Some of us may have seen Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop performed at the Grand Theater in February. It was a fictional account of the last night of Dr. Martin Luther’s King’s life after he had given his famous “Mountaintop” speech at a Memphis church. The one act play is set in the motel room where Dr. King stayed, and there are only two characters – Dr. King and a hotel worker.
But let me back up for a moment and give you the history leading up to that night. In 1968 Dr. King was the foremost civil rights leader in the United States. Thanks to his efforts and the efforts of other civil rights leaders, a landmark civil rights bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in 1964. That bill was followed by a voting rights bill and then an anti-discrimination housing bill.
By 1968 it seemed like the civil rights movement had achieved its goals. It had won every battle it fought – so what more was there to do?
Dr. King thought long and hard about the next step for the movement. The war in Vietnam was raging with an increasing loss of lives and hundreds of thousands of physically wounded and emotionally scarred soldiers. Dr. King became a vocal opponent of the war, which alienated some of his supporters because it meant turning against President Johnson, who had been a strong supporter of civil rights. But it was more than the war. There was the economic inequality between blacks and whites. The economic divide between the races was formidable, and Dr. King understood that there would never be true racial equality unless there was economic equality.
And so, he began to focus on promoting a just economic system not only for blacks but all Americans. He was criticized, opposed bitterly by corporations and special interests that had once been his allies. The death threats intensified. He could never be sure if a bullet would come his way – at any moment, at any time. Even the sound of thunder made him shudder.
Then came Memphis. The black sanitation workers went on strike, seeking economic equality with white city employees. The white police force, the firefighters and city employees all enjoyed higher wages and better benefits than the black sanitation workers, who were the low people on the totem pole – the last and the least – the ones the city of Memphis treated shabbily. There was clearly injustice here, though the white city power structure refused to admit it. When the strike began to stall, and no progress in the negotiations was made, Dr. King was asked to intervene and mobilize the black residents of Memphis to support the sanitation workers by boycotting local businesses.
Memphis was a powder keg of racial animosity, with angry whites demanding that blacks “know their place” and accept a system that kept their wages low. After evaluating the situation, Dr. King’s own aides told him not to go to Memphis – it was too dangerous, too charged with hate.
Dr. King prayed about the matter. He thought long and hard about the black sanitation workers plight and their struggle for economic equality with other city workers, and then decided that he had to go, or the civil rights movement would never achieve its purpose of promoting full equality. And so, he went to Memphis, organizing, preaching, rallying public support across the nation, and being the voice of the voiceless black workers in the city.
On Palm Sunday, Dr. King preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. where he said to a distinguished congregation of dignitaries: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
After preaching that sermon, he went back to Memphis to continue his support for the sanitation workers. The situation became even more volatile. Death threats increased. The police were put on high alert.
On Maundy Thursday, April 3rd, Dr. King gave his famous “Mountaintop” speech at a Memphis church. He said:
Well, 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 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.
In the play, after preaching that sermon Dr. King retires to his motel room and struggles with his purpose in life, the meaning of what he has done and left undone, and the real possibility that a bullet would finally find its target and kill him. The motel worker who serves him coffee in his room reveals that she is an angel sent from God to inform him that he will die tomorrow. Imagine being told the date you are going to die. Dr. King was just 39 years old – much too young to die, but die he would.
On Good Friday, April 4th at 6:01 p.m., as Dr. King was leaning on the motel rail outside his second floor room, a bullet struck his head and he fell to the ground and died. Coincidence or not, Dr. King died on the same day that President Abraham Lincoln had died back in 1865 – Good Friday.
On the night before he died, Jesus, too, was on a mountaintop – the Mount of Olives (Lk. 22:39). He had just celebrated the Passover with his disciples and soon he would be arrested, battered, bruised and mistreated by his captors, and on Friday morning put to death by the most torturous means then concocted in the Roman world – crucifixion.
Even on the Mount of Olives, he still had time to save himself. He could have fled Jerusalem, escaped the authorities and returned to Galilee to live a normal life. But he stayed, and in the Garden of Gethsemane he literally sweated it out, crying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Jesus struggled with the prospect of his death, but he stayed. He didn’t flee. He didn’t try to escape. He didn’t abandon his mission. He stuck it out, submitted to death, and then cried out from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” And in his death he became the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world – the Lamb of God who takes away your sins and mine.
Jesus left us a memorial of his saving death in the ritual of Holy Communion. St. Paul says that when we eat this bread and drink this wine we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. There are many meanings to the Eucharist but above all it has the connotation of sacrifice – Christ’s body broken for us, Christ’s blood shed for us. Every time we eat the bread and drink the wine, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is made present on the altar.
His last week with his friends, and the Last Supper, and how he knelt in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, how they arrested him and tortured him all night, and how he died on the cross – that mystery of our redemption is re-presented every time we share in the Holy Communion. When we eat the bread and drink the wine, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ really and truly into our lives – his life comes into our life – what we Anglicans term “the real presence” of Christ in us. The bread and wine become those precious tokens of Christ’s redeeming love – a love that none of us deserve but God gives anyway.
I once heard a young black boy being interviewed by a reporter about Dr. King. The reporter asked, “What does Dr. King mean to you?” The boy answered, “He’s the one who gave his life for our freedom.”
Christians would say much the same thing about Jesus. He is the one who gave his life for our freedom – freedom from sin and death, freedom from guilt and despair.
Jesus shows us the depths of God’s love for us. Why, he even dies for us, the sinless one dying for sinners, the innocent one dying for the guilty.
In his Palm Sunday sermon at the National Cathedral, reflecting on Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and his willingness to die, Dr. King preached these words: “Even if they try to kill you, you develop the inner conviction that there are some things so precious, some things so eternally true that they are worth dying for. And if a person has not found something to die for, that person isn’t fit to live!”
Well, Jesus thought we were worth dying for. He took our place, he died our death, and now we live for him as thankful people sharing the good news that God loves everyone, absolutely everyone. God loves us so much that he would even die for us, and in Jesus he did.
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
March 24, 2016
Text – I Corinthians 11: 23-26
Maundy Thursday, C