Sermon by the Rev. Adam Lawrence Dyer, Lead Minister of First Parish in Cambridge Unitarian Universalist, February 28, 2021. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
Where do we go from here: Community or chaos? Was the title of Martin Luther King Jr's. final book. Published in 1967 and despite the challenge implied in its title, the book is primarily about hope and the ways in which we need to claim a lost sense of community and belonging to each other in order to keep that hope alive and work toward a just world. Tragically, King never saw that vision realized. Equally tragic, we seem farther from that truth than ever before.
Many of us who live in worlds that are marginalized by the dominant cultures have long been aware of the basic disparities of life, safety, opportunity and inclusion. The reality of a global pandemic has brought these discrepancies into high relief for everyone to see if not in some way, experience directly. More than half a million people have died in this country, the most economically and technologically advanced in the world. And too many of these deaths were because of a kind of arrogance, because of misdirected faith and because of some people never having had a sense of vulnerability to the world around them.
Every death is tragic, but the moral tragedy of COVID is the disproportionate number of deaths due to life situations that are overwhelmingly including non-white people. Affordable health care, single family housing jobs that can be done remotely, savings, access to childcare, these are all inoculations that black and brown people, people with certain disabilities and far too many women do not have access to. We may be emerging from the pandemic on paper, but this crisis is far from over in people's hearts and lives. So where do we go from here?
We've failed Dr. King's vision when yet another black man's death at the hands of police is given no accountability. We have failed his vision when women are the greatest losers in the job market because our system is ill-prepared to support their specific needs in a crisis. We have failed his vision when the already too wealthy multiply their wealth because of the crisis. We have failed his vision when politicians are more concerned with their branding and their marketability than with serving the people they represent. Where do we go from here I ask? Because clearly, we are already in chaos.
In the Hebrew Bible reading from Genesis 17:1-4, we see Abram before the Lord. "When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am God almighty, walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you and will make you exceedingly numerous.' And then Abram fell on his face and God said to him, 'As for me, this is my covenant with you. You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.'"
What truly stands out to me in this passage and what I find most relevant in the times we're living through is that Abram fell on his face. Every time I read this passage, the comedian in me half wants to see this as a pratfall and then another part of me is like, "The man is 99 years old, did God give him a coronary?" But the reality is that this gesture by Abram is an act of total humility. It is the act of complete supplication to the power and the will of God. It is a gesture that says more than any words can say, "I will receive what you bring me." Indeed, Abram receives not just his identity but a new name, Abraham and a new promise of a future for both him and his wife, Sarai, Sarah. And he receives a new responsibility as one chosen by God to lead.
Where do we go from here? We need first to ask ourselves, are we really willing to receive what God, Spirit and life are asking of us? Have we fallen on our faces and indicated that we will commit to the promise of a better future. In the next passage from Mark 8:31-33, Jesus foretells his own death. "He began to teach them that the son of man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the scribes and be killed. And after three days rise again. He said all of this quite openly and Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, but turning and looking at His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things."
This is pretty heavy. Imagine someone who you love telling you with absolute certainty, that they are going to die, not a natural death, but that they're going to be killed after they have totally shunned and after they have suffered. And on top of all that, they're asking you to believe that they will rise again. Peter understandably freaks out, but Jesus puts him straight. "You're setting your mind not on divine things but on human thing." Where do we go from here? How preoccupied with human things are we? How have we not leaned into our faith?
The Beloved Community is not some easy path of no resistance. Non-violence resistance is not, was not easy. We've seen the images of civil rights leaders being attacked by dogs and by humans in the 1960s. And just last year in 2020, we saw peaceful if equally passionate protestors, gassed and beaten by our own government. In those moments, one cannot be thinking, "But what if I get hurt?" The commitment to non-violent resistance is the parallel act of presenting your body as the embodiment of Jesus own actions of sacrifice and willingness to undergo great suffering and having the certainty that faith will allow you to rise again.
Where do we go from here? Toward the end of the book, Where Do We Go From Here, Martin Luther King Jr. shared the following. "It is impossible for white Americans to grasp the depth and dimensions of the Negro's dilemma without understanding what it means to be a Negro in America. Of course it is not easy to perform this act of empathy. Putting oneself in another person's place is always fraught with difficulties over and over again it is said in the black ghettos of America that no white person can ever understand what it means to be a Negro. There is good reason for this assumption for there is very little in the life and experience of white America that can compare to the curse this society has put on color. And yet if the present chasm of hostility, fear and distrust is to be bridged, the white man must begin to walk in the pathways of his black brothers and feel some of the pain and hurt that throb without letup in their daily lives."
I spoke yesterday with a dear friend and colleague. We were talking about injustice and what it means to both be black men who are required often against our wishes to do race work simply by our physical appearance in all white spaces. We also reflected on the fact that we both have elite education and it ended afforded us a glimpse into a uniquely white world that many black men still never get to see. Riffing on that education, my friend made the devastatingly astute observation that for too many white people engaging racial justice is a bit like being a French major without ever having gone to France.
All the grammar is there, but with none of the nuance that comes from immersion in the life. Ultimately, in his writing and in his life, King was looking for people to do more than just find empathy. He was asking, requiring even that anyone in the fight for equality finds a way to go to France. The struggles cannot be disembodied and impersonal. It cannot dwell in the place of work that can be picked up and put down when it is convenient. The racial, economic, and social equality and the global peace that Martin Luther King Jr. sought could only be achieved by owning the lived experience and sharing in the experience at all times. And so I ask, where do we go from here?
Well, we need to go to France. To get there, we need the passport of unwavering faith. And that faith is only born out of a humility that seems in desperately short supply in our world today. Our world needs us, even hunkered down in our safe little COVID bubbles, our task is to find the inspiration to push against the forces that turn this world into chaos. Community, beloved community has a price for admittance. Are we ready to pay? Can we dig deep and find the humility? Can we tap into the well of faith? Can we intentionally go to the places and enter relationships where we are the foreigner and where we must learn someone else's language of story and pain? Where do we go from here to get there? Can we meet each other where we are? I don't know, but I can't wait to find out and none of us can do it alone. So let's get there together. Amen and blessed be.