MLK: Looking Beyond Justice

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Sermon text

Here’s the thing about a dream.  It just comes to you.  Whether you want it, whether you don’t, whether you love it, or hate it.  Whether you cherish it and try to find it again, to dream it again, or whether you dread it, and wake in a panic from having found yourself in the same nightmare again, dreams just come.

So when Rev. Dr. King told the rest of us about his dream, the only qualm, the only little quibble I have with his dream, is that it’s misleading – because the dream, as a dream, even as inspiration is so damn easy, so beautiful, so beguiling, but most of all so easy compared to the work of making the dream real.

Still I can’t blame Dr. King for the hardness of his dream, just for instilling it so well, so well that we can’t let go of it, so well that we have to keep going, so well that nothing less is enough, will ever be enough for any of us who were injected by the needle of his preaching with the elixir of his dream.  For a while, some of us treated the dream as if it was an inoculation, as if in taking in the dream and making it part of us, we were vaccinated from the ignorance and racism and selfishness.  And for some of us, even just the dream was enough.

In fact, Dr. King came to rue that speech, as the hope he preached in 1963 was overtaken by the unspooling challenges of that decade.  And this is maybe why, when he preached to us Unitarian Universalists three years later in 1966, delivering the Ware Lecture at our General Assembly, which was in Florida that year, he titled it: Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.

Dr. King started with the old Washington Irving story of Rip Van Winkle, old man, of Dutch ancestry, something of a loner, but also well-liked and regarded by all in the village, living in a village at the foot of the Catskill mountains.  One day, Rip wanders with his dog, up into the mountains and meets a strange group of men – he spends the day with them and drinks their purple moonshine and falls asleep.

When he wakes up, he learns his nagging wife has died, his friends have moved away, his son and daughter are grown up, and that the entire American Revolutionary War has happened while he slept – everything changed while he slept for at least 20 years.  Some of the folks in the village are envious when they realize who he is and what happened to him – because he didn’t have to go through the hardship and struggle of the revolution as it unfolded. Old Rip had happened upon the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s crew and when he drank their magic liquor, it changed everything – but only for him.

As Dr. King put it, while Rip was “peacefully snoring up in the mountains a revolution was taking place in the world, that would alter the face of human history. Yet Rip knew nothing about it; he was asleep.”

One thing I would add – in sleeping through the revolution, Rip also escaped the great and undeniable risks and hardship that underlay the revolution start to finish.  And he missed out on the beauty and brilliance of it. It was a time like that of the ancient Athenian agora, but instead of Plato and Socrates and Euripides and so forth, there were Franklin and Adams and Adams, Jefferson and Washington and Madison, an extraordinary coalescing of principle and brilliance and education and yes, great failings and great hypocrisy too, they were all part of the tapestry of this extraordinary time that even an ordinary guy like Rip could have been part of, would unquestionably, have been impacted by, in some way… had he only been awake.  There was beauty as well as challenge, brilliance as well as struggle – and he missed it all.

It would seem impossible, in the real world to actually sleep through a revolution, but of course it actually isn’t, which is why Dr. King had to tell us not to.  Let’s not pretend we don’t all know the feeling of going through a painful, frightening time and wishing it would just pass us over, wishing we could miss it, wishing we could just go to sleep and have someone wake us when it’s over. In fact that’s the exact principle we employ for surgery – we do it all the time. It’s not just an understandable desire, it’s also got some legitimacy because sleep isn’t just oblivion, sleep is also sometimes a time of healing, of respite, of renewal.  So –  let’s be real – it’s tempting.  That’s why people can sleep through a revolution. Being awake is hard.  Staying awake is hard.

Dr. King knew we needed to be awake for this one, and that we needed to stay awake, stay in the hardship and the struggle, if we were, – if we are, to come out the other side,.

And while there was surely hardship and struggle abounding 50 years ago, there was also plenty of beauty and brilliance as well.  James Baldwin had already written this:

“If we–and I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious black, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others–do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.  If we do not now dare everything, the prophecy as sung by a slave in the Bible is upon us—God gave Noah the rainbow sign.  No more water.  Fire next time.”

