At Least Part of the Dream has Come True, Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday, Rev. Arthur G. Severance

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Do you remember one of the first popular black comedians of TV, Flip Wilson? Most of us are like the old Flip Wilson routine, in which someone asked Flip about his religion and he answered, "I am a Jehovah's Bystander."

    "A Jehovah's Bystander?" remarked his friend. "I never heard of a Jehovah's Bystander."

   Flip looked coy and said, "Well, they asked me to be a witness, but I didn't want to get involved."

    There is an old Jewish saying that sounds so Unitarian Universalist, Act as if there no God and we were responsible for the welfare of the world! I believe, you see, that WE ARE God, the spirit of love and life and good. So when I hear someone say why does God allow suffering? I want to answer, Why do YOU? Or perhaps respond with an old Arabic saying, when you see a blind man, kick him; why you should be any kinder than God?

   Why is there racism? Is it Gods fault? Did HE make whites better than Blacks? Men superior to women? The Promised land available to only one race?  Or are these political questions, woven into biblical and cultural beliefs that have divided humankind and may continue to do so until we all become Universalists in the broadest sense!

     It is eerie to note that Jesus and Martin both began their real ministry in their late 20s and early 30s. Martin was 26 when he was asked to be the chairperson of the bus boycott in Montgomery Alabama. Jesus was thought to be in his late 20s, but was killed after only a short time, between 1 and 3 years of ministry. Both were prophets railing against injustice and much of that injustice was economic, and not only that but it continues to be the same injustice-poverty, exploitation, and oppression in a world of plenty, and a nation hell-bent on consumerism over human concerns. The moneychangers are still in the temple and in the mall and in the church and on the internet. They have might be seen as archetypes and this present economic crisis laid at their feet. Tragically and ironically, King was assassinated while in Memphis Tennessee against the advice of his closest advisors- to help the lowly garbage workers most of whom were African American achieve a decent wage. Their motto became Are we not men?  Perhaps in relation to the Declaration of Independence All men are create d equal, etc. because we know now that when that was written, by a Unitarian, Thomas Jefferson, he was also a slave holder, and women, of course, couldn't vote, so what was meant really was. all white males (probably property owners) are created equal. Indeed, later, Congress would decide that slaves could be counted as 3/5 of a person for census figures for congressional representation.

    "I have the audacity," said Dr. King," to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men(people) have torn down, other-centered men (people) can build up....

   There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American [worker] whether he is a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer."

    Martin Luther King, Jr. is not just the name of an African American Baptist preacher who was martyred as a civil rights leader; he is a prophetic metaphor for peace, justice, and equality and has already started to become mythologized. Make no mistake about it; Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet, a follower of Jesus who put the Christian teachings of love and justice to the test-that of being willing to risk his life for what he knew was right I want to emphasize that word prophet, because I believe that is really how King will be viewed, a figure like Gandhi in India, that was a transformer of history around him. that was himself, if you will, a true maker of history for millions of people in a positive way that has changed this country so profoundly that the day after his official holiday, the first African American President will be sworn into office, and may himself be another transformer of history, another pivotal moment of change, of what is now called a paradigm shift. That's a term that means a change so profound and deep that everything changes around it and we have a new way of thinking, acting, being, doing, even believing. That's why I titled the sermon part of the Dream has been Realized, because of King, and all the people involved of course, (that is always shorthand to mean that) this country has come from the Civil Rights Act giving blacks the true right to vote to the election of a black man to President- imagine what that message must mean! NOT that racism is gone, of course, but that we have at least broken the color barrier in another profound way!  Oh, perhaps my children will someday get to the point where they never hear that someone is the first African American to do such and. such. Or for that matter, the first woman, Hispanic, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, maybe even the first Atheist to be elected President!

    Martin Luther King, Jr., was only 26 when he accepted the leadership of the bus boycott that started the civil rights movement as we know it now. Perhaps he was too young to know better, perhaps a bit cocky, not too long out of seminary, and come from a good Baptist dynasty after all. But he became nothing less than a true prophet; he literally laid down his life for the message of love, peace, racial harmony, and economic equality, "Many white Americans of good will," says King, "have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship."

