A sermon in honor of the 80th birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and in honor of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States.
This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.
The first reading this morning is a responsive reading.
As we get ready to inaugurate the first Black president of the United States, we read together these words by Frederick Douglass: “We deem it a settled point that the destiny of the colored people of this country is bound up with that of the white people of this country.
We are here, and here we are likely to be. To imagine that we shall ever be eradicated is absurd and ridiculous.
We can be remodified, changed, assimilated, but never extinguished.
We repeat, therefore, that we are here; and that this is our country; and the question for the philosophers and statesmen of the land ought to be, What principles should dictate the policy of the action toward us?
We shall neither die out, nor be driven out;
But shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.”
[Adapted from an essay by Frederick Douglass in North Star (November 1858); as quoted in Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1992), Derrick Bell, p. 40.]
The second reading this morning is from “Strength To Love,” a sermon by Martin Luther King on Luke 10.29, “And who is my neighbor?” In the sermon, Rev. King takes that question that Jesus was asked, and asks that same question of race relations in the United States in the 1960s.
“…[W]e must admit that the ultimate solution to the race problem lies in the willingness of men to obey the unenforceable. Court orders and federal enforcement agencies are of inestimable value in achieving desegregation, but desegregation is only a partial, though necessary, step towards the final goal which we seek to realize, genuine inter-group and interpersonal living. Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but something must touch the eharts and souls of men so that they will come together spiritually because it is natural and right. A vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws will bring an end to segregated public facilities which are barriers to a truly desegregated society, but it cannot bring an end to fears, prejudice, pride, and irrationality, which are the barriers to a truly integrated society. These dark and demonic responses will be removed only as men are possessed by the invisible, inner law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love in mankind’s most potent weapon for personal and social transformation. True integration will be achieved by true neighbors who are willingly obedient to unenforceable obligations.”
[From "Strength to Love," Martin Luther King (Fortress Press, 1981), pp. 37-38.]
Sermon “The Covenant of Martin Luther King”
This month I have been preaching a series of sermons on the topic of covenant. We in this church have a deep and immediate interest in this topic: first because in our religious traditions, churches are organized around their covenants; and second because in our own church here in New Bedford, we are in the process of writing a new church covenant. To write a new church covenant — that is a task of great moment. We do not rewrite our covenants very often. In our own church, during the whole of the 19th century, we rewrote our covenant perhaps twice; and in the 20th century, we did not have a written covenant, perhaps because it seemed so overwhelming to try to put our implicit covenant into writing. So it has been a century and a half since we last rewrote our covenant; and because of this, I devoted the first two sermons of this year to our own church covenant.
But there are covenants that extend far beyond our church community. Some would argue that the great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all founded on the covenant of Abraham; and that being so, then perhaps two billion people are still a part of that Abrahamic covenant. This morning I would like to speak with you about a covenant that is not quite so broad as that; but it is a covenant that extends far beyond our own church. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped us understand a covenant that exists in the United States — a covenant that had consisted mostly of broken promises. He spoke to us all about this covenant, he gently encouraged us to acknowledge the broken promises, and he has moved us to repair these broken promises, to repair this covenant. We are still engaged in repairing this national covenant. We most often hear this national covenant summed up in the words from the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.”
I would like to speak with you about how Martin Luther King articulated, and reinvigorated, our national covenant. More particularly, I would like to speak with you about the tremendous progress we have made in reinstating that covenant in the past year.
1. When Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, he said: “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.’” But Rev. King also said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This second statement is another way of putting of our national covenant; but it is, I think, a fuller, more comprehensive statement of a fundamental principle of our country. From a religious and moral perspective, Rev. King was telling us that we are not merely created equal; at a deeper level, we find our destinies tied together, so that if any one of us is treated unjustly, justice for all the rest of us is threatened.
From our own religious perspective, when we hear the words “inescapable network of mutuality,” we are likely to think of what we call the Web of Life; we know that all human beings, all living beings, indeed all nonliving things, in this universe are tied together in a web of interrelationships; and when we act, we must be conscious of how our action affects the entire Web of Life. Jesus of Nazareth used a different term: Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is the underlying reality of the here and now in which we are all connected, one with the other, so that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, for in truth we are so interconnected that the way we treat our neighbors is in fact the way we treat our own selves.
