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Icons and Agitators: Maladjustment to the Way Things Are–UUSS Sermon for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sunday

Rev. Roger Jones, Acting Senior Minister

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

January 19, 2014

Hymns: #116, I’m on My Way; #155, Circle Round for Freedom; #1018, Come and Go With Me

Choir:  Hush!  Somebody’s Callin’ My Name

Piano:

Prelude:  Lift Every Voice and Sing.

Meditation:  Precious Lord, Take My Hand

Offertory:  Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)

Postlude:   It Is Well with My Soul

 

Sermon

What fascinates me about the study of history is learning how the social advancements we consider to be normal, to be “the way things are,” did not come about easily.  To people who lived in the past, the achievements of equality and fairness that we take for granted were not assured or guaranteed.  Indeed, every step toward equality involved struggle and upheaval.

Should women have the right to vote and run for office?  Of course!  Few in public life would now say that’s a debatable question.  But until 1920, the road toward voting equality was messy and full of setbacks.  Some states allowed voting, others did not.  After the Senate approved the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, and enough states ratified that amendment, voting equality became the way things are.  Twenty-five senators had voted no, but history moved on, passing them by.  Many women who had begun the struggle in the 1800s were dead by then. They had given themselves to a cause that would outlive them.  Success was not predictable or guaranteed.

Likewise, ending American slavery was not predictable or guaranteed.  Nor were any of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, of which Martin Luther King Jr. was the most prominent and inspiring leader.  But after we expand the circles of opportunity and freedom, it becomes easy to talk as if justice was obvious and success inevitable.

It is tempting to frame the history of a struggle for freedom in sweet words and warm images.  We can use the words of daring women and men not to urge us to achieve more, but merely to comfort ourselves, to make ourselves comfortable with the status quo.

We can use the words of heroic people only to honor them, while we avoid hearing them.

Martin Luther King worked against racism and segregation.  But he also preached against militarism and economic inequality.  According to scholar Michael Eric Dyson, in the later years of his brief life Dr. King’s views grew more radical.  Upsetting his colleagues and staff, Dr. King became one of the first high-profile leaders in America to oppose the American military involvement in Vietnam.  King highlighted the hypocrisy of suppressing freedoms in the name of protecting freedom.  We could not defend freedom by supporting rule by generals in Southeast Asia, he said.

Many politicians and the press ridiculed him for expressing his opinions about the war.  They questioned the ability of a southern black Baptist preacher to analyze international affairs (according to Dyson).  However, King had a Ph.D. from Boston University.  He had won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The historian Taylor Branch writes that King was the “the moral voice of America,” more than any office holder or elected leader.[i]   His opinions mattered, and he felt compelled to speak out.

His colleagues didn’t want his involvement with another controversy to dilute and distract from civil rights.  They feared he would alienate the Congress and President Lyndon Johnson, who had been a forceful supporter of the civil rights agenda.  Indeed, Johnson did feel betrayed by King’s opposition to the war, according to Dyson.[ii]

King’s response to his critics was this:  “I have worked too long now and too hard to get rid of segregation in public accommodations to turn back to the point of segregating my moral concern.” By articulating the linkages among types of injustice and oppression, he raised our discomfort, raised our national tension.

This was Dr. King’s gift and his role as a leader.  He could orchestrate a mix of tension and inspiration, the right blend of discomfort and conciliation.  To change, America needed challenge.  This took standing up and sticking his neck out.  That is a challenge that many of us can recall having in our own lives from time to time.  Dr. King did it for all our lives, for our common life and the common good.  Many times, Dr. King said:  “If a man hasn’t discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”  Such words, and his commitment to them, unsettle my comfort with the way things are.

Since his assassination in 1968, Dr. King has been turned from a strategist and an agitator into an icon. Leaders from all across the political spectrum and the range of religions now salute Martin Luther King.  It’s easier to honor someone who’s dead.  You don’t have to listen to him for real.   Leaders from across the spectrum make their own assertions about what Dr. King wanted for our society and what he would want.  This is what you can do with icons. With real people who carry out real movements for change, you have to wrestle.  They make us uncomfortable.  They unsettle our adjustment to the way things are.

We may be comfortable imagining Dr. King and his challenges to the America of 50 years ago, but what would his challenges be for us today?  What tension and what inspiration would he bring to us?

