Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton
Our reading this morning comes from late in Martin Luther King’s journey. It is from a sermon preached in 1967, well after the bus boycotts and the Voting Act was passed. An excerpt from “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” delivered in in December 1967 at Ebenezer Baptist Church (Atlanta), where Martin Luther King served as co-pastor.
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.’”
Guideposts in Times of Transition
Martin Luther King was born in January 1929. He would be 88 years old today had he lived.
He named the truths of his day with clarity. He sorted through deep challenges and helped an ever-growing list of followers find direction. He shook things up, and he was persistent. This is our month of talking of prophets, and by all definitions Martin Luther King, Jr. is a modern prophets.
Assassinated at age 39, in his relatively short life he faced many transitions, The world changed around him, and he’d adapt. Other times changes he’d within himself and stimulate transitions in his leadership.
Martin Luther King went through what I’d call ‘normal’ coming of age transitions. He’d grown up in a middle class family in Atlanta, his father a pastor, and he an academic prodigy. At a young age he attended college at Morehouse College in Atlanta, went onto divinity school in Chester Pa, and then to study for his doctorate in Boston. Many transitions and chances to learn.
King was a thinker, and he was a spiritually driven son of a preacher. He had natural and honed skills of delivering a message. He chose to let go of a possible academic career and followed his call to ministry and social justice leadership. Marriage and children in his twenties had to be transitions.
Beyond these ‘normal’ transitions, he faced transitions which flowed from disruption.
In early 1956 he had a personal encounter with violence> His home was bombed. Some context for these times. In Sept 1954 he’d begun at Dexter Ave Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama. Earlier that year the Supreme Court had ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregation was unconstitutional. In late 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus.
An active start to his civil rights role, and in early 1956, while he was out at a meeting his home, with wife and 2 month old child inside, was bombed.
His ‘we need to hang tough’ beliefs must have been challenged.
He knew of the risks in the communities he served, but this violence was against him. Theoretical risk is different than actual risk. It’s good to remember this when the world looks challenging. Are my fears about the theoretical change? Or am I personally at risk?
His wife and children were not harmed. His reflects on his experience later that evening this way,
“After our many friends left the house late that evening, Coretta, Yoki, and I were driven to the who of one of our church members to spend the night. I could not get to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding hatred. And once more I caught myself and said” “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.” (The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. By Clayborne Carson, p. 80)
In another example of his struggles during this period, Richard Deats (“Martin Luther King, Jr. – Spirit Led Prophet”) lifts another story during the boycott (Dec. 1955-Dec. 1956) when King by an definition was under incredible pressure.
“At the end of the morning Mother Pollard came to the front of the church and said, ‘Come here, son.’ I immediately went to her and hugged her affectionately. ‘Something is wrong with you,’ she said. ‘You didn’t talk strong tonight.’ Seeking to further disguise my fears, I retorted, ‘On no, Mother Pollard, nothing is wrong. I am feeling as fine as ever.’ But her insight was discerning. ‘Now you can’t fool me,’ she said. ‘I know something is wrong. Is it that we ain’t doing things to please you?’ Before I could respond, she looked directly in my eyes and said, ‘I don told you we is with you all the way,’ Then her face became radiant and she said in words of quiet certainty, ‘But even if we ain’t with you, God’s gonna take care of you.’ As she spoke these consoling words, everything in me quivered and quickened with the pulsing tremor of raw energy.
When we sense something is missing, or our mission is challenged, we need to find a source to renew our energy. Mother Pollard offered some wisdom, and in her reminder to King reassured him he would not be alone. With burdens lifted, energy came. Mother Pollard hadn’t denied his fears. She was at that moment a source of courage. He adjusted his outlook and continued.
In the late 1950s King also found to keep the pace and focus, he periodically heeded needed to step away from the intensity of the local actions of resistance. Leading the boycott he found himself turning to the teachings of Ghandi for methods. He knew ends could not justify violence or hate as means, and too knew he needed to deepen his roots on these principles to continue. These are the ingrained principles we hear in his 1967 reading I shared earlier – the principles we hear in in 1967 reading, “Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you.” Hate was never justified; and love would wear down the oppressor.
