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2009/01/18: The Second Sunday of the Epiphany / MLK Memorial; Dr. John Newby; The Struggle is an Ongoing Process

posted May 21, 2010, 6:10 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:18 PM by Terry Brady ]
Let us pray,
In gratitude, we pray to you Oh God.
For spiritual guidance in the words that we speak.
Direct our thoughts and fill our hearts and minds with your holy spirit.
Like your servant Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., guide us and all peoples and all nations through pathways of compassion, love, justice, and peace. Be a constant presence in our lives and draw us closer to you. Strengthen the bonds of good will among us so that in continuing our struggles,
We shall overcome, some day
Deep in our hearts, help us to believe that
We shall overcome, some day.

When I was first approached by Susan and Caron about delivering a sermon in recognition and honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who like Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord, we could not have imagined the joyous and historical nature of this week. While we proudly celebrate the accomplishments of our President-Elect Barack Obama, we are even more mindful of the monumental accomplishments and powerful legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We stand on the shoulders of Dr. King and countless named and unnamed warriors of the civil rights movement. We owe so much to those who endured the police dogs, who endured the water hoses, the bloodied heads and backs, the broken bones, the insults, the home bombings, imprisonments, loss of jobs, and murders of the innocent. We are proud to memorialize them in our hearts and minds, knowing that we must continue to strive for those changes that the civil rights warriors fought so hard to achieve. The struggle continues and there is a place for all of us to stand up and be counted.
I met Dr. King on at least two occasions while I was an undergraduate student at Howard University in the early 1960’s. In those days, and it continues until today, prominent preachers, theologians, or academicians were invited to deliver the Sunday sermon at Rankin Chapel, located on the campus. Occasionally, Dr. King was our guest preacher. He had carefully studied the life of Mahatma Gandhi, that political and spiritual leader in India whose practice of non-violent resistance to tyranny and oppression helped lead India to independence. Dr. King adopted the strategy of non-violence and firmly believed that it was the most potent weapon to use in responding to the struggles of oppressed people to obtain their civil rights. When Dr. King received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964, he asserted: “Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.” In 1963 Dr. King had provided the following context of non-violence. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
The time I recall meeting Dr. King was on a Sunday when he was our guest preacher and I was ushering at Rankin Chapel. Being an usher ensured that I would be a part of the service even if all of the seats and standing spaces were occupied. For Dr. King’s visits, the chapel was always filled to capacity as we listened to his thoughts about non-violence, the importance and timing of the civil rights movement, the plight of African-Americans in this country and the ongoing struggle to eliminate indignities brought about by segregation, blatant discrimination and violent reactions to peaceful protests. Awarded celebrity status, Dr. King was usually escorted from the chapel, after the service, to an awaiting car which had been parked beside the entrance to the chapel. On one bright and sunny morning, that car was a convertible that had the top down. Dr. King was invited to sit on the back of the car like a participant in a homecoming parade or as Susan did in the gay pride parade. Still in my usher robe, I approached the car and shook his hand before the car was surrounded by a throng of worshippers leaving the chapel. To all of the greetings, his response was a wide smile and a simple “thank you.” His voice was deep. He had dropped his serious demeanor. He was quite jovial and seemed to enjoy the attention from the crowd.
Inspired by Dr. King’s leadership, his perseverance and the energy of the civil rights movement, there were times when many of the students would leave the campus after a chapel service to participate in a university-sponsored march that picketed directly in front of the White House on Pennsylvania Ave. Waving signs and placards, we sang songs about being freed from oppression, discrimination, and the injustice of being treated as second class citizens. We always ended the picketing by joining hands and singing the comforting strains of “We shall overcome.” We truly believed that the energy of the universe was on the side of justice and that we were the rightful heirs of that justice which we would be ours someday.
In preparing these comments, I recalled some of the situations I encountered growing up in a segregated environment. In those days, there were signs displayed over water fountains that said either colored or white. When I first learned how to read, I thought that water coming from the colored fountain would come out in different colors. I recall getting text books that had been used and marked up with graffiti by white students but given to my high school when the white students got new books to use and mark up. In one supermarket that was frequented by many African-Americans, I recall that there were three bathrooms, one for white men, one for white women and one to be used by both African-American men and African American women. I never knew if both sexes were supposed to use the bathroom at the same time or whether there was some other race-related message that was being sent. In a department store where I worked during the summer, African-Americans could not eat in the dining room. I always thought it was strange that white customers would eat the food that was prepared by an entire kitchen of African-American women but would not sit down with them to share a meal. Then there was the director of personnel who would always say when she walked through the delivery office where I worked, “Good Night Boys.” Old or young, the African American men were always referred to as boys. I was never aware of any move- to- the-back of the bus incidents when I was growing up in Norfolk. However, I do recall that white passengers on the bus would often stand up rather than sit in a vacant seat beside an African-American. My father sold fruits and vegetables from a truck in a low income white project. For more years than I like to remember, I was the delivery boy. Occasionally, during the hot summer months, I would ask for a glass of water when I made a delivery. I was always given the water but also told that I could keep the glass. My father told me, after I had collected several glasses, that the glasses had been given to me because they would not be used again in that house after I had drunk from it. Never again did I ask for a glass of water while working in that project.
At least once a year during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we hear the familiar words of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech. Those dreams had visions of equality for all and universal brotherhood, the vision of eradicating injustice and oppression, the vision of being judged by ones character rather than the color of one’s skin, the vision that our nation be transformed towards togetherness and away from divisiveness, and that there would be a ringing realization of freedom shouted from every village and hamlet in this country. In that speech, Dr. King raised the consciousness of the civil rights movement and secured for himself a place in history as one of the world’s greatest orators.
