A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, January 16, 2011
MARTIN LUTHER KING’S LIBERAL GOD
A Meditation on the Soul’s Longing
Several years ago, in the middle of my seminary education, my literary agent called with an intriguing proposition. Would I be willing to be considered as co-writer of Coretta Scott King's autobiography? I was one of several people being considered, but the book's prospective editor was said to be partial to me. I was more than willing to talk about it, and a meeting with King was arranged at the editor's office.
I didn't make the final cut, but that is not why I tell this story. During an hour of wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned to her that I was in seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. What frankly surprised me was the look she gave me, one of respect and delight.
"Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin," she told me, explaining that she had been, since college, a member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which was popular among Unitarians and Universalists. "And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston."
What surprised and saddened me most was what she said next. Though I am paraphrasing, the gist of it was this: "We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian."
— Rosemary Bray McNatt
I understand when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated, after the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one agent informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Coretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a pause. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to, “Find out what that dream was.” So, what was that dream? And what might it mean for us? I think these are terribly important questions, and finding some sense of their meaning is critical for us in these hard, hard times.
No doubt the world is full of hurt. We need not look farther back than the terrible events of a week ago and a day. Representative Gabrielle Giffords continues to struggle, and events like opening her eyes or sitting up in bed with assistance are hailed as miracles. So far, Arizona’s suffering community has laid to rest a judge and a nine-year old child. The funerals will be continuing for a while.
Closer to home I spent some time this week with a young woman, a birth right Unitarian Universalist who is facing a pretty major surgery. While not a member of our congregation she asked if it were possible to talk with me. And we did. She finds herself in the great shadows of doubt, of not believing in the deities presented in America’s orthodox religions, but not feeling particularly helped by a religion that too often seems to be about ethics and a vague call to love, but seems often, and for her, right now, in her distress, lacking a larger perspective and a next step.
No doubt there is a great human longing for meaning, for purpose, for direction. We hear it a constant beat just beneath the rage of emotions around the massacre in Tucson, among those of us who know the violence and poverty going on every day right here in Providence. And I heard it in the quiet desperation of my young friend looking at how unfair life can be, too often is, and how overwhelming it all can feel.
From this place, I find myself contemplating the work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and of his dream. A larger vision, no doubt, and I feel a pointing to a next step. I believe that dream lives here, but we haven’t all thought and felt our way to what it might fully mean. We do a lot of work for justice and compassion. Just to begin the list, our food pantry helps to make sure over a hundred families in our larger community are less likely to go hungry every month. We are fully engaged in the struggle for gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people to find their full place within our society. Similarly we are committed to finding a fair and equitable as well as compassionate way to engage the questions of immigration. And, ours has long been a community that struggles with the issues of race and racism overt and implicit, personal and institutional. All engaged while living as ordinary people, individuals and families, simply trying to find and express our full humanity.
I suggest all this work, what I’ve named, and the so much more that matters to us and to which we have committed our hearts and hands, implies something within us, a burning desire in our hearts, a hint that is Martin Luther King’s dream. Living in a world that often seems random, violent and meaningless there is a great longing within us for meaning, for a healing of the hurt, for something to cling to in the storm. And, I suggest, out of my own search, out of the experiences of my heart, I do not doubt there is a healing dream, a way of reconciliation with our selves, with each other and with this world.
Today I want to explore just a little of what that might look like for us within our liberal faith, with no creed, no absolute answers proclaimed and which must be embraced; but simply pointing to where it often arises for us out of an experience of opening of our hearts and minds. In this way we find a wise heart, the possibility of knowing our connections and along with that finding a map that guides us through the unknown territory.
I’ve talked about this before, of course, coming at it from a variety of angles. Today, I want to hold up some of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s path, particularly his God, a liberal God as it turns out, and how he engaged the mysteries, what it did for him, and what his engagement might mean for us.
When my colleague Rosemary McNatt wrote those words, which serve as the text for this sermon, she was exploring what it was within our Unitarian Universalism that Martin and Coretta King saw that kept them from crossing over to make their lives and work with us. Of course the reasons are complex. Whether we would have been a good base for a mass movement as a part of why the Kings did not end up UU, opens deep, complex, and important questions for us to consider.
So, let’s talk about sunny optimism and about the individual and community and about God. Just a little.
