Muhammad Ali: Going Home To Be With God
In our opening prayer this fourth Sunday after Pentecost we pray, “…that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ…” We are those people called to minister God’s justice with compassion.
I sat glued to the television yesterday as The Champ, The Greatest, was sent home to be with God, with Allah, with YHWH, to dwell in the eternal Now of the Tao. I watched as the cavalcade of cars made its way through the streets of Louisville as thousands paid tribute to one who, as Bryant Gumble observed, had early in his life been a polarizing figure, but who in pursuit of ministering God’s justice with compassion became one of the single most unifying figures in the world – the whole world.
As I listened, one person after another told stories of a man from humble beginnings who changed the world we live in by striving for justice and peace for all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being. He lived the truth of Islam in a time when the religion of the prophet has been misunderstood and mis-appropriated in so many ways. We heard of how when Parkinson’s robbed him of his mighty voice he said, “Well, maybe God is punishing me for some of the things I didn’t do right….I believe that when you die and go to heaven, God won’t ask you what you’ve done but what you could have done.”
We heard of how he would sometimes wade into the geo-political quagmire to rescue hostages in Iraq in the run-up to the First Gulf War. Fifteen Americans held hostage by Saddam Hussein were released thanks to Ali’s steadfast and persistent efforts. ‘“You know, I thanked him,” said former hostage Bobby Anderson. “And he said, ‘Go home,’ be with my family . . . what a great guy.”
Go home. Be with your family. Another time he was watching an Olympic boxing match won by a young American. After the fight the young man was brought to Ali’s side for the obligatory and familiar photograph of The Champ with a fist aimed at the young man’s face and a smile on his own. When they were done he turned to a friend and said, “I want to see the loser.” They took him to the locker room where there were no reporters, no cameras, just a young man, dejected, sitting on a stool. Ali walked over, put his arm around him and said, “You were great, man. Get up and show me what you’ve got.” For a few minutes they jabbed and sparred as best he could. “You’re going to be fine,” said the greatest. “Keep at it, get back up and you will be fine.” After his own loss to Larry Holmes, a fight in which all the money was on Holmes, Ali ran into an older man who worked at the arena and asked him who he had bet on. The man said, “Why you, of course.” Ali said, “Why did you do that? I didn’t have a chance in that ring!” The man replied, “Because Muhammad Ali gave me my dignity – I would bet on you any time and every time!”
Jesus, we read in Luke 7: 36-8:3, is invited to dinner with a respected Pharisee named Simon. While eating, a woman with an alabaster jar of ointment comes in off the street and begins to “bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.” Simon, the putative host, says, to himself, “If this man were a prophet he would know what kind of woman she is – she is a sinner.” Jesus knows what Simon is thinking and tells a story about forgiveness. Then, sounding much like the young Cassius Clay he says, “You did not give me water to wash my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears. You did not greet me with a kiss, but she has not stopped kissing me since she came in. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet. Therefore, her sins which are many are forgiven for she has shown great love and compassion.” And to the woman he says, “Your faith has saved you – go in peace, go in shalom.” God’s shalom. God’s shalom is a vision of peace, justice and dignity for all people. Not some people, not a lot of people, but all people. Jesus essentially says to Simon, when you go home to God you will not be asked what you did, but what you did not do.
Ali embodied that. There were tee-shirts all over Louisville with the words, “I am Ali!” We could all do worse in choosing a role model who challenged Jim Crow America, took stand against an unjust war, and chose to bring out the good in people wherever he went.
We pray that we might become those people who minister God’s justice with compassion. We are called to live lives that bring God’s justice and shalom to all people, everyone we meet – every life we touch. The verses that were skipped over in our weekly readings in Luke (Lk 7: 18-35) have to do with there being two types of people in the world: those who follow in the way of Jesus and those who do not. Then comes the story of Simon and this woman off the streets.
So the texts mean to ask us: Who will we be? One of the Simons of the world who look down with judgment upon others? Or, will we become more like this woman? Or, like Jesus? Or, like Muhammad Ali?
I was somewhat disappointed as I watched things unfold in Louisville yesterday. I had to hunt for one among the hundreds of stations that carried it. Of course it was ESPN, a sports station. I had thought that it would be carried on every major media outlet. I had to flip through the channels since even the guide did not say what was really on ESPN! Yet, my persistence was greatly rewarded. We listened in awe, those of us who did. We laughed, we cried, but most of all we were led to ask ourselves, “What could I do?”
We are but a moment’s sunlight fading in the grass. Soon, like The Greatest, we will be done with the troubles of this world. We’re all going home to be with God. We can, like Ali, be at home with God in this world as well as in the next. We who pray to be those people who minister God’s justice with compassion.
A rabbi who lived around the time of Jesus, Hillel, once said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when? Jesus embodied this ethic. The woman off the streets embodied this ethic. Muhammad Ali embodied this ethic – when none of us were watching, when none of us could see. He’s gone home to be with God. Yet, as we now know, he was always at home with his God as he ministered God’s justice with compassion every day. It’s the only way to be done with the troubles of this world. When we are done with the troubles of this world, God won’t ask what we did, but what we did not do. Amen.