To begin this sermon journey let's go back two years. Remember the night that Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president? Do you remember seeing tears on the faces of civil rights leaders Congressman John Lewis and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson? These men knew intimately something of the effort and sacrifice that had been made to bring about that night. Besides those of prominence, there were countless men and women who gave their lives so that one day an African American could be elected president.
There is perhaps no better example of a man who gave his all to bring about the advancement of people who have been oppressed, and dehumanized than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is the mark of Dr. King's greatness that 42 years after his death, millions of men and women remember Martin and their hearts fill with love and gratitude. Martin Luther King is remembered and loved not just as a fallen civil rights leader. He is a hero and an inspiration to African Americans, and to millions of men and women of European, and Asian, and Native American descent. All of us have benefited from choices that Martin made during his life.
Dr. King has a special place in the hearts of Unitarian Universalists. During his days at Boston University, Martin and Coretta Scott King frequently attended UU churches. Their affinity and share values were so strong, that they even considered becoming UU. In 1967 Dr. King gave the Ware lecture at our UU General Assembly. Most of all he articulated and brought to life values and goals that we now articulate as key reasons why our congregations exist.
Dr. King's ministry was one of the finest blossoms of the Social Gospel tradition. King used the Christian scriptures to inspire people to follow Jesus and live so as to usher in the kingdom of heaven. Today's UU religion remains framed in the structure of the social gospels. The difference is that instead of Jesus' term the kingdom of heaven, we use Dr. King's phrase “the beloved community.”
King's articulated his visions of what life could become. He offered love and nonviolence in the face of mass hatred, criticisms, threats, beatings, arrests and violence. Ironically, today UUs live as if liberal values are a cross that the educated must bear. Many of us think that our progressive views means pitting ourselves against the world. Yet King paid the ultimate price for living out his convictions, and he saw himself as fortunate. He found freedom by overcoming fear of death.
King's last speech has come to be known as his "Promised Land" address. In it he spoke as if he understood the fate that awaited him. And yet he didn't waiver one inch from his path. He didn't pull back. He spoke with passion and zeal and enthusiasm for the world he had hoped would become reality. He expressed gratitude for being given the opportunity to serve as he did. To the end, he showed a joy and a sense of blessing for the fullness of the short life he was given.
It was months before my eighth birthday that King was assassinated. It was the first but not the last traumatic event in 1968. Weeks before my birthday, sweet Bobby Kennedy was murdered. There was no other political figure who seemed more familiar, who expressed values more congruent to those taught to me by my family, than Bobby Kennedy. Then Hubert Humphrey beat out the more liberal candidate Eugene McCarthy for the democratic nomination, that would likely have been Bobby's. Richard Nixon defeated Humphrey. A few short years later, I began a hero worship of a liberal Jewish man that had had been assassinated many years earlier. I knew that Jesus had been killed for speaking and acting in ways much as Martin Luther King Jr had done nearly 2000 yrs later.
I have no doubt that the traumatic impression that I felt, was experienced by the hippie generation. On some level, it was received as a clear message of what happens to anyone who offers too much challenges to the establishment. In particular, King's assassination pushed many African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans into bitterness, hatred and despair. Though understandable, it is tragic that for a time, hate and violence seemed to win out over King's nonviolence.
And as is so often the case, the spirit of the slain one rose again. Do you realize that it took almost twenty years for King's followers to succeed in establishing King's birthday as a national holiday? The seeds of nonviolence planted by King have flourished slowly and gradually.
One day about four years after King's assassination, I ventured to the public library, and I stumbled onto audiocassette recordings of speeches by Dr. King and Malcolm X. I can remember the exact spot that I sat and listened to those tapes. Like countless students before me I had stepped from the library through a portal into another world.
Their words touched me, and I would never be the same. Although their perspectives and approaches were divergent and even contradictory, both of them spoke to me of inherent worth and dignity as no one previously had. These powerful orators told of the pervasive level of hatred and invalidation that blacks were enduring.
They led me to reject my school's storybook telling of history. I would no longer accept the garment of false pride and patriotism given to us that we might cover and blind ourselves from America's disturbing realities.
You might wonder how or why the words of these African American men resonated so strongly with a white boy from the middle class suburb of Wayne NJ. Why did their words not stir in me simply guilt and fear? Perhaps it was my sensitive nature. Or that I had been traumatized by learning of what had been done to my Jewish ancestors only one generation before my birth! Perhaps they spoke to parts of me wounded by a father who served in Nazi Germany, ... or having grown up in a culture where a boy's place in the pecking order was determined by his toughness and fighting skill. Perhaps it was the degree to which I already questioned things. Or the failure of our schools and our culture to acknowledge let alone explain the deep patterns of injustice and oppression in our world.
Dr. King courageously addressed the great evils of our society, militarism, materialism and racism. He said that he “would never adjust to” these things. He said that “the kingdom of heaven would not be ushered in by the contented majority, but by the creative discontent of a maladjusted minority.”
In our society, people drink and drug and use their creativity to find ways to remain numb or distract themselves from the pain of longing for a better world , the pain of actually seeing how our society works. King urged America to get an honest look at the violence of our society. He helped us to face and begin to come to terms with our history and continuing patterns of violence. He succeeded in awakening American conscience. Deep within us, our hearts had always known that it's abhorent to treat people as property. We knew that God, life, the Universe didn't create human beings for them to be treated like expendable resources in some corporate saga for profit, or to become someone's sex object. We were not born to conquer or be conquered, to gratify our own or someone else's ego.
