Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Curtis Ramsey-Lucas)

Our call to carry on unfinished work

By the Rev. John Zehring

April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Amos’ prophetic words were a favorite text and life theme for King right until that fateful day in April: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24). Justice is care and advocacy for those on the margins — those least able to advocate for themselves and those with the least power, least voice, least security and least wealth. One of the finest translations of the word for righteousness is “right relationships.” Let the care and advocacy for those on the margins roll down like waters, and right relationships like an ever-flowing stream. King lived and died so that men and women might do justice and pursue a right relationship with God and with every man, woman and child.

When King accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace on Dec. 10, 1964, he questioned why the prize was being given for a work that was unfinished.

“I must ask why this prize is awarded to a movement which is beleaguered and committed to unrelenting struggle; to a movement which has not won the very peace and brotherhood which is the essence of the Nobel Prize,” he said.

In the same speech, King later said, “I still believe that we shall overcome.”

Four years after the Nobel Prize, the work remained uncompleted, and the struggle felt like pushing a bolder uphill.

“We’ve got some difficult days ahead, he said on April 3, 1968, in Memphis to sanitation workers on strike. “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.”

The following day — April 4, 1968 — King walked out the door of Memphis’ Lorraine Motel and drew his last breath. He did not get to the Promised Land, and the work remains unfinished. But what powerful foresight that we shall overcome someday. Someday justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Giacomo Puccini, the Italian composer, wrote a number of famous operas, including “La Boheme,” “Madame Butterfly” and “La Tosca.” In 1922, he was stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, “Turandot,” which many now consider his best.

Popular legend notes that Puccini told his students, “If I don’t finish ‘Turandot,’ I want you to finish it for me.” [1]

Shortly afterward, he died. Puccini’s students studied the opera carefully and, after considerable work, completed it. In 1926, the world premiere of “Turandot” was performed in Milan with Puccini student Arturo Toscanini directing.

Legend tells how everything went beautifully, until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscanini’s face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience and announced, “Thus far the Master wrote, and then he died.” [2]

Silence filled the opera house. It was an unusual, uncomfortable interruption. Then Toscanini picked up the baton again, smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “But the disciples finished his work.” [3] When “Turandot” ended, the audience burst into thunderous applause. That performance became one of the most memorable in the distinguished history of opera.

Toscanini’s words provide a valuable reminder of who must finish the work of Martin Luther King Jr.: us. We are needed to finish the work so that, someday, justice may roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

Justice is not yet rolling down like waters. When it comes to justice, right relationships and the stewardship of this Earth, which is the Lord’s, there are times when it feels like our nation is making giant strides in reverse. The work is unfinished and people of God are needed to finish the work, to speak for and stand with those whose voice is powerless, to advocate for those on the margins of society, to share our plenty with those who do not have enough, and to care for those who are hungry, naked, in prison, undocumented, victimized and discriminated against.

Moses stood atop the mountain and viewed the Promised Land, but he knew that others would have to carry on the work he could not complete. Jesus, from the cross, knew that others would have to carry on the work he could not complete. And so, too, King stood atop the mountain and viewed the Promised Land, and he knew that others would have to carry on the work he could not complete. The work remains unfinished. And while we might not get to the Promised Land either, like Puccini’s disciples, we are called as Christ’s followers to help finish the master’s work, especially to those whom the King called “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40).

The Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Beyond Stewardship: A Church Guide to Generous Giving Campaigns.”

Notes

1 Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost, Barbara Brown Taylor and David L. Bartlett, eds., Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.