James Baldwin was quoting from an old spiritual, a old slave song for liberation called Mary Don’t You Weep, which had been recorded by the Swan Silvertones and become a hit in 1959.  “God gave Noah the rainbow sign” – they’re talking about Genesis, chapter 9:8-17 when God sees that the destruction of all living creatures in the flood was too much, and so God makes a promise not only to Noah and his family – it is for all life on earth – that God will never again destroy all life by the waters of a flood, and the sign of the promise is a great rainbow God sets in the sky, promising that whenever the rainbow appears it will be a reminder, for God as well as all living creatures, of the covenant.

But the slave song ends – not with that clean guarantee of the rainbow, but with a threat – no more water but fire next time, which is the name of the book in which James Baldwin wrote what he said about the chance “to end the racial nightmare and achieve our country and change the history of the world.”

We haven’t done it, we haven’t ended the racial nightmare, and the punishing fire that’s been burning has consumed countless souls for far too long, the fire that burns in the wake of James Baldwin’s vision, that fire that consumes some, and scorches us all, because we are, as Dr. King said, all connected, all interrelated, inextricably bound in this closed system of suffering and separation, that continues to say some people are real and others are not real people.

Now we all feel it.  Now we all know we’re being burned.  And it hurts.  And this is part of being awake, this paying attention enough to see that the promise, the goodness, the redemption, lies by going against the established way.  And as Dr. King said in his Ware Lecture, this being awake is, in its most essential form, the work of the church: instilling in our people the realization that all life is absolutely interrelated and we are all tied together, affirming the essential immorality of racial segregation –which we have not ended, so we have not accomplished; refuting all beliefs and assumptions of racial superiority and inferiority – and these days we must add gender, religion, sexual orientation and class.  Dr. King told us we can’t be content to think better, we must act, especially through legislation, to end discrimination and segregation which ghettoizes and condemns whole communities of people and neighbors, children, people’s very hearts and souls.  He reminded us, decades before anyone said in the wake of President Obama’s election that we were living in a post-racial age, that we cannot buy into myths of having gotten further than we have – that believing things are better than they are is part of being asleep.  He repeated that our discontent must be expressed in non-violent means, that even though most revolutions have come about by mating hope with hate, this revolution must be grounded in hope joined to love.  He adjured us to stay maladjusted to what is wrong and broken in our society, proposing a new organization, the IAAACM: The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.  And he closed reaffirming his very real hope, his very real belief that we can solve the problem of our inhumanity to each other, and make ourselves all free, at last.

So here we are, now, in 21st century Providence.  Not ancient Athens, not Revolutionary Boston or Colonial Williamsburg.  This is not the Renaissance or the Protestant Reformation or the American Civil War or the Civil Rights Era – we don’t know what people will call these times we’re in right now.  But they will be called something, and the name of these times will come from what has happened and what happens next, and that will be shaped, in part, by what we each of us, all of us, do.

Now we haven’t been as fast asleep at Old Rip, we know who is leading and degrading our nation, we know some of the big news and some of the small news about what’s been going on, but some of us haven’t been all the way awake either.  Sometimes we didn’t know, or didn’t see, or didn’t follow everything that was happening.  Not now.  Now we cannot sleep through this revolution and get someone to wake us when we are over unless we drug ourselves with ignorance  – which these days is well rooted in the word ‘ignore’ because that’s what’s required, you actually have take the equivalent of an opiate of the soul, blind your eyes and mute your ears and even plug your nose to miss the stench of something very rotten in the United States of America.  Now we cannot sleep.  We cannot sleep when some of us cannot breathe.  We cannot sleep when some of us cannot play in a park, or listen to loud music or dance at a gay club or pray in a church, in safety and peace.  We have been awakened by cell phone videos and social media, by squad car cameras that were turned on, and police uniform cameras that were turned off, awakened by our young people, awakened by resistant students in classrooms and resistant teachers in school board meetings, and indefensible injuries while in police custody, and inexplicable suicides while in police custody and marchers filling capitals, and women who say ‘me too’ and men who say ‘no more,’ and demonstrators who are called looters, and racists who are called fine people, and immigrants who are called rapists and bad hombres, and open carry terrorists who call themselves constitutional patriots, and lies that are called alternative facts, and presidential desecrations that are called tweets.