    The UUA honors the three UU martyrs Jimmie Lee Jackson became a martyr of the civil rights struggle when police and state troopers attacked voting rights marchers in Marion, Alabama. Jackson, a black Vietnam veteran, was shot in the stomach as he attempted to protect his mother and grandfather. He died seven days later. Marion's entire black community turned out for Jackson's funeral march. The Rev. James Reeb was living in Boston with his wife and four young children. Within days he joined several hundred UU ministers in answering the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King's call to clergy from around the country to journey to Selma for a second attempt at the march.

   ... As he exited a restaurant where he and UU minister, Clark Olsen ate, they were attacked and Reeb was fatally clubbed. Reeb died from his injuries on March 11, 1965.

   Viola Fauver Gregg Liuzzo , a Unitarian Universalist committed to working for education and economic justice, was 39 years old and a mother of five when she came to Selma from Detroit to support the marchers. . On March 25, Liuzzo was shot to death along Highway 80 by Ku Klux Klansmen. On March 27 President Lyndon Johnson called Liuzzo's husband James and reportedly said, "I don't think she died in vain because this is going to be a battle, all out as far as I'm concerned." Liuzzo responded, "My wife died for a sacred battle, the rights of humanity. She had one concern ... she took a quote from Abraham Lincoln that all men are created equal and that's the way she believed."

    The reason I and so many others followed King was because he also was following the teachings of Jesus which were brought into the focus of the 20th century and went beyond doctrine and denomination into social action, but always nonviolent and in the name of love. It is important to remember how crucial a role what is called the Social Gospel or liberal Christianity played in the civil rights movement, that my social justice inspiration came from my upbringing in the Congregational church in the 1960s, though there weren't many sermons preached about it! As a youth, however, King was personifying what Jesus taught!

   When I speak of love, King said , I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. ...Love is the most durable power in the world. This creative force, so beautifully exemplified in the life of our Christ, is the most potent instrument available in humankind's quest for peace and security.

   ...Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You dont have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

    One of the reasons why religion, and especially religious prophets, may be such a threat to oppressive regimes and even pleasant capitalist consumer governments is that the religious dimension is on a different plane, working toward a  society and world where love and justice prevails, where true happiness concerns service not stock prices. The prophets of all religions agree that it is not wealth and power which bring us peace, which makes us truly content, but the working toward justice.

    Black Liberation Theologian Robert McAfee Brown says: To think that we can be neutral in today's world is to believe that we can fail to be present, that we can afford the luxury of being simply absent, taking no sides, no options. We are all present one way or another in this historical moment and we can either contribute to the liberation of the oppressed of the world or we can contribute to exploitation and injustice.

   We are indeed either part of the problem or part of the solution, and yet it is rarely a very clear choice. Few us consciously choose racist solutions to any problems; indeed most of us, I would hazard a guess are probably unaware of the racial implications in most of our economic decisions, and we sin out of ignorance rather than intent, but, brothers and sisters, we often sin, none the less. One of my colleagues worked in the mid-sixties for someone named  Bill Stringfellow who was an attorney, a serious theologian, an Episcopalian, a radical Christian who used to say that sin was living in this world at the expense of someone else."

   Thats the kind of sin Im talking about. The sin of selish-ism, of not sharing.

    Black Harvard Professor Cornell West says in his book Race Matters, published by our own Beacon Press and making it to the NY Times Best-seller list in 1994: "To struggle to barely survive while others live in million dollar homes; to never have the medical care you need for you sick and dying child when you know it is available; to know hunger and very poor quality of food day in and day out while others eat at posh restaurants . . . crushes the will to live . . . virtually drives people crazy . . . fills people with anger and hatred and leads to nihilism . . . the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness...

      I couldn't help but be struck by the prophetic language that Barack Obama preached, if I may use that term, all during his campaign as if he sometimes he was channeling the spirit of Dr. King, but in a more universal sense, because he was talking about us all, not just African Americans. That is both a plus and a minus. His theme of hope speaks to the words of Dr King and others and his heritage gives that very hope to millions of young back children who for the first time will see their color, if you will, and call it whatever else you wish-culture, race, ethnicity- in the highest office in the land, perhaps even the most powerful position in the world!  No longer for whites only!

    And as West  continues, Race Matters , and see if this doesn't sound like Obama's campaign speech- ...One essential step is some form of large-scale public intervention to ensure access to basic social goods-housing, food, health care, education, child care, and jobs.. We must invigorate the common good with a mixture of government, business, and labor that does not follow any existing blueprint....Last, the major challenge is to meet the need to generate new leadership..

