1876, 1968, and Today: The Need for a Radical King


As preached for the January 17, 2021 online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.

The title of my sermon is “1876, 1968, and Today: The Need for a Radical King.” The message I offer you is simple. The United States is in crisis. People need to heal from the trauma of January 6th, the presidency of Donald John Trump, and the enduring addiction of white supremacy. Embracing the message of a radical King offers a path to such healing. 

At the core of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s life and ministry was the belief that the pastoral and the prophetic, which we might alternatively label the personal and the social, were intimately intertwined. He taught that what we sometimes call spirituality or religion and what we often name justice can only be pursued together.

This made Dr. King such a radical that the earthly powers and principalities of his day targeted him and slandered him. The director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover called him “the most notorious liar in America.” A majority of white people despised him. In the years leading up to Dr. King’s assassination by a white supremacist, he feared for his life so routinely, foresaw that he would be killed by one of his “sick white brothers” so clearly, that he regularly included instructions for how he wanted to be remembered in his sermons.  

In the one from this morning’s reading is drawn, he said: “I don’t want a long funeral… I don’t even need a eulogy more than one or two minutes… I hope I can live so well that the preacher can get up and say, ‘He was faithful.’ …That’s the sermon I’d like to hear: ‘Well done my good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful; you’ve been concerned about others… I want to be a witness for my Lord, to do something for others.”

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. This weekend Dr. King is getting more than his one or two minute eulogy. Friday, synagogues and mosques throughout the country offered worship services in his honor. Today other religious communities are providing reflections upon on the meaning of his life and teachings. Monday is a federal holiday. Civic leaders, elected officials, and pundits will go to great lengths interpreting his life. Whatever you might hear, remember that he suggested a summary and a starting place: “to be a witness for my Lord, to do something for others.”

To be a witness for my Lord, to do something for others… King expanded on what all this meant in his late sermon “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” 

He preached it almost a year to the day before he was assassinated. I will get to the teachings he shared with us in it shortly. First, I want to do what the DJs used call a rewind–that’s where they would play back an earlier part of the record–and return to the opening of my sermon. People need to heal from the trauma of January 6th, the presidency of Donald John Trump, and the enduring addiction of white supremacy.

How are you doing? With all of this? It is a lot. A white supremacist mob assaulted Congress. Some of its members entered the legislature’s halls with the intention of kidnapping or even possibly assassinating elected officials. A police officer was beaten to death by people from the social movement which has spent the last several years responding to the humble statement, “Black Lives Matter” with the nonsensical dog whistle “Blue Lives Matter.” Members of Congress are traumatized. Their staff members are traumatized. Their husbands and wives, their romantic partners, their children are traumatized. Many of their constituents are traumatized. Journalists are traumatized. A lot of people of good heart and good conscience are traumatized. I am traumatized. 

I am traumatized. I am traumatized, and I have spent a goodly portion of the last five years preaching sermons, giving lectures, and writing essays, really jumping up and down, warning that Donald Trump is an aspiring authoritarian with no commitment to democracy. He is a dedicated neo-Confederate with a love for white supremacy. I have come to anticipate only the worst from him. But it is one thing to anticipate the worst and it is another to see the worst come to fruition. 

I am traumatized by the images of the violence from January 6th. I am traumatized by the decision of callous and conniving politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley to continue to incite violence after Congress was invaded. Their votes on the validity of the election results can only be interpreted as an endorsement of the core belief of the rioters: that the presidential election was fraudulent–despite all evidence to the contrary–and that the current President won a second term–which he did not. 

What about you? Have you found yourself unable to sleep? Distracted? Incapable of focusing? Or worried about where things are headed and what will happen to you, your loved ones, and, well, humanity itself? I admit that I have felt stress at an exceptional level these past weeks. 

Honestly, it has been more than these past weeks. We have contended with a lot in the last four years. We have heard a nonstop stream of lies, racist hatred, and misogynistic vitriol. We have seen children forcibly separated from their parents and placed in cages. Some have died in federal custody. We have witnessed an ongoing and concerted effort to destroy the nation’s constitutional democracy: first with collusion with Russia in 2016; then with an attempt to pressure the Ukrainian government into besmirching President-Elect Biden’s son; and, finally, with a refusal to acknowledge the results of a presidential election. We have experienced the willful mismanagement of the national response to the pandemic. As a result, as many as three people in this country are dying every minute from the novel coronavirus and millions have been thrust in poverty. And we have endured the open support for neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, armed right-wing militias, thugs, and Proud Boys by the President of the United States resulting, ultimately, in a murderous riot that breached the halls of Congress and now continues with threats of violence so severe that much of the nation’s capital has been reduced to an armed camp.

