Martin Luther King, Mountaintops, and Unfinished Business

This morning is about mountaintops and unfinished business. The story we have from the book of Numbers is a bit strange. Numbers may have taken its name from all the lists of specific instructions in the Book. In chapter 28, God demands exactly one tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a grain offering mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil. Before you ask, I’m not sure how many hin are in an ephah. I’m glad I’m not a priest in the time of Numbers. I’m not very good at math. You can understand why don’t often read from Numbers in Church. This reading is not from the regular calendar of readings. Let me explain why I chose to include it this morning as we remember Dr. King.

The story narrates the last moments in the life of Moses. God says to the prophet, you will go up to the mountain and see the promised land, but you will not enter it. God explains that Moses, even Moses, rebelled against God’s word. Now, that’s good news for you and especially for me. If even Moses wasn’t perfect, there’s hope for us all, even the preachers. None of us are perfect. Moses goes up to the mountaintop, and he sees the promised land, but he will not enter that promised land.

Some of you know that Ellis and I took a short vacation after Christmas down to New Orleans, and on our way, we stopped in Memphis. If you haven’t visited the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, I commend it to you. The museum is impressive. I’d like to organize a pilgrimage there for our youth at Holy Communion to visit. The museum is built into the former Lorraine Motel, site of the martyrdom of Dr. King.

Martin came to Memphis in 1968 to support the strike of the city’s sanitation workers. For Dr. King, the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for economic justice, they were the same struggle. He preached his final sermon at Mason Temple in Memphis the night before he died. The sermon finished eerily with these words:

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!

Brother Martin put himself in Moses’ shoes. He saw the promised land. This was the particular genius of Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, he was an organizer. Yes, he was a protestor, but above all, Martin was a preacher. We remember his actions, but more than that we remember his words. We remember his Dream. Martin Luther King Jr.’s genius was an ability to evoke and summon a better world.

Martin’s mountaintop vision was not primarily informed by his knowledge of the law, nor by his nimbleness as a politician. Martin’s vision was rooted in his faith. Martin believed in the work of Moses and the work of the prophets. He listened to the deep promises of scripture, to God’s promises of freedom, equality, and abundance. Martin’s vision went beyond the concept of legal equality. When the Civil Rights act passed, Martin didn’t sit down. He didn’t rest on his laurels. The vision was bigger. The view from that mountaintop meant he had to keep working. He had unfinished business.

We could use some of Martin’s mountaintop vision today. The recent discussions about race in this city and this nation have left very few people feeling satisfied. The Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, longtime preacher at Harvard’s Memorial chapter once told his congregation:

If you want to stop a conversation in this republic, introduce the subject of race. Even enlightened folks such as yourselves will soon find it edgy, non resolvable, difficult and bringing out feelings that you would rather not have on display…Dr. King argued that as long as black people were denied their full participation in the American dream, the American dream would always be the American dilemma…There will never be a peaceful moment in this republic until we have made peace with our racial animosities and have turned the dilemma into the dream.

I’m with Dr. Gomes, and I believe we need the mountaintop dreamer, perhaps more today than ever before. Too many of us are living an American dilemma. Young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. More than 10 million immigrants are living in this country without papers, their labor exploited, their undocumented status leaving them no legal recourse. Schools with the worst funding are often in the poorest neighborhoods because we tie education funding to property taxes. I can’t list all of our dilemmas. We’d be here all day. I know many of you have are spending and have spent your lives and your careers working in the midst of one dilemma or another. We seem unwilling and unable to find political solutions to the political components of these problems. We are in desperate need of some mountaintops. We need some dreamers.

All over our country tomorrow, plays will be staged. Documentaries will be screened. We will meditate on the “Life and Legacy of Dr. King.” What is Dr. King’s legacy? What is it? Is it desegregation? Is Dr. King’s legacy the election of the first black president? Surely these are a part of the legacy of the Civil Rights era. But I wonder, is Dr. King’s legacy bigger? One day will we consider Dr. King’s legacy bigger than we see it today? I believe Martin’s is a dream we have yet to fully realize. Dr. King’s legacy is tied up in a great deal of unfinished business.

