Good morning! Today is an important day, because we are celebrating the life of one of the great American heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King.
Last year I read to you portions of Dr. King's speech the night before he was assassinated. As a refresher, Dr. King was in Memphis for a strike by the area sanitation workers. He had gone there to lend support to the strike. And when he spoke to the crowd that night, he talked about the threats that had been made on his life as recently as earlier that day, because there was a bomb scare on the plane that he took to Memphis. He had been receiving threats, credible threats, for many years. He even talked that night about the time he was stabbed in the chest by a deranged woman in New York and how the New York Times had reported that if he had sneezed he would have died, because the tip of the blade was right on his aorta. He told the crowd about the letter he had received from a ninth grade girl who said she read the newspaper article. She told Dr. King how happy she was that he didn't sneeze. In that speech the night before he was killed he went on to say why he too was happy that he didn't sneeze, because:
...if I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream. And taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been around in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can't ride your back unless it is bent. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had. If I had sneezed, I wouldn't have been down in Selma, Alabama, been in Memphis to see the community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.
I'm so happy that I didn't sneeze.
And yet, Martin Luther King knew that he was a marked man. So he went on to say that evening:
I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really 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 so 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!!
And those were the very last words that Dr. King ever spoke publicly.
He knew his days were numbered. He knew that in all likelihood he would one day be assassinated. In fact, when President Kennedy was shot five years earlier, Dr. King told his wife Coretta, "this is what is going to happen to me." So, the question is: What makes someone walk up onto a stage day after day, or get in and out of cars over and over again, or march down public streets in broad daylight, or step out onto a hotel balcony when they know that at any moment they may be shot? How does a man set aside concerns for his own safety and put himself forward in the service of others? In that same speech I think Dr. King answered that question: He called it "dangerous unselfishness".
Many times throughout his career Dr. King would talk about the the parable of the Good Samaritan. He even talked about it the night before he was shot.
And whenever he would talk about that story, he would basically say that there are three kinds of people in the story: There are the robbers who say, "What's yours is mine and I'm gonna take it." I would like to think that most of us don't have that kind of attitude. Then there's the attitude of the Levite and the Priest who decide to keep to themselves. After all, the injured man was not their problem. They may have felt bad for him, may have even felt a tinge of guilt over not helping, but they live by the philosophy of what is yours is yours, and what is mine is mine. You take care of you, and I'll take care of me. And then there is the third type of person, the Samaritan, the one Jesus clearly says did the right thing. He is the one who doesn't just help. He carries the guy to the inn and tells the innkeeper to fix him up and put it on his tab. His philosophy was clearly different than the first two. The Samaritan believed that what is mine is yours.
Here is what Dr. King said to the folks in Memphis the night before he was shot:
Let us develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness. One day a man came to Jesus, and he wanted to raise some questions about some vital matters of life. At points he wanted to trick Jesus, and show him that he knew a little more than Jesus knew and throw him off base....
Now that question could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho. And he talked about a certain man, who fell among thieves. You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn't stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But he got down with him, administered first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the "I" into the "thou," and to be concerned about his brother.
Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn't stop. At times we say they were busy going to a church meeting, an ecclesiastical gathering, and they had to get on down to Jerusalem so they wouldn't be late for their meeting. At other times we would speculate that there was a religious law that "One who was engaged in religious ceremonials was not to touch a human body twenty-four hours before the ceremony." And every now and then we begin to wonder whether maybe they were not going down to Jerusalem -- or down to Jericho, rather to organize a "Jericho Road Improvement Association." That's a possibility. Maybe they felt that it was better to deal with the problem from the causal root, rather than to get bogged down with an individual effect.
But I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me. It's possible that those men were afraid. You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, "I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable." It's a winding, meandering road. It's really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about ...1,200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you're about 2,200 feet below sea level. That's a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the "Bloody Pass." And you know, it's possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it's possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked -- the first question that the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?"
And that's the question before all of us. Are we going to be the kind of people who say, "If I do help, then what's gonna happen to me?" Or, are we going be the kind of people who say: "If I don't help, then what's gonna happen to him or to her or to them?"
And, it is not just in those life and death moments like the one on the Road to Jericho or a hotel balcony in Memphis. It is also in those moments when you see a friend or even a stranger being treated unfairly, when you have a choice between following your conscience or following the crowd. Are you going to listen to that small voice telling you to take the difficult path, because it is the right path? Will you get off your beast and put the "I" into the "thou"? Because, if you do, then you will be doing the Lord's work. You will be the Good Samaritan. You will be a hero just like Dr. Martin Luther King.
I am going to end by asking Emmanuel to come forward and read to you a portion of one of Dr. King's last sermons that he preached from the pulpit of Ebenezer Church in Atlanta. This sermon is known as the "Drum Major Instinct" sermon, and in it Dr. King makes the case that we all like to be the Drum Major.
He refers to the scripture we read earlier in the Gospel of Mark where James and John are asking to be seated beside Jesus when He gets on the throne. And Dr. King says: before we condemn James and John for being too selfish, we should look calmly and honestly at ourselves, and we will discover that we too have those same basic desires for recognition, for importance. That same desire for attention, that same desire to be first. He says that..."deep down within all of us is an instinct. It's a kind of drum major instinct—a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade...to be first."
Well, two months before his assassination...he talked about how he wanted to be remembered. And this is what he said:
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life's final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don't think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, "What is it that I would want said?" And I leave the word to you this morning.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don't want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn't important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that's not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
I'd like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question.
I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won't have any money to leave behind. I won't have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that's all I want to say.
If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he's traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.
Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in coghmmitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.