He travelled to Africa in 1957 as Ghana gained independence, and in 1959 travelled to India. These were chances to study and consider freedom and nonviolence from multiple directions. To endure the continual need for decisions on big and little matters he needed grounding in principles that was deep. .
King continually faced times when he needed to evaluate his re-set his focus and priorities. After the March on Washington, and Selma and the Voting Rights Act (passed in 1965) many had him defined as “the civil rights guy.”
He sensed his mission needed to expand. He had always had economic justice in his message, and saw it a message needing amplification for blacks and whites. He was also sensing greater urgency to oppose the war in Viet Nam.
This life transition would have him test limits – his own and society’s.
In his autobiography (Caron) he says,
“I was chided, even by fellow civil rights leaders, members of Congress, and brothers of the cloth for ‘not sticking to the business of civil rights.’ I agonized a great deal over this whole problem. I went away for two months to do a lot of thinking, but basically to write a book. I had a chance to reflect, to meditate to think. … Something said to me, ‘Martin, you have to stand up on this. No matter what it means.’ I didn’t rush into it. I didn’t just decide on a moment’s notice. I had my own vacillations and I asked questions…”
Silence in the face of evil was something King couldn’t live with. And too, he remained grounded in nonviolence philosophies.
King found courage in times of transition. He found resolve when facing fear and uncertainty. He lived a life of change, of facing one transition after another.
Friends, we too face a transition this week. On Saturday a new president will be inaugurated. The Inauguration this week will be the transition of power in our country. That is our process.
Approaching this transition, we can learn from Martin Luther King.
At each stage he took stock of the present moment – the status of equality and fairness, the challenges of poverty, the devastation of war. He was skilled at doing so, and too he took the time to do so. He did so with intent, and with precision.
Where are we at this present moment?
I ask less about the leaders, but more about who isn’t cared for in our world? Who is lonely? Who is without medicine or shelter? Martin Luther King had to work with the leaders who were in power. His focus was on outcomes – to changes to policy and practice. Plenty opposed him, yet he built coalitions of those with a shared vision for policy and change.
In the midst of change, Martin Luther King also took of stock of ‘the possible’ – the ‘for now possible,’ the ‘next tactical step possible’ and made each of these choices with a bold clear sense of the bigger end game goals.
What will be the ‘for now’ possible the day after Inauguration? Where is your energy called? Maybe it will be to our local community – a shift for TIS (Talbot Interfaith Shelter), or to writing a letter to representatives, or to pressing on outcomes for something specific. MLK faced obstacles and challenges. He took stock.
King was not a hand-wringer, at least he didn’t wring his hands for too long. Ok, he didn’t need to watch never ending cycles news on cable and Facebook – the present day hand-wringing.
The ‘what to do, what to do’ circle of fretting and looking back is not a lesson of Martin Luther King. He addressed change not with certainty, but with a determination to act out of conviction, even when the odds felt low – especially when the odds felt low. He looked at his goals; he looked for allies; he was provided energy from many sources, and from there he moved where he was to where he needed to go with conviction and hope.
Finally, at each transition he needed a source of reassurance, comfort and care. He had Mother Pollard and a connection with the holy. He was a man grounded in faith.
Where do you draw in energy for the transitions in your life? While MLK needed replenishment often, I wonder if he made time to seek this out enough sources of renewal? It was likely challenging as his fame grew. I wonder if renewal sometimes took a back seat?
Lessons: Take stock of where we are. Take stock of the possible. Take time to renew. Act.
And as you walk through the transitions in your life, what are your bedrock principles? For King, his compass was steady: Hate is never ok. Violence is never ok. Silence in the face of injustice is never ok.
Sometimes transitions are laid before us; sometimes we choose, other times we don’t.
Whenever there is change, there is loss – loss is a part of change. And too, if we stay awake, in the present, and open to the possible, and if we stay rested and fed spiritually we may in these times of transition see things anew. And in these moments, just maybe we’ll find unexpected openings…places we can contribute…times of new alliance…and even surprises of fresh energy and inspiration.
May It Be So