For Sabbath, January 14, 2017
It was the end of March, spring time in Memphis, 1968. The azaleas were approaching their peak bloom. The days were gloriously warm and bright. The street we lived on was lined with massive elm trees that arched across the street. They were vivid with new baby leaves. There was one flaw in this glorious spring. The garbage was piling up by our back gate. In our neighborhood, garbage trucks drove the alleys instead of the streets. But for the last six weeks, there had been no garbage trucks in the alley. The garbage men were on strike.
This was not acceptable. If the mayor goes on vacation, nobody notices. If the garbage men miss one day, it’s trouble. If they miss a week, we are in deep mess. There had been no garbage collection in Memphis for six weeks!
We were mad at the garbage men. What right did they have not to work? What business did they have demanding better pay. After all, they were mere garbage men. And on top of that, they were black. Lots of black people in Memphis were unemployed. So these garbage men were supposed to be grateful for any paycheck at all. Yes. They worked in miserable, dangerous conditions. A couple of garbage men had been crushed to death in a compactor. That’s what precipitated the strike. But hey, accidents happen. Get over it.
The garbage men refused to get over it. The mayor demanded they return to work. They refused. The main newspaper in town, the Commercial Appeal, cheered the mayor on as he swaggered and talked tough. The white population cheered every insult the mayor hurled at the recalcitrant strikers.
The garbage men—sanitation workers—held on. They refused to obey the mayor. They refused to agree that they deserved lower pay than the white drivers of their garbage trucks. They refused to agree that their families should live in poverty while they collected the garbage in the alleys behind large homes on tree-shaded streets.
But it was hard. All the powers were arrayed against them. The mayor. The police with their dogs and mace and billy clubs. Major local businesses. Justice hung in the balance.
Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis to encourage them, arriving on Friday, March 29.
Monday and Tuesday at school, I listened to the rumors swirling among my classmates. A group of white men had bound themselves with an oath to guarantee Dr. King would not get out of town alive. Communist agents were in town to agitate the black people and provoke them to violence. The strikers were quitting their strike. Dr. King was wasting his time.
Wednesday came. Wednesday night Dr. King addressed a huge crowd. He cited the Hebrew prophets and their bold protestations against the perversion of justice by the powerful. He talked of the ultimate triumph of non-violence, about the glory and risk of that present moment in the great march of history toward justice and peace. Police violence would not win. Mace and billy clubs would not triumph. Not ultimately. Not if the people stayed united and true to their principles.
Then at the heart of his sermon, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.
A man was traveling the wild, desolate road from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was jumped by thieves and robbed and beaten. Two religious dignitaries passed the injured man. First a minister, then a deacon. They could see he needed help. They probably wanted to help. But they asked the very sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?”
Then along came another man, a Samaritan—a Muslim in Christian America, a Black man in White America, a Mexican in Anglo America, a Jew in neo-Nazi America, a Republican in Seattle (I say this with a good-natured smile)–this other man changed the question. He did not ask what will happen to me if I help. He asked what will happen to him if I do not help?
The question asked by the religious dignitaries—what will happen to me—is a sensible question. But it was not the right question. The right question was, “What will happen to him, if I do not help?” Dr. King applied the question to the situation in Memphis. He challenged his audience, “What will happen to the strikers who have risked their families and their entire future struggling for justice if you do not help? What will happen to the children of these strikers, if we leave them to struggle alone? What will happen to this city if we fail to come to the aid of those who need us now?
What will happen to them if we do not help?
This question remains one of the most probing questions we can ask. It is the burning question facing us right now across the United States and Europe. The entire western world is being seduced by the allure of the reasonable, smart-sounding question: What will happen to us if we help? The world is richer than ever before in history. There is enough food, enough money. But we are weary with helping.
Still, the noble challenge presented so clearly by Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan and given new voice by Martin Luther King confronts us: what will happen to them if we do not help?
What will happen to the children born in a poverty they did not earn if we do not help?
What will happen to senior citizens who spend their entire careers working in day care?
What will happen to the people who have manicured our lawns and washed the dishes in our favorite restaurants and cleaned the bathrooms in the airports we passed through on our way to our vacations in Mexico? What will happen to them when they get sick or old?
What will happen to families coping with mental illness?
What will happen to grandmothers raising grandchildren because the middle generation got lost in addictions?
What will happen if we do not help?
Across the nations that used to be Christian, there are louder and louder voices celebrating the privilege of the privileged and denouncing the need of the needy.
I am not optimistic in the short term about our ability to avoid a sharp lurch into the ditch of fear and narrow self-interest. But I am confident of this: We—the members of this family, citizens of the Beautiful City, devotees of Jesus—we will ask the right question. We will not allow the teachings of Jesus to be muted.
When Dr. King talked about asking the sensible question, “What will happen to me if I help?” it was not a theoretical exercise. The air was full of threats. He knew people wanted him dead. Men heavy with hatred and guns. Coming to Memphis was a dangerous move. Still he came because the brothers in Memphis needed help. Their struggle for justice faced deeply entrenched opposition. So Martin asked the right question, What will happen if I do not help. And he came to Memphis knowing there he was wearing a target.
Helping sometimes requires great courage, holy courage. But that is the native culture of the Beautiful City.
In our New Testament reading we heard the cynical challenge to Jesus from the religious conservatives of his day.
Some Pharisees warned Jesus that Herod was out to get him. They advised him to leave town. (They, of course, cared nothing about Jesus’ well being. They were trying to scare Jesus into leaving town. They wanted to get rid of his bothersome presence.) Jesus laughed them off. Go tell that old fox that I am going to keep doing what I do. I will be casting out demons and healing people here. And three days from now I will be in Jerusalem doing the same thing. If you are going to do me in, you might as well do it in Jerusalem, that’s where all good prophets go to die.
The same thing is happening today. Religious conservatives are trying to silence the annoying teachings of Jesus. A famous evangelical preacher in New York recently told an interviewer, the teachings are Jesus are not the main point of Christianity. Jesus saves us from our guilt. That’s the big thing. Those teachings about loving our neighbors and laying down our lives for our friends and serving the least of these—all of that is quite secondary. What matters is getting myself saved.
We do not agree. We do not believe the most important question is what will happen to me? We join Jesus and Martin and the ancient prophets, Amos and Jeremiah, in asking what will happen to them? And not just on Judgment day off in the future, but today. Here. Now.
What will happen if we do not help.
We do not wait until it is convenient to ask the question. We do not wait until we have power. We simply own the question as central to our religion as followers of Jesus. We claim this question as central to the constitution of our spiritual city: What will happen to them if we do not help?
When people threaten us with the power of the swaggering, belligerent Herod, we reply, “Tell the old fox we will continue our ministry. We will continue to do what we can to heal and help. And we will not be silent.”
It may cost us. But that is what courage is for. To pursue truth and justice.
May God help us.