Chalice Lighting: From Martin Luther King’s Nobel Acceptance
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.
I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final wordin reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
Opening Words: Every Day, Caroline Joy Adams
We are given a thousand waking moments
A thousand opportunities to learn, to grow, to choose
Thus, in as many of those moments as you can,
Choose understanding and calmness rather than anger…
Gratitude rather than envy….
Compassion rather than judgment….
Awareness rather than denial….
Loving thoughts, words, and action
Over those that have the power to hurt…
And in this way,
Moment by Moment by Moment
We shall create harmony, healing and peace
Within ourselves…and for each other.
Sermon: Helping to Build the Dream
In a sermon delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia, on 4 February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
“Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. (Yes, sir) And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral. And I don’t think of it in a morbid sense. And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?” And I leave the word to you this morning.
“If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. (Yes) And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. (Yes)
“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. (Yes)
“I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody.
“I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. (Amen)
“I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. (Yes)
“And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. (Yes)
“I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. (Lord)
“I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity. (Yes)
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. (Amen) Say that I was a drum major for peace. (Yes) I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. (Yes) I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. (Amen) And that’s all I want to say.
“If I can help somebody as I pass along,
“If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
“If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
“Then my living will not be in vain.
“If I can do my duty as a (person) ought,
“If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
“If I can spread the message as the master taught,
“Then my living will not be in vain.
“Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, (Yes) not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”
On this special Social Justice Sunday we’re reminded that it’s up to us to make of this old world a new world. The old world passes. Time changes things, and the pace of change has quickened – it’s as though time is moving faster! In the brief course of my own lifetime there have been lots of changes, and many of those changes have been positive.
I was born in 1940. I arrived on the planet at the height of Hitler’s reign of terror, which took the lives of millions of Jews, homosexuals, handicapped persons and others he and his regime labeled undesirable.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked I was a year old — our nation went to war; some of my earliest memories are connected with the war effort – the victory garden we had in back of our house – my mother canning hundreds of jars of tomatoes and piccalilli; the rationing cards for sugar and butter, and mixing the yellow into the white margarine, and the black outs, and the men in uniform, including my father and uncles.
I had only a vague idea why we were at war, but there was never a shadow of doubt that it was a good, necessary and noble effort and at the earliest age we were made proud to feel some sense of participation, that we were helping in some small way – saving the aluminum wrapping, collecting scrap metal, etc.
I had no idea that there were separate units for African-American soldiers. Though segregation of the races was an insidious and nearly universal fact of life in America my closest friend, Jimmy Robinson, was black. His father was the janitor in our school, and I remember how proud Jimmy was – his father was always doing something to help at school – he was well respected, he worked hard – Jimmy and I shared pride in our fathers.
I had no idea how homosexuals suffered; how they were persecuted in America in those days, how they had to hide ‘in the closet.’
During those early childhood years it never occurred to me that just 20 years before I was born women finally won the battle for the vote, after decades of struggle. Twenty years – that’s less than the time I’ve served this congregation!
I vividly remember the end of the war, the sense of relief, the sense of pride, not in our country but a sense of personal pride for having had some part to play in the final outcome.
I don’t remember hearing or using the phrase ‘the American Dream,’ but it was deep in marrow of the bones of those of us in the working class – my father’s dream, that his sons and daughters would get an education that would be our ticket to a better life, a more secure future. And we did.
When I graduated from high school in 1958 I attended a Salem State College, which was commuting distance from our house in Wilmington, and it was accessible financially – tuition the first year was $50 a semester, and then went up to $100 a semester, $200 a year.
Affordable college gave us access to the American dream.
When I was in college, from 1958 to 1962, I became aware that there were many in our country who did not have the same access to the dream that my brothers, sisters and I had.
I became aware of the civil rights movement – I identified with people of color, since we were on the same rung on the bottom of the social ladder. But for the first time I began to feel uneasy about my identity as a white, heterosexual male; in the minds of black Americans, gay and lesbian Americans, native Americans, and in many ways in the minds of female Americans, I was identified as part of the problem.
All of the injustices were simmering on the back burner when I was in high school in the 50’s and it was then that I became aware of the evil of segregation, and of homophobia, though we didn’t have a word for it, and gradually the feminist movement – as my awareness increased my conscience was pricked.
