Summary: Sermon for Martin Luther King Day: we must go "down the road" of compassion, understanding that human hurts are both physical and spiritual, that we must see hurting people as our neighbors, and that we must devote substantial resources to caring for them
There’s something we say every time we find ourselves repeating an unpleasant experience. Whenever you see yourself about to get into the same trouble you’ve already been in, you say, “I don’t want to go down that road again.” For example:
Some fellow comes to your door and says, “We’ve been paving driveways in the neighborhood, and we have just enough asphalt left for one more. I notice yours needs it. I can give you a bargain price if you’ll agree to do this right now.” You look at the cracks and crevices and you agree; you fork over your money, he promises to be right back, and you never see him again. The next time someone solicits you for business and wants money up front, what do you say? “I don’t want to go down that road again.”
Your son asks you for the car for Friday night, and you agree. On Saturday morning you go out to use it and you discover that it has been driven a hundred miles, there isn’t any gasoline in it, and along the entire right side there is a long, deep scratch. That night, your daughter wraps her soft arms around your neck and coos in your ear, “Daddy, can I use the car tonight?” You know what happened Friday night was not her fault; you also know that you can very seldom resist her winning ways; but because of what you have just been through, can you guess what you are going to end up saying? “I don’t want to go down that road again.”
Every time we have an unpleasant experience, we get skittish and we want to avoid it at all costs. We just don’t want to go down that road again.
Some of us feel that very same thing when it comes to talking about race and the life of the church. We’ve come such a long way; we’ve settled so many things; we’re doing so well. Why get into that again? And in the past, when we’ve done so, it seems like we have mixed up an explosive batch of stuff. When anybody has preached about or talked about race, it seemed as though the recipe included a cup of hostility, a handful of suspicion, a pinch of self-hatred, and a smidgen of guilt. Why stir that boiling pot again? Many of us will quickly say, “I don’t want to go down that road again.”
I can sympathize with that. I agree. There are lots of dead-end roads I don’t want to travel any more.
I don’t want to travel the road of separation, where we assume that black folks and white folks and whatever other folks will go their own ways. I think we’ve settled that one in this church. I think we’ve learned to value differences. “I don’t want to go down that road again.” That road leads to the old city of segregation. No, no, no.
I don’t want to travel the road of repression, where one person or one group thinks they have the right way, and the others don’t. I don’t want us to go back to the place where one style, one spirituality, one set of preferences, so dominate the situation that others are not cherished. I think we are working on that one in our church. We may not have it settled, but we are working on it, and “I don’t want to go down that road again.” That road leads to the tired old city of snobbery. No, and no again.
But there is a road down which we need to travel on this Martin Luther King Sunday. There is a path we need to travel one more time. It’s the Jericho Road, the road where people get hurt and where others are called to respond to their hurt. The Jericho Road, where there is pain, where you and I need to walk again.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, this nation was caught up in the struggle for human dignity. We know it as the civil rights struggle, and its standard-bearer was a peerless preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King won the respect of a vast number of people of all races as he led that fight.
But in the middle 1960’s he saw something else; he expanded his message. It did not sit well with a lot of people. Dr. King saw that it wasn’t just incivility that hurt people. It was social structures. It was economic realities. Dr. King recognized that if you desegregated the schools and you opened up lunch counters and you allowed people to live in neighborhoods of their own choosing, but you did nothing else, they would still be hurting. They would hurt because they didn’t have good jobs. They didn’t have enough educational resources. Dr. King saw that people, white and black and brown and yellow, whoever they were, people were being bled by many things. So he turned against the Vietnam War. He began to speak out against the War because it was taking resources away from people.. Do you remember that, those who go back that far? I was a young adult who considered myself liberal and committed to civil rights, but I didn’t understand why he made that shift. I didn’t understand why he went on to another agenda. I didn’t see what he saw: that people were hurting out there, and that something needed to be done to heal those hurts and to help them stand on their own feet. I didn’t see then, as he did, that racism was not just a matter of the heart alone; it is also in the system. It is in the way our society was organized. I didn’t see, as he did, that it’s one thing to say, “Let’s be nice to everybody.”, but another thing altogether to agree that we need to spend something to help others move on. I didn’t see, as he saw, that we have to walk down the Jericho Road, where people hurt, and do some things out there.