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Dreams of Our Nation

This morning, in our worship, we celebrate the confluence of two national events. We honor the inspirational spiritual leadership of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who moved our nation to greater equality of opportunity during the historic Civil Rights Movement. And, we celebrate a symbolic moment that marks the progress achieved because of Dr. Martin Luther King’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement: this week, we will witness the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first ever African American to be elected to the highest office in our nation.

As we remember and celebrate the life of Dr. King today, we cannot fail to note that a great measure of his success, indeed the success of the Civil Rights Movement, was due to the complex efforts of religious people of all faiths to organize neighborhoods, cities, states, and finally, our nation into a “Beloved Community”—that is, into communities that truly reflect the values of the Judeo-Christian heritage upon which much of our constitutional freedoms are built. I would not dare to say that we have achieved the ideal “Beloved Community,” but we have made glorious steps forward, and this is a week when we must remember, celebrate, and rededicate ourselves…to the Dream.

When Dr. King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech, men and women of all faiths were marching alongside him in many cities throughout the Deep South. Unitarians and Universalists marched beside rabbis, priests, sisters, and other people inspired by faith to work nonviolently to achieve equality of access for all Americans.

Indeed, Rev. James Reeb, a Unitarian minister who participated in the freedom marches with three other Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers, lost his life on his way home from a gathering of those who were marching. All four of our UU ministers were brutally beaten for socializing with and marching for the civil rights of African Americans. James Reeb died from the injuries he sustained in this beating.

The ultimate sacrifice of his life—something many of us could not do—is recognized in the Memorial Chapel for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, located in Atlanta, Georgia. If you ever go to Atlanta, I highly recommend a pilgrimage to this sacred space.

Although many of us were not called to put our lives at risk in such a bold way, during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, and ever since, Unitarians and Universalists have worked to further the cause of racial equality in our nation.

  • We have knocked on doors in poor communities to register African Americans to vote.
  • We have organized laborers to fight for fair wages and benefits.
  • We’ve served in the Peace Corps, in Americorps, and we’ve established our own nonprofits to support the needs of African American children in failing public schools.
  • Thousands of Unitarians and Universalists responded to the plight of Mississippeans and New Orleaneans who lost their homes, their communities due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • We worked and sometimes slept side by side with Southern Baptists, Episcopaleans, Catholics, Jews, and so many unchurched individuals who responded to the needs of our Gulf Coast by doing service vacations here, or moving here, and working to rebuild our cities house by house, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood.

On Tuesday, when Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States of America, as Unitarians and Universalists, we can celebrate the successes of so many grassroots organizers and neighborhood leaders who gave their hearts and minds to a cause that is worthy of our embrace:

  • Change in how we do our politics.
  • Change in our national priorities.
  • Change in our approach to how we solve our nation’s greatest problems.

But, when the celebrations are over, when we’ve had our fill of the elation, the rapture, the thrill of this most significant American transition to power, it is very important for us to remember: President Obama is not our savior, he is our leader, and the builder of a superb national grassroots movement.

His election has much symbolic power. But, for this renewed movement to bear fruit, once the celebration is over, we must all get back to work.

Now that the election is over, volunteers need to abandon their political campaign offices and channel their efforts to rebuilding neighborhoods—right here in Gulfport and Biloxi, where hundreds of homes need the tender hands of our UU volunteers to restore homes for residents who are still healing from the scar of Hurricane Katrina. Now that the election is over, we must set aside our failed ideologies for education reform, and use research-based, data-driven strategies to turn around our failing public schools.

If Dr. Martin Luther King were alive today, surely he would reverence this historic moment that not only marks the election of our first African American President. It marks the improved rankings of Alabama, Louisiana, and our very own Mississippi public education systems for equity in distribution of resources, however inadequate the federal government’s financial contribution to its own public education mandates.

We have dreams of achieving universal literacy, the way South Korea achieved universal literacy through its compulsory education programs. But, although we are far richer as a nation, we still have unexplainably high rates of illiteracy. When this inauguration is over, we have work to do!

We have dreams of eradicating poverty in our nation. Although we have the greatest number of billionaires, we also have the highest rate of poverty in the first world. We still have work to do!

We have dreams of healing our sick, our wounded with the best health care system that money can buy. Although we spend far more than other nations, we still have 44 million Americans—mostly working men and women—who do not have access to affordable health care. We have healing to do.

We have dreams of living in safe urban and rural neighborhoods. But, too many of our young men die to gun violence. Far too many men and women suffer domestic violence—which is also undermining the psychological health and educational success of millions of American children who live in families plagued with violence. We have peacemaking to do.

We have dreams of owning our home, with dependable sources of affordable energy. But, the unbridled greed of the marketplace, and at times, the envious desire to own homes much larger than we need or can afford—has caused the collapse of a large part of our economy. We have to learn to live within our means.

We have dreams of lasting international peace. Yet, we are caught up in two wars, and more than 100 military conflicts that are never covered by the media. We have much work to do to transition back to a peace and prosperity.

But, I know and you know, that we are not going to get anything done in the next few days. For the next few days, we would do well to pray with, to listen to, to reflect upon the words, the wisdom, the visions of all those who are contributing to our Martin Luther King celebrations as well as to the inauguration of our new president.

We need to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration in a way that we will remember the true goodness that defines our American Character.

But, when the last invocation is read, when the last parade marches by and when the last inaugural ball is over—if we are to follow Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s historic advice—when the last inaugural ball is over, we will need to get our rest,.

For on Wednesday morning, we need to go back to the inner city schools. We need to go back to rebuilding our Gulf Coast. We must go back to our efforts to improve our health care. We must go back to our communities to reduce the violence.

On Wednesday morning, if we really believe that President Obama’s election will make a difference in the direction of our economy, the health of our schools, our hospitals, our neighborhoods, our military, it will only be because we have chosen to follow the advice of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King:

“You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Thank goodness, this election is over. Thank goodness, change is about to happen. But, it will only happen if we choose to resume our work—the spiritually uplifting work of individually taking responsibility for addressing some problem in our community by offering our time, our talents, our treasure as we are able. President Barack Obama is not our savior, he is our leader. Only through our own efforts will we continue to realize the dreams that we have for our nation. So may it be.

Sermon based on following excerpt from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest—quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

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