   ..Let us hope and pray that the vast intelligence, imagination, humor, and courage of Americans will not fail us. Either we learn the language of empathy and compassion, or the fire this time will consume us all.

    Obama's speaking style is much like Dr. Kings, much like the black preaching style, polished with a Harvard education and accent, and made more universal by Barack's individual situation- African Father, White American mother- raised primarily in Hawaii by white grandparents, yet he his eloquence, and I will even say his universal spirituality, 

touched a chord in America at a time when we desperately need someone we can believe in again, someone to inspire and motivate us again. And as Dr. King (and so many others of course) brought about a paradigm shift if this country (though we still have far to go for racial harmony), I think Barack has done that as well!

        King spoke at on of our denominational General Assemblies back in 1966, He was the keynote speaker, giving what is called the The Ware Lecture, named after a 19th century Unitarian Harvard Professor. Let me share some of it with you:

   My own personal experience with Unitarian Universalism began when I was a student at Boston University, back in the early 50s. I can remember on several occasions visiting Arlington Street Church where your distinguished Dr. Greeley pastored at that time. And I can remember beyond that, in the early years of my ministry, indeed, beyond that in the early years of the bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, three of your ministers visited and encouraged me during that very trying and often difficult period...

    ...(Another) myth that we must deal with is that of exaggerated progress. Certainly we have made progress in race relations. And I think we can all glory that things are better today than they were ten years ago or even three years ago. We should be proud of the steps we've made to rid our nation of this great evil of racial segregation and discrimination. On the other hand, we must realize the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower. The Negro is freer in 1966, but he is not yet free. The Negro knows more dignity today than he has known in any period of his history in this country, but he is not yet equal.... I'm appalled that some people feel that the civil rights struggle is over because we have a 1964 civil rights bill with ten titles and a voting rights bill. Over and over again people ask, what else do you want?

    Another thing about this philosophy which is often misunderstood and that it says that at its best the love ethic can be a reality in a social revolution. Most revolutions in the past have been based on hope and hate, with the rising expectations of the revolutionaries implemented by hate for the perpetrators of the unjust system in the old order. I think the different thing about the revolution that has taken place in our country is that it has maintained the hope element and at the same time it has added the dimension of love.

    Let me say in conclusion that I have not despaired of the future. I believe firmly that we can solve this problem. I know that there are still difficult days ahead. And they are days of glorious opportunity. Our goal for America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America's. Before the Pilgrim father's landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before Jefferson etched across the pages of history the words that I just quoted from the Declaration of Independence, we were here. Before the beautiful words of the Star Spangled Banner were written, we were here. For more than two centuries our forbearers labored here without wages. They made cotton king. They built the homes of their masters in the midst of the most oppressive and humiliating conditions. And yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to grow and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn't stop us, the opposition that we now face will surely fail. We're going to win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands. And we can sing We Shall Overcome, because somehow we know the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

    I think this sounded like Barack's campaign of hope for all of America, but especially for those who had been left pout of the great prosperity of the few for the many. We need hope now more than ever, the words and dreams of King, more than ever. the great African American poet ,Langston Hughes and see if it does not somehow link to Martin Luther king day coming up and then the inauguration of The first African American President, Barack Obama...

 Dreams     

Hold fast to dreams /For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow.

    The prophets of the Ancient Hebrew Bible, the great prophet Jesus of the Christian Bible, the prophet of the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as the prophet Rosa Parks, who dared to say that she didn't have to sit at the back of the bus any longer, and we who might be prophets as well,  come together in  common ground of love and justice,  toward a transformed world which we might continue cocreate at this axis of time, this turning of history. To love our neighbor as ourselves, one of the great commandments, is a radical step if we take it seriously. Let us have deep faith that We Shall Overcome. Let us go all forth  as prophets.

   Amen, Shalom, (Peace in Hebrew), Assalaamu Alaikum(may Peace be upon you in Arabic), Abrazos a todos (Hugs all around) Namaste, (A Hindu greeting the divinity within you) Blessed Be, and let me add one more blessing that I adapted from the Spanish long before I went in to ministry. Vaya con Dios is SPanish for Good-bye, but literally is Go with God, SO I adapted it to say Vaya Con Su Dios, Go with your idea or interpretation of God.

 

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