Sermons: “Living the Dream: A Sermon for Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday”
The words came and my heart soared. He said ... “A new dawn of American leadership is at hand."
And I sat up, listened differently ... wanted to believe
He said "I will listen to you. I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation. Block by block, brick by brick, callused hand by callused hand."
Tears came to my eyes. I knew in that moment that his words moved from my ears, through my head, through my heart and spoke directly to my soul.
He said “The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America—I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you—we as a people will get there.”
My head and heart had been engaged for months. But on this night, he spoke and my soul lurched forward, listened and I believed.
Perhaps it was the same for you as the soon-to-be 44th president of our country accepted the nomination to lead us for the next four, perhaps eight years.
I was surprised by the depth of my emotional reaction.
It ringed of another time. Over 4 decades ago when souls across the nation also lurched forward and listened. When words moved from ears, through heads and hearts and into human spirits yearning to be called. Yearning to make a difference. Yearning to change a world.
When a different man spoke and said,
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”
And when this same man said: “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom—symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning—signifying renewal, as well as change.”
And said “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
And then said “ Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah—to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."
And when that man said “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Spirits of all ages responded, birthing the Peace Corps, beginning new initiatives and laying groundwork for the next great voice who would one day say,
“I have a dream,”
and a nation of spirits understanding that when spirit leads a nation, then injustice is bared and there is no other choice but to act, lurched forward. An army of clergy and citizens would open their souls to his words, their eyes to the truth and travel to Montgomery and to Selma. Pulled by their spirits, they would act swiftly, with great courage uniting hands, hearts and souls in the most holy and spiritual work possible. The aspiration of justice for all of creation’s children, of beloved community.
And so here we are today, poised yet again on the precipice of great change, great hope and great aspirations. About to take our helm, a voice that like JFK and MLK, Jr. captivates the multitudes, energizes the young, reminds the old of a better time and brings hope to those of us in between, reminding us that change can happen.
All three of these men, visionary. All three of these men, passionate. All three of these men, believers and doers. All three deeply spiritual. All three leaders. Leaders able to speak directly to the souls, the spirits of the people. Directly to you and to me. All three understanding that we need a dream.
History tells us that it worked. Each of their messages heard.
Carolyn Kennedy reflected, “Ever since I was a little girl, people have told me that my father changed their lives. They got involved in public service, in government, in their communities because he asked them to and they wanted to be part of something larger and better than themselves.” We know the Peace Corps inspired nearly 200,000 volunteers serving in over 138 countries and learning more than 200 languages and dialects over the past 4 decades.
We know that MLK inspired civil rights leaders all over the country to mobilize, go to Selma, put the rest of their lives on hold to correct grave injustices, at great risk. We know his efforts gave birth to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, inspired civil rights activists and leaders, some of whom gave up their lives to serve that vision.
We know their stories live on today, still inspiring, still stirring souls. We could parade heroes and heroines in front of us all day long, all week long, saying ‘they lived the dream.’ And that would be true. That would be inspiring. And that would also miss an important point.
How easily we point to those stories and say ‘See. That’s when we were all living the dream.’ We point and perhaps we yearn for those times, when we felt like we were making a difference, when we were engaged, when we were winning the battle toward a better tomorrow.
But the truth is that it’s all been on our watch. The good, the bad and the horrific. That JFK and MLK drew us into engagement, but that it wasn’t about ‘our time is now.’ It was about our absence.
The truth is that we had no business not being involved then and we’ve let ourselves down now. The truth is that this is our world to do with what we please and it’s wrong to point and say ‘look what they’ve done.’ Because we’ve been here all along. It was true then and it’s true now.
Because it is on our watch that we have entered the worst economic crisis since the great depression.
On our watch that civil liberties have been eroded
On our watch that our worldwide identity has become associated with words like occupier. Arrogance. Empire.
Did the dream evaporate? What of our souls? Did we stop listening? Was it all about one man dream? And then another’s? And once lost to death, we could not or would not carry on? How is it that we lost our way? Did it happen quickly? Or erode like the sands changing over time?
Because on has been our watch torture condoned and conducted by our people.
On our watch good men and women detained without due process—rendition.
On our watch, thousands lost to war?
On our watch, marriage equality stolen away in CA and measures to block constructed elsewhere
On our watch poor African Americans remain without housing in post-Katrina Lousiana
On our watch we still celebrate Columbus Day knowing how his crew really came ashore.
