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Voices of Faith

April 3, 2000
Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee

Another Chance
The Rev. Dr. Billy Kyles

I want to talk to you today about a story that Jesus tells. He was a great storyteller. It’s about a man who loved figs; he was a fig-loving man. So that he would not have to borrow figs or go to the market to get them, this man had his gardener plant a fig tree in his vineyard—not a little scrawny tree, but a big healthy tree.

The man waited for the tree to mature and then one day decided it was time to check his fig tree for fruit. From a distance, the tree looked wonderful. It had beautiful leaves with no brown spots. But as he drew closer, he did not see any fruit. He was not too disturbed by this, and said, "Well, maybe the atmospheric pressure or something. I’ll give it another year."

A year later he came back and found the same thing, leaves everywhere but no fruit. He came back the third year looking for fruit—figs, because he loved figs. He wanted to be able to go into his own vineyard and get figs. This healthy looking tree was there again in full foliage, but all he found was leaves.

He called the gardener and said, "Come here, come here. For three years I’ve been coming here, looking for fruit on this tree. All I find is leaves. It’s taking up space. It’s taking the nutrients out of the earth. It’s just in the way. Without any further discussion, cut it down."

Do you know what’s involved in making us who we are? Do you know what goes into making you who you are and making me who I am? All that God makes of us, allows us to be? All that He allows us to become and what happens? He comes looking for the fruit of our lives, and all we’re doing is looking the part.

The story of the fig tree is in the Luke Gospel, Chapter 13--just looking the part, just looking the part. All that has gone into making you who you are – and I doubt anybody here would debate with me that a tree is not known by who planted it. It might have been a great person, might have been great-granddad or somebody else, but that’s not how we know trees.

A tree is not known by its position in the garden, whether it’s in the front or the back or the side or wherever. That’s not how we know trees. A tree is not known by the birds that come and light there and even build their nest there. Nor is a tree known by the weary traveler who comes to find shade beneath the tree. That’s not how we know trees. Trees are known by the fruit that they bear.

We breathe God’s air. It was good when He gave it to us. We messed it up. We drink His water, His wet water. He put the wet in the water. It would never have occurred to me when I was a boy that we’d have to buy water—a billion-dollar industry, buying water. What of it?

All that goes into making us who we are. And He comes looking for fruit, and all He finds is leaves, leaves. God expects more of us than that.

No reasonable or unreasonable demand was made. He did not ask the tree to bear plums, he did not ask the tree to bear apples. He wanted figs, and so he planted a fig tree. No further discussion, cut it down.

We’re the crowning of God’s creation. The time that’s put into developing our personalities—the who that we are and the me that I am and the you that you are makes us so special.

I’m the only me God made, and you’re the only you God made. You may be a twin, triplet or whatever. Nobody’s got your DNA but you. In all the universe, there is not another you anywhere. That is pretty special to me. Nowhere is there another you. The difficulty is we spend our time trying to be somebody else.

I play a little basketball. I don’t play that well, but I play, and I enjoy watching Michael Jordan play. I enjoy watching him start at the free throw line, fly down that vast court and put that ball in the hoop. I just holler.

But, I don’t envy Michael one bit. You know why? Because if you brought him to the church where I pastor, Monumental Baptist Church in Memphis, some Sunday morning at eleven o’clock, he couldn’t do what I do. I think they all make too much money, but I don’t envy them.

We spend time trying to be someone else when God has made us who we are. Interesting the time put into making us who we are.

Those of us who are of African descent owe it to our ancestors to bear fruit. I am told that only five of 20 made it across the middle passage. If that’s true, look how God has allowed us to survive everything that was put upon us. There was nothing put upon us that we didn’t survive.

We took leftovers and throwaways—the pig’s feet and the pig’s tails and the innards. Our poor parents were such geniuses that they took those throwaways and lifted them to a culinary art. You can get chitlins in Paris now. They took day-old bread, week-old bread, doctored it up and made bread pudding. I just paid $5.49 for a slice of bread pudding the other day. I don’t know how they can charge that price, but they do.

Our ancestors took scraps of cloth and made them into beautiful quilts. We call it folk art now. It wasn’t folk art then. I had an aunt who would take old stockings and make area rugs out of them. We survived everything that was put upon us.

There were no classes to teach slaves how to speak English when they came here. All the discussion about bilingual education – the slaves had no classes. They learned it phonetically because they had such a will to survive. All that goes into making us who we are.

