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Sermons: “MLK Jr.: Lessons in Leadership

Tomorrow is a special day in the life of the nation. We celebrate the man who said, when civil rights marchers were facing the dogs and clubs and fire hoses of Birmingham, “We must face the forces of hate with the power of love.” He said, “All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” He said, “I have a dream.”

Monday, we celebrate this great man, Martin Luther King, Jr. And then comes Tuesday. On Tuesday--not far from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, site of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible,” he said back in November, on the night of his historic election, “If there is anyone out there who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer. […] It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.”

What celebrations are before us. What high points in our nation’s history. The dream of racial and social justice unfolding. Though much more remains to happen, still—how wonderful to be alive in this time, to witness the parts coming true!  

But the journey has in no way been easy, or straight. Messy all the way, in America’s larger social life, but also in the personal lives of the leaders we are celebrating. The man who now says “Yes we can” once, as a sophomore in college, ridiculed such idealism, disbelieving that he or anyone else could make a true difference. Long before his political opponents charged him as all flash and no substance, he said, “Pretty words don’t make it so.” “That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me.”

Can you personally relate to this irony? See in your own leadership story a time when you believed something couldn’t be done—or it could be done but by anybody but you—but then it WAS done, and the person who had done it was YOU?

“We are made for community,” says liberal Quaker and activist Parker Palmer, and so “leadership is everyone’s vocation.” That’s our focus today—exploring what this means, and doing it with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. in the room, drawing on a messy moment in his leadership story to help us understand our own.

Here’s the story. Has to do with the time he was invited to become a part of the Montgomery bus boycott. As you may know, first there was Rosa Parks—her refusal to obey the bus driver’s demand that she give up her seat. What followed, as King’s biographer Marshall Frady describes it, was this: “That ‘No,” and Mrs. Parks’ arrest, quickly set off a spontaneous combustion among Montgomery’s black citizenry to boycott the city’s segregated bus system. Almost immediately, mimeographed leaflets calling for the boycott were coursing through the city’s black neighborhoods. But when, the night of Mrs. Parks’ arrest, [a local social activist by the name of E. D. Nixon] phoned [the young Martin Luther King Jr.] to ask him to join in the boycott movement, King, out of some uneasiness beyond just his absorption in his multiple other duties, seemed curiously reluctant: ‘Brother Nixon, let me think on it awhile, and call me back.’” Marshall Frady goes on to say that, “Concerned at King’s hesitation, Nixon called Ralph Abernathy…. Abernathy then called King to exhort him about the elemental importance of cooperating in this boycott effort. King finally agreed to lend it his support if it would not entail his having to aid in any of the organizing.” And that’s the story, with three things of note to lift up: the initial call to leadership, King’s hesitation to accept, and Ralph Abernathy’s intervention.

Starting with the call. What might it look like? As it did for King, sometimes the call takes the form of widespread social crisis, like the spontaneous combustion of the Montgomery bus boycott, against the larger backdrop of the burgeoning civil rights movement. This crisis gripped our congregation as well; we too were swept up in the civil rights movement, and in 1954 we affirmed desegregation, becoming the very first multiracial religious community in all of Atlanta. It represents one of the high points in our collective leadership story, here at UUCA.  

And may more highs ever be before us. Tomorrow, megachurch pastor Rick Warren will be the keynote speaker at Ebenezer Baptist Church as part of the MLK Day festivities. No doubt this is connected to his being invited to deliver the invocation at Tuesday’s inauguration, and both decisions, frankly, have been enormously controversial. Warren doesn't just oppose gay marriage, he's compared it to incest and pedophilia. He doesn't just want to ban abortion, he's compared women who terminate pregnancies to Nazis and the pro-choice position to Holocaust denial. Now Obama strongly disagrees with Warren here—he’s clearly said so. He’s invited him to deliver the invocation as a way of symbolizing his commitment to building bridges to parts of America he may strongly disagree with on some things but yet, on other things, there’s plenty of common ground—and right now, emphasizing common ground is the way forward. This is classic community organization strategy. Yet I would hate to see, because of this high-level emphasis on common ground, a tendency at the grassroots level towards apathy. You and I to stop disagreeing with Warren’s point of view because we’re afraid of being disagreeable. You and I to stop speaking out and letting people know who we are, what kind of place this is. People, our commitment to civil rights here at UUCA cannot merely be historical. It must be ongoing, and I believe that protecting abortion rights, as well as working for full social rights of GLBTQ people, constitute a key part of the civil rights movement that is here and now. Consider yourself called. Monday at 12:30 in the afternoon, the official MLK march will begin. Join us as we demonstrate our commitment to civil rights for ALL.    