In King’s last years, he addressed poverty and economic injustice.  He launched the Poor People’s Campaign and argued for another March on Washington, like the one in the summer of 1963, but one lifting up economic injustice and poverty.  Men on King’s staff opposed this campaign—and they were all men on his staff.  They feared it would be a disaster, generating only the resistance of Congress and the anger of President Johnson.

According to Michael Eric Dyson, in 1966, King admitted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had failed to improve the condition of poor blacks.  He said that progress had been “limited mainly to the Negro middle-class” (Dyson, 87).  With his Poor People’s Campaign, King endeavored to focus on the need to lift all people out of degrading poverty, including all black people.

He saw people as connected, no matter our identity and life circumstances.  “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is how he said it.  “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

In private, Dr. King told colleagues that he believed America must move toward democratic socialism. However, in public he did not use the term socialism.  The FBI under J. Edgar Hoover had waged a campaign to discredit the movement by smearing Dr. King as a Communist sympathizer.        King did not have Communist sympathies or alliances.  Communist regimes were anti-democratic, and Communist theory was anti-religious.  King said:  “I didn’t get my inspiration from Karl Marx.  I got it from a man named Jesus.”  He said that Jesus was “anointed to heal the broken hearted” and to deal with the problems of the poor, and those in captivity” (Dyson, 130).  In this spirit, King called for job creation programs, for full employment and for a guaranteed minimum income.

Dr. King said that full-time work should yield a person enough money to support a family.  In the years since 1980, for most of this nation’s people, income and wealth have stagnated, even shrunk when you consider the eroding effects of inflation.  Wealth has been concentrated more and more in the hands of a smaller percentage of people at the very top.  Two years ago, the Occupy Wall Street Movement brought to public attention the idea of the 99% and the 1%.  At the top, the 1%, are those who have gained by the shifting structures of economic policy, international trade agreements, tax breaks, and lax regulation in the financial services industry.[iii]

Meanwhile, for a growing mass of people, it has become harder to support a family on full-time work, even if two parents work full-time.

If Dr. King were alive right now, perhaps he would embrace campaigns for better funding of public schools and a restoration in financial aid for college.   Perhaps he would lead campaigns for a single-payer health care system available to all and for a higher minimum wage.  In pursuit of economic fairness, he might advocate for regulation of the financial services industry, and a reform of crop subsidies to move away from industrial agriculture and toward smaller, sustainable farms.  Perhaps he would speak for these goals, but I can’t be sure.

Such goals have come to seem less radical in these times, as ordinary American have grown more desperate, and as more working people feel the loss of economic security, and the loss of food security.  I am sure Dr. King would have would have made us uncomfortable.  He would have turned up the tension that political leaders feel about these issues.  Maybe he would call for more subsidized housing for low-income families and more mental health care for the lost souls wandering and sleeping on the streets.  He said: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

If he were speaking to most of us right now, would he ask us if we need all the square footage many of us enjoy in our homes?  Would he challenge us for having a car of our own and the petroleum to run it, given what oil extraction does to local and global environments, not to mention to indigenous tribal communities who live near oil wells?  Would he ask us if we couldn’t still do okay financially without investing in portfolios that grow by pushing down worker’s wages and benefits, and by tearing down rain forests for beef grazing?

In India, Martin Luther King met with Mohandas K. Gandhi, to learn about the “soul force” of nonviolent resistance, which had been a tool of the Indian Freedom Struggle.  King saw dissent and rivalries among Gandhi’s inner circle, something he would find among his own leaders and staff members at home.  And he saw the massive poverty of people sleeping on the streets in Calcutta, hungry children and begging parents and elders.

Ten years ago I traveled in India, during a sabbatical for five weeks.  In cities around the country, I saw masses of barely housed and homeless and hungry people.  Many were begging, but some only were sitting in the heat, exhausted.  I even saw some of them weeping.  What came to my mind on my journey was the idea that most Indians seemed to accept this as normal, inevitable, the way things are.  There will always be destitute people around you.  Your task is to learn how to refuse the destitute, walk around them, ignore them.  The task of one who is not hurting in that way is to do anything except ask why such hurt persists.   If this is the way things are, you need not imagine how to change the system or why.  I could be wrong about Indian social attitudes—I bet I am wrong—but it made me think about us.

I see people begging for money at street intersections around here, holding cardboard signs.  I see more of them at more corners than I did just a year ago.

