Sermon: Durable Goods

2022 January 17
by DoMC

Ana Levy-Lyons

January 16, 2022 – MLK weekend

First Unitarian, Brooklyn

My favorite new ad these days is an ad for a shark exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. It shows a photo of a fierce-looking shark with the caption, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” Now, I don’t think this ad is suggesting that being misunderstood automatically means that you are great. It can mean that you’re just a bad communicator. But that those who are great, like sharks, tend to make enemies as well as friends. Their expressions tend to be outsized and nuanced in ways that make them Rorschach tests, open to a wide variety of interpretations. Everybody wants a piece of them, like a feeding frenzy, and everybody wants to claim them and interpret them in a way that validates a particular worldview.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such an outsized and nuanced figure, who made both friends and enemies, who wasn’t comfortably static but evolved over time, and whom everybody still to this day wants a piece of. Just about everybody claims him:

Secular liberals claim him for his humanist orientation toward justice: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Conservatives claim him because of what they see as his colorblind philosophy. Conservative historian Peter Schramm says, “He was against all policies based on race. The basis of his attack on segregation was ‘judge us by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin.’”

White evangelicals claim him enthusiastically, although they vigorously opposed him while he was alive. When trying to build multiracial churches, they bemoan the truth (still!) of his observation that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11am Sunday morning.”

Unitarian Universalists claim him. He and his wife, Coretta Scott King, considered for a while becoming Unitarians. But ultimately he decided that he couldn’t lead the movement he wanted to lead in a Unitarian context. This was both because he needed to lead a primarily Black movement, which Unitarianism wasn’t, but also because liberal theology wouldn’t give him or the movement the spiritual grounding that he felt it needed. There is a fascinating article about this, if you want to learn more, by Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt in UU World magazine from 2002.

The Black church, of course, also claims him – as a leader who gave powerful voice to a religiosity that is politically progressive and theologically conservative. Now I am not going to position myself as the arbiter of who gets to claim the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There is probably a grain of truth in all these claims. But I do want to put my thumb on the scale for this last claim – the claim by the Black church, in which he was ordained and served as an American Baptist minister for all his years.

Because Rev. King’s Christian foundation is something that is often overlooked in progressive circles. In lifting up his legacy, we sometimes have an impulse to tone down his religiosity. The one reading in our UU hymnal written by King is the “network of mutuality” reading, which is beautiful, but does not mention God, and certainly not Jesus. Neither do the other readings suggested for MLK Sunday in our hymnal.

But Rev. King’s Christianity was at the center of his work. He along with other great Black religious leaders of his time, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu (who just died last week) and Rev. Howard Thurman, were fueled and sustained by their witness of a God who suffered with humanity in the form of Jesus on the cross and stood by the weak, the poor, and the oppressed. They preached a liberation theology. They drew from the Exodus story that we’ve been telling this year of a God who liberated an enslaved people. And they drew from the Jesus story of a holy man who spoke on behalf of the powerless and whom even death could not defeat. Jesus – talk about someone misunderstood!

Rev. King drew immense strength from his experience of God’s love. He taught that God loves each and every one of us and created us with inviolable dignity. Each person is precious and sacred. He saw God acting on behalf of God’s oppressed children in that moment, in his day. Rev. King had a rock solid faith that with the engine of God, it was not a matter of whether justice would prevail, but only when. God was not going to let this liberation movement fail. There’s the famous part of his last sermon before he was assassinated,

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

In this, Rev. King is comparing his own story to that of Moses. This is skipping ahead a little in our Exodus series, but in the Biblical story, Moses leads the people out of Egypt, across the Sea of Reeds, through the desert, through all kinds of trials and tribulations, and right up to the edge of the Promised Land. But Moses never gets to go into the land. He climbs a mountain – God allows him to go up the mountain and look over and see the promised land – just like Rev. King says God allowed him to do. But Moses dies before he gets there. And so does Rev. King.

But that faith! It’s a faith that we are part of an unfolding plan; that we can trust the process and work for justice and sacrifice and give and not be afraid of any human because God is in charge. Each of us is filled with an infinite holy spark or, if you prefer, inherent worth and dignity, and nothing and no one can take that away from us. That faith is spectacular. If we had faith, Jesus said, even as small as a mustard seed, we could say to a mountain ‘move from here to there’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.

