In his last public address, Dr. King famously invoked this story from Deutoronomy. Speaking to the striking sanitation workers of the city of Memphis, he preached his final sermon at Mason Temple. Eerily, the night before he died, Dr. King said this:
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!
The context for Dr. King’s Mountaintop
Brother Martin knew something about the work of hope, the work of faith. He knew they needed to be passed down, and in his final sermon that’s what he was doing. He looked at the young organizers, at the brave workers gathered in that church. A few months earlier, on February 1, 1968 two garbage collectors had been crushed to death by a malfunctioning truck. Eleven days later, frustrated at the city’s weak response, tired of the long pattern of neglect and abuse faced by Black employees, 1,300 Black workers went on strike. These workers earned a wage so low, most depended on food stamps for their families’ survival. Still, the mayor refused to pay overtime for late night shifts.
That same month, in solidarity, 150 local ministers formed the Community on the Move for Equality, committing in a church basement to use Dr. King’s methodology of nonviolent civil disobedience. By the time February turned to March, local high school and college students, nearly a quarter of them white, were participating with the church folk and the garbage workers in daily marches. The fight dragged on for months. Police tear gassed and beat protestors inside a church. King visited multiple times, urging young organizers to remain nonviolent and persistent, not to allow looting or rioting to dilute the civil action. King preached this final sermon on his third visit to the city. He was weary, and the marchers were weary. As rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel had said of marching with Dr King in Selma, they had used their legs for praying. But their legs and prayers were tired. In the sermon, you can hear him trying to pass on his resolve, his hope, and you have to wonder, where did Dr. King get this faith?
The Mentorship of Howard Thurman
Today, as we prepare for Dr. King’s holiday, my sermon is about Mountaintops and Mentorship. Dr. King used his last public address to give people hope, to give them a vision of what was possible: the vision he often called the Beloved Community: justice and equity for people of every race. King knew, for the movement to live on, he had to pass along the faith, he had to pass along the vision. After all, King knew, he had been passed this faith, this vision, this resolve from the generation before him.
Yes Dr. King’s father served as a minister at Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta for four decades, but it is another mentor of King’s I want to talk about today, Howard Thurman. Thurman graduated as valedictorian of Morehouse College (in the same class as Martin Luther King Sr.) he also was valedictorian of Rochester Theological Seminary. Thurman was the first chaplain of Rankin Chapel at Howard, and taught in the Divinity School faculty. Later he would serve as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University, and teach in the divinity school while King Jr. was a doctoral student there.
Dr. King carried Thurman’s most famous book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” everywhere he travelled, right next to his Bible. Key to Thurman’s understanding of Christian work in this world was a radical re-interpretation of Jesus. In the book, Thurman critiques the Church of his day. Thurman believed any religion claiming to root itself in Jesus must have something to say to the people “with their backs against the wall.” Central to Thurman’s understanding of Christ is his realization: “Jesus was a member of a minority group in the midst of a larger dominant and controlling group.” Long before James Cone declared Jesus a “Black man,” Howard Thurman identified in this way with the Christ. In Jesus’ story, Thurman saw the stories of his own people and so many throughout human history.
First published in 1949, his words were not the mainstream interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed in the years since the publication of Jesus and the Disinherited, many have found his words an antidote to the Jesus they were taught by the church. Episcopal priest and best-selling author Barbara Brown Taylor has written, “those who set off in search of new spiritual territory can feel like they are leaving Jesus behind, since church teaching has convinced them that Jesus belongs to the church instead of the other way around.” For Taylor, Howard Thurman gave Jesus back to those who are spiritual seekers, to those who would fight for justice. If you have had to reclaim Jesus for yourself, you stand in a long line of theologians and civil rights pioneers.
Thurman and “Moving Stillness”
Thurman was captivated by this revolutionary vision of Jesus. It drove him for years to relentless work. I’ve already listed his academic accomplishments, but there was more. Thurman travelled the world. He led a delegation of Black ministers on a six month pilgrimage to India, learning nonviolence from Gandhi, the Mahatma himself. Thurman left Howard University to cofound the first interracial interdenominational church in the country in San Franciso, serving as co-pastor. By his mid-thirties, Thurman was exhausted, clinically. In order to keep going, he had to learn to slow down. He began to take regular time for retreat and regular sabbaticals. Thurman wrote in a meditation for his new position at BU:
“’What more?’ I ask with troubled mind. / The answer….moving stillness.”
He worked to mentor King, and other Civil Rights leaders, in this pattern of committed engagement and intentional time apart. Thurman is often known today as the “Mystic of the Movement.” The old college pastor urged the organizers to take breaks, to slow down to pray. God speaks to us. The trick is to be still enough to hear, and yet still moving toward where God would lead.
I hope Dr. King would have been glad to hear a preacher use his holiday weekend to talk about his old mentor. If you know Thurman, you can read his influence all over King: teaching Gandhi’s nonviolence and Jesus’ solidarity with those who struggle. You can often hear in Martin the wisdom, the faith, the vision passed down to him by those who came before.
Howard Thurman was often asked who had taught him the faith. He almost unfailingly told stories of his maternal grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who had been born into slavery. He grew up listening to her stories of life before and after emancipation. Drawing on her experiences, and his own growing up in the segregated South, Thurman describes the way of Jesus as “a technique of survival for the oppressed.”
The Way of Jesus as a “Technique of Survival”
Think about that. Thurman says Jesus didn’t primarily teach people about a way to heaven someday, but rather Jesus taught how to survive in the midst of bitter oppression, when the world is not as it should be, when people are not treated as children of God. When the church gets too powerful, it often fails to teach about Jesus. The powerful church tries to remake Jesus in its own image. Howard Thurman taught us the way of Jesus is a way to survive oppression, to work interiorly and publicly against the dehumanizing powers of the world.
In other words: We don’t get to the mountaintop by ourselves, let alone to the other side of the Jordan. All of us are here because we have been mentored in the faith. Mentoring matters, for the mentee and the mentor. Sometimes we can summon faith for the sake others that we couldn’t summon if we believed it was just for ourselves. Being a mentor can give you reason to keep on believing.
Dr. King’s Legacy
Dr. King spent the last night of his life weary. He was tired. He was frustrated by the intractable conflict faced by organizers in Memphis. Frankly, according to his biographers, Martin was scared too. He knew the threats on his life were serious. But he climbed into that pulpit, because he knew, he knew, the people needed a vision to keep going. Brother Martin knew he was the steward of a faith bigger than his exhaustion, bigger than his ego, bigger than him.
King was assassinated the next day on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Just four days later, his widow Coretta Scott King led 42,000 people through the streets of Memphis in a silent march to City Hall. Eight days later, after months of protest, the mayor would finally concede to the worker’s demands, recognizing the union and increasing the wages. Still later that summer the union had to threaten another strike to force the city to follow through on the mayor’s commitments.
Moses never knew the promised land. King died knowing the journey had a long way to go. The work of justice, the work of dismantling systemic oppression does not belong to one singular generation. In the midst of frustration and exhaustion, will we find faith enough to pass down the history? Will we summon faith enough again to envision the Beloved Community? Will we continue to dream of a country where people of every race and religion have an equitable footing, security to worship without fear? This weekend, as we celebrate Dr King, I believe it is incumbent to ask ourselves in the church: Will the next generation have mentors with courage enough to point them to the Promised Land?