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Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jan 15

The Second Sunday after Epiphany: Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday

In his last book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, Martin Luther King opens his final chapter with a brief story about a famous, though unnamed, novelist who had died some years before.   King tells us that among the novelist’s papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories.   The most prominently underscored was this one:  ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together’¹.   Let me say that once more:  ‘A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.’  The title of the chapter is “The World House.” Needless to say, King takes the novelist’s suggestion and develops it into his own plot, indeed his own dream.

If we trace the arc of King’s career, we find that King had not one dream, but many.   I like to think that King had waking dreams of justice that grew, with his movement, in increasingly large concentric circles.  The historical birthplace of these dreams was of course a bus in Montgomery in 1955.  As one historian has written, Rosa Park’s one word deed “made King possible.”²  Her defiant “no” on that bus ignited the 381 day bus boycott that launched King’s career as a civil rights leader.  Through the fire hoses and prison cells of Birmingham, through the student sit-ins and marches, through victories of the Civil Rights and Voter’s Rights Acts of ‘64 and ‘65, right through to the Poor People’s Campaign and garbage workers strike of  ‘68, King was constantly being called to stretch the horizons of his dreams.   The historian David Lewis has written:   “King’s civil rights movement suddenly developed from a regional drama centered on racial segregation into a crusade exposing the socioeconomic imbalances in the national structure itself.”³  And, even beyond these ever widening dreams and demands of justice within the U.S., King would eventually let his ‘trumpet of conscience’ blare in decrying U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the presence of racial and economic injustice across the globe.

Here we meet the later King who in that last book, “Where Do We Go From Here?” articulates one of his broadest visions and dreams as such: “We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu -  a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.” 4

I was reminded of King’s image of the world house when I found out that one songs the kids were singing today would be Unity which is based on the first verse of Psalm 133.  In ancient Israel, the psalms were intended not merely to be read but sung, in the context of a worship service, just as the Boston Children’s Chorus and our First Church choir will do in a few minutes.

Here at First Church we like to think of this sanctuary and indeed our broader community as a Household of God.  We like to think we’ve flung wide our doors enough to be deserving of such a designation. Perhaps sometimes we are deserving, like on 9/11 when we gathered with our Muslim and Jewish brothers, and today when we gather and welcome children, families and neighbors, city and suburb, people of many faiths as well people who don’t identify with religious tradition.  When we have opportunities to gather in our household, not just with our own but to share with others, to invite them and to be in by them, we realize that much broader and deeper dream which King was articulating.  And what better way to celebrate and manifest that dream than to sing, and sign together.

The theme of kindred living together in unity has a nice ring to it, and it makes for a great song, but I wonder if we can get beyond the feeling that there’s something unrealistic and overly idealistic about it.  How do we, as Paul writes, speak and sing and live this kind of vision not only with our hearts but also with our minds?  In our deeply divided country , our bifurcated world of red and blue, liberal and conservative, east and west, first and developing, rich and poor, it is far too easy to be lulled into a “yeah right, wouldn’t that be nice, get real” kind of attitude when anyone dares speak up and sing out as King did. King rarely gave a speech without referencing real policy proposals but even more deeply than that, he knew these changes would require what he so often called a revolution of values.

President of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman, noted in a recent Huffington Post piece just how little progress we’ve made since the days of King, agreeing with another line of King’s, also in “Where Do We Go From Here?”  King wrote as if he could have been writing today: “There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will… The well-off and the secure have too often become indifferent and oblivious to the poverty and deprivation in their midst. The poor in our countries have been shut out of our minds, and driven from the mainstream of our societies, because we have allowed them to become invisible.  Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. No individual or nation can be great if it does not have a concern for ‘the least of these.’”

After noting that there are today over 20 million more Americans living in poverty than in the days of King, Edelman says that “The question of why we still allow poverty and hunger to exist—and the answer—remain the same: The deficit in human will.”

Edelman goes on to articulate what I know some of us have been thinking in recent weeks especially….

