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On Labor and Following Jesus

St. John’s Lutheran Church
3 September 2023 + Lectionary 22a (14 Pentecost)
Matthew 16.21-28
Rev. Josh Evans



Everyone remembers Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Many of us could probably quote whole parts of it. We remember the most defining moments in King’s early ministry through the civil rights movement — the Montgomery bus boycott, the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the fight for voting rights.

Perhaps less well-known or acknowledged, however, is King’s commitment to labor and economic justice – and where his work took him in what ended up being the final year of his life.

As Cornel West reflects, “For King, radical love produced a seething in his soul, a holy anger and righteous indignation because of priceless persons living in poverty.”

In 1968, that radical love and a desire to eradicate poverty took King to Memphis, Tennessee, where he spoke these words to a packed room of sanitation workers on strike and their supporters1 … (It should be noted, for our context today, that these are King’s words, including the preservation of historical racial terminology as King used it.)

***

As I came in tonight, I turned around and said to Ralph Abernathy, “They really have a great movement here in Memphis.” You are demonstrating something here that needs to be demonstrated all over our country. You are demonstrating that we can stick together, and you are demonstrating that we are all tied in a single garment of destiny, and that if one black person suffers, if one black person is down, we are all down.

I’ve always said that if we are to solve the tremendous problems that we face, we are going to have to unite beyond the religious line, and I’m so happy to know that you have done that in this movement in a supportive role. We have Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, members of the Church of God in Christ, and members of the Church of Christ in God, we are all together, and all of the other denominations and religious bodies that I have not mentioned.

But there is another great need, and that is to unite beyond class lines. The Negro “haves” must join hands with the Negro “have-nots.” And armed with compassionate traveler checks, they must journey into that other country of their [sibling’s] denial and hurt and exploitation. This is what you have done. You’ve revealed here that you recognize that the no D is as significant as the PhD, and the [person] who has been to no-house is as significant as the [person] who has been to Morehouse […]

You are doing many things here in this struggle. You are demanding that this city will respect the dignity of labor. So often we overlook the work and the significance of those who are not in professional jobs, of those who are not in the so-called big jobs.

But let me say to you tonight, that whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth.

One day, our society must come to see this. One day, our society will come to respect the sanitation worker, if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if [they don’t] do [their] job, diseases are rampant.

All labor has dignity.

But you are doing another thing. You are reminding, not only Memphis, but you are reminding the nation that it is a crime for people to live in this rich nation and receive starvation wages. And I need not remind you that this is our plight as a people all over America.

The vast majority of Negroes in our country are still perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. My friends, we are living as a people in a literal depression.

Now you know when there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the black community, they call it a social problem. When there is mass unemployment and underemployment in the white community, they call it a depression. But we find ourselves living in a literal depression, all over this country as a people.

Now the problem is not only unemployment. Do you know that most of the poor people in our country are working every day? And they are making wages so low that they cannot begin to function in the mainstream of the economic life of our nation.

These are facts which must be seen, and it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income.

You are here tonight to demand that Memphis will do something about the conditions that our brothers [and sisters and siblings] face as they work day in and day out for the well-being of the total community. You are here to demand that Memphis will see the poor.

You know Jesus reminded us in a magnificent parable one day that a man went to hell because he didn’t see the poor. His name was Dives. And there was a man by the name of Lazarus who came daily to his gate in need of the basic necessities of life, and Dives didn’t do anything about it. And he ended up going to hell.

There is nothing in that parable which says that Dives went to hell because he was rich. Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth […]

Dives didn’t go to hell because he was rich. His wealth was his opportunity to bridge the gulf that separated him from his brother Lazarus.

Dives went to hell because he passed by Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. Dives went to hell because he allowed Lazarus to become invisible. Dives went to hell because he allowed the means by which he lived to outdistance the ends for which he lived […]

And I come by here to say that America, too, is going to hell if she doesn’t use her wealth. If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she, too, will go to hell.

And I will hear America through her historians, years and generations to come, saying, “We built gigantic buildings to kiss the skies. We built gargantuan bridges to span the seas. Through our spaceships, we were able to carve highways through the stratosphere. Through our airplanes, we are able to dwarf distance and [to] place time in chains. Through our submarines, we were able to penetrate oceanic depths.”

It seems that I can hear the God of the universe saying, “Even though you have done all of that, I was hungry and you fed me not, I was naked and you clothed me not. The children of my sons and daughters were in need of economic security, and you didn’t provide it for them. And so you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness.” This may well be the indictment on America.

And that same voice says in Memphis to the mayor, to the power structure, “If you do it unto the least of these of my children, you do it unto me.”

Now you are doing something else here. You are highlighting the economic issue. You are going beyond purely civil rights to questions of human rights. That is a distinction […]

Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters.

What does it profit a [person] to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if [they don’t] earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee? What does it profit a [person] to be able to eat at the swankiest integrated restaurant when [they don’t] earn enough money to take [their spouse] out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our city and the motels of our highway when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when [they don’t] earn enough money to buy [their] children school clothes?

And so we assemble here tonight, and you have assembled for more than thirty days now, to say, “We are tired. We are tired of being at the bottom. We are tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression […] We are tired of smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and laboring every day and not even making a wage adequate to get the basic necessities of life […] We are tired.

And so in Memphis we have begun. We are saying, “Now is the time.” Get the word across to everybody in power in this time in this town that now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children. Now is the time for city hall to take a position for that which is just and honest.

Now is the time for justice to roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time.

***

King’s words preach for themselves – in many places as relevant today as they were in 1968.

Less than a month later, King was shot and killed for his “radical love” that took him from Montgomery to Memphis, and everywhere in between.

Some years earlier, reflecting on his work in a letter to his wife from Reidsville State Prison, after he had been arrested for participating in an Atlanta sit-in, King wrote, “This is the cross that we must bear for the freedom of our people.”

***

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”


1 Excerpted from The Radical King by Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Cornel West (Boston: Beacon Press, 2015).

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