Monday, January 19, 2009
Getting to the Promised Land
Happy Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Getting to the Promised Land
January 18, 2009
(delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago)
Our text this morning comes from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, I Have A Dream – delivered on April 3, 1968 – His last speech before his murder in Memphis, TN:
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top and I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I’d like to live a longggg life. But longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seeeeeen 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. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen. the glory of the coming of the Lord. ”
It took some practice for me to deliver those words. Raised up in the black Baptist church, I am intimately familiar with the voice inflections and style of black southern preaching. That was not the issue. The challenge was to be able to recite those words without weeping – without being swept into the emotional vortex in hearing those final public words of Dr. King. Initially, an array of emotions washed over me and immobilized me. I finally had to envision his words as a healing balm pouring over me.
Now if we were in the Baptist church I would have at least one hour to expound on Dr. King's legacy. But our Unitarian Universalist tradition does not allow me to linger long so come with me as we travel back forty one years to examine Dr. King’s legacy. We are called today to examine our commitment to that legacy and whether or not we have honored it with integrity and to reflect on what is required to get to the Promised Land, what ever and where ever that is.
It was the bravery of a woman, Rosa Parks, on Dec. 1, 1955 that forever changed his life and catapulted him onto the national and international arena, for he first came to our attention with the Montgomery bus boycott as a result of her refusal to give up her seat. Others joined in a boycott that lasted for a year and ended with black folks in Montgomery, AL saying, Yes We Can.
So from that time toward the end of his life we can say that he spoke out against injustices, he spoke out against racism, he spoke out against materialism and he ultimately spoke out against militarism. You need to know that the last few years of his life he had fallen out of favor with the powers that be because he dared speak out against the war in Vietnam and the economic disparities in this country. He had already earned his reputation as a great civil rights leader. And yet they dared to try to stifle the dream and dreamer by ostrisizing him.
Because of his legacy and those great men and women that worked along side him and maintained the legacy. the old guard is passing away and the new guard is being birthed as we speak.
The bible says the race is given not to the swift or even to the strong – but to the ones that endureth to the end.
Rosa Parks endured to the end. She was not just a black woman with tired feet that day. She was a conscious black woman with tired feet that devoted her life to social justice.
Dr. King endured to the end. During his lifetime he espoused a social gospel – a liberation theology that pointed toward justice for the poor and oppressed that would ultimately engender the Beloved Community, the Kingdom of God on earth.
Dr. King challenged our nation’s moral authority an and memory. He challenged America to make good on its promises of justice and freedom for all people.
King’s legacy created a new narrative – one that was interfaith as well as culturally and racially diverse. A narrative that we are still attempting to make good on in this country. Every Sunday here at First Unitarian we affirm and invite folks of different faiths, different cultures and different races to join us. And we extend that invitation to persons with different sexual orientations. So we have honored King’s legacy and expanded it in our Unitarian Universalist tradition.
But I came today to talk about getting to the Promised Land.
The Promised Land is a term used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the land promised by God, to the Israelites. It entails a territory from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates river. But in more contemporary times the term Promised Land is used very differently. My ancestors talked about a city paved with streets of gold, where they would just walk around Heaven all day. They would sing a song,”everybody talking bout heaven ain’t goin there. They would turn and look at Masa’s Big House when they sang those words.
Johnny Cash sang, I am Bound for the Promised Land. Chuck Berry in 1965 and Elvis Presley in 1973 both made songs titled, Promised Land. Our UU hymnal contains a hymn titled, We’ll Build a Land. “We’ll build a land where we bind up the broken…Where the captives go free…where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning.” Ohhhhhhh, we’ll build a Promised Land that can be.”
Oprah Winfrey calls her 42 acre, multimillion dollar residence in Santa Barbara, CA the Promised Land. There is a Promise Land State Park in Pike County, PA.
The promised land is clearly a metaphor for a place where all is right in the world, where if you are good enough and have lived a good live you will get to this mythical promised land. It probably looks different for each individual.
However, the Promised Land is like the lottery, you have to play to win.
We have to at least set our feet on a path that we believe will take us there – where ever “there” is. Scotty from Star Trek can’t just beam us there.
Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, a Unitarian Universalist minister contends that, “Salvation is not about getting to the promised land – it’s about how well we journey.”
And I would add, “how well we journey together.” Because I don’t think it would be any fun to be in the promised land by ones self. So getting to the promised land requires vision and community.
I believe it also requires bravery but not the lack of fear. I recall a time when Dr. King was afraid - Like many of us he struggled at times with his vision, his leadership, his faith and commitment. In a prayer titled, Kings Prayer, Dr. King is not portrayed as the great fearless leader we have all come to know and love. Instead, he is like so many of us when we become discouraged, tired and afraid.
He wrote, “I had reached the saturation point, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left…I can’t face it alone.” “At this moment,” he wrote, “I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never before experienced him. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying, Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.”
“Almost at once” he wrote, “my fears began to pass from me. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything. The outer situation remained the same, but God had given me inner calm.”
It is about moments of grace like these when we have to wrestle with our inner demons. When we have to reach deep inside only to find that we may need more than our meager resources for the journey at hand.
What do you call that “something” that will get you through life’s adversities and ultimately to the Promised Land? For King, Christian redemption was delivered by a God of love and compassion who held him when he could not go on.
For us as Unitarian Universalists embracing diverse beliefs, I challenge each of you to name the various ways that your theology and ideology holds you during times of great distress in your life that will get you to your Promised Land.
Dr. King said there would be some difficult days ahead.
He embodied a spirit of generosity, an open and optimistic view of life and creation. He conveyed a profound respect for those with different views. He met violence with gentleness, forgiveness and understanding because he understood grace and redemption.
Dr. King said, "Right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”
In closing I could quote any number of Dr. King’s prolific words and speeches. Instead, I will quote a less known statement made to the U.S. Congress on May 20, 1959. Dr. King said to them:
“Make a career of humanity, commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
This was Dr. King’s legacy. He reminded us in his words and his example of who we are capable of being in our finest/highest and best selves.
Getting to the promised land requires that we set our feet on the path of justice and equality, that we be visionaries willing to be in relationship with one another and be intentional about naming our theologies and ideologies; that we tap our inner resources and spiritual practices that get us through adversity and that we be on board for the long haul - the protracted struggle.
Thus, like King in our final hour we can hear these words from our friends and family, well done they good and faithful servant.
Amen and Blessed Be!