It’s the call. We can hear it in the various crises and issues that trouble the larger world; but we can also hear it closer to home, when there is a crisis is our congregation, or a crisis in our family. A crisis of personal health. Even a crisis of spirit. You can feel two wolves inside you, in your heart, circling round and round, snapping at each other; one represents hatred, the other represents healing, and the one that you feed is the one that prevails. Something happens or does not happen in our congregation, for example, and you have an instant negative reaction—right here is a call to leadership. So what do you do next? Do you indulge your suspicions, cultivate your disgruntlements, insist on “my way or the highway,” believe that the rules don’t apply to you, perhaps even divide people into US vs. THEM, spread a spirit of war around rather than of peace? If you do this, you did NOT answer the call. You fed the wolf that destroys, not the wolf that heals. The leadership moment was missed.

We’ve got to be there when the moment comes. So much is at stake in how we use our influence. And it’s not always a matter of responding to crisis. Parker Palmer puts it this way: “I lead by word and deed simply because I am here doing what I do. If you are here, doing what you do, then you also exercise leadership of some sort.” Even just to smile across the room at someone you know—just to acknowledge their existence—can be a kind of leadership, an exercise of influence that is truly important. Just by smiling across the room, you are living into a larger vision of a community that strengthens and encourages. Someone was talking about this just the other day—how horrible and withering it feels to notice someone looking at you but they don’t smile, they don’t acknowledge your existence…. Leadership is about making the vision real, in acts both big and small. You see a piece of trash on the floor, and you pick it up even if you aren’t the sexton, even if you aren’t part of the paid staff, even if you hear a voice in your head that says, “Ahh, this is a BIG congregation—surely someone else will do it.” No. YOU do it, and as you do it, your simple act of leadership is helping to create the Beloved Community vision that says, We are all in this together. It’s up to all of us. Pull together and not apart. Everyone chip in. The ministry here involves every friend, every member, because that’s what it takes to live out our mission of changing lives. That’s what it takes. 

Leadership is everyone’s vocation, expressed through acts both big and small. It’s about how we use our influence, towards the direction of some larger vision. It’s about how we respond to the call, when it comes.

Which takes us to the second thing of note in Martin Luther King’s story: his hesitation to accept. It represented a momentous crossroads in his life, although he could not have known it at the time. Ultimately he did accept the call, and in this way achieved great visibility and respect as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn led to his role in founding (with others) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then to his leadership in civil rights campaigns in Albany, then Birmingham, then Augustine and Selma, and then the March on Washington and his soaring “I have a dream” speech. It all got started with Montgomery, and King’s ultimate answer of yes. But what if he had said, instead, NO? What then? Without Montgomery, would there ever have been “I have a dream”?

Hindsight is 20-20. “We live forwards,” said philosopher Arthur Schopenhaur, “but we understand backwards.” With only the knowledge that is given us in the moment—already full of the pressures of existing responsibilities and anticipations of future work we already know of—it is truly understandable and fully human to hesitate when a call to something new comes before you.