In thinking about India, I’m thinking about the person I saw Friday night at my apartment building in a sleeping bag, lying in the car port by the dumpster.   I’m doubtful that a handout of money would change such a situation.  But I wonder how normal we have let it become that so many people live on the street.  Is this now the way things are?  Is the choice now merely whether to give a dollar, or smile, or look the other way?

Is the question no longer, how did we let this happen?  Is the question now just whether to call the cops or the landlord so the person can be rousted from beside our dumpster, and find another dumpster to sleep near?

In May of 1966, Dr. King addressed the ministers and lay delegates of the General Assembly of Unitarian Universalist Association, meeting in Florida.   Every year the General Assembly holds a major lecture, the Ware Lecture, and he gave this lecture in 1966.[iv]

He called on our congregations to assert the basic sinfulness of racial segregation, refute the idea of racial superiority, and engage in action on legislation to expand the circles of equality and fairness.

And he cautioned us against the “myth… of exaggerated progress,” the idea that we’ve arrived.   He said:  “We should be proud of the steps we’ve made…. On the other hand, we must realize that the plant of freedom is only a bud and not yet a flower.”   He said we cannot stop with the way things are.

He spoke about the psychological term or label of a maladjusted personality.  He said:  “I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted….  I call upon … all people of good will to be maladjusted to those things until the good society is realized.”

He listed the problems of life in America to which he wished we could remain maladjusted.   He said:   “I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

King’s life, and the deeds of so many people in the struggle for civil rights, unsettled a country that had adjusted to the way things are, as if it was always how things were going to be.

His words and life and the movement he led continue to challenge us to pay attention, take steps toward healing, stretch ourselves and let ourselves feel discomfort and maladjustment/ for the sake of a better world.

King said that life’s most urgent and persistent question is, “What are you doing for others?”  His legacy is the legacy of standing up for others, and standing up with others.

This legacy should discomfort us, and unsettle us, but it shouldn’t paralyze us.  His words and deeds should not freeze us in a sense of smallness or shyness or shame.  We should hear his words as the call to community, the call to standing up with others.

Part of the King legacy is the fact that today many organizers, leaders, volunteers and advocates of all generations are doing this work, bringing attention to unfair and unsustainable conditions.

I give thanks for those who give of their time in service, their treasure in generosity, and their courage and hope toward a better country and a better world.  I give thanks for those who dedicate their lives to the needs of others and those who risk their lives for the betterment of all of us, everywhere.

May the deeds of all those who struggle, serve, hope and give of themselves give us the courage not to get too adjusted to the way things are.  May their deeds challenge us.

May they awaken us into attention, imagination, action and courage.  So may it be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes


[i] Branch, Taylor. The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

[ii] Dyson, Michael Eric.  I May Not Get there with YouThe True Martin Luther King, Jr.  New York:  Free Press, 2000.

[iii] See more analysis and stirring comment in columns by Chris Hedges on truthdig.com.



Pastoral Prayer for UUSS service Sunday, September 8, 2013

On these warm and shining days, it is a blessing to draw the breath of life.   Let us give thanks for this day and for all our gifts.  Sitting near us are fellow seekers on the journey toward wholeness, joy and hope.  We give thanks for this time to be still and reflect with one another.

We come together, in part, for celebration of the joys and achievements of life.  On this opening day of a new year of Religious Education, we give thanks for a committed corps of adult volunteers and for so many full-hearted youth, children, and babies.   Today we say farewell to four homeless families after a week of hospitality here through Family Promise, and give thanks for the generosity of our many volunteers.  At this time, let us call out and give voice to the glad occasions of our own lives and of those people we celebrate.   PAUSE.

On many hearts are those who need healing and care.  We embrace those among us mourning a loss, living through transitions, tending an injury, worrying about jobs or finances, facing an unwelcome diagnosis, wrestling with addiction, or working a recovery program, one day at a time.  We send our love to you.  We send our love to all who are healing from surgery and other treatments, including Mary, convalescing after a broken hip.  Tami, home after surgery.  Ginny, regaining strength after a heart attack.  Jerry, back with us after a long bout of pneumonia while out of the country.  Now let us speak the names of others on our minds.  Whether whispering to ourselves or saying a name aloud, let us bring into the space of our sanctuary those who need our loving wishes. PAUSE.

