Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, January 14, 2018.
The hymn we just sang was Martin Luther King’s favorite. And I can imagine, given the struggles he faced, that it was also his prayer: “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” King often asked Mahalia Jackson to sing “Precious Lord” at civil rights rallies, and she sang it at his funeral.
At the service, on that sad day in 1968, Martin’s widow Coretta arranged to have a recording played, part of a sermon he had preached several months earlier, when he had reflected on his own mortality. He said:
“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. 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.
“I'd like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others.
“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.
“I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry.
“And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
“I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison.
“I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”
What do you want people to say at your funeral? And are you living in a way that they will say that? If not, what needs to change?
Martin Luther King is one of our contemporary saints. We remember him this weekend because of the way he lived. This doesn’t mean he was perfect; he was human, like each of us. But he was thrust into a role that the times demanded of him. He said yes to that call, again and again, even though he often felt tired and weak and worn. And our nation is the better for the life and ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.
But isn’t it painfully clear that his work, that our work, of racial justice, of a more peaceful world, is far from done? Today, and this month, I hope we will reflect deeply on our own callings to make things better, to move things forward. Few of us will have the impact of Rev. King, but each of us can do something. Each of us has a part to play. What I hope the celebrations of this Martin Luther King weekend will remind us is that we are not alone.
On Tuesday afternoons here we host this thing we call “Play Church.” After school, children come by with their parents and grandparents. They play in the Murray Room, and the grownups, hopefully, get some time to sit around the table in the Ladies Parlor and connect over a cup of tea.
At some point in time in the afternoon one of those little ones will inevitably come up to me and say, “Can we go in the sanctuary?” They have no idea how this warms my heart! But I usually say, “In a little while. Why don’t you keep playing out here for now?”
But you know five and six year-olds are nothing if not persistent. So eventually I’ll say yes, and we come in here and play hide and seek in the dark, or they run around this big space. It’s kind of like a big racetrack! And the thought comes to me: my secret plan is working! These children want to come to church! They want to be in this sacred space. “Can we go in the sanctuary?” “Oh, I guess so.”
This week one of them proposed a game that was a variation of the classic good versus evil, heroes versus villains. “You be the bad guys and we’ll be the good guys,” that’s what one of them said. As religious liberals we tend to resist this either/or view of the world. We want to see the inherent goodness in everyone. But we have to admit admit that there is injustice and evil in our world.
I just have to say it plain: what President Trump said the other day about immigrants from Haiti and Africa, what he said about those countries, it was racist. It was hateful. It is not what this country stands for. It was wrong, and harmful, and hurtful, and should be condemned by every elected official in our country. This kind of talk is the last gasp of white men, mostly, who are afraid of losing their sense of superiority. But the sun is setting on that world, as we become more multiracial and multicultural.
There’s an understanding in the Hebrew tradition, that in every generation a pharaoh will arise to oppress the people. In every generation the people need to rise up and seek liberation. That call seems particularly obvious these days. When it comes to this work it’s easy to focus on the heroes, the leaders, they’re the ones who get put on the posters. And we need these leaders and exemplars. But you know the social movements that have made our world better would never have gotten anywhere without a whole bunch of followers. We think about Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and toward the promised land, but forget that Moses had Aaron, his helper, who attended to details that Moses wasn’t particularly good at. Martin Luther King had a number of helpers around him, people whose names we know, and others less known, like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bayard Rustin.
My point is, we like to lift up the leaders, but where would they be, and where would these movements be, without the followers, the organizers, the workers? Without the foot soldiers, will there ever be a revolution?
During the Montgomery bus boycott, the people who walked the talk literally walked to work for over a year, rather than ride on segregated buses. They were the ones who finally broke that oppressive system. Martin Luther King quoted one of those walkers, an elderly black woman, who said, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” The people who have marched on Washington, for all kinds of causes, are people who felt compelled to stand up and show up for what is right, to help move justice forward. In this day when it is so easy to get in arguments on Facebook or on cable news, there is something powerful about showing up. Whether that is for breakfast with people whose story is different from your own, or showing up for a protest march or to companion an immigrant to their ICE hearing, or even showing up for church. It’s how we’re changed, and how we’ll change things.
So on this day when we remember an American hero, I want to thank you for the ways you show up; the ways you care for those in need and help build the common good, the ways you speak up for what is right. Often with little fanfare, but I hope you can take heart and remember that you are making a difference.
We need one another. And we need to be reminded of that. Of the power we do have when we come together. You heard it in our reading this morning from Marge Piercy:
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall… (or a church!)
It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again after they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more.
(The Low Road, by Marge Piercy).
My faith is, my faith has to be, that in this country, though there are those who want us to go back to the bad old days, most of us are good and decent people. People trying to wake up. People trying to love their neighbors and do the right thing. People trying to feed the hungry and visit those in prison and work for justice. I have to believe there are many of us standing for love and for justice, and we need to see one another and join hands across all the differences that could divide us. To trust that we are legion. There are so many of who believe that truth and justice are the American way, in spite of the challenges we face today. We are part of a great justice league—can you see it?
Will you hold on to this faith with me? Will you look for ways to join hands with others? Will you help keep the faith and keep showing up, looking for ways to keep on moving forward, making ours a more just world?
At the end, when people gather to remember and give thanks for your life, what do you want them to say?