Catch and Release
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life,” he said.
“Longevity has its place,” he said. “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!! 1
Many of you will recognize those words. They are the closing words of the sermon the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached the night before he was gunned down on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
Those words in many ways have cemented King as a prophet in the imagination of this country, but I dare say not in the way he would have wanted or in a way that honors who he truly was.
We hear those words taken out of context and we think that by some divine mercy King was prophetic in the sense that he knew the future. He knew he was going to die and by the grace of God he was at peace with that because he believed that at least he would go to heaven.
Which makes it easier to look at his legacy and simply say: Well done good and faithful servant. There was a man who ran the good race and fought the good fight. Now go on to your great reward and leave us in peace.
But when King’s final words are read in the context of his whole sermon, they are not a promise about the glorious reward that awaits him or any one of us in the afterlife. King’s final sermon was a call to action in the here and now. His words were prophetic in the Biblical sense: not words that predict the future, but words that call us to account in the present.
That was why King was in Tennessee to begin with. He was there to call Mayor Henry Loeb and the people of Memphis to account for their inhumane treatment of the sanitation workers who called that city home.
He was there on behalf of the men who rose up everyday before dawn to do the dangerous, smelly, back-breaking work that no one else wanted to do for pay that no one could live on. He was there to lead a movement that would advocate for their right to unionize, safer working conditions, and a living wage.2
We call King’s last sermon, his “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” sermon, but a more accurate title would be his, “We want to be free,” sermon. Listen, if you would, to some of the parts you rarely here:
“Something is happening in our world,” (he said). The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; … Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee -- the cry is always the same: "We want to be free. …And that's all this whole thing is about,’ he said:
We aren't engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people. … We are saying that we are God's children. And that … we don’t have to live like we are forced to live.
It's all right to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day.
It's all right to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”
Dr. King knew how our faith has been used to pacify Christians, but especially black Christians, with the promise of heaven later if they would just patiently endure their suffering now, and he rightly saw that as a distortion of the gospel.
He heard Jesus’ words as a clarion call to work for justice now, the dignity of all God’s children now, the dismantling of oppression now. “We want to be free,” he said, not in that sweet by and by, but free NOW!
And yet King knew that his vision of freedom would come at a cost. He knew that it would take a community of likeminded souls willing to pay the price. And so, a little later in the sermon, King recalls the parable of The Good Samaritan - you all remember that one? Good. - and invites us all to, in his words, “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness.”
A “dangerous unselfishness.”
I’ll come back to that but first, you’ll remember that in the gospel of Luke, a teacher of the law once asked Jesus what he needed to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus called his attention to the two greatest commandments: love God and love your neighbor. 3
“But who is my neighbor,” asked the teacher?
“Now that question,” said King, “could have easily ended up in a philosophical and theological debate. But Jesus immediately pulled that question from mid-air, and placed it on a dangerous curve between Jerusalem and Jericho.”
I love that line. He really was a master when it came to the art of preaching and so I want to stay with him just a little longer and allow you to hear what he does with this parable.
You all know the story, so I’ll simply remind you that there was once a Jewish man on the side of the road who had been robbed and beaten and lay in need of help and that the first two men - a priest and a Levite - passed him by before a Samaritan of all people, an enemy of the Israelites, stopped to help him.
Well believe it or not, King actually has some sympathy for the priest and the Levite in this story. He acknowledges that on that dangerous road full of enemies and bandits, they may have feared that the same or worse would happen to them if they stopped to help their neighbor. And they may well have been right. But that’s where the dangerous unselfishness comes in.
“…the first question that the priest (might’ve) asked -- the first question that the Levite (might’ve) asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
“(And) That,” says King, “is the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job.’ Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office’ ….Not ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, "If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That's the question.”
The dangerously unselfish question. Dangerous, because when we start to ask these sorts of questions, when we call into question the death-dealing, de-humanizing systems our society rests upon, we destabilize the status quo and make enemies of the ones who benefit from it.
When we start to ask dangerously unselfish question, like:
“Where does our food really come from?”
Or “Where does our trash really go?”
Or “Who do we rely on to get up before dawn to do the dangerous, smelly, back-breaking work we don’t want to do for pay no one can live on?”
we start to see the answers, and it’s not pretty.
We start to see people we haven’t really seen before, because we didn’t want to see them. We start to see them as actual people, as neighbors, as children of God, brothers and sisters and siblings whose suffering is our gain.
And even worse, having seen all this, we can’t look away and say we didn’t know. Having seen all this we have to acknowledge that they deserve better. And if they deserve better than it is incumbent upon us to repent and become agents of change in this world for their sake and for ours.
But change comes at a cost. Change takes a community of likeminded people willing to pay the price. Change takes a people willing to be dangerously unselfish on behalf of one another… people impatient to end the suffering of their neighbors now that God’s will might be done here on earth as it is in heaven.