On our watch, immigrant children left parentless because we won’t figure out a better way.
I know there are those among us who would say “Not here in church should we have to look at these unhappy truths. But therein lies the rub. For it was when our spirits let go of the dream that we lost our way. When, as a country, we began to dance with prosperity at the expense of humanity that we began to lose. When, as a country, we placed more of a premium on personal safety than communal justice that we lost more. When, as a country, we let spirituality become something isolated and given rather than relational and earned that we let go entirely. It was on our watch, not some disconnected ‘other.’
How easily we look to this new day, claim it as ‘our time’ and the past eight years as another’s. A colleague said ‘my new year begins on Tuesday.’ Others count down. Some sneer and point. I’ve been members of each of those groups. But it was on our watch that we arrived here today.
Earlier I noted that JFK and MLK, Jr. understood that we needed a dream. That to speak to our spirits, our souls, the dream must be central to our humanity, call upon our deepest sense of justice and good. The dream needed to get past our head and heart and speak to our spirits. But they understood something more as well. I’m not sure we did or do. They knew the dream was not theirs to own. Not even theirs to author. They knew it had to be that which was authored and owned by our deepest, best selves. The sort of yearnings that can only be authored by spirit. That they were merely stirring that which we knew to be true and just and right. And so it is with Barack Obama
He spoke and something stirred. It was my spirit. My soul and I suspect yours stirred too. It is critical that we pay attention to that moment. We need to turn toward that stirring and once and for all connect the feeling of awe, excitement, hope or fervor. Whatever you name it, recognize it as our spirit crying out ‘yes’ and commit it to action. Lifelong, strong, strong action.
Figuring our how we landed in this economic crisis and figuring out how to survive, how to support each other, how to support this institution because now more than ever we need each other. Now, more than ever.
We cannot lose our way again. Not ever again.
Yes, in two days we will inaugurate the 44th president of the United States of America. It will be a day like no other in recent history. Tears will be shed. But then tomorrow will come. Our watch will continue.
As that dawn breaks, I pray it be a watch that includes:
Marriage equality for all Americans
Truth telling about the American genocide of Native Americans.
A return to economic health based on fair practices, fiscal responsibility, business models rooted in fairness rather than executive greed, consumerism grounded in need rather than excess and local economies supportive of small business owners rather than big box monstrosities.
A refusal to entertain the notion that because a black man has been elected president, that this is a post-racial America and instead turn toward racism, address issues of white privilege, tell the truth about our history and seek to undo systemic racism still embedded in our culture—still embedded in this town.
That our watch includes an embracement of world community valuing diversity rather than empire-building.
That our watch seek justice everywhere with special attention to the rights of women and children.
That on our watch we will see the hungry and homeless and feed and house them and yes, redistribute wealth so that they are hungry and homeless no more.
That our watch puts an end to hate crimes against those who are seen as different in any of our communities.
That on our watch, a transgendered teen will find support rather than suicide. That we reach into the lives of those suffering from abuse, whether domestic, elder or other and find ways to name it, correct it and prevent it.
That our watch seeks to understand rather than occupy, to learn rather than impose, to engage rather than vanquish.
I pray that our watch never ends. I pray that we see our watch, not as something we pick up casually or when need is driven by a state of affairs finally so unpalatable or inhospitable that we MUST join on the special watch. Instead a central piece of spiritual practice for all people seeking a better tomorrow.
In two days we will inaugurate a 44th president and I am more excited about that than words can say. But today, our watch continues and on this day, when we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quite possibly one of our most powerful leaders of spirit seeking justice, might we commit ourselves anew to the role each of us plays in leading—yes, leading our country, our communities, our congregation, our families, ourselves to that better tomorrow.
If it be so, then in two days, we will arrive at the inauguration of our president an army of souls, ready to join the very best sort of force. And when he begins to speak our souls will lie open, ready to receive those words, knowing full well the dream he paints is already ours. And as we take in the words a hush will wash over our bodies.... And we’ll commit to finding our path toward action. Lifeling action. And in doing so, as we receive and affirm his words of ‘Yes we can. Yes we can’ we’ll be able to add ‘Never again, will we let go. Not on our watch. Not on ours.’
I pray it be so. Blessed be and Amen.
Choir then sings ‘Hush’ before the closing hymn ‘Spirit Says Do.’
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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