We are still striving towards the realization of Dr. King’s dreams. With few modifications, the contents of the speech are as relevant and timely today as they were 45 years ago. Many of Dr. King’s speeches, the marches, famous quotes and the rhetoric of the civil rights movement have been committed to history. However, the struggle for justice must be ongoing. We cannot be content with what we believe we have accomplished, we cannot be satisfied, and we cannot be complacent. With diligence and fervor we must strengthen our resolve to remove the obstacles that impede the quest for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Those obstacles that continue to be alive and well include Racism, sexism ageism, classism, elitism and the ongoing inequities and injustices leveled against those with a different sexual orientation. We must find creative, innovative, and more effective means of combating poverty, homelessness, health care and health care disparities, joblessness, abusiveness, hunger, treats to the environment, and greed. Dr. King cautioned, “A nation that continues to spend, year after year, more money on military defense than on ongoing programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”
Being shown great thing from lofty heights (as alluded to in today’s gospel) whereby the glory of god is manifest is often portrayed in biblical teachings and interpretations. It is the context of Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” speech that was so prophetically delivered on the night before he was assassinated. The speech alludes to the bible story of Moses being taken by God to the top of a mountain overlooking Canaan, the Promised Land. Moses is allowed to see the Promised Land but told that he will not be allowed to cross over into it.
The speech is uncanny in what appears to be Dr. King’s prediction of his death. “Well, he said, “But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I have been to the mountain top…and I’ve looked over and I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Why was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., lifted up to the mountain top to see the Promised Land before he would get there with his people? What did he actually see when he was allowed to look over that place of complete satisfaction and happiness? Was he lifted up for being on the side of truth and righteousness as he sought to proclaim the good news of god in Christ? Was he lifted up because he sought to serve Christ in all persons and had loved his neighbor as himself? Was he lifted up in gratitude for his personal struggle striving for justice and peace among all people while respecting the dignity of every human being?
Perhaps, from that mountain top, Dr. King was allowed to look back over his past life of service and transformational leadership to witness people around the world crying out to be free, perhaps he saw again the importance of non-violence as the preferred method of bringing about social change, maybe he witnessed the unfolding of a human rights revolution and the resolve of oppressed people to gain their rightful place in the world. In looking back over his accomplishments, maybe the Nobel Prize he had won for his work to end racial segregation and discrimination was flashed in front of him or the passage of civil rights acts that he so strongly influenced, or his participation in the march on Washington, where he delivered the “I have a dream speech” that energized and galvanized the civil rights movement. In looking back over his life, maybe he was allowed to leaf through his letter from a Birmingham Jail in which he so strongly stated that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” In looking back from the mountain top, maybe he was also shown the work he did leading the successful Montgomery bus boycott that resulted from the courage and bravery of Mrs. Rosa Parks, who helped to pave the way to equal freedom and equal opportunity.
If, from that mountain top, Dr. King was allowed to see future strides towards justice, influenced by his leadership, he was surely shown the dismantling of Apartheid and the freeing of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. Then he would see significant advances in the rights of women to include their appointment to the Supreme Court, the selection of the first female astronaut, Shirley Chisholm becoming the first African American women to be elected to Congress and Geraldine Ferraro’s becoming the first female candidate for vice-president of the United States. Dr. King would be most gratified to witness the advances of African-Americans in the fields of business, in government, and in politics. Perhaps he was shown the Stonewall incident and the ongoing struggle for gay and lesbian liberation. Similarly, he would see that many of the major figures in professional sports and in leadership roles in the military would be African Americans and that an African-American woman would win the Nobel Prize for literature.
It is probably not a coincidence that the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King., Jr. immediately precedes the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. In recalling many of the painful events that this country experienced, from the degrading circumstances that propelled Dr. King to prominence, to the election of Barack Obama, it is difficult to grasp all of what is happening this weekend. I never thought that I would experience such a forward moving event in my lifetime and I am sorry that my grandparents, parents, and deceased brothers and sisters are not here. I am proud of Barack Obama and I am proud of this country. It is hard to believe that an African-American family will occupy the White House as its primary residents considering that African-American slaves helped to build it not that many years ago. It is really a blessing to actually experience the occurrence of these events, to have lived long enough to be a witness to such a revolutionary piece of history. It is indeed a cause for celebration.

We praise God for the witness, vision, and non-violent perseverance of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. Dr. King paved the way for changes needed to pursue the realization of justice, freedoms, dignity, inclusion and equal opportunities Let us not forget that the struggle for human rights is not static but a dynamic and ongoing process that daily demands our attentiveness. Let us keep the faith. Let us always have hope for future days to be brighter than our yesterdays and let there be peace among all peoples and nations. Someday may all peoples of the earth witness those things that signify the coming of the glory of the Lord?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
You raised us up, so we could stand on mountains
You raised us up, to walk on stormy seas;
We are strong when we are on your shoulders,
You raised us up... to more than we could be.
• Can we transform the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. so that they can become realities in our daily lives? The now famous refrain must always be, yes we can.
• Can we continue to strive for equal freedom and equal opportunities for all people? Yes we can.
• Can we make this a land of hope, justice and peace? Yes we can.
• Can we work to eliminate prejudices, misunderstandings and hate that separate us from the love of Christ and the love of our sisters and brothers? Yes we can. Yes we can.
Amen!
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