As another political season gets into full swing in the United States, a new crop of candidates are making a lot of promises about their competing visions of America. But how many TV debates are focusing on whether America is a compassionate nation? How many stump speeches are saying how shameful it is that last year more Americans relied on food stamps to eat than at any time since the program began in 1939? How many are responding to Occupy Wall Street’s outcry about the morally obscene gulf between rich and poor in our nation where the 400 highest income earners made as much as the combined tax revenues of 22 states in 2008? Which PACs are running commercials to remind Americans that we are normalizing poverty, child hunger, and homelessness, and creating historic income, wealth, and mobility gaps?

We can lay a fair amount of blame on leaders in DC and Wall Street but the deficit of will is a burden we all have to bear.  My guess is there are very few among us who do not at times shut the poor out of our minds.

A few years back, I listened to a few of King’s sermons on cassette in my car (talk about books on tape!). The sermons were preached at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where amazingly he was able to maintain his ministerial duties and standing right through the height of the civil rights movement until his death.  In a sermon entitled “Who is My Neighbor?” he reflects on the New Testament story of Jesus and the Good Samaritan offering a reflection on the difference between pity and empathy.   Pity, he says, “may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true empathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.  Pity, he goes on, “may arise from interest in an abstraction called humanity, but empathy grows out of a concern for particular human beings in need.”  He tells a story about a young lady who was in the hospital for appendicitis.  She got a letter from her boyfriend which read,  ‘Darling, I have a pain in your side.’  That is empathy.”  5

What would it be like to be able to say to our neighbors here today, some of whom we may have never met before today not only a polite hi, how are you, and peace be with you, but “Sister, Brother, let me see you and let me hear about the pains in your side, the pains in your life that may well be much different from mine? What would it be like to then say to each other in response “I have a pain in your side.”?  That’s not merely empathy. That would be something more like solidarity.  That may even be approaching something else that which we too often resign to the realm of idealistic abstaction.  It may be approaching something like Unity!  Let’s just try it now.  Come on and say it with me.  I have a pain in your side.  The sentence is just unusual enough that it if we were to practice it, or something like it, try saying it when we look at someone on the T or in the square, it might stir our imaginations and empathy enough to change our deficit of will. Maybe for some in this community it’s a genuine pain of hunger, a pain of being out of work, a pain of anxiety about having no retirement savings, for others it may be a pain of trauma or heartache, or the pain of isolation.  I have a pain in your side!  To imagine sharing pain with one another such that, as the saying goes shared pain is only half the pain and shared joy is double the joy. We might come to a new appreciation of how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in empathy, in solidarity and indeed in unity!

King also once cried out  “[People] of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly.  The call for a worldwide good-neighbor policy is more than an ephemeral shibboleth; it is the call to a way of life which will transform our imminent cosmic elegy [or lament] into a psalm of creative fulfillment!

Maybe today and tomorrow, we can all do our best to remember that his legacy began as a regional drama, in something more like a town house, to celebrate whatever is happening here in our community, here in our midst that is paying down our own deficit of will, of empathy, of solidarity and of unity. One thing we can know for sure is that the dream of moving from a town house to a world house would not have survived without prayers and songs of praise, without those psalms of fulfillment.  We need psalms and songs that draw us together. We need songs that inspire us, that draw us to have one voice, one body, one pain, one joy, one hope, one Love.  We need groups like the Boston Children’s Chorus whose very mission is to transcend social barriers in a celebration of shared humanity and love of music and to harness the power and joy of music to unite our city's diverse communities and inspire social change.    One more quote of King’s helps add teeth to the message of what it takes for kindred to live together in unity.    King writes:  I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang “Aint’ Gonna let Nobody Turn Me “Round”.  It is not just a song; it is a resolve!  A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men armed with power hoses.  These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us to march together!

A psalm of creative fulfillment, a song of courageous resolve!  Let us strive to sing these psalms not only in our hearts and spirits, but in our minds as well, so that anyone in the position of an outsider can say amen.  Amen?  Amen.

¹ Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We  From Here?” in a “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Ed. By James Melvin Washington. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1996, p. 617

² David Levering Lewis, “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Promise of Non-Violent Populism” in “Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century” ed. By John Hope Franklin and August Meier. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1982. p. 278

³Ibid. p. 293

4King, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, p. 617

5 King, “Who is My Neighbor?” from cassette series,  “Martin Luther King Speaks”, recorded in Atlanta, Ga, produced by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Date unspecified

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