Rev. King drew on many religious sources to help him articulate various aspects of our national covenant. When he accepted the Nobel Prize, he drew on the story of Moses, saying: “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself. The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, “Let my people go.” This is a kind of opening chapter in a continuing story. The present struggle in the United States is a later chapter in the same unfolding story.” As Moses had a covenant with his god to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, so we know that Martin Luther King led Americans of African descent out of the bondage of segregation and racism; and like Moses, Martin Luther King died before he saw the Promised Land of freedom. The story of Moses is a powerful story because it reminds us that it is hard work to get out of bondage; just because you start the journey to freedom doesn’t mean you’ll see its end; it took the Israelites forty years to get to the Promised Land, and even then their troubles continued for centuries.
But I believe the real center of what Rev. King taught us about covenant was not what he taught us through the story of Moses, powerful as the Moses story may be. For at the center of Rev. King’s message were the teachings of Jesus. Jesus said that all of religion could be summed up in two commandments, the second of which was that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. And that is why, again and again, Rev. King asked us to consider this question: Who is our neighbor?
Who is our neighbor? One day, so we are told, a lawyer approached Jesus. Now remember, Jesus was Jewish, and this lawyer was Jewish, and Jews take their religious laws seriously. Jesus asked the lawyer to summarize the religious laws of Judaism. The lawyer gave the correct answer, which was “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus agreed that was the correct response. Then the lawyer asked, “Who is my neighbor?”
That’s the key question, isn’t it? Like the lawyer, we all know we are supposed to treat our neighbors well. But who is our neighbor? To answer this question, Jesus told a story.
One day, a man from Jerusalem was going from Jerusalem down to the city of Jericho, along a steep, winding, dangerous road. The man was ambushed by robbers. The robbers beat him till he was bloody, took his money, and left him by the side of the road, bruised and unable to move.
Soon a priest from the great Temple at Jerusalem came down the road. The priest saw the man lying there, but instead of stopping to help him, the priest looked the other way and hurried on by.
Then a Levite came down the same road. Levites were important officials at the great Temple at Jerusalem. Like the priest, the Levite took one look at the poor man lying by the side of the road, looked the other way, and hurried on by.
Then a man from Samaria, a Samaritan, came walking along the road. The Samaritans were a despised ethnic and religious group; where the priests and the Levites were respected and honored, the Samaritans were disliked and shunned. When Jesus told this story, he knew that his listeners would immediately assume that the Samaritan, too, would walk past the man lying in the gutter; or even kick him while he was down.
But that’s not what happens in Jesus’s story. The Samaritan was moved to pity at the sight of the beaten, robbed man lying in the gutter, and bandaged his wounds. The Samaritan hoisted the beaten, robbed man onto his donkey, brought him to an inn, paid all the bills, and looked after him. The next day, the Samaritan went to the innkeeper and said, “Look after that man until he gets better. On my way back, I’ll make sure to pay you back if there’s any extra expense.”
This is how Jesus answered the question: Who is our neighbor?
Rev. King tells this story with great richness and depth. When Rev. King tells us this old story, we know he’s telling us that White folks should see Black folks as their neighbor; and we know that he’s telling us that Black folks should see White folks as their neighbors, even though the White folks have been treating them as badly as the Samaritans two thousand years ago.
But there is far more to this story when Rev. King tells it, for in his own way Rev. King was a poet, and poetry always goes beyond the mere surface meaning. The way Rev. King tells the story, we feel that the Black folks, like the Samaritan, were the best of neighbors to the White folks; but not the other way around. Frederick Douglass wrote: “We [those of us who are Black] shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.” Rev. King managed to tell those of us who are White folks, in a gentle kind of way, the same thing that Frederick Douglass said: that the status of Black folks stood as testimony against us White folks. This may have been painful to us White folks; we may have wished we could cross to the other side of the street and avert our eyes, as did the priest and the Levite in Jesus’s story. But like all good preachers, Rev. King made a moral point: Our country was like the man lying in the ditch, morally speaking: our country had been unspeakably damaged by the evils of slavery and racism; and we needed to address this immorality.
Who is our neighbor? Well, we know the answer to that: everyone, people of all skin colors. And who is our neighbor? And we know another answer to that question: the neighbor is the person who attempts to heal the broken condition of the man lying in the ditch. And who is our neighbor? And we come to realize that we are all neighbors, we are all interconnected; and with that realization, we begin to take responsibility to care for all our neighbors; we are all part of the inescapable network of mutuality; we are all part of the Web of Life.