To not miss that true sense of a fundamental goodness which is implied in our first principle asserting the worth and dignity of every one, we need to not miss the fundamental truth of brokenness, as well. And this is critical. We can only find the great joy if we also notice the great hurt. Our way is about intimacy. And it turns out the healing so many of us long for is not a covering over; it is an opening up. As the Western sage Leonard Cohen sings to us, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
Here I suggest a brief look at Martin Luther King and his God, the liberal God. And in that looking to see for ourselves what may be true and that which may not. What is wonderful is that I believe he offers us a way to sort the true and the false, to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Apparently as young Martin entered college he had become very skeptical. He admitted to being embarrassed by the emotionalism of his father’s sermons and the experiences he had at his childhood church. At Morehouse, according to his autobiography and summarized by Robert Scofield in his enormously helpful essay King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, “(U)nder the guidance of President Benjamin E. Mays and professor George D. Kelsey, he began to believe that religion could be both ‘intellectually respectful and emotionally satisfying.’ Mays's weekly talks on the social gospel enchanted King, while Kelsey's Bible course taught him to see the Bible metaphorically, leading him to conclude the Bible has ‘many profound truths which one cannot escape.’"
And by the time he goes through seminary and then to his doctoral work at Boston University, we find King has arrived at an essentially Unitarian theology. He writes how “The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers.” While the masculine by preference language jars on most of our ears here today, his point is simple enough. He takes the classic liberal view that Jesus is a human, and what is extraordinary about him is that he shows us what we might be.
King knows this is a metaphor. More important, it is a pointer to something we, you and I can find for our selves. When he speaks of Jesus entering our hearts, he is calling us not to some unlikely historical event, but to a deeper possibility of a full life, of a turning of the heart. It very much looks as if for Martin Luther King, Jesus is the name for that part of our human hearts that have opened wide, have not turned from the hurt or the joy.
But, the next question is, it is a turning of the heart to what? Well, for Martin Luther King, that’s God. And his God is love. But it isn’t a vague, misty thing, a will o the wisp, ungraspable. Rather, King tells us in his own words that, “God is not a process projected somewhere in the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. …God is forever present with us.” My own understanding of this is that God is our direct knowing that we are not alone, isolated beings defined by our skin. God is that knowing of our connections down to our bones and marrow. Not just a head knowing, but a body knowing, a heart knowing, a knowing that permeates the very fiber of our being. It is the sustaining experience that allows us to continue the endless work of feeding the hungry, of seeking compassion and justice for all, for trying to help transform our own lives and the life of this country in an ever more generous, open hearted direction.
Yesterday on the way to Boston I drove by a terrible accident. My friend with whom I was going and I, were tangled in traffic for a long time. When we finally began to pass the site of the accident, what was left were the remains of a pickup truck now resting on a great flat bed. It was mangled, but the most jarring image was how the roof had been, it looked, torn open, perhaps by something like the Jaws of Life. The cab of that car looking much like an empty tuna can with a partially opened lid dangling over one side. I felt an involuntary prayer slip from my lips, a wish for the passengers and all involved.
I think of the Seventh Principle, regarding our radical interdependence. And, me, like for Dr King, apparently very much like for Dr King, I have no problem calling that web of life God. It worked for Spinoza. It works for me. And I don’t even find a problem with throwing my heart’s longing into that great mystery, prayers, if you will; even if I don’t think there’s a person there to listen in a person-like way.
On Highway 3, yesterday, it seemed right.
As someone who has walked our liberal way for a long time, I’ve seen while this web is the most intimate of experiences, it may be encountered as personal or impersonal. For many of us here it is going to be impersonal, the name we put on our experience of unity. Many of us are going to prefer interdependent web as the metaphor for our understanding, both intellectual and visceral. For King it was personal, deeply, profoundly personal. He experienced it in a way that is like a loving parent. For, me, not so much so. For you? Well, our way allows us full freedom of how we chose to express our deepest experiences. But for all who walk the way of the heart, who are willing to throw them selves, our selves wide, this is the way of intimacy. It is a way of knowing the larger. That’s the important point.
And when we open ourselves to it, to the larger place, to what our friends following the twelve steps call that higher power, and for many among us, God, being open, wide open, heart and mind open, we encounter what can sustain us as we face the great work, the endless work in front of us.
Mass movement? Well, enough of us caught the fire of Martin Luther King’s words, the experience that Dr King was pointing to, and the work for justice that experience calls one to, that more of our ministers joined him in his great work, as I understand it, than clergy of any other faith tradition. And that’s just a marker for how his call was our call. As a religious tradition we saw something in what he preached that touched our hearts and took us to Birmingham, to Selma, to the depths of our own possibility.
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday. If my math is right he would have been eighty-two years old. But, of course, an assassin cut him down forty-three years ago.
But that dream? The dream the FBI agent was instructed to find. The dream we all quest for. A bullet couldn’t kill it. It is larger than any one person. It is the sum of our knowing our connections, each of us to the other, and all of us to this precious, hurt, world.
It is the call of love, real love. It is the call to work, real work. It is the help of the weak. It is the strength that runs through us like electricity, bringing life and possibility to all we do.
It is a revealing of the face of God.