Matins: Palm Sunday 2009 sermon
5 April 2009 at 9:00 am
The Reverend Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster
Yesterday was the forty-first anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support black workers in public employment, on strike because of low pay and poor conditions. On one occasion, just before his visit, the weather was poor. Black and white workers were all sent home. The black workers were paid for two hours’ work and the white workers received a full day’s pay. This was the kind of daily discrimination that King had set himself to fight with all heart. The plane bringing him to Memphis was delayed because of a bomb threat so he was well aware of the dangers. The night before he died, King gave one of his greatest speeches:
"And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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."
What was it that drove King on? He grew up in the south of America amid the racism which denied to black people the right to vote, or to sit on a jury; which denied opportunities for good jobs and decent education, and locked black people into a cycle of poverty. King himself was privileged. He did have a good education. He could see all too clearly how the cycle of oppression and violence destroyed lives and betrayed the ideals of the American constitution, virtually unchallenged.
King was a man with a vision and a burning sense of injustice. He was also a Christian pastor and the son of a Christian pastor. He didn’t see the way of Jesus as the way of quiet acceptance. He saw it as a way of challenge to those who used this world’s power to deny people their fundamental freedoms. In a situation which legitimated oppression and racism, King was on a collision course with the authorities. Time and again he led marches in support of civil rights and against poverty. Where those marches were banned or violently policed he was prepared to defy the bans, to defy the police with their dogs, to go to jail. His greatest manifesto was written from Birmingham Jail. What he was not prepared to do was to resist violence with violence. His dream was of an America in which the cycle of violence, in all its manifestations, was broken.
The high point for King was when he led a march in support of civil rights from the South to Washington itself. Standing under the statue of Abraham Lincoln, before a quarter of a million people, he delivered the great speech in which he set out his dream for the American people:
"I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall 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 hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. 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, knowing that we will be free one day."
That day in Washington, August 28, 1963, was the Palm Sunday of King’s personal pilgrimage. We know that King was a flawed servant of Jesus Christ, like all of us who call ourselves Christians, but in his challenge to those with power, at the very heart of the capital, he was exactly like the Jesus he followed. He came to the capital in peace and in anger; in peace and in anger he challenged the political and religious establishment of his time with the uncomfortable truth of racism; many came out to welcome him; but his peaceful and courageous action made him enemies who were determined to put him away.
King believed he had a call from God. Nothing else could have sustained him through the bitter opposition he faced, the constant threats to him and his family. On one occasion he was stabbed to within less than an inch of his life. Whilst, on that August day in 1963, others shared in the excitement of the moment, he well knew how deep was the racism and the structural injustice he had to overcome – and what was likely to be the cost. He had to bring about change without inciting another round of hatred and violence that could only make things worse. He had to be strong, he had to face down the hatred directed towards him and the movement he had gathered around him. He had to lay the basis for a new era of inclusion and mutual respect. It was an impossible task, but he drew his resources from the Bible, from Jesus, and from the example of Gandhi. In 1959, King visited India to learn more about Gandhi’s non-violet commitment to the power of truth (satyagraha) and how he had deployed it in the search for justice. He came back a changed man, feeling for the first time he had really understood how the prophetic message of Jesus could be transformed into an instrument for social change. Gandhi himself was assassinated in 1948. King must have known where his own commitment to the power of truth would lead.
In the Fourth Gospel again and again, Jesus speaks of himself as the one who brings Truth: ‘I am the way, the truth and life’ (14:6); ‘You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’ (8:2). Pilate famously asks him, ‘What is truth?’ (18:38). The answer in the Gospel, is clear: ‘Everything Jesus stands for’. Palm Sunday is the beginning of the week in which we remember everything Jesus stood for in that decisive last week of his life. We remember how Jerusalem was confronted by him with the challenge of truth, just as King confronted America with the truth about itself. We remember how many at first welcomed Jesus, but within days their hosannas had turned to bitter hatred. Holy Week is a time when we are confronted with uncomfortable truths about ourselves; about the things we value in our own lives, about the things we hold ‘self-evident’, the things we hold holy, the things we wish to hide. Today is a day to shout not only, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, but also to look ahead and whisper, ‘Lord have mercy.’