I also chose our reading from Numbers this morning, because of what Moses does after God tells him he won’t get to the promised land. Standing there on that mountaintop, Moses had a request for God. “Appoint someone to lead them. Don’t leave them like a sheep without a shepherd.” Moses knew there was unfinished business. He knew the people Israel were still a mess. It wasn’t that long since they had grumbled to God for more food even after receiving bread from heaven. These are the people who set up a golden calf. They needed a leader. There was unfinished business.

Moses’ legacy would pass on to Joshua. Joshua would take them to the promised land, but even when they arrived, the battle wasn’t over. There were walls that need to tumble. The dream always goes on, always. The book of Numbers doesn’t give us Joshua’s thoughts on following Moses, but I imagine the initial exchange between Joshua and Moses to be a bit like Mary and Jesus in our Gospel this morning. “It isn’t my time yet.” Even Moses wasn’t sure of himself when God first called. Taking on the mantle of leadership, taking up the unfinished business, can be difficult, it can be painful.

A word about leadership: Some of you may have read a bit about The Episcopal Church in the news this week. Our Presiding Bishop  Michael Curry, who we pray for every week, needed our prayers especially this past week. He sat down with his fellow senior bishops at Canterbury. The Episcopal Church belongs to a worldwide body called the Anglican Communion, and every few years the most senior bishop of each autonomous church is invited to meet with the other “primates.” In this case “primates” doesn’t have to do with monkeys, but with the latin word “primus” or first. All the top bishops gathered at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The primates voted overwhelmingly to issue a Communique which critiqued The Episcopal Church for our decision to marry people of the same gender. The American and international news media  had a field day with the bishops’ statement. They made it sound like we were being kicked out of the Communion. On social media, some Episcopalians got very angry. Friends of mine from seminary wrote, “Forget the Communion. We don’t need them.” Social media really isn’t the place to go for enlightened discussion most of the time, even among priests. I want to clarify the situation just a bit. We aren’t being kicked out of the Communion. In some of the International Councils we may, for a period of three years, have a voice but not a vote. And I believe we need to stay at the table. We need to use our voice.

As he left the gathering, our presiding bishop said this:

 it may be part of our vocation to help the Communion and to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us, and we can one day be a Church and a Communion where all of God’s children are fully welcomed.

It was a painful week for some of us. It’s painful when your family does not understand your sexual orientation, or your church affiliation. It can feel lonely, and alienating. But let’s be real. The Episcopal Church is pretty unique for our position on these matters. There aren’t many churches that offer traditional weddings, with all of the ancient trappings, for same-sex couples. We’re doing something new here. We’re doing something out of the ordinary. Many of us believe this is prophetic work. And so we have to stay at the table. We have to stay in the councils, and in the discussions, because we have to be able to share the dream.

I don’t want to make it out like we’re taking such a great risk. There are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender African Christians. They risk persecution, incarceration, and they even risk their lives. They are the real dreamers. They are real the mountaintop prophets. They need us to stay with them as allies in the unfinished work. I am proud of our church, and I am committed to staying at the table with other church leaders around our city and around the world. I believe we have good news to share, that God creates people with all sorts of orientations and gender expressions, and God loves them all. All.

The late, great, David Bowie once said “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.” What do you hear? When you climb up on the mountaintop, what do you see?

Howard Thurman was a groundbreaking theologian and minister at Boston University’s chapel. He preached almost weekly to college students, those great dreamers. He even preached to a young, not yet Dr., King. Thurman often said in his writings and his sermons, “A person speaks in his [or her] time with his [or her] life. It is all that [you have], all that is given to [you,] and therefore it is all that [you] can give.” What will your life say? To what dream will you give your life?

Giving your life sounds glorious. I’m convinced our brother Martin was able to keep perspective in his life, partly because he wasn’t too worried about the accounting of his legacy. He didn’t waste energy with anxiety about how many hin or ephah the historians would measure for him. He simply had faith his dreams would count.

Martin also didn’t believe the dream belonged to him. His vision was a glimpse of the hope God has for all of us. On the last night of his life, in Memphis, Martin looked out over the gathering of church folk, activists, and sanitation workers. He told them about the Promised Land. He knew that long after he was gone, they would keep working on his unfinished business. Martin Luther King knew that his unfinished business was God’s unfinished business, and he could count on the people of God to keep leading the way.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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