2. Nearly two years ago, we began to hear about this man named Barack Obama who was running for president. The pundits quietly told us that we could safely ignore this Obama fellow, because he was too inexperienced, which sometimes was a way of saying that a Black man couldn’t be president. Not yet, anyway. Obama and his supporters did not listen to the pundits, and they were organized, articulate, and they didn’t talk down to us. On March 18, 2008, not quite a year ago, Barack Obama gave a speech titled “A More Perfect Union.” In that speech, he responded to some racially-charged criticism, and he said in part: “I have asserted a firm conviction — a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people — that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice if we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union.” Obama said, in effect: we need to see each other as neighbors; it’s time to stop fighting with our neighbors, or ignoring them, and instead bend down and pick up the man in the ditch.
I heard that speech as recalling us to our national covenant. Fighting with our neighbors get us nowhere. Pretending that racism doesn’t exist gets us nowhere. To have this public figure, this politician, acknowledge to us that race and racism are real; and say at the same time that we need to move beyond race and racism; this was a remarkable moment when a politician reminded us, not of our self-interest, but of our covenant together.
We needed this reminder. In spite of Martin Luther King’s legacy, we have not always acted like good neighbors over the past forty years. Race relations got a little better for a while, but beginning in the 1980s, in many ways racism got steadily worse. Schools are more desegregated now than at any time since Rev. King was alive. We got distracted by naked self-interest. Some politicians proclaimed that racism is done with, it’s over, we can move on — while our own eyes told us that racism still exists, it is not gone.
What Barack Obama’s speech on March 18 of last year said to us was simple: In order to move forward, yes, we do need to acknowledge that the American covenant has repeatedly been broken in the past, and over and over again our country has not treated all people equally; but we also must acknowledge that our national covenant still exists. That speech last March acknowledged that no, we’re not going to end racism tomorrow; but Obama also reminded us that we can treat each other more like neighbors.
The remarkable thing, however, was not Obama’s speech — good as that speech was. The remarkable thing was that most Americans understood his speech. Not everyone liked what he had to say, and some Americans remain frozen in naked self-interest, but I think almost all Americans understood what he said, and we recognized the truth and justice of what he said. Since the 1980s, politicians have been dumbing down their messages to us Americans; they have been treating us like children, and all too often we have acted like greedy ill-behaved children. But when someone finally talked to us like adults, when someone finally talked to us about race and racism in all its complexity — we responded thoughtfully.
Not only did we respond thoughtfully, but the American electorate responded favorably to Barack Obama. We heard what he said, and the majority of us agreed that it’s time to move forward, it’s time to get our national covenant up and running again. And so our country elected Obama as president with a healthy margin. The pundits were proved wrong: a Black man could be elected president of our country, and was elected president.
And so it is I feel that we are witnessing a huge change in our nation.
We are renewing our national covenant: a covenant that all persons shall be considered equal. We are asking ourselves: Who is our neighbor? And we are responding: we are all each other’s neighbors.
We are renewing our national covenant. Our country has been morally degraded, first by slavery, and then by racism. Racism eats away at our national conscience. We may not admit it in public, but we know that other countries are disgusted by the racism that is still endemic in our country; we try to ignore their disgust, but we know it’s there. We try to make up for our moral failing by taking the moral high ground in other areas: for example, we have taken the moral high ground against terrorism, even while we cannot admit our moral failings when it comes to race. And so, while we don’t admit it publicly, we have been ashamed at the moral failing of racism.
To elect a Black president has gone a long way to healing the national sense of shame. When we feel shame, it can paralyze us; so it is important to heal from that sense of shame. We know we still have plenty of work to do end racism, but now we have renewed energy to do that work. Whether we agree with Obama’s politics or not — I’m sure we all have reservations about some specific directions he is taking — we know that what’s happening now is bigger than one man; it’s bigger than partisan politics. We have elected have a Black president of the United States; and through that simple action, we should feel that our national covenant has been renewed. We are again committing ourselves to the 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 people are created equal.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1928. He would have been 80 years old this past Thursday. As we celebrate his birthday this week, I feel we now can remember Rev. King best by living in the present, and looking to the future.
We shall live in the present: In two days, we will inaugurate have a Black president. Let us decide that this is a renewal of our national covenant; let this renewal re-energize us to live out our dream that we will live out our belief that all persons are created equal. We know there is hard work in front of us, but may we work together as neighbors to finally end racism and heal race relations.
We shall look to the future: Of course we don’t know how the Obama presidency will work out. But we are less interested in politics this morning than in morality. Let our national morality came back into wholeness. May ours become a nation where we live out our ideals, that all persons are created equal. May the words of the Hebrew prophet Amos come true at last: “Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” [Amos 5.24]