One of the delightful results of agreeing to do things is the preparation I have to do in order to make a presentation. One such fruit of my labor is the reading I am doing for an upcoming presentation on Martin Luther King Jr. I have welcomed this chance to work more closely than I ever have with King’s speeches, sermons and other material. I am old enough to remember King’s presence and impact on American society. It is fun to delve back into that memory and to enrich it.
I am certain King’s most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington, DC. I remember watching that one on television and listening to news folks talk for many days afterward about its implications. It is one of those events I wish I had attended, but alas I have no idea what I did that day! Every time I see a video clip of that speech, chills creep back into my body.
But I don’t want to focus on that speech. Instead I would look at a sermon King delivered in Memphis the night before he was assassinated. On April 3, 1968 King preached at the Mason Temple in Memphis. Mason Temple was the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ, the largest African American Pentecostal denomination. The title of the sermon that night was “I Have Been to the Mountaintop.” Reading that sermon is a little eerie, because King would not know he would be killed the following day.
King begins the sermon by imagining that he stood with God at the beginning of time. King was asked what period of time he wanted to live in. Not surprisingly, King chose that time of his life. King allowed that momentous issues demanded to be dealt with at that period. Otherwise, he prophesied, “The whole world is doomed.” King continued to describe the times and the non-violent change he and others were bringing so that the world would not be doomed.
King knew there were threats. He addresses these possibilities at the end of the sermon. And then comes the very moving conclusion of the sermon. King says, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now.” The clarity and the courage of those words are very moving. All of us have experienced difficult days. But I and most of us can’t say that it doesn’t matter to us. His ease with his situation in life is both a challenge and a reassurance.
His next sentence reveals, I think, why he is ok with whatever happened. King says he is not worried “because I’ve been to the mountaintop.” It’s that simple and it’s that profound. It’s simple. He had been to the mountaintop. For anyone who knows the Christian Bible, being at the top of the mountain is loaded with symbolism. In effect, King claims he has been the to the place where he met and was with God. He has been to the place of Presence and Promise. It gives him confidence and contentment.
Now King can affirm, “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.” Those words are so powerful. King knew he wanted to live a long life---just like most of us. But deeper than this he knew his only real concern was that he be doing God’s will. I understand those words and intellectually want to say the same thing. But I’m still not sure what my heart will say. Is my faith that deep?
King continued to end that sermon with rich Biblical imagery. He acknowledges that God “allowed me to go up to the mountain.” I love where King then goes. “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.” Clearly this is a reference to the Israelites in the wilderness. King is a Moses-like figure. Moses got the people to the edge of the promise land, but Moses never got to cross over. Somehow King knew, like Moses, that it was not necessary for him personally to get to the promised land.
It is easy for me to wonder why he does not want to live long enough to make it? He has his answer. “And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” Wow, the confidence in faith and the contentment that he is somehow safe in the Presence and Power of God. How, I wonder? And then the last sentence of the sermon is couched in the words of a familiar hymn. King says he is not worried because “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
For the person of faith that is sufficient. In faith we can be ok, even if everything around us is not ok. In faith we too can be taken to the mountaintop. It is not some literal mountain somewhere in the world. It is not a magical mountain. The mountaintop is the place faith takes us by grace into the Presence of the One who will protect us, regardless of what comes out way.
Reading this tells me so much about Martin Luther King Jr and tells me about the possibility and potentiality for each one of us.