I don’t know about you, but I want that kind of faith. That kind of faith elevates every leaf and every blade of grass to a sacred creation. That kind of faith sets the world humming and vibrating. It shows us the holy in the other. It shows us the holy in ourselves. It propels us to join the struggle for liberation wherever that struggle might be – in our nation, in our city, in our homes. It frees us from fear about what other people might think. It edits our ego. That kind of faith makes strength and when it’s shared by a community, it makes power. It is a durable good.

We would be wise to lean into the faith of the early Unitarians who lifted up the absolute, inherent God-given worth and dignity of every person and the faith of the early Universalists who believed in a God so abundantly loving that all creatures, without exception, would eventually be brought into a heavenly embrace – complete acceptance, complete forgiveness, a one-way journey to love.

When such a faith is genuine, I believe that we are not limited by the political rules of this world – nothing is immutable when we are fighting for God’s sacred creation. And neither are we content to wait for the afterlife for justice. Rev. King was very clear that God designed this world to be a holy and just place. The UU principle that promotes democratic process in society likewise points to this concern for justice in the here and now.

In 1956 Rev. King wrote an “imaginary letter” from the Apostle Paul to American Christians. Here’s a little bit of it: “The misuse of Capitalism can also lead to tragic exploitation. This has so often happened in your nation. They tell me that one tenth of one percent of the population controls more than forty percent of the wealth. Oh America, how often have you taken necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. …You can work within the framework of democracy to bring about a better distribution of wealth.” (Remember that part; we’re going to come back to it.) “…God never intended for one group of people to live in superfluous inordinate wealth, while others live in abject deadening poverty. God intends for all of his children to have the basic necessities of life, and he has left in this universe ‘enough and to spare’ for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”

You can work within the framework of democracy. Rev. King believed in the democratic process and using it to bring racial and economic justice to God’s world. We know that today our democracy is in danger – from laws and courts making it harder for Black people to vote, from vigilantes intimidating voters, and conspiracy theorists spreading misinformation. Our democracy is also in danger from the disillusionment of the electorate – people are losing faith that justice will ever arrive. At risk are the gains the Civil Rights movement achieved at such great cost; and the fulfillment of the dream yet to come.

Because of this, Rev. King’s family this year has put out a call. Tomorrow, instead of celebrating Martin Luther King Day with parties and platitudes or even service projects, they’re saying, work for voting rights. “No celebration without legislation.” This refers to the voting rights bill in congress right now. But more broadly it refers to the affirmation of voting rights in every corner of this nation – the power of every person to have a say in the governance of their community, from town council elections to presidential elections to referendums. If you are inspired to accept this challenge, I want to offer two concrete ways to do it: give your time as a volunteer and give your treasure in donations.

There are numerous organizations doing the hard work of protecting access to the ballot box for all. One is Fair Fight, which is headquartered in Georgia, but now doing outreach work across the country. Set a time before the end of the holiday to go to where you can sign up to jump into phone banking and text banking work and also where you can make a donation.

Also, later today, at 5:30, we can join with Common Cause New York to hear a briefing by the Senate Majority Leader, who happens to be New York’s Chuck Schumer. He’ll give us the latest on efforts to protect our freedom to vote.  There may also be a phone banking event as part of that program. Our online host, Beth Evans, will drop the link into the chat.

Whatever you decide to do, and whatever forms of justice work you do in the years to come, know that speaking in the voice of faith brings more power and moral clarity to each call we make, each conversation we initiate, each letter we write, and each protest we join. That faith becomes a durable good that propels us, fierce as sharks, through successes and failures, setbacks, and exhaustion. We hold tight to the conviction that if the people’s voices and votes are heard, we will see justice in our lifetime. We will witness the beginning of the healing of the earth and her peoples.

In the words of Rev. King, quoting Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In that same speech, he asks and answers his own question about how long we must wait to see that arc start to bend. He says, “How long? Not long. How long? Not long. How long? Not long.”

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