“Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there…”
King takes us on a journey through time and momentous eras of history but stops in the 20th century right where he is. He spoke of the deep struggle of his people and he spoke with hope – they would not be defeated! This memorable speech ends famously with these words – not long before King, himself is assassinated:
“I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”
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!”
This wonderful speech draws on several Biblical images, including Moses’ final speech where he stands upon My Nebo before the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:1-12). He stands, finally before the land that his people will lay claim to, having been promised long ago that they would settle there. Moses knows he will not lead them there. He has seen the Promised Land but Joshua will lead the people into the land and a new future.
King would not lead the people to the ‘Promised Land’ he saw in his vision. He led them to the mountain but others led the people down and across. This is a hard story for most of us who have felt the pain and sadness of endings or the disappointment of unfulfilled dreams. It can be difficult for people to do the spadework and open the possibilities for the future but not experience the final victory and celebration. Throughout history many people have done the hack work, the hard, persistent work for justice, peace, hope and liberty. They have fought fights for the rights of people. They have strived to lead people into a better place – the ‘Promised Land’. They have laid the foundations in blood, sweat and tears but have not been there to see the fulfilment.
For all of us there are the endings that hurt us deeply, the endings of life, of relationships, of that which we have held dear. These endings cause deep grief and sadness and we look backwards to what has been. We remember that which was, and even that for which we hoped. We think back over the fun and joy, the hard work and community efforts and the hard times. We look back but in our story and that of Martin Luther King the significant point is the visionary looking forward. Moses saw the reality of the Promised Land, that for which he had longed for 40 years in the wilderness. King beheld the vision from the mountaintop of faith and ‘saw’ the ‘Promised Land’ for his people.
Both of these visions propelled the grieving communities forward into a future that God had promised, a future of life that they would embrace. It was a future of liberty from the grip of struggle. It was a future of joy amidst painful realities. It was a future in a new place. This vision held Moses, held King, has held so many others through the endings they would experience. They had to let go and, at some point, hand leadership responsibilities over to others who would take up the challenge and the next phase.
We don’t always see this happening. We often see people cling to power and pursue the way of personal glory until everything falls down around them. Surely we have seen this in the political sphere when leaders hold on too long until they are defeated. We see it in the sporting arena, the business sphere and in the church. Leaders, lay and ordained, hold on to power and positional authority too long and the result is inevitable.
No-one is irreplaceable and no-one can go on forever. Leaders come and go and hopefully contribute deeply to the well-being of the community along the way but the community and the common good are always bigger and more significant than the individual leader. The process of leadership demands that we develop others to step into our roles and let them lead. There is a time when we need to let go of leaders and significant people in our lives in order to embrace another future, a new world. Sometimes we can’t (or don’t want to) imagine a new and different future and we want to cling to the past. The past was no doubt good and worth celebrating but it must remain the past, inform the future, not be forgotten, but allowed to remain in the past. The present and the future demand we have the courage to let go and claim a new reality in the light of our past memories and experiences. Often we cannot envisage a new future, certainly not a positive, new future, when we feel the weight of grief and loss or the fear of letting go.
This story invites us to climb the mountain of God and look, to allow God to open our eyes and let us see. We can cast our sight back over the vistas of beautiful memory, the journey of our living. We can look forward from the moment into a new future that God will unveil before us. With faith and grace we can find the strength to take the first tentative steps towards the Promised Land.