Theresa, maybe. I say maybe in regard to Mother Theresa because I really don’t know that much about her, although I am pretty certain she had her priorities right; and for certain my own works of compassion pale in comparison to hers. It’s just that I have never read an entire book about her, like I have about the other five (five, that’s including Jesus). She is a woman, though, and I think it is good for my list to have some diversity. So there you go. Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Paul Farmer, Mohammed Yunis, and maybe, probably, Mother Theresa.
Today I want to focus on just two people, though: Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. This is kind of sort of last Sunday’s sermon warmed over. I couldn’t preach on him last Sunday because we were installing two elders. So today is the day!
So, let’s start with Jesus. Some of what we know about him is that he had a following and he led a movement. Jesus, actually had a BIG following, especially when you consider the time in which he lived. According to scripture he multiplied loaves and fishes enough to feed 5,000 MEN. But scripture goes on to say that women and children were also there at the feeding of the 5,000. So easy, 10,000 people, came to hear Jesus preach and teach and then share a meal together. How in heaven’s name, did that many folks know to come? Have you ever thought about that? I mean, no newspapers, TV, social media. They got news about Jesus’ teaching and preaching engagements solely by word of mouth. That’s incredible, isn’t it? Likewise, incredible is that people showed up even though they had to walk or ride a horse or donkey to get there.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a leader and he led a movement, too. We all have burned into our memory that iconic picture of Martin at the Washington Monument. Two hundred fifty thousand people were there August 28, 1963 when he delivered his I have a Dream speech. Again, that was before social media, although there was by that time, of course, plenty of ways to get information about the event. Newspapers, TV. Radio. Two hundred fifty THOUSAND good souls showed up in August, that is, at the peak of DC heat and humidity, At least, though, in Martin Luther King’s day people could avail themselves of pubic transportation. So why did these people come?
What drew people to the likes of Jesus and to the likes of MLK? Why were people willing to go to great expense of their time, and sometimes also their money, suffering heat, sore feet, and a lot else, to be in the presence of these men?
Sadly, we can’t ask the people who flocked to hear Jesus preach and teach, and again, sadly, scripture just gives us the bare bones narrative of Jesus ministry. We don’t have a lot to go on in trying to figure this out.
In fact, our scripture reading for today just adds to the mystery. We read that two fishermen Andrew and Simon, are casting their nets in the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is standing on the shore of that sea. He calls out, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people!” We read that “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Same thing happens just a little while later. Jesus is still at the sea shore and he invites two other fishermen, James and John to follow him. They do that, what? Again, immediately. So, were no words exchanged at all? Apparently, Jesus didn’t entice them with promises of fame and fortune, or even a cold beer at a nearby pub. Yet, these four fishermen immediately dropped their nets and followed. Why?
We have more to go on with Martin Luther King, Jr. though. We have first hand accounts from people—people still living. This last week, I was fortunate to come across an internet talk by Freeman Hraboswski.
Freeman Hraboswski is an African American. He admits that growing up he enjoyed school and he had a special love and gift for math. In fact, today, he is a prominent educator, education advocate, mathematician and the President of the University of Maryland. Freeman grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. When Freeman was twelve, he and his parents were at church on a Sunday morning. An African American guest preacher spoke, probably during the church’s minute for mission, but I don’t know that for certain. Anyway, according to Freeman this is what that black man said: “If we can get the children to participate in this peaceful demonstration in Birmingham, we can show America that even children know the difference between right and wrong and that children really DO want to get the best education.”
The black man, who gave that minute for mission, as you have probably already guessed, was…. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Freeman begged, whined and pleaded with his parents to allow him to be part of that demonstration. He eventually wore them down. (Way to go Freeman!)
That demonstration or march was called the children’s march. It took place in Birmingham in May, 1963. Freeman was spat on by Bull Conner, blasted with water hoses, intimidated by police dogs. Then, he was thrown into jail with other children—the youngest, eight years old. There he stayed for five days.
So, why did Freeman go, on that march, and why did his parents allow him to go, knowing that Freeman was putting his life at risk?
Freeman says that Martin Luther King offered him the opportunity hope, not even the promise, but the opportunity to hope for a good education.
We could possibly conclude that people followed the likes of Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr. because they had dynamic personalities, they were charismatic, or that they were profoundly moving orators. These are vague though, aren’t they? And actually not very helpful. Those descriptors just lead to other questions—like, what makes for a dynamic personality. What is charisma? What characterizes a moving orator? Shrug.
Having thought long and hard about this this week, I have concluded that we are actually asking the wrong question. The better question is—“What is it that Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. knew about US? What is it that they recognized we need or want enough that we were/are willing to follow them? The opportunity to hope for a better education—that’s what it was in Freeman’s case, but that is too specific, We need to find that overarching theme or element that was their message.
At any given time, the world is awash in leaders—government leaders, church leaders, business leaders. These leaders write great tomes about their ideas that they are sure will change the world for the better. They give speeches, they appear on TV. Some of them even tweet! Maybe people follow for awhile, but they are by and large lost to history. What makes Jesus and Martin stand out?
Jesus, for one, didn’t just have an idea, or even many ideas. He had a vision. Jesus called that vision the Kingdom of Heaven. Sometimes well-meaning Christians describe the kingdom of heaven as if it is a gigantic hot air balloon piloted by the greatest Oz that ever was. When that hot air balloon finally descends to earth, we will enjoy heaven on earth! That’s not what Jesus meant at all. He used the Hebrew word heaven, Shamayim, in the phrase Kingdom of Heaven, meaning the Kingdom of God. Like all Jews, Jesus considered God’s name to be so holy it should not be pronounced. Kingdom of Heaven, then, was and is a stand-in for Kingdom of God.
Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God was a world that God intends for us, that has yet to become a full reality. The Kingdom of God presently exists in its totality only in the mind of God. It will come to pass when we 1) we share that vision of the Kingdom, with other people, and 2) when we work together to achieve it.
What does the Kingdom of God look like? Well, Jesus told us that in the Kingdom of God, faith and hope and love will be the default emotions the world over. Mercy and generosity will be practiced by all people and no one will know war anymore.
Jesus’ shared that vision and it was like an epidemic, only a good epidemic. It was like a forest fire, only a good forest fire. The entire region of Galilee and beyond was infected or enflamed with it. People traveled great distances to learn more about it. When Jesus offered the invitation, Come and follow— those fishermen were primed. They quickly connected the man to the vision and they could not NOT follow.
Ditto for Martin Luther King, Jr. As someone has commented, when Martin Luther King spoke before those 250,000 people at the Washington Monument in August, 1963. “Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t say, “I have a plan!”
That is what we need, that is what Jesus, and also, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave us, a vision.
This sounds like something you’d read on a bumper sticker but it’s actually from Proverbs: Without a vision the people perish.” That sums it up, doesn’t it?
I will end this sermon with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr’s I have a dream speech based on Christian principles and delivered on August 28, 1963 at the DC mall.
I have a a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places shall be made plain and the crooked places shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together.”
I will just add to that my humble Amen and Amen