Well my friends, believe it or not, 2000 years ago, Jesus was tooling around the Sea of Galilee preaching a very similar message to the one Dr. King was preaching in Memphis, but most of us don’t know that because we have spiritualized Jesus’ message as surely as we have spiritualized the message of Martin Luther King Jr..
We tend to read this passage as an invitation to evangelism, but thanks to the scholarship of Ched Myers, I’m pretty sure it was the economics of exploitation that brought Jesus to Capernaum.4
I now believe he was there to call the people of that region to account for their inhumane treatment of men like Peter and Andrew, James and John.
Which is to say that he was there on behalf of the ones who rose up everyday before dawn to do the dangerous, smelly, back-breaking work that no one else wanted to do for pay that no one could live on.
Myers, explains that fisherman in that region, (much like the farmers and day laborers who populate so may of Jesus’ parables) were caught up in an exploitative caste system that was requiring them to work harder and harder for less pay.
As the empire expanded, the local fishing industry expanded as well. Roman roads made it possible to ship processed fish further than ever before at great profit to government officials, like King Herod, who formalized and controlled the means of production and distribution in their region.
Men like Herod profited from the sale of licenses, tolls, and taxes that they used to build roads and harbors and processing facilities that required, in turn, ever higher fees in the form of licenses, tolls, and taxes.
But this hunger for expansion that made life at the top so wonderful for the elite, radically transformed the local fishing economy and the lives of those who toiled away at the bottom of society. According to Myers, “Formerly self-sufficient native fishing families” were not only crushed by these new levies, they were unable to afford the very fish they had always depended upon as a staple of their diet.5
As a consequence, they found themselves falling increasingly behind no matter how hard they worked: unable to earn a living wage, unable to maintain their boats and nets without going into debt, unable to adequately feed their families.
It is no surprise, then, that Jesus started his movement to build a new kind of kingdom here on earth, with fisherman. These poor guys had nothing left to lose and everything to gain from turning the system upside down.
They would have found Jesus’ message utterly compelling, for when he called them from their boats with the promise that he would make them, “fishers of men,” he was not inviting them to become evangelists per say, he was inviting them into God’s work of restorative justice.
Most Christians hear that phrase about becoming “fishers of men” as a poetic invitation to witness to people so they will believe in Jesus as their savior and go to heaven when they die.
But any Israelite worth their salt would know that whenever God goes fishing in the Hebrew Bible it is to catch the people who are exploiting others the better to hold them accountable in the hear and now.
This sermon is chock full of footnotes, so you might want to grab a copy if you want to study this further, but for the sake of time you will just have to trust me when I say that the prophets Jeremiah, Amos, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk all make references to God catching the wayward hook, line and sinker and hauling them away to be judged for their mistreatment of the poor. 6
Jesus, then, is inviting these fisherman to join him in catching the attention of the people as a whole, the better to call them to account that they might see and repent of the systemic evils they are enmeshed in and choose instead to live in a new way. Jesus has come to catch them in their sin, not to punish them, but in order change them -which is what repentance is.
He wants to change their minds, open their eyes to see that there is a better way to live in community with one another and then release them to live in this way that is good for all.
Peter, Andrew, James and John were so eager to be part of this movement that Mark tells us they dropped their nets immediately. And here is the coup de grâce, if you will. That verb for dropping their nets, is what Myers calls, “a jubilee verb.” It is a word Mark will use in the coming chapters to denote “release from debt, forgiveness of sin, and liberation from bondage.”
“Jesus,” says Myers, “is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitative system (where they will never thrive) and back to a network of …kinship that practices mutual aid and cooperation.”
Jesus calls this network of mutual love and support the kingdom of God. King calls this network the “beloved community.” But what both men have in common is the fact that their call is not to change what you believe so you can go to heaven.
The promised land MLK and Jesus are trying to get to is right here on earth. It is not a reward we must die to receive but a vision we can be caught up in now, a call we can live into now, a dream we can co-create with others now.
They are inviting us all into a new way of life that is dangerously unselfish. Dangerous because the Caesars and Herods, the Henry Loebs and Bull Connors, of this world like it just the way it is.
Dangerous because to repent means to change and change always comes at a cost. Change takes a community of likeminded people willing to pay the price, willing to drop their nets, willing not just to believe in something better, but risk everything to live it into being.
That is what King was calling for and that is how how would want to be remembered. That is how we honor the memory of who he really was. And that is what it means to follow Jesus, follow the one who loves us all. Amen.
3. Luke 10
4. Thanks to this blog post at SaltProject https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/1/16/follow-me-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-week-3
That drew my attention to this article https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/22/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice/
5. We see something similar playing out right now between North America and South America with regard to our insatiable hunger for coffee, quinoa, avocados, and much of the out of season produce we take for granted. We have crippled the economies to the south and yet we wonder why we have an immigration crisis at our border.
6. Jeremiah 16:16-18, Amos 4:1-2, Ezekiel 29:3, , Habakkuk 1:18-20