(Sermon, January 14, 2018, UU Fellowship at Easton, Rev. Sue Browning)
In religious community, rituals help us remember. We have the rituals for religious holidays – Christmas, Easter, UU Water Communion. And after years of celebrating Martin Luther King Day, a secular holiday, we have an annual pattern that asks us to remember. The rituals around this holiday deepen year by year.
We’re asked to reflect on justice, and to do so through the holiday where we hear the familiar messages of justice. The music, traditional to resistance, takes on a particular meaning help us remember and takes us to the bigger story. The readings are familiar, or at least grow in familiarity. Some years ‘Letter from the Birmingham Jail,’ other years excerpts from the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and today our responsive reading, Dr. King’s, ‘A Network of Mutuality.’
We don’t all hear and feel the music and words through the same experience, but in the repeated honoring and celebrating there is a chance to create shared meaning.
We hear in today’s reading: “Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear, only love can do that. We must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not only set goals on housing, or voting rights, or education, he set the bar high on the ‘how’ of making the needed changes. The method – the process – mattered. King lived into his belief that the ends did not justify the means. The “how” one built relationships mattered. How one addressed hate could not be centered in aggression, but needed to be done in ways which strengthened the skills of love.
Skills of love. When leading adult religious education programming I’ve been taught that how the learning group is facilitated matters more than any content. How a group sees differences in viewpoints addressed is the foundation. That is where the learning takes place. In seminary one of the courses I took (Prof. Mark Hicks) was titled, ‘The Method is the Message.’
Think of our work with children. Words on kids are pretty much lost if actions don’t match. Discussions on kindness don’t penetrate if they don’t witness adults being kind.
For King, achieving moral goals had to be done morally, and he had adopted principles of nonviolence. We hear in the reading the response to the statement of war, “One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
Process matters. Acting in love can include some challenging assumptions. How do we feel about, assuming the good intent of the other, or the need to act with respect, even when it’s not returned? Can we trust understand tension in a room and to let conflict arise for the learning it brings, and not focus on some sweet sense of victory in presence of conflict?
Especially in today’s polarized world, for issues to find lasting paths to solutions, the process needs to try and form trusted relations. Trust creates predictable, honorable relationships, even with those who view the world differently that you might.
This summer Senator John McCain made several impassioned pleas for government to return to ‘regular order.’ In an August 31, 2017 editorial in the Washington Post he writes,“Our entire systems of government – with its checks and balances, its bicameral Congress, its protection of the rights of the minority – was designed for compromise. It seldom works smoothly or speedily. It was never expected to. It requires pragmatic problem-solving from even the most passionate partisans. It relies on compromise between the opposing sides to protect the interests we share. We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other. …I argued during the health-care debate for a return to regular order, letting the committees of jurisdiction do the principle work of crafting legislation and letting the full Senate debate and amend their efforts. We won’t settle all our differences that way, but such an approach is more likely to make progress on the central problems confronting our constituents. We might not like the compromises regular order requires, but we can and must live with them if we are to find real and lasting solutions.”
Process matters. And at times it is slow.
Unitarian Universalists depend on processes of integrity to work through decisions, especially challenging ones. On our back wall is a framed copy of our Covenant of Right Relations. (On wall by coffee window, yellow paper.) It is this congregation’s roadmap of the ‘how’ we do our work together.
UUFE’s Covenant of Right Relations opens, “As members of this congregation, we will be guided by love and mutual respect in our behavior toward each other. To this end, we covenant to: Freely explore our values and honor our diversity as a source of communal strength; Accept responsibility for our individual action; … Listen actively and seek clarification for full comprehension; …”
Covenant here is a verb. The rough translation would be I promise…I commit…I bind myself to the plan.
Congregational polity (the ‘how’ UU congregations operate) means we are held together in covenant. We make a commitment when we sign the membership book, in our bylaws, and in the Covenant of Right Relations. These are instruments of the ‘how’ of being together.
These are guideposts for being together are there because living in community is hard.
Ways of being and accomplishing matter in part because we err – we break covenant. I know I do. This week at a small meeting we were brainstorming, and I fell short of ‘Listen actively and seek clarification for full comprehension’ ideal. Slowing down for clarification is trusting that in the slowing there will be a chance for understanding, and knowing that trust is built in the listening. I’m both sorry I didn’t stay in right relations, am glad I apologized. I value that in the falling short, I learned. I was reminded of “the how.”
Dr. King talks of the need to make and remake community, and falling out and reconnecting is part of the weaving the fabric.