I asked you last week to commit to five faithful things you can and will do this year to make a difference. They don’t all have to be big.  But some of them need to be big.  It’s not enough to be kind.  It’s not enough to send a postcard or sign a Facebook petition.  It’s not enough to write a check – even a big check.  Those may be some of your five things, but we each need to do more. We have to show up at the state house, we have to show up for conversations where we don’t know what to say, and meetings where we have to listen rather than speak.  We have to show up for legislators who need our partnership.  We have to show up for rallies where we are allies and rallies where we are at the very center. Only when we do this, again and again, showing up, our actual selves in the room, in the conversations, in the learning, in the growing, in the lobbying, in the demanding, in the refusing to settle for anything less than everything that honors and safeguards the humanity and lives of every person, only then will we be doing what we can, and what we must.  Only when we allow that we ourselves are hurt, are damaged and incomplete, all of us, whatever our race and heritage and family, wherever we come from, wherever we’re going, all of us, and only then will we grow and heal, even when the growing pains ache, even when the healing chafes, and opens some ill-healed scar.  We have the will to do this, all of it, all of us, each of us, with our honestly-open and absolutely-committed hearts and souls.

Have you figured out your five things?  Maybe you have.  Maybe you’re still figuring. Maybe now you’re re-figuring.  Time’s not up yet, but it will be when I ask you for them next week.  Things are happening every day that mean we all need to be urgent about this. It’s not easy.  Life is not the dream.  But here’s the other thing.  More beautiful than any dream, is life.  Is life because it’s so tangible.  We can touch it, taste it, see it, feel it, and that makes every beauty we encounter in real life – extraordinary.

So yes, this time is hard, and the work is enormous, but also there is beauty and brilliance that are part of this time, this revolution, this work, brilliance that shines and saves and that we want to be part of.  Here is what I have learned about the hardest work that asks so much of us – if you give, really give ourselves to hard work, give our time, work with others, stay strong for it, take abuse for it, stretch our abilities, learn new things, make new friends… it will bring us joy.  It will bring us pride.  It will surely bring us hope and goodness, and not only us, it will bring hope and goodness to many.  Our work will do that.

This is the last time I’ll pitch it in worship, but I’m going to a conference, and I hope you’ll come with me. Guess what the name is of this conference?  Revolutionary Love, of all things.  It’s been happening for a few years, the Revolutionary Love conference, and it is co-sponsored by our own denomination and it is full of hope and energy and joy.  Of courage and toughness and faith.  Of care and commitment. Of music and inspiration.  Full! – It really is that good.   It’s not perfect, not every single thing will lift you and feed you, but a lot of it will.  Brilliant, transformative speakers of many races and faiths who are finding new ways, strong ways, to establish justice and healing and renewal.  William Barber.  Ruby Sales.  Valerie Kaur.  Miguel De la Torre.  Van Jones.  Brian McLaren.

Cathy Seggel, our director of religious education, is already registered.  April 6-8, let’s go to New York City and get an infusion of hope and capacity and vision, from the next generations of people who are carrying the dream forward into reality.  Talk to me or email me if you think you can come or you want to know more.

But of course, this conference isn’t the only way to get in the game.  There are countless ways, within this church, within this city and state, across this country and around the world.  There’s so much to do, part of our charge must be a conversation as a church, going forward, about how we can leverage our passions and abilities to be the strongest, most loving church we can be.  And it’s not for me to assign what you do.  But it is for me to say: You, you have a place in all this right now.  You have a role to play, a space to fill, here and now and you must find it and inhabit it with all your heart and all your soul and all your courage and all your faith.  As Dr. King said, “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”  Because if we all rise up, move forward, together, we will change things, we will control guns, we will end the harassment of women, we will end the oppression of people of color, we will end the persecution of GLBTQ folks, we will not permit the ‘othering’ of human beings, we will end this insidious, evil perception of profit over people, the very concept that that there is such a thing as legitimate profit at the expense of lives, at the expense of a people, or at the expense of the future of this beautiful miracle of a planet.

When this time, our time gets named, let the name be one we helped create.  Let it be a name we helped birth. Let it be a name we worked for and fought for and stayed strong and together for, with our friends, our neighbors, strangers and colleagues, young and old, in all our uniqueness and all our sameness, so many people, all our people, we are awake and we want the beauty and we want the justice and we want the change and we will not stop or settle for anything but that the dream becomes our revolution, a revolution of strength and love, the first ever: end the racial nightmare, achieve our country, all of us, everyone, free at last.  Amen.