This is not all. Yet, it is traumatic to even recite this partial list. 

Creating a space for responding to this level of trauma is one reason why there are religious communities like the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston. Within this community, we can talk about what just happened, we can reach out to others who have found the events of the hour to be traumatic, and we can support each other as we work to make sense of it all.

It helps to talk about it. If you need a space to do so and have not found one, I suggest one of our many online ministries. Rev. Scott and I are also here to listen to you reflect on the trauma so many of us have had to confront. 

Talking about it helps us to remember that we are not alone. That our experiences are similar to those of others. In finding the commonality in our stories we can discover strength in ourselves and draw strength from others. Other people in other times, and other people from our times, have dealt with brutalities like those we have seen in the last years. Reminding ourselves of the power that they found can help us get through these times.

Martin Luther King, Jr. envisioned religious communities as playing such a role. When he spoke of the beloved community he, in the words of my friend Gary Dorrien, thought of it as a place where people could uncover their own “divine indwelling” and begin to recover from the traumas of a brutal white supremacist world. 

In his sermons he encouraged people–especially Black people–who had been traumatized by the brutality of society and of white supremacy to begin to heal. “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” provides an excellent example of how he placed this ministry of personal healing at the core of his ministry for justice. 

It is not one of his famous speeches. It was not given on the National Mall or in the midst of a civil rights campaign. It was delivered on a warm spring Sunday morning, while the buds turned to flower, on the South Side Chicago, to a historically Black congregation where for the first, and only time, King was the guest preacher. 

He was probably up late the night before socializing with his hosts. They likely told him a bit about the church members. I can imagine the conversation: “Well, here at New Covenant Baptist Church, we have all kind of people. We have streetsweepers and we have surgeons. We have people who just getting by and people who are doing just fine. Dr. King, I hope you can bring a note of hope that will touch all of them.”

Actually, I am not sure about that last part. King’s rhetorical skills were such that then even his most average, most anodyne, most unexceptional sermon carried force far beyond all but the most gifted homiletician, most talented preacher, could imagine. His hosts probably said something more like, “Dr. King, it is an honor to have you in our pulpit. I know you will bring a note of hope that will inspire all of our members.” 

Whatever the case, I imagine King waking up early or staying up very late preparing his remarks, wanting to bring some word that might inspire the downtrodden, that might renew the depleted, and that might heal the traumatized. 

Since he was a guest preacher and because he was on the road all the time, I envision him repurposing portions of old sermons as he tried to compose a new one. Indeed, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” contains segments of texts that had been delivered before and fragments that would later appear in some of his most famous works. There is a part that seems to be drawn from the “Drum Major Instinct” and another which foreshadows the chilling conclusion to his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee, the one where he foretells his own demise and offers a promise meant to help his friends, his loved ones, and, well, really all of who are genuinely committed to building the beloved community cope with the trauma of his death: “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land.”

I imagine him going into the church and getting into an unfamiliar pulpit. Preparing his notes. Thinking about the expectant faces. Maybe he did what I often do when I am a guest preacher. I arrive early so that I can walk through the sanctuary and get a sense of what it feels like to be in the pews. Maybe his busy schedule only allowed him to rush up onto the chancel after a hurried breakfast–unless, like me, he was too nauseous to eat beforehand. 

Whatever the case, that Sunday he gave a congregation filled with people who he did not know a pastoral message. It was an expression of the core of his theology, which was grounded in the belief, in his words, “only personality… is ultimately real.”

To uncover, to develop into, to experience, the real he told that church, the task was threefold. It was found by growing along the three dimensions of life: “length, breadth, and height.”

The length of life is “inward concern for one’s own welfare.” The breadth of life is “outward concern for the welfare of others.” And the “height of life is the upward reach for God.”