As UUs we’re called to process – and it can be crazy making! And to be clear, not all decisions need all that much process. Many don’t. Yet, long haul changes do need to be formed and implemented in inclusive ways, and in ways that strengthen trust.
Dr. King calls us to build communities of integrity; to build a society of integrity.
If Dr. King were here, I also think he’d remind us that in our willingness to learn and listen, we should not get stuck in just learning and listening. Our fear of confrontation must not be an excuse for inaction, or of silence. He tells us: “There are some things in our social system to which all of us out to be maladjusted. We need not, and should not, be ok with injustice which can rear its hear in many forms.”
Regular order is not some polite dance. It’s about engaging.
We don’t have to spend many sentences of this sermon to name that many in our society are poor, and the hurdles to become ‘not poor’ are significant. We know that poverty and race, and poverty and greed, and poverty and stigma are all intertwined – complex, and about way more than financial stories.
Some things have shifted since King was assassinated in 1968, yet the division between rich and poor remains.
What does our faith call us to do about justice for the poor? We have our principles, yet, are they enough?
The UU principles are not a creed, and not a requirement of membership, but they are statements which help us name a direction. The principles: ‘As a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we as a congregation are called to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person; Justice, equity and compassion in human relations; The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all…Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part (Among other principles.)
These are solid statements – aspirational – maybe even a UU version of what the kingdom of God may be, and yet, there is little about process. I love our principles and yet there is little to describe ‘how’ to make these aspirations reality.
Our promises of ‘how’ we build relationships, and ‘how’ we brainstorm, and then ‘how’ we keep creating better ways on track matter go beyond the principles. We need to remind ourselves to be civil, to be empathetic, and to ask for forgiveness and to forgive, and to challenge in justice in ways that make change possible.
Martin Luther King’s calling for Beloved Community was not just stating the end, though it did that. For King, Beloved Community was a vision, a vision he saw as achievable in history, though he also shared with his followers the vision was likely not to be realized in his lifetime. But, yes, achievable. King, who didn’t invent the term Beloved Community, but likely adopted it from Josiah Royce, saw the work of making and remaking community at the core of reaching the ideal, and found it was betrayal of the community when the focus was not about love of one another. Beloved Community calla us into accountability to one another – to A Network of Mutuality. Sen McCain too lifted up a need to respect the fact we need one another. In the Beloved Community power must be distributed – actually redistributed. For King, without power redistribution, there was no liberty, For King, Beloved Community was all about being empowered to participate.
Back in the 60s, after the voting rights and Civil Rights acts were law, Dr. King still could see we fell short as a people. In pursuit of Beloved Community he re-focused his work to address the needs of the poor on and issues of jobs, housing an education and he launched ‘The Poor People’s Campaign’ in 1968.
Over the last year a similar campaign for 2018 has been framed: “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” If you haven’t heard of it, you will soon. It’s being led by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis. It has not framed from thin air, but brings together many who have spent decades doing grassroots work on the issues of systemic racism, and poverty, and the war economy. It has the goal of “a just and sustainable participatory society.”
I’ve talked about Rev. Barber before, and he’s spoken at the UU General Assembly. I see his as a modern day prophet, and see this movement has legs. Today, January 14, in New York City, there is one of the initiating events. Ellen and others here are darting out after service to attend the event.
This week I received two calls on the ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ – one from a person I know in Talbot who is involved in the organizing and one from a colleague working to build the Maryland network. How might I help open doors to those who might want to participate on the Eastern shore?
The campaign is looking to create opportunities for those impacted by poverty to tell the stories, and importantly, for those impacted to lead. Community organizing requires listening to stories. Process matters. Building relationships needs to underlie the work – this is grassroots work. It’s an ambitious undertaking. It’s about shifting the narrative on poverty. It is issues-based, non-partisan (but fully expecting to engage in the political process), and is non-violent.
Check it out online. If you are interested in the groundwork on the Eastern Shore, please let me know. There will be opportunities to get involved. It’s a campaign about the ‘how’ of the change.
Our UU foundation helps us engage in love. Our 7 principles set a vision. And as we’ve discussed in prior sermons an 8th principle is under consideration with more ‘how’ on matters of oppression, i.e. ‘As UUs we affirm and promote journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.’
As UUs we are called into covenant with the wider world – into relationships. Our wellbeing depends upon it. And at the crux of it all, the method must be love. We must act in respect, and build trust. On this MLK Sunday, may we each recommit to our highest ideals, and may we have the courage and fortitude to recommit to act, and to do so always in love.
May It Be So