Dr. Marting Luther King, Jr. Special Day
Sunday, January 18th, 2009 - The Reverend Joseph O. Robinson
"What a time we live in. How much we have to be thankful for. How much progress we have made. There is still a lot to do, but by God's grace we have come a long way." Those are the words I imagine Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking today if he stood among us as elder statesman. And while each of us surely must be able to raise up some original idea of what he might say, I believe these words would be a part of most of those imaginings because they are characterized by his sense of hope, his grasp of faith and his eye always on the prize of the future.
You see, while Dr. King knew that his journey was to the mountaintop, while he was faithful and diligent in that journey, he also knew that our journey would take us farther. From the mountaintop he could only look over into the "promised land," but his dream for us is that we would not just get to the mountaintop, but cross the river, enter the "promised land," and build the kingdom of God.
I got to see a moment while riding on the "T" this week that reminded me acutely of Dr. King's message to us all. I was on the Green Line, perched on one of those "almost seats" in the hinged section of the trolley. Straight across the aisle, there were two high school girls, beautiful African Americans, probably 16 or 17, joking and talking with each other about music and school and what their weekend would hold. At the next stop, in bounded an elderly white woman wearing a full-length mink coat and matching hat, and carrying a designer bag. She didn't quite get through our section before the trolley lurched into motion, propelling her, still standing, along the aisle between us. The girls and I both grabbed at elbows to stabilize the mink lady until her feet found the floor beneath her again. She said her polite "thank yous" all around and turned in search of a seat in the section just beyond ours. And then the oddest thing happened: one of the girls said, "Here, you may have my seat." And the mink lady, her arched eyebrows having shot up in surprise at the offer, responded gratefully, while the young woman gathered up her things and took the aisle. As the lady settled into the seat and pulled her coat closer around her, I watched her face, moving from one of the young ladies to the other, and she began a conversation with them about the weather or something. It suddenly occurred to me that halfway across Boston, on the coldest day of the year, in an underground hole, on a squeaky lurching train, three days before Dr. King's Holiday, I had been witness to the Rosa Parks story played out in reverse. Ms. Parks, long ago on a bus in Montgomery, had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger, as the law required, and by that courageous witness to our country's injustice, two generations later, she had provided a seat for this young woman to willingly give up. The young lady had given up her seat to the elderly one, not because of her station, not because of her color, not because of some external law, but because it was her seat and she could offer it to anyone she wanted. "Not the color of her skin but the content of her character," I could hear Dr. King intone from somewhere down the trolley out of sight. I was off at the next stop, but not before I had a chance to watch those three; two seated, one choosing to stand, giggling in a private conversation against all odds.
The content of our character was exactly what Dr. King called to mind for all of us. It was about looking beyond the color of one's skin into the depth of someone's soul. It was about seeing past our preconceptions and prejudices and doing what was right. It was about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Against all odds.
For some of you there may need to be a bit of explanation about why Dr. King is so much an important part of our own parish history. You see, in April of 1967 he and Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the baby book for our parents' generation, came to Cambridge to speak out against the war in Viet Nam. The subject was considered too hot to be addressed in a press conference on Harvard's campus, and, through channels still unknown to me, they were invited to use our Auditorium for the press conference. A picture of the two is on the front of today's services leaflet, and just behind them is the door to our Parish Hall. Murray Kenney was Rector then, and John Snow, whose family is with us today, was Assistant Rector. This year, as I have asked some of our senior parishioners about that day, I have been surprised to hear that not many people from the parish attended. Some, because it seemed too risky; some, because it seemed too partisan; some, because they were unhappy that Dr. King was taking his great popularity associated with the civil rights movement and leveraging that power against the war in Viet Nam. You see, even in those moments that make history, we are all merely humans struggling to shed our own prejudices and presuppositions to get a sense of what the future may hold. My point is, our parish was not even close to unified in support of Dr. King's presence then. It took years for us to realize that this was an important moment and that our part in it would become a significant cue to the future character of our congregation.
So, here we are, in a place that actually hosted and heard the voice of the prophet. Here we are, in a country braced for the inauguration of our Forty-fourth president, an African American who himself spent some time in Harvard Square. Here we are, readying ourselves for what great differences he can make in a season when everyone agrees that we need great leadership. And ,again, I am hearing Dr. King's voice as if it were just outside, saying, "Be patient with this young man. He is not the messiah. He is a great leader, he brings wisdom and energy and vision to this office, but he is not always going to make you happy, he is not always going to have your agreement, he is not always going to have a welcome from everyone. That's the way it always is with a prophet. He will not be a great president because of the color of his skin; none of our other presidents have either. He will be a great president because of the content of his character." That is Martin's dream. That is Martin's mountaintop. For him everything that happened in the sixties was a prelude to what happened on the Green Line this week, to what happens in Washington on Tuesday, to what happens in each of our lives when we embrace the gift of diversity and flavor and inclusion and find ourselves the richer for that embracing. It is not enough to have made it legal for people of different colors to stand together; it is only enough when we come to think that it is necessary for us to stand together, that it is faithful for us to stand together, that it is our birthright for us to stand together, to make our very best offerings in every field of human accomplishment as children of God who listen to and respect every available voice. Offering that to our families, our communities of faith, and to our nation, will make us ready to be a part of "Change we can believe in."
"What a time we live in. How much we have to be thankful for. How much progress we have made. There is still a lot to do, but by God's grace we have come a long, long way." Amen.
Browse all sermons...