It is in the first dimension, the inward concern for one’s own welfare, that King was his most pastoral. It was there that he encouraged his listeners–all of whom, living in the United States of the 1960s were facing the ongoing trauma of white supremacy, a trauma that repeatedly challenged their self-worth, a trauma that was predicated on teaching them that they had but little worth, that they were innately inferior–to “love your own self properly.”

It might seem trite, but in many ways, this was the most radical part of his message. He told everyone who was listening to him that they all had worth and that they were all worthy of loving themselves. In this narcissistic age of social media, when so many people are trying to be social media influencers and to curate the appearance of happiness and success on their Facebook, Tik Tok, and Instagram, his message is powerful. He said, “so many people are busy trying to be somebody else.” 

Rather than trying to become someone else he urged people “to accept ourselves.” In 1967, if you were Black, this meant taking pride in blackness and saying, “I have a rich, noble, and proud heritage… I’m black and beautiful.” If he was alive today, he would probably include the humble phrase, “Black Lives Matter.” 

It also meant praying “to accept myself every day… to accept my tools.” This was vital because he believed “God gave all of us something significant.” One of the great tragedies of life, he taught, is when we miss out on the significant thing we are supposed to do because we are trying to be someone else.

In the sermon King shared a story about one of his own failures, one of the moments when he discovered his own limitations. It is a charming segment, really, a moment of vulnerability. He talks about his inability to learn statistics in college. It might seem small, but it was a reminder to his audience that despite all of his achievements he had his limits. Actually, the point was that his achievements were because of his limits. He had not pursued a particular path because he learned that his gifts lie elsewhere.

He concluded that story with a bit that those you who are automobile fans–which I imagine is most of you since we live in a highly motorized city–might appreciate. “A Ford car trying to be a Cadillac is absurd, but if a Ford will accept itself as a Ford, it can do many things that a Cadillac could never do: it can get in parking spaces that a Cadillac can never get in. And some of us are Fords and some of are Cadillacs.” 

If you learn what you are good at, if you discover what your talents are, you can make as a significant contribution to society as anyone else. Everyone can be important because everyone can do something for other people. He concluded this segment of the sermon with this statement: “even if it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, go on out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures; sweep streets like Handel and Beethoven composed music; sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry; sweep streets so well that the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’”

The host of heaven and earth… I am going to skip over the second dimension of King’s complete life, “outward concern for the welfare of others,” because it so well commented upon at this time of year. I want move onto to the third dimension which we might call the transcendental dimension and which King called height, “the upward reach for God.” And as I do, I want us to return briefly to the words that King wanted as his eulogy, “to be a witness for my Lord, to do something for others.”

I propose that the operative word in this sentence is the “my” before the “Lord.” He did not use the word “the.” He chose “my.” I think that choice was quite deliberate. He believed that many people in our world worshipped what are sometimes named false idols. They picked something other than God to be their Lord. They worshipped “a big bank account,” “a beautiful house,” or “a beautiful car” rather than opening themselves to “the stars that bedeck the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity.”

This inspired them to get the wrong idea about who they were, what their gifts were, and what they were supposed to do during their brief time on this muddy blue green ball of a planet.

What do you worship? What is the height that you reach up for? Are you reaching up for the big bank account? The beautiful house? The beautiful car? Or are you reaching for something more significant? 

It is in this observation that King joined the pastoral–his message that everyone has worth–with the prophetic. Worship the wrong thing and you will end up hurting others rather than serving others. 

Unitarian Universalist humanist that I am, I might challenge King–hubristic as that could seem–with his choice of the word God. But he might reply that he simply wanted us to meditate upon what is the highest thing we choose to fix our gaze upon. He had little problem with “theoretical” atheists, the sort of people who believed that God does not exist. His issue was with “practical atheists,” people who proclaimed that God existed and then went around worshipping the wrong thing.

Theoretical atheists, long haired Unitarian Universalist preachers like me who reject the reality of the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, could still find our purpose if we fixed our gaze upon the highest in humanity, which I call the spark within and he understood as the divine indwelling, or the glory of the cosmos, of which we are part and parcel, and which hovers above us as “stars that appear to be shiny, silvery pins sticking in the magnificent blue pincushion.” 

It is here that we arrive at the frightfully constant need to embrace a radical King. We need to open ourselves to his message that we can all do something significant by uncovering our own talents and devoting those talents to serving something greater than ourselves. And we need to be very careful about what it is that we fix our gaze upon when we devote ourselves to service. The “my Lord” that you serve is just as important as the choice to serve.