On this day also we hear of wars and rumors of wars.  So many are living with fear, pain and loss in zones of conflict, including the civil war in Syria.  Wedded to power, the Syrian tyrant kills children and adults without mercy, even with chemical weapons, dealing death and agony to hundreds.  A hodgepodge of rebel forces, understandably outraged, now has grown to include extremists.  They use weapons, fighters and money from terrorists; they bring boys into battle and scar their souls.  We, as caring people, feel helpless.  American leaders debate an American military action, bombing.  Such an action seems to have no clear objective, but has many unforeseen risks.  Many of us may protest against military action, but we must also grieve the bloodshed that continues.  There is no good answer to this dilemma.  Who can say?  There may be no answer at all.  Certainly, no answer can make us pure.

We contemplate this tragedy in humility and in mourning.  Now two million Syrians, having fled the strife of their nation, try to stay alive and sane in refugee camps.  Let our hearts reach toward them.  Let our efforts our nation’s generosity hasten to their aid and their survival.  As we speak for nonviolence, let us pray for mercy.  As we long for mercy, let us act for healing in all the ways we can, wherever we may be.

In all the choices of life, let us act for healing and wholeness, and give thanks for all our gifts.  On these warm and shining days, as we draw the breath of life, let us remember how fragile is the gift of life.  Now let us take a minute of silence, just for the simple gift of being alive, here, together as members of the human family.  Amen.

ONE MINUTE OF SILENCE.  SOLO VOICE SINGS #218:  “Who Can Say?”



Remarks to the Sacramento County Planning Commission

 

On our UUSS Master Plan and request for

a use permit for phase 1a of the building project

By Rev. Roger Jones
Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Monday evening, August 12, 2013

[Following presentation by Jeff Gold, Architect]

 

Good evening, and thank you for your service.

My name is Roger Jones and I having been serving as a minister to this congregation since 2008.  Currently I serve as the acting senior minister.

Our church was founded in 1868 by 17 families in Sacramento.  Now we are a community of more than 400 adults, children and youth.

In the late 1950s, when we bought our current property on Sierra Boulevard, that parcel and those around it were farmland, with a few houses.  We built our main meeting hall in 1960 and added an education wing a few years later.  Except for those few homes that already stood on large parcels, the neighborhood grew up around us.

The master plan that you are considering today would be our first major improvement and renovation in a half century.  We are excited about it.  Last year, members and friends of the church committed $1.3 million in a capital fundraising campaign for the project.  Gifts ranged from $100 to over $100 thousand.

From the outside, nearly every house of worship can seem like an institution that exists only for its members, with a focus on what goes on inside.  While we do have a caring community in the church, we are also committed members of the larger community.

Many of our local neighbors come over to our wooded campus for a brisk walk or a stroll away from the street.  Some neighbors walk their dogs, push their babies in strollers, or help their kids learn to ride a bike with training wheels on our parking lot.

 

 

 

 

Several not-for-profit organizations hold monthly meetings in our classrooms.  Often we’re the site for funerals or memorial services for leaders from the local community and other folks who may not have had their own house of worship.

In the 1960s, our church founded a community theater, which continues to stage two productions every year in our main hall, with good attendance from the larger community.

One thing I’m very proud of is this:

At every Sunday morning service we give away half of the freewill donations in the offering basket to local charities.  This is above and beyond what members pledge to the church operations.  In this last fiscal year we contributed $25,000 to 13 not-for-profit organizations through the Shared Sunday Offering and Christmas Eve giving.

During the holiday season we also collect food, clothing, toys and money for local charities.

Along with several other houses of worship, we are a host for Family Promise.  Four times a year we welcome homeless families with children for a week of dinners and overnight accommodations on our classroom floors.  During the day they attend support programs or school downtown.

Personally, I participate in Sheriff Jones’s Community and Faith-Based Advisory Board meetings, and in my first year on the job I attended the District Attorney’s Citizens’ Academy program.

Our annual budget supports 15 full-time or part-time staff members, all of whom are county residents.  A number of our employees live just walking distance from the church, and several families from our congregation are homeowners in the neighborhood.

Our vision of an improved and renewed church campus is a strong statement of our commitment to be involved citizens, responsible stewards, and good neighbors.

Thank you for your consideration of this vision.

 



From Year to Year— Did We Make It to 2013? — my minister’s newsletter column for January 2013

I’m writing this a few days before the end of the world, if you believe what some people believe about an ancient Mayan calendar.

Planet X is on its way to collide with us.  Can we stop it?

I don’t know why these “galactic alignment” rumors are so preoccupying—a laugh line for comics, and a real source of worry for many people.