Then, in 1963, when I was 23 years old and teaching at Wellesley High School, John Kennedy was assassinated. I remember precisely where I was, between classes, walking down the corridor changing rooms and I heard the news.
You remember where you were when you heard about the tragedy we refer to as “9/ll” was unfolding. There are events in our lives that burn themselves into the memory.
Kennedy’s assassination was not only a shock but it raised all kinds of questions about who did it and why; conspiracy theories continue to this day. Shortly after JFK’s death King said, “we were all involved in the death of John Kennedy. We tolerated hate; we tolerated the sick stimulation of violence in all walks of life (we said) that a man’s life was sacred only if we agreed with his views…”
Five years after JFK’s assassination we were shocked, again, when King was killed. I remember precisely where I was when I heard the news of King’s assassination on my car radio, and I pulled the car over, listened in shock and wept. The same thing happened with Robert Kennedy’s assassination.
These events of the 60’s, taken together, amounted to a loss of our collective innocence. I could say it was a loss of naïvete. It’s as though we were evicted from the Garden for a second time.
In 1963, the same year as Kennedy’s assassination, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial to deliver his I-have-a-dream speech. He opened by saying, “…today will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”
He said, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
Then he thundered the much-quoted line: “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!”
It was all coming together – the realization of a dream deferred, a dream denied to so many.
Martin Luther King was handed a huge task – the task of fulfilling the dream passed to him from the founders.
He became a drum major, in the forefront of all those who marched for racial justice. Soon he saw the connecting link of all the injustices and said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
We’ve been marching toward justice since this nation was founded, and King’s influence leads the way.
Another step on the long march to ‘freedom and justice for all’ was taken in Iowa when voters climbed over the racial barrier and voted for Barack Obama — our nation took one more step toward the completion of the dream. I’m not talking partisan politics, I’m referring to the dream of racial justice, the dream of dignity and equality for all persons.
Obama opened his victory speech with words reminiscent of Martin Luther King: “They said this day would never come; they said our sights were set too high…this is a defining moment in our history.’ We hear the echo of Dr. King from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
That happens to be the year my daughter Susan was born and the noxious odor of racism permeated every corner of the country.
Martin Luther King called us to dream of a better America, to heal the open wound of racism. The more he understood the underlying causes of the disease of racism, the more he saw the inter-connection with poverty—the economic injustice that separates the haves from the have-nots, and the war in Vietnam. It’s all the same package.
King was criticized for demonstrating against the war in Vietnam. If he had been alive during the build up to the preemptive, unilateral invasion of Iraq he would have been at our demonstration in Westport, or at another of the many demonstrations against the war; he would have spoken out against the use of torture; he would have preached about the lying, the deceit, the terrible blunders.
He also would have given us reason to hope, in spite of all the things that have been killing the dream.
We have reason to hope for a better America, we have reason to believe that we will regain our moral footing in the world. One reason for that hope is that the mistakes have become so glaringly apparent.
I was born into the world when the radio was king and newspapers were still of primary importance; the idea of television was a far-fetched dream; a rocket ship to the moon was science fiction and the computer wasn’t even on the radar screen.
A lot has changed in my lifetime and I hope to see the day when the dreams I share with King, and with you, will be realized. We have work to do and we need to continue to find ways to share the important task that remains before us.
With Dr. King we can say, “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley … to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
The mantle has passed to us, to our generation, to continue the work that our founders began — to realize their dream – carried on by Lincoln and all those who struggled to keep the dream alive. We do well to remember King’s thundering voice saying:
“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!”
We have a dream today, to preserve this great nation, to bring it back from the brink of disaster, to sing again about the ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all.
Speaking in the cadences of Dr. King, Barack Obama said, “Hope is what led me here today…our destiny is not written for us but by us.”
We understand that our destiny is written by us, not for us.
To help us continue to ‘build the dream’ together, our Social Justice Council has put together a presentation, outlining the work of the Council, and Social Justice Committees…eleven of them, in which you can be involved.
They invite us to join them in the East Wing following the service for a presentation.
Closing Reading: A Brave and Startling Truth, Maya Angelou
When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule … globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace …
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness …
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it …
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.