The View from the Mountain Top

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According to the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses was chosen by God to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land.
Historians estimate that the Israelites, journeying at a moderate rate of speed, could have reached their destination in about 22 days.
The actual trip, known as the Exodus, took a bit longer: 40 years. 
There was a God-directed side trip to a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula to receive God’s Law.  That took about 13 months.  But the other 39 years were all about the utter obstinacy of the people.  They repeatedly displayed a capacity to break as many of God’s commandments as fast as they possibly could. 
God made a dramatic call:  Not one of the generation that experienced the miraculous escape from Egypt, including the parting of the Red Sea – with the sole exceptions of Joshua and Caleb – would reach the Promised Land.  They would therefore wander in the wilderness for a demoralizing four decades.
Even Moses, because of a significant leadership misstep, would have to die on the far side of the Jordan River.
But first he would have the chance to climb Mt. Nebo and catch a glimpse of the Palestinian landscape – the place God had long promised his people. 
That’s the background of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, speech on April 3, 1968, at Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ) in Memphis, Tennessee.  As he brought his remarks to a close, King likened himself to Moses. 
For years he had been leading God’s people on a New Exodus, and he seemed to sense that he would not personally be completing the journey:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it 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 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, King would fall to an assassin’s bullet on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 
Five and a half decades after that tragedy, America’s journey to the Promised Land of racial reconciliation seems a distant dream.  In some regards, there has been progress.  America is increasingly blessed with Black leadership, including a two-term Black president.  But when it comes to economic inequalities and criminal justice issues, our goal seems farther away than ever.
Where can hope be found?
Hope is the lifeblood of African American churches, which for decades have represented what is arguably the most vital expression of Christianity in our nation. 
The story of how Black slaves came to faith in pre-Civil War America is filled with ironies.  A number of slaveholders encouraged the men and women they regarded as property to hear the Gospel in the hope that a little religion might have a pacifying influence.  If slaves came to believe that following Jesus would guarantee them “pie in the sky, by and by,” they might gratefully endure their conditions on this side of the grave.
That strategy backfired spectacularly. 
As slaves began to grasp the fullness of the Good News, they came to understand that God is a God of justice.  He will set everything right, whether in this world or the next.  They realized the degree to which their owners were committing unconscionable sins by holding them in bondage – and that God was going to do something about it.  
Their masters had introduced them to their own religion – a faith they themselves hardly took seriously.  Gradually the slaves came to realize that they, instead of those who claimed to own them, were on the right side of history.  
In 1947, a decade before King established the Southern Christian Leadership Council and launched his nationwide campaign for civil rights, Howard Thurman, a Black scholar from Boston University, delivered a famous talk at Harvard.  
His subject was the meaning of Negro spirituals.
Critics had long dismissed those simple but moving songs – crafted in the furnace of American chattel slavery – as too other-worldly.  Their images of crowns, thrones, and “going to glory” by “crossing the River Jordan,” it was assumed, had generated passivity in the Black community.  Slaves who had been treated horrifically had been enculturated to wait for something better down the road. 
Thurman strenuously disagreed. 
Negro spirituals provided hope.  God is on the side of the poor and the marginalized, the outcasts and the sufferers.  And God is going to win.  Justice will be done.
Christian hope is grounded in history.  Thurman declared that this hope “taught a people how to ride high in life, to look squarely in the face those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope, and to use those facts as a raw material out of which they fashioned a hope that their environment, with all its cruelty, could not crush…”
Even though our nation has not reached the Promised Land of racial equality, Martin Luther King, Jr., bet his life that he could see it from where he stood. 
Today is our annual opportunity to bet our lives, too.
Here’s what we know for sure:
We can’t afford to turn a 22-day trip into 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness.