The list of so-called supporters of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will swell to questionable proportions this weekend. These individuals will quote small and select portions of Dr. King’s many sermons and speeches in an attempt to claim their religious, political or philosophical positions would be right in line with his. Some will even amass a small fortune and live in royal accommodations by going around the country telling crowds what Dr. King would be doing were he still living. At the same time, they will fail to do anything for Dr. King’s cause unless it brings them more fame and gain.
Dr. King delivered his last sermon on Sunday, March 31, 1968 at the National Cathedral here in Washington, D.C. He took as his sermon title, “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” I have listened to it over and over since it was first brought to my attention by my mentor, Marian Wright Edelman, President and Founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. At the time of the speech, Dr. King and others were involved with putting together the Poor People’s Campaign.
In his sermon, Dr. King took inventory of our abundance of material and financial resources and warned about the consequences of overlooking the needs of the poor in our midst. “This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it,” King said. “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”
I believe when it comes to our celebration of the life of the Dr. King we are prone to making an error suggested by the late Rev. Peter Gomes. During a lecture I attended at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Rev. Gomes, then Pusey Minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church said too often we merely celebrate and highlight the life of Jesus of the Scripture and what he did, but fail to truly follow him. “We ought to go the text, depart from the text and never return to the text, because we should find ourselves headed in the direction that Jesus was going,” the Rev. Gomes said. I still owe him tuition for his words.
His lecture was one that has forever changed my approach to reading and interpreting the New Testament as well as my understanding of what it means to be a Christian.
Like many, who can recite large portions of Dr. King’s speeches from memory, I will attend various worship services and prayer breakfasts honoring him this weekend. And I will begin a tradition of visiting the newly erected Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Still, this is not enough. This weekend is not about how we will celebrate his life. It is about whether we have the will to work to end poverty in the world in our lifetime.
Rev. Thomas Bowen is a minister at Shiloh Baptist Church of Washington.
Related: The MLK we need
For more essays by area faith leaders see On Faith/Local.