They had such a strong will to survive; that’s what I tell young people as I speak to them. Don’t think light of grandma. We picked up our English. There were no classes, and they didn’t have time to say, "Give me this." They said, "Gimme dis, gimme dis here." They didn’t say, " I’m going to get you." I don’t think so. They said, "I’m gonna getcha."

He came looking for fruit, and all he found was leaves, just leaves. I see a manicured lawn, zoysia grass, azaleas blooming. It looks like a house—microwave, 52-inch television, three-car garage. It looks like a house, but is it a home? It looks like a house. The closer you get to it, the more it looks like a house, but is it a home? What’s happening in that house? Are the children on drugs? Do they speak to each other in the morning? Do they eat together at the dinner table? It looks like a house, but is it a home?

It has classrooms. It has a library. It has a gymnasium. It has a cafeteria. It looks like a school, but what is that I see—a metal detector in an elementary school? What is that I see—a six-year-old with a gun in school?

It has stained glass windows. It has an organ. It has comfortable pews. It has a pastor and a rector. It looks like a church, but where is the proof? I have talked so much about Calvary and the remarkable ministries you have here in downtown Memphis. The wonderful ministries you have--it’s fruit, the fruits of Calvary.

He came looking for fruit, but all he found was leaves. Well, that’s not the end of the story. The gardener, the one who planted the tree, the one who nurtured it and all that – he had a kinship to the tree. He said, "Wait a minute. I know it’s your tree. I understand that. I work for you. I know you’ve been here three years looking for fruit, and there is none. I have no explanation, but give it one more year. I’m going to dig around it. I’m going to fertilize it. I’m going to nurture it. I’m going to make that tree bear some fruit. Just give me another year."

Isn’t it wonderful that God continues to give us another chance? Isn’t it wonderful to have another chance? Every day is another chance. Every single day is another chance filled with opportunities, crammed with possibilities. Every day that you get up, you can get up and be grateful. So what have you got to be grateful for today? I’m breathing, and I’m grateful.

I have a wonderful member in our church. She has a lung problem, and she said, "Reverend, I just can’t stay away from church." So, they fixed her up so she could take a tank of air with her to church. She sat in the audience with her tank and she said, "Reverend, I can’t stay in that audience. I got to get in the choir." And she got in the choir with her tank of air. God keeps giving us another chance.

The sanitation workers had gone on strike in Memphis in February 1968. They were treated so poorly and their wages were so low that they could work all day and still qualify for welfare. So they went on strike. We tried to get them to wait until June. Then you would have the heat and the stench and the flies, but they said, "No, we can’t go back. We’re out. We’re not going back." That started the movement for equality for the sanitation workers.

We started having rallies every night, and we started raising money. Then we started making plans for a big rally, and we invited Dr. King to come. The first time we asked him, his staff said, "We don’t have time. We’re working on the Poor People’s Campaign. We can’t come to Memphis." But he overruled them and said, "No, we’re going to Memphis," and he came and made a wonderful speech. We got him to agree to come back and lead a march. That march broke up in violence, so he wanted to come back and have a peaceful march. He said, "If we don’t have a peaceful march in Memphis, we can’t have one in Washington."

So he came back to lead that march on April 3, 1968. We almost missed the mountaintop speech. There were tornado warnings that night, thunder and lightening and rain. He thought there would not be many people at the temple. So he told Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy and myself to go over and have the meeting without him. He would stay in his hotel room and work on the Poor People’s Campaign.

Well, we got there and the place was nearly full. Abernathy walked in, Jesse Jackson walked in, and then I walked in, and the people started clapping. Abernathy’s preacher’s sense said, "These people are not clapping for us. They think Martin is coming in behind us." So he went to the phone and said, "Martin, you better get over here, man. These people came out in the weather to hear you." So, he came. We almost missed that mountaintop speech.

Ralph Abernathy introduced him for fully 20 minutes. We didn’t know that would be the last introduction he would ever receive. We knew how to get the introducer out of the way when he’s too long, we say, "Amen, brother. Amen, brother." But no one said a word. Martin sort of teased Ralph when he got up. He said, "I thought Ralph wasn’t going to make a speech."

I’d never heard him talk about death so much as he did that night. He didn’t take a topic. He just got up and started talking. He told us how his plane had been under guard all the previous night in Atlanta, and that when he got into Memphis, he had heard about more threats against his life.

Then he started to talk about the time he was stabbed in New York. A woman came up to him as he was signing books, and said, "Are you Martin Luther King?" He said, "Yes," and she stabbed him in the chest with a letter opener.

