Death does not have the final word
Homily for Easter Sunday (April 1, 2018)
Acts 10:34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9 (AM); Luke 24:13-35
On Wednesday, our nation and the world will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King came to Memphis in March 1968 to support the city’s sanitation workers, who were on strike.
In 1968 all of the sanitation workers in Memphis were Black men. Their work was difficult and filthy. Their pay was low and they had no health insurance or other benefits. When two of them died in an accident on the job (they were crushed by a trash compactor), the city refused to provide the families with any compensation. The mayor refused to meet with them. Like many strikers, they wanted better pay and decent benefits. More fundamentally, they wanted to be respected as human beings. They wanted their Black lives to matter.
Dr. King wanted to let the sanitation workers and their families to know that they mattered to him and to remind them that they mattered to God. It was a difficult struggle. One of the workers’ marches turned violent, and that shook Dr. King. He was determined to lead another march that would be nonviolent. On the stormy night of April 3, 1968 with an almost preternatural sense of his impending death, Dr. King delivered what came to be known as his “Mountaintop” Speech. He concluded:
And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
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 up 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!!
Less than 24 hours later, Dr. King was shot to death. Cities throughout the USA, including Chicago, went up in flames. The immediate cause was arson. The proximate causes were anger, grief and despair. Some of those areas have never recovered. Our nation still struggles with racism and the exploitation of the poor. Workers still struggle for respect and wages and benefits that will support their families.
On the first day of the week following the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus, his disciples were also struggling. They were grieving, confused, afraid, and uncertain about what to do or where to turn. Then one of them—a woman—returned with some amazing news. His tomb was empty! Could it be that he had risen as he said?
Some of them went to the tomb. Within a short time he appeared to them. They saw, they believed and they proclaimed to others what they had witnessed. That has been the fundamental mission of the Church ever since. By virtue of our Baptism, we share in the mission of Jesus’ first disciples to:
- See: Pay attention to the people and world around us.
- Believe: In God and his grace, mercy and power at work through his word, through the sacraments, and through his people.
- Proclaim: Jesus is risen! Death and evil don’t have the final word.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his life for that mission. His faith was in God and not in himself. Whatever his sins and shortcomings, God made him a prophet for justice and an apostle of nonviolence.
We as a nation are still a long way from entering the Promised Land. Ours is a journey of generations, not months or years. But we can draw strength and hope when we remember that we are not where we were.
On April 8, 1968, Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, led 40,000 people on a peaceful march through Memphis. Eight days later, the city of Memphis recognized the sanitation workers’ union and increased their wages. Today those workers earn over $17/hour. They have health insurance and other benefits. They have safety equipment. The Mayor of Memphis not only speaks with them but recently honored them. The place where Dr. King died is now a national civil rights museum.
Death did not have the final word. Because of Jesus, it never will. +