This, unfortunately, is one of the great lessons of United States history. Far too often, those in the halls of power, and those who believe themselves to be white, have chosen to serve the wrong thing. They have fixed their gaze upon maintaining white supremacy or preserving white unity rather than upon the highest in humanity or the divine indwelling.

There is a long, unfortunate, and bloody legacy of people making this choice. I titled this sermon “1876, 1968, and Today: The Need for a Radical King” to highlight three of those pivotal moments. I picked our other reading to offer an example of time when those in Congress choose a different path. 

1876 marks the end of federal Reconstruction. Our visual meditation from right before the sermon was meant to illustrate what was achieved during Reconstruction. Shown again here, it is a photograph of members of the South Carolina legislature in 1868. Most of them were Black men. Many of them had been enslaved. They were betrayed when the Congress of the United States choose white unity over justice to resolve the disputed election of 1876 in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes. The historical details are beyond the scope of this sermon. It must be understood that the only reason why the Electoral College was disputed back then was because white mobs, like the ones we saw in Congress on January 6th, had violently repressed the Black vote throughout the South. Rather than punish those white rioters–and fix their gaze upon justice–those running the federal government decided they wanted unity and healing with other white people.

The vision of a radical King in that moment would have disrupted the power brokers with the realization that they were choosing the wrong Lord. They were choosing the God of whiteness over the God of justice. Their decision to fix their gaze upon a false idol has haunted the world ever since.

I detect a similar error in 1968. King was assassinated a hundred years after the photograph of the legislators from South Carolina was taken. At that time, not a single member of the state’s legislature was Black. After King was murdered, Richard Nixon was elected President, with electoral votes from South Carolina, on a “law and order” platform. It was a direct rebuke of the civil rights movement. 

Once in office, Nixon began laying the groundwork for what the scholar Michelle Alexander would later name the New Jim Crow. He encouraged what one of his contemporaries called “Full racial polarization” and the development of a prison system that specifically targeted people of color to maintain the racial caste system.

President Nixon fixed his gaze upon the Lord of power, rather than the Lord of justice, and in doing so helped pave the path of racial disunion that has led to our present moment. The world would be quite different if he had instead embraced the dream of a radical King and encouraged everyone to love themselves and look upward to the vision of the beloved community. 

Before we get to today, I return us to our first reading. It marks one of the rare moments when those in Congress set their sights elsewhere than upon white unity and healing. It was the time when the Senate expelled ten of its members for their support the white supremacist regime of the Confederacy. They decided there that they had a higher loyalty than to maintaining a sense of decorum and civility with white supremacist traitors to their nation. 

And, it might be a tangent, but I included that reading because I think that the language is well worth attending. The Senators were expelled because they “engaged in said conspiracy for the destruction of the Union and Government, or, with full knowledge of such conspiracy, have failed to advise the Government of its progress or aid in its suppression.” Let me repeat that last phrase, “have failed to advise the Government of its progress or aid in its suppression.” Think upon that, Senators Cruz and Hawley. In the past Senators have been expelled for failing to aid in the suppression of a white supremacist conspiracy to destroy the United States. Did your speeches or votes on the Senate floor aid in the suppression of the insurrection that cost the lives of five people? Or did it lend it an air of legitimacy?

Put more somewhat differently, upon what do the Senators from Missouri and Texas set their gaze upon? What is their Lord? They have both chosen a life of service. But whom or what are they serving?

The radical King would ask them these questions. He would warn them that if they wanted to develop a complete personality–to achieve balance–then they would need to be careful who they picked as their Lord. 

It is a message as pastoral as it is prophetic. It is a message that should inspire us to do as King did, “to be a witness for my Lord, to do something for others.” And it is a message that should remind us that one of the most important question is not: Have you done something for others? It is what or who do you serve? 

That is the question that comes to us this Martin Luther King, Jr. Sunday. What or who do you serve? What or who does the United States serve? It is not for me to answer these questions for you. It is for me to pray that we might each answer them wisely. In doing so, we will discover ourselves building the beloved community. We will all be witnesses for what truly can be called the highest and the best. And we will, truly, do something for others.

That it might be so, I say, Amen and Blessed Be.

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