When he was recovering, he said of all the greetings he got, the one most telling came from a young girl in New York somewhere. She wrote, "Dear Dr. King, I read about your misfortune, and I’m so sorry to hear about that. The papers said the blade was so close to your aorta that if you had sneezed you would have drowned in your own blood." She put at the bottom, "I’m glad you didn’t sneeze."

He picked up on that and did a whole litany on—I’m glad I didn’t sneeze. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the young people "sitting in" all across the south. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the Selma to Montgomery march. If I had sneezed, I would have missed the voting rights. He talked about all the things he would have missed had he sneezed.

Martin then said, "You will get to the Promised Land. We as a people will get to the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but God has allowed me to go on the mountain. I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. You’ll get to the Promised Land."

I’m certain he knew he wouldn’t get there, but he knew we couldn’t stand to hear him say, "I won’t get there with you." So he softened it and said, "I may not get there with you."

He never thought he’d live to be 40. He was 39 when the bullet hit him. He said, "I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land, and I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the coming of the Good Lord," and he turned and walked to his seat. He always finished his quotes, but he didn’t finish his quote that night. And by the next day he was right, he didn’t live to be 40.

Dinner was to be served at my home. I told him dinner was at 5:00. He called my house, and someone told him dinner was at 6:00. So, when I got to the motel to pick him up, he said, "I’m in no hurry. Dinner’s not till 6:00."

That gave me the wonderful privilege, along with Ralph Abernathy, of spending the last hour of his life with him in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel—Abernathy, King and Kyles. And now I’m the only one left.

We talked about things that preachers talk about. About a quarter of 6:00 we walked out onto the balcony. He was greeting people he had not seen. Somebody said, "It’s going to be cold Doc, get your coat."

He didn’t go back in the room. He went to the door and said, "Ralph, get my coat." Ralph was in the room putting on shaving lotion. Ralph said, "I’ll get your coat." He went back to the railing of the balcony and was greeting people again. He said something to Jesse Jackson and said something to some other people. We stood together. I said, "Come on, guys. Let’s go."

I got about five steps, and the shot rang out. I looked over. People were ducking behind cars. I looked back and saw that the bullet had knocked him from beside the railing down onto the balcony.

I ran to him, and I looked at him. He had this tremendous hole in his face. Then I ran into the room and picked up the phone to call an operator or to call an ambulance. But, the operator had left the switchboard.

There was nobody on the switchboard. I was saying, "Answer the phone, answer the phone, answer the phone." And there was nobody on the switchboard. So the phone was not answered. (I learned later that the operator had gone out into the courtyard to watch Dr. King. When she saw what happened, she had a heart attack. She was the motel owner’s wife, and she died subsequently.)

The police were coming with their guns drawn, and I hollered to the police, "Call an ambulance on your police radio. Dr. King has been shot." They said, "Where did the shot come from?" The well-known picture of the people pointing is in response to that question. It was a terrible time. I thought I was having a nightmare.

While waiting for the ambulance to come, I took a spread from one of the beds and covered him from his neck down. I took a crushed cigarette from his hand. He never smoked publicly, he didn’t want the children to see him smoke. I took the cigarette pack from his pocket.

I cannot tell you the feelings I had seeing my friend there on that balcony bleeding to death. Finally the ambulance came and took him away.

For many, many years, I must tell you, I wondered why was I there? Of all the places I could have been, of all the places he could have been, all the things we could have been involved in, why was I there at that moment in history?

And God revealed it to me over the years—I was there to be a witness, and my witness has to be true. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t die in some foolish, untoward way. He didn’t overdose. He wasn’t shot by a jealous lover. He died helping garbage workers.

Tomorrow will mark the 32nd anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The interest in this 20th century prophet’s life after 32 years is quite remarkable and unbelievable.

The fruits of his labor are with us now. A man with a Ph.D. degree—of all the things he could have been, he chose to use his gifts and his talents "for the least of these."

And so we see the results of his fruit. Yes, we will slay the dreamer and see what happens to his dream. The dream is alive. MIFA (Memphis Inter-Faith Association) is alive. Calvary is alive. The Berlin Wall is down. South Africa is free.

All of these are the fruits of his labor. Aren’t you glad God gives us another chance?

For the life and times of our servant, Martin, we’re grateful. For those who carry on his work and his dream, we’re grateful. For Doug Bailey and Calvary Church and all those who join in bearing the fruit that mankind needs, we’re grateful. This season of preparation as we remember your death and your suffering, but most of all your glorious resurrection, keep us always in your love. Always give us another chance.

Copyright ©2000 The Rev. Dr. Billy Kyles


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