King was only human, and this is something we need to be reminded of, so that we can be confident leaders in our own right. Here’s why I say this. We take a hero figure like Martin Luther King Jr. and we lose touch with his story. Soon enough, someone who had just as many flaws and complexities as the rest of us becomes transformed into a superperson, untouchable. A change agent who leapt from the womb holding a protest sign. He was fearless, but we feel fear. The work came naturally to him, without any effort or awkwardness, but as for us, we endure setbacks, mistakes, trial-and-error. He was bottled lightning, but we have to pinch ourselves to stay awake. The perfect snappy comeback was always on his lips, but as for us, it’s usually only 12-24 hours later when it pops into our minds.    

We lose touch with our heroes’ stories, and in this way we lose touch with our own powers and potentialities. We hear a call to leadership, but our response can be, Who, me? Yet the message of the life of every hero who has ever gone before us, or who may be in our midst right now, is that you don’t need to be perfect to have a dream. You don’t need to be perfect to make the world a better place. You don’t have to already know how to preach if it is your dream to preach. You don’t have to already have the right credentials or know everything there is to know to step up. And if you are feeling the need to do something in your life to make the dream real, you don’t have to wait to start until the circumstances are absolutely ideal, as in: I am the right age (not too young, not too old), the kids are grown, the job is secure, I have enough money, my relationships are all better, I even have all the big questions of life figured out, related to God, immortality, the meaning of life, the existence of extraterrestrial beings. Just do it. I am so grateful for a hero like Martin Luther King Jr., a man who, at a critical juncture in his life, hesitated. The world did not need a perfect person to do what he did. The world did not need that. The world needed him. And the world needs you and me.

Leadership is everyone’s destiny, in some form, big or small. And now we turn to the third and last part of King’s story: Ralph Abernathy, talking King into accepting the call. His intervention.

This represents another aspect of the hero story that is easily passed over. Often the message put out there (or the one received) is about rugged individualism. One person acting alone. Nothing or not much about family, the larger supportive community, the worship services, the committee work, the coalition building, the flurry of letters and emails and phone calls, and, in the midst all of it, above all, key sustaining friendships. People whose judgment you trust, so that even if all the world is criticizing you, if THEY believe in you, you believe. People who will lift you up when you need it; people who will bring you back down to earth, when you need that. Nothing about any of this. Just one person acting alone. Rugged individualism.

It’s just not true. You can’t get to Martin Luther King Jr. without his parents and family and teachers, the black church community, liberal communities like this one, all the committee meetings, all the worship and prayer and hymn singing, all his friends and colleagues. You just can’t get to him without Ralph Abernathy—the man who reconnected him to his sense of call and purpose when he hesitated. The man who was with him throughout, until the very end and beyond.

I’m asking you this morning: Who is your Ralph Abernathy? Who believes in you, so you can believe?

This place—this community—can itself be a support to you. But you’ll get out of it only as much as you put in. So, how much are you putting in?

We need our communities of support. We need our Ralph Abernathys, to grow into the leadership that is naturally ours.

On Tuesday, when Barack Obama is up there with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, using Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Bible, I want you to think of a person named Regina, whom Obama knew in college. He had just delivered his very first political speech, about apartheid in South Africa and the need to stand up for social justice. He felt swept up in this; he was feeling the call. Yet at the same time, he was full of self-doubt, and cynicism. At a party that evening, Regina congratulated him, calling his speech wonderful, but he cut her off, said, “Listen, you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But I don’t believe we made any difference in what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so. That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me.”

Barack Obama, hesitating…. But what happened next was this. He shares the story in his book Dreams from My Father: “Regina stuck a finger in my chest. ‘You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything’s about you. The rally is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It’s not just about you. It’s never just about you. It’s about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you. They’re not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting bruised. And neither am I.” That’s what Regina said. Right words at the right time.

“Strange,” says Obama, “how a single conversation can change you.” ‘What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push against whatever power kept [a person] stooped instead of standing straight. The determination to resist the easy and the expedient. You might be locked in a world not of your own making … but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.”

Godspeed, Barack Obama. Keep on pushing. We too, in our own lives, whatever our situations happen to be, as we realize the leadership story that is uniquely ours, and our destiny to fulfill. Undaunted by obstacles both within and without. Determined. Always before us … the Dream.

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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