We were created in the image of divinity, and dignity is our birthright.
Dr. King was loved and hated because he made it difficult for people to
forget this noble truth.
Dr. King inspired us because he listened to his conscience. He listened to divine calling that caused his heart to yearn for justice, dignity and love for all. And he did so with a positive attitude. His living expressed love and a faith that the Universe bends towards justice. We were moved by his faith, and his belief of what could be and the courage to give his life to create it.
Dr. King's was not a saint. Certainly he had flaws. His detractors have loved hauling King's every flaw into the public eye. They succeed only in proving that a great man was human like the rest of us, a person of flesh, blood and bone.
Like Jesus, King shone a light upon the way to become free from the bondage of self. He showed us a way to overcome the meaninglessness of a materialistic world, and how to conquer adversity.
Dr. King discovered a great spiritual wealth, the same wealth that Jesus spoke of, the wealth that comes from being transformed from greed to giving. King inherited the treasure that Jesus bequeathed his true followers, the wealth Jesus pointed towards when he said that “he who would save his life would lose it.” “or when Jesus told the prince to give his inheritance to the poor and follow.” This is the wealth of a holy one who found a treasure worth even more than his life.“
Dr. King suggested that when people act selfishly or from hate that they are suffering from the worst kind of spiritual poverty, from an estrangement, from a lack of consciousness of divine love. Today we might call it a lack of consciousness of the kinship of all life.
Martin Luther King expressed concern for people who suffer as a result of being the recipients of racism, poverty and discrimination. He also expressed concern for those who become haters and racists, from those who hide behind economic privilege or who numb themselves to the pain of participating in a system that degrades and oppresses. Dr. King's nonviolence demonstrated a way to liberation through service, through love, through identification with something greater than ourselves.
I searched to find a story or joke to illuminate how King raised the bar for
all of us. I found instead two gratuitous jokes that do offer a contrast to King consciousness. Perhaps these speak of the normal consciousness in our society.
A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3. The
boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw
the opportunity for a moral lesson. "If Jesus were sitting here, He would
say, "Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait." Kevin turned to
his younger brother and said, "Ryan, you be Jesus!"
A second mother invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to
her six-year-old and said, "Would you like to say the blessing?" "I wouldn't know what to say," the girl replied. "Just say what you hear Mommy say," the mother answered. The daughter bowed her head and said, "Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?
Certainly Dr. King also had times when he beame weary or acted selfishly. There were times that he questioned the value of his actions. However, King consistently acted upon his faith rather than his fear. His words and deeds inspired the nation and the world.
This holiday is a time that we remember and draw upon King's inspiration. For the brave among us, it can also be a time to revive the challenge of King's pleas. I appreciate the warm feeling that we can get by reciting the most famous quote from his most famous “I have a dream speech.” I also wish that our schools exposed students to King's Beyond Vietnam speech. I wish they learned that King listed militarism, materialism and racism as the 3 great evils of our society. I wish we passed on the true spirit of King's call to liberation.
Liberation is not something we can buy at a store. It rarely comes easily. This truth is reflected in the Exodus story. The bible tells of the the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea. Few of us realize the faith it would require to escape in a parted sea. I don't know about you but every wave I've ever seen rise, soon also fell. The Israelites fled into the unknown. They wandered in the desert with only a promise of deliverance to a land somewhere out of Egypt. And how long did it take them to get there?
I know some of you women are thinking it wouldn't have taken so long if Moses had been a women. You figure that being a man, he refused to ask directions.
King showed humanity a way to march out of it's long shameful history into a brighter day. He showed us nonviolence as a way of life. NV as a way of life requires courage. It requires action, reflection, reevaluation, learning and starting again.
Dr King dared to repeat Jesus call to love our enemies.
King's love and service of mankind was based on a faith in agape, God's unconditional love for us all. King’s Christian faith led him to concern
for the entire human family. His faith also required him to confront, resist
and challenge evil. His faith moved him to speak on behalf of the
oppressed. His faith helped him become to seek justice and to become willing to speak truth to power.
Martin Luther King Jr. went to jail 29 times. He endured constant hatred, criticism and attack. He lived his life in such a way that enabled him to make a great contribution to humanity. He lived fully and gave his life that we might live out his dream.
King was more than a dreamer. So let's do more than keep the dream alive.
We can honor him by rededicating ourselves to do our part to bring about
the beloved community. Imagine UUs uniting and standing on the side of love for lgbtquis, for immigrants, for any and all oppressed. Imagine us re-igniting the fire of passion and commitment known during the civil rights movement. Remember Rev. James Reeb and imagine Uus being willing to put our lives on the line as so many did in the South in the 50's and 60's.
Imagine UU's working for election reform and in other ways taking back our country from the undue influence of Big Pharma and lobbyists from other superpower industries. Imagine UUS working to creating a city where no one went hungry or needed to live in the streets. Imagine working to see that one more group of God's children had a place at the welcome table.
Like Martin, we will realize that we might not get to the promised land. The tasks will not be completed in our lifetimes. but oh that we might be blessed with
some of Martin's faith, courage, love and wisdom. Then we might know the blessing of our service. Then we would know love and show love. We would be changing the world around us by giving what we have to give.
So be it.