NASA’s popular “Ask an Astro-biologist” web page received thousands of queries.  Many people are losing sleep over this.  “Are you guys covering this up?” one asks.

The saddest thing — many of the writers are 12 to 16 years old.  Some of these kids say they have contemplated suicide.   A mom asked NASA to talk to her young son by phone because he is having nightmares.

Which is worse?  The lack of good scientific instruction in their schools, or the fact that our youth are so distressed, anxious, inconsolable to the point of hopelessness?  This is heartbreaking, not funny.

There is plenty to worry about on this precious planet–in our global community, our country and region.  There is enough loss, disaster, deprivation and cruelty to make us lament out loud like the psalmists and prophets of old.   The December 14 Connecticut school shootings only add to our bewilderment and grief.   It makes grown-ups weep and wail; what does it do to kids?  Surely our violent culture is pressing down on the souls of our young people.

Perhaps the Mayan doomsday worries are a way to focus our free-floating fears and our sources of despair into one specific thing.  I’m not sure.

My heart aches for all who suffer grief and fear that seem too much to bear.  My prayers go out to all the ends of the earth that we might find our way to peace—on our planet, around our nation, in our neighborhoods, and in every single heart.

Yet my heart sings also.

It sings with joy at the winter light in the bare tree branches, and at every breath I draw when standing at the window to greet the new day.  It sings when I give thanks.

My heart is warmed also.  It warms up when I see the faces of our people on Sunday—our elders, our active retirees, our young parents, our youth and kids, our staff.

I gain hope at UUSS when I see a curious baby turning its head to take in all there is to observe.  I am nurtured by the embrace of so many of you:  kind souls and good huggers.

Whoever you are–whatever your own hopes or heartbreaks, your joys or doubts–please know that this congregation welcomes you in your full humanity.

It is good to be with one another in this place.

New Year’s Blessings,

Roger  

P.S.—Don’t forget this is the time to submit your donations for the February 9 Service Auction and to buy tickets for this great dinner event, A Rose in the Winter Time.

To read the rest of our excellent January Newsletter–the Unigram–click this link:  http://uuss.org/Unigram/Unigram2013-01.pdf



Associate Minister’s Newsletter Message for December: Surprise Gifts and The Surprise of Giving

A month ago a woman came into the Office and told our staff she wanted to make a donation.   She was not part of the church, but apparently she appreciated us for some reason or another.   She left a wad of cash in the amount of $326.  Of course, there is a budget line for “Other Donations.”

We are grateful for this “other donation” and for all acts of generosity, whether spontaneous or planned, such as with a Capital Campaign Commitment Form, yearly Pledge Card, or bequest from an estate.

We are grateful also for the hands that serve coffee, make soup, carry canned goods to a food pantry, cut grass and water flowers.  We are gifted by those who plan RE lessons for kids or teens, write caring notes, facilitate, give rides, give music, provide a listening ear.

We are grateful for the gift of your simple presence at services and other activities.  But in these busy times, we know that showing up itself is not simple.  It is a choice, an effort.  A gift.

A friend of mine was a college professor.  He said, “When I was teaching, some semesters I would leave a class and feel that I had cheated my students.  I had enjoyed the class, I had gotten so much more out of it than I had given to them.  They are the ones who are supposed to be enriched by it, not me,” he said.

“But you know,” he went on, “those were the classes for which I got the most positive student evaluations!”

He had thought he was not giving as much as he was receiving, but he’s learned the opposite.  He said:  “It is possible to feel that you are receiving more than you are giving.  And perhaps, that is because you are doing your best giving.”

An anonymous woman gave us $326.  As she made that gift, what do you think she felt she was receiving UUSS?  This community is a gift, and so are you.

In this busy season, may you receive gifts of generosity, care, joy, and peace.  And when you feel you are receiving richly, may you find that you are doing your best giving.

 

Yours in service,

Roger  



Faith-Based Views from UU President on Huff Post: “Fear of the Fiscal Cliff”

UUA President’s article on Huffington Post at this link.



Opening Prayer in Ohio House of Representatives by a UU Woman Minister

This link will take you to the opening of a session in the Capitol, a lengthy introduction of an esteemed UU colleague, who is a co-minister with her esteemed husband, in a Cleveland congregation.  http://www.ohiochannel.org/MediaLibrary/Media.aspx?fileId=137573&startTime=0&autoStart=True