Opening Words: Martin Luther King, Jr wrote about the parable of the Good Samaritan. He said,
“The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?””
We’re here this morning for several reasons – first, to be together, to interact…to sing together…to listen and think together, and to be quiet together.
And we’re here to be alone with ourselves…to ponder a decision that needs to be made, or a decision recently made with uncertain consequences…to touch that place inside from which flows our sense of appreciation for our bounty, especially the love we’ve received and the love we’ve been able to give.
May this time together today provide some support for the journey, some encouragement for the struggle and some inspiration for the spirit so we can build a land ‘where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.
Sermon: What is Required of Us?
The prophet Micah asks the basic question – what is required of us? That’s the question that faces us today, after the massacre in Tucson, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and after every instance of injustice in the world, and every injury in our personal, day-to-day, down-to earth lives.
Micah has Yahweh, or God if you prefer, bring a lawsuit against Israel, accusing the people of breaking the covenant they signed on to at Mount Sinai. In this “covenant lawsuit” Yahweh sues Israel for breach of contract, for violations of the Sinai covenant.
This passage is an example seen throughout the prophets who criticize the emptiness of religious rituals – just going through the motions – in place of sincere efforts to do what is right, what is good.
The covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel is central to the Jewish faith, so Micah, in his role as prophet, cuts right to the heart of the matter. In Micah 6:1-8 he makes Yahweh’s ‘Case Against Israel.’ He says,
1 Listen to what the LORD says:
“Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.
2 “Hear, you mountains, the LORD’s accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.
For the LORD has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.
3 “My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.
4 I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam…
6 With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
8 He has shown you, O Man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
The prophet Micah says, “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
You don’t have to be Jewish to take Micah’s question personally, you simply have to be human, which is to say, you simply have to have a conscience, compassion, and a sense of responsibility for the way you live your life — a sense of responsibility to the others with whom you share this planet…other people and all the other forms of life on the spinning little planet of ours.
What is required of us, individually and collectively? What should we do, what should be our motivation – the reason we do what we are to do – and in what spirit or attitude shall we carry it out?
Micah’s question is followed with an answer – do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Today we honor the memory of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
He would be the first to say that we’re not so much honoring a man as we are honoring the values he held dear, which is to say, the way in which he lived out his answer to Micah’s question, and the ways he inspired us to embrace Micah’s question.
What is required of us in response to the massacre in Tucson? The task is humbling — the answer is not obvious and it isn’t easy. It’s a challenge.
Some of the dreams that Martin Luther King listed in his famous speech delivered with such passion from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington for jobs and freedom, August 28, 1963, have been realized.
Or, to say it differently, all of his dreams have been realized to some degree. He expressed the dreams of every one of us, the dreams of a moral human being.
American Rhetoric Society of Journalists and Authors lists the top 100 speeches of the 20th century, placing King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ at the very top, number One.
It is appropriate that King’s speech was delivered in front of the memorial to Abraham Lincoln whose address at Gettysburg is ranked at the top of the 19th century. These two speeches, exactly 100 years apart, had a lot in common.
King’s speech was the defining moment of the Civil Rights movement in America. Lincoln’s speech was a defining moment in the history of human rights, ‘testing whether this nation, or any nation conceived in liberty, can long endure.’
Civil Rights worker Congressman John Lewis, who also spoke that day, later said, “Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations.”
Yes, some progress has been made on the things Dr. King listed in his dream: “…that one day my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character… that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.”
He said, “This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
During the 47 years that have come and gone since he expressed his dreams some progress has been made.
But there is so very much more work to be done, and we cannot honor Dr. King without asking, ‘What is required of us, here and now, today?’
How, for example, do we respond to last week’s massacre in Tucson?
How do we respond to the enormous-and-ever-growing gap between the billionaires and the men and women and children who do the work that keeps us going from day to day, providing our necessities and our many luxuries? In 1965 the ratio between a worker’s compensation and the CEO of the company was 26 to 1; today it is 500 to 1; one day’s compensation equals a year and a half of work for the worker.
King was assassinated in Memphis where he had gone to stand for the sanitation workers’ poor pay and working conditions – it’s important to keep that in mind.
How do we remember and honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and the others whose lives were brutally taken in the struggle for civil rights? There were people like the Rev. James Reeb, the Unitarian Universalist minister who worked with the poor in Boston before becoming Assistant Minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in Washington, D.C.
Reeb answered the call from Dr. Martin Luther King for clergy to come to Selma, Alabama, to protest violence by state troopers against civil rights marchers. We were involved with the civil rights movement in unprecedented numbers given the size of our denomination.
On March 9, 1965, Rev. Reeb and two other UU ministers, Rev. Orloff Miller and Rev. Clark Olsen, were walking back to the hotel after dinner to attend a meeting led by Dr. King when they were attacked by a group of white men. One hit Rev. Reeb in the head with a club. The blow was fatal; Rev. Reeb died March 11, 1965.
At a memorial service for James Reeb, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the eulogy and asked rhetorically, “Who killed Jim Reeb?” He answered: A few ignorant men. Then he asked the hard question: “What killed Jim Reeb?” He answered sharply: “An irrelevant church, an indifferent clergy, an irresponsible political system, a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy, a timid federal government, and an uncommitted Negro population.”
What is required of us?
When the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed was with us last month he made a point of saying that one thing that is NOT required of us is to feel guilty about our limited success in having our Unitarian Universalist Association of congregations become more racially diverse.
At the same time, he noted times in our history, in the 1800’s, when we missed opportunities to welcome African-American Unitarian and Universalist clergy into the fold, preachers who wanted to represent our faith in the black community, but were only to be rebuffed and demeaned.
