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MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., DAY HOMILY

A sermon preached by Brian J. Mason
First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
Sunday, January 14, 2018

By the time Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, the commanders of the Union and Confederate Armies, respectively, sat down in Wilmer McLean’s parlor, in Appomattox, Virginia, over 620,000 men had lost their lives in the line of duty.

That day, when Grant and Lee met, on April 9, 1865, almost four years to the day had passed since the start of the Civil War. The war was fought to preserve a nation, our nation, the United States of America. A nation, by war’s end, just barely 89 years old; a nation that, in its Declaration of Independence, included these 35 words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

And it is within those words we participants in this great experiment called democracy get to dream the nation into a lived reality. Never before had a nation been founded upon an idea. Exactly who or what possessed the power within our government could have easily been designed for kings and monarchs, but instead it was entrusted to the dreamers themselves.

And therefore, the nation became a never-ending negotiation; or, to use an idea of the great James Baldwin, our nation became something to achieve, a work in progress.

And, by some measure, we have been working to achieve that nation ever since the Declaration of Independence was announced to the kingdom of Great Britain on July 4, 1776.

The idea that life and liberty and happiness are inalienable, which is to say intrinsic and indwelling, has proven to be a dangerous and, in fact, deadly idea.

Two years before General Lee’s surrender to General Grant, from July 1-3, 1863, the Union and Confederate armies engaged in the great Battle of Gettysburg.

For after that great battle, then President Abraham Lincoln stood upon the very ground that had earlier ran red with the blood of more than 57,000 soldiers, 23,000 of whom were Union. The true price of freedom had never been so high. President Lincoln, keeper of the dream of achieving our nation surveyed the Pennsylvania countryside, recalling, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln ended the Gettysburg Address with these enduring words:

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 there 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.

What Lincoln articulated was freedom’s sacred promise to all people. That with this terrible war a new freedom was emerging, one that would live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, and that our nation, though caught in the grips of war, would emerge as one whose bounty would be shared by all people.

And, on August 28, 1963, standing within shadow of Lincoln’s monument in Washington, D.C., the greatest prophet of our era stood and said, “I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ ”

And like prophets before and since, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the eternal truths of justice and freedom. Dr. King exists in a great procession of prophets who came before him.

Prophets, then as now, serve as stewards of human goodness. They do this by condemning injustice and prejudice at all costs. And often, proven time and again by the pages of history, the price for speaking the truth of the prophets is often death.

Lincoln and Dr. King shared a similar fate. Both men were cut down by assassins, robbed of the wisdom of old age, wisdom we all, no doubt, would have been the better for had we the opportunity to continue our education in their midst. Both men, in the tragedy of their death, were removed from the temporal and supplanted from the realm of the everyday into that sacred realm of the hero, and rightfully so.

Our nation enjoys heroes, as I assume others do as well. We know a hero when we encounter one because their biography is interwoven with history itself. The only other kind of person that’s treated this way in history’s pages are the evil ones, the people who endure as reminders to us that power, while necessary for human flourishing, is mighty corrupting in the hands of the selfish and power-hungry and weak.

In 1966, Dr. King provided the Ware Lecture at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, held that year in Hollywood, Florida.

In the lecture, Dr. King calls upon us religious liberals “to be maladjusted . . . maladjusted as the prophet Amos . . . Lincoln . . . Thomas Jefferson . . . [and] Jesus of Nazareth”; Dr. King goes on to say that “Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.”

For as much progress as our society has made since Dr. King’s death, in 1968, I believe there’s reason for us to pray for maladjustment today.

Despite the clean and orderliness of our nation we all know well that tonight children will go to sleep with aching and hungry bellies.

We all know well that the sick and dying are saddled with medical bills two (or more) times the cost of an Ivy League education, with no hope but the shame and torture of poverty to greet their waking lives after suffering sleepless nights.

We all know well that thousands of African American men spend decades behind bars for possessing a substance now legal in 8 states, and decriminalized in 14 others.

We all know well that the largest demographic of people who lack adequate nutrition in this country are our children. Let me repeat that: the largest demographic of people who lack adequate nutrition in this country are children; many of whom would go entirely without if it weren’t for the modest lunches they eat at school each week.

We all know well that without the gift of immigrants from the great African nations, Haiti, and all other countries that not only would we suffer from brain drain in our academic, medical, tech, and other professional-class institutions, but that the richness of expression in our arts and humanities, not to mention the everyday service industry needs that are met by people who operate our factories and restaurants – people who serve on school boards, PTAs, and in government positions would be deficient to the point of bankruptcy if it weren’t for the brave and selfless dedication all of us receive from the commitment of immigrant women and men.

This list of injustices could go on, enough to cause despair for two or three lifetimes.

There is a great risk involved in opening one’s heart to the terrible truths of injustice that plague our great nation and shared world. There is great risk because doing so requires that you live out your lives with hearts wide open. You let the strained and tortured faces of refugees into your heart; you listen for the cries of mothers whose sons have been cut down by violence; you let the abused and the beaten find solace in your caring; you trade evenings of complacency for nights of outrage. The immensity of wrongs in need of righting in this world is enough to make even the strongest among us slip into despair.

But one of Dr. King’s enduring legacies is his refusal to let despair win the day. To the cause of racial discrimination, he said, in the conclusion of his Ware Lecture, “I believe firmly that we can solve this problem. I know that there are difficult days ahead. And they are days of glorious opportunity. Our goal in America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s.”

The terrible truth of the hero we’re honoring this morning is that his dream of an America free of the sin of injustice is still being negotiated. Dr. King left this world with his work unfinished. That this is the case should haunt us all. But giving into despair would risk the kind of vanity President Lincoln warned us of on that Pennsylvania countryside. The unfinished work has been left to each of us.

The question we must ask is will we dedicate ourselves to the great task before us? Will we dedicate our lives to the lofty dream of democracy, and resolve ourselves to the hope of one day achieving the promise of our nation – a nation that has been entrusted to us, not by kings and monarchs, but by a bold vision of a society in which the very freedom of its citizens is what maintains our independence; that our government must be one of the people, by the people, and for the people. That the legacy of this great hero endures is proof that despair cannot win the day.

Be maladjusted my friends, for the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice lives in you. Amen and Blessed be.

[1] “The Declaration of Independence,” http://www.ushistory.org/declaration/document/.

[2] Abraham Lincoln, “The Gettysburg Address,” http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “I Have A Dream . . .,” https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf.

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution,” https://www.uua.org/ga/past/1966/ware.