He pointed out that even our heroes, like Channing and Parker, were not above racist convictions and comments.
Racism was plowed into the soil, imbedded in the language, as indicated so artfully by Mark Twain in his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, which is why the language he used should not be censored – it was intended to shock by demonstrating that this was the way people talked ‘back then,’ revealing the deeply imbedded ugly truth.
Language feeds and preserves prejudice, passing it like mother’s milk from generation to generation.
In spite of Channing and Parker’s comments that left a racist stain on their clerical shirts, they were courageous in their outspokenness and dedication to the abolitionist movement – they hated the institution of slavery and said so, at the risk of alienating their parishioners, many of whom were profiting from slavery. So it’s not surprising that some of them wanted to preserve slavery and abolish their abolitionist ministers!
Our white forebears were privileged, just as we white, educated, middle and upper class UU’s are among the privileged today; we don’t need to feel guilty about it, but we do need to acknowledge it, to be reminded. Such a reminder might help us in our quest for the answer to this sermon’s question: what is required of us, today?
We can point to the faults and failures of our Unitarian and Universalist forebears – they are sitting ducks, making an easy target; we can name their lost opportunities, their failure to help us to be more racially diverse. Our first and overarching principle is freedom – religious freedom, economic and political freedom – it would have provided a haven of hope for blacks and other marginalized minorities.
We can also point to the efforts of many in our ranks who responded to Micah’s question in their time by working to end the institution of slavery, leaving the work of ending racism for future generations – for us.
As early as 1824 Unitarian minister, Rev. Robert Little, preached anti-slavery sermons and gradually many of our clergy assumed leadership in the abolitionist movement.
In his eulogy for James Reeb, Martin Luther King suggested that what is required of us in any age is to be relevant, which is to say, to address the real needs of our time, the problems of our time, and we must insist on a responsible and responsive political system, working together ‘to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly.’
What’s required of us, in our time?
Gun control is high on that list. For too long our federal laws have failed to control the guns which have become weapons of mass destruction in every city in America.
Legislators are afraid of the National Rifle Association, not because of the narrow interpretation of the second amendment or their moral or patriotic persuasion regarding gun ownership, but because of their political clout, their money contributed to cooperative members of congress.
The killings-by-guns in Tucson were preceded by the killings at Columbine and the killings in Maryland, Virginia Tech and Washington, D.C., etc.
Just since the murder of Martin Luther King 42 years ago, more than a million people in the United States have been killed with guns, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun violence, including self-inflicted and accidental deaths with guns.
The mission statement of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence is “to reform the gun industry by enacting and enforcing sensible regulations to reduce gun violence, including regulations governing the gun industry. In addition, we educate the public about gun violence…”
In our nation the leading cause of death for black teens and young adults, ages 15 to 24, is homicide; 82% were killed with guns.
What’s required of us? While we share the outrage over the attack on Representative Gabby Giffords in the Tucson massacre that left six dead, including nine year old Christina Green, and thirteen others wounded, what steps will be taken to at least try to prevent it from happening again and again forever?
Very few among us would ban all guns – but the weapon wielded by the crazed gunman enabling him to shoot 31 times in rapid succession should not be allowed on the street as it is now…and as it is allowed to be carried into bars, reminding us of the Wild Wild West. It’s crazy.
While it’s inappropriate to suggest that the NRA is responsible for the murder of the nine-year old girl, it is also inappropriate to pretend that it’s not part of the problem – preventing us from having a sane gun control law nationwide, a law that might have prevented the tragic deaths in Tucson last week.
While it’s inappropriate to say that the angry talk shows are responsible for the murders in Tucson, it is also inappropriate to pretend that the vitriol poured onto the raging fires of hatred in this county is not part of the problem – it is.
Those who are working for the sane control of and in some cases removal of these lethal, hand-held weapons of mass destruction must not be silenced in the name of civility.
Those who are calling for a more civil discourse, who are pointing toward the link between violent talk and gun violence must not be silenced. Of course there is a link between the vitriol spewed by hate-filled talk shows hosts and the massacre in Tucson, especially when it is force-fed to psychologically troubled men like Jared Loughner.
Loughner said he was angry at the new health care bill, which is so tragically ironic since he was in such obvious and desperate need of mental-health care.
At Wednesday night’s memorial service for the victims of the Tucson massacre President Obama said, “…at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -– at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do -– it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.
“For the truth is none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped these shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind. Yes, we have to examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of such violence in the future.”
Like Micah, he was saying that something is required of us – some action, which one might assume has to do with gun control legislation.
We need to be informed about gun violence, not to ‘point fingers and assign blame,’ but to understand what is required of us, in our time, in our place.
Certainly we need to do so with ‘a good dose of humility.’
We are bound together in an inescapable network – we don’t allow smokers to contaminate the air we share – we know it causes harm; we should have the same kind of laws to protect us from bullets fired from automatic weapons that have become weapons of mass destruction.
Holding up Christina Green’s nine-year old girl’s untainted idealism about her country President Obama said, “I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.”
That’s a good answer to the question – what’s required of us? We must do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations and that we live up to our responsibilities to assure ‘that this nation, of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.’
In closing I want to thank to our Social Justice team…David Vita, Director…Jan Park, whose gift brought David to us five years ago, and I want to thank the Social Justice Committee, both for their participation in this service today and for the work they do all year.
The Social Action Committees: Beardsley School, Racial Justice, Rainbow Task Force, Committee to Abolish the Death Penalty, Environmental Action Group, Health Care Task Force, Microfinance, UU UN, Westbridge
They remind us that we are “working together to make this world of ours just a little bit fairer, a little bit more just, a little bit more peaceful”
“The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.