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Rev. Cody Sanders preached this sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis, CA on January 18, 2015.
I’ve never really preached a sermon on “love” before. I’ve preached around “love” a good bit when it seemed related to another topic, but I never really preached on love. And believe me, it’s hard to get by as a minister without preaching about love from time to time. People get suspicious. But I’ve managed to do it…for about thirteen years now. Until today.
To be honest with you, I’ve never quite known what to say about it. I’ve said a lot about other important things like “justice” and “human dignity” and “hope,” but love just never made it to the forefront of any of my sermonic material. It’s just such a daunting topic, really. What can I possibly say about something like love. Centuries of poets and prophets have said all of the good stuff already. If you want to hear about love, you can read Rumi or the Song of Solomon or even the Apostle Paul who wrote some really nice things on love.
Preaching on “love” is almost like preaching on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. King has been the subject of national dialogue and documentaries and doctoral dissertations and too many sermons to count for fifty years now. What exactly can I say? Since I was asked to lead in worship on this Sunday, I have wondered to myself why I was asked to preach on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. Perhaps, I thought, it is because King was a Baptist minister and, it just so happens, this Unitarian Universalist Church has a Baptist minister on it’s staff—strange, but pretty convenient on this day. Maybe it was because King and I are both Southerners and the accent is a nice contextual addition to this occasion. I never found out why, exactly. So vacillating between excitement and anguish over what exactly to say on Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, I started by posing a few questions to myself to find my way into a sermon.
And as I began, I asked: What is the meaning of King’s life and legacy for a predominantly White congregation like UUCD, or to a predominantly White denomination like the Unitarian Universalist Association or, my own denomination, the Alliance of Baptists when, as King often said, Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hour in America?
What is the meaning of King’s legacy of nonviolent protest when, half-a-century after “Bloody Sunday” in Selma and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham we are still reeling the events of Ferguson even as the FBI investigates last week’s bombing of the Colorado Springs chapter of the NAACP?
What do we make of King’s legacy in an era when the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that all of the marches and the violence suffered in Selma helped to bring about is now weakened beyond recognition by a 2013 ruling from the Supreme Court that renders null key parts of this law?1
What is the meaning, today, of King’s paired protest of the war in Vietnam alongside his unyielding call upon our nation’s leaders to account for rampant and widespread poverty in an era when our country’s military presence the world over has not diminished, but has proliferated to unbelievable proportions? In an era when post-9/11 defense hikes equal five times the “Medicare gap” and spending on the war in Afghanistan alone was enough to pay for 15.6 years of head start programming for our nation’s poorest children?2
What is the meaning of King’s “Single Garment of Destiny” that included this Baptist preacher’s deep respect for the spiritual and ethical teachings of the World’s great religious traditions on a day like last Thursday when one of the South’s great educational institutions—Duke University—reneged on its commitment to allow the Muslim student group to broadcast a weekly call to prayer from its chapel’s towering spire because of the anti-Islamic vitriol spewed by another Baptist preacher—Franklin Graham—and amid threats of violence made in response to the University’s initial attempt to honor the religious diversity of its student body?3
And by the time I got done asking all of these questions to myself in preparation for a sermon supposed to celebrate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., I started to despair a bit. And who wouldn’t? But still, I had a sermon to preach.
I knew, of course, that we could talk at length about King’s “Triple Evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism in our present-day context, and the conversation would be as unending as the problems themselves. But in a church like this one, on a day like today, surely you already know the situation we’re in. Surely you already know the rampant and ever-increasing inequality of wealth in our country where the rich get richer and the poor not only get poorer but the rich devise new ways to make money off of the poverty of their fellow citizens while writing the rules to an economic game that that most of us can never even hope to play. Surely you are already well aware that any notion of the U.S. as a “post-racial” society is a dangerous fiction that ignores the racial realities right under our noses where lives are assigned value and accorded varying degrees of dignity depending upon the color of one’s skin. There is not much I could say that would increase your awareness of this country’s out-of-control militarization in an era of surveillance and worldwide military reach that makes the imagination of George Orwell seem lackluster.
It’s hard to pay attention to the world around you and not feel a little disheartened from time to time. It’s hard to work for justice and peaceful co-existence with our fellow humans and our ecological context and not wonder from time to time if we’re getting anywhere at all.
So I wondered to myself: How did King do it? We’ve so mythologized him as a great leader of the Civil Rights Movement that it’s hard to imagine King’s very human emotions like despair in the face of seemingly insurmountable situations of injustice and violence. This is the King we don’t often mention on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This is the very human Martin Luther King, Jr. whose rough edges have been gradually eroded by the constant wash of very deserving praise and adulation for the gifts that his courageous life left us.
But that’s the problem with heroes, you know. We need them, for sure. But with enough distance from their actual lives, the stories we spin about them can grow into some very helpful and meaningful myth that inspires our creative action in following their example, while, at the very same time, allowing us to forget those things that make them so very human—human like us. I spent a lot of time thinking and reading about King’s final year of life—a time when his own very human qualities were coming through to those around him.
Historian, Taylor Branch, describes King’s emotional condition in his final days as one of “frantic melancholy.”4 Tavis Smiley explains why, taking up King’s final year as the subject of his new book, Death of a King. Smiley writes of the many ways that King’s own life was marked by turmoil, and pain, and the struggle between despair and hope. There was marital infidelity and an occasionally overactive ego and fractured relationships between King and beloved colleagues and many bouts with depression and hopelessness. Other civil rights leaders who were at cross-purposes with King’s philosophy of active nonviolence portrayed him as ineffectual at best and an outright impediment to the movement at worst.
In his last three months of life, Smiley says that, “As in virtually all [of King’s] sermons, the emotional movement is from darkness to light; he works to turn the corner from despair to hope. Yet negotiating that turn [in his last year] is increasingly difficult.”5 His friend and fellow leader in the movement, Andrew Young, said, “He was given to a kind of depression that he had not had earlier. He talked about death all the time….He couldn’t relax, he couldn’t sleep….Even when we were away on trips, he’d want to talk all night long.” And his wife, Coretta, said that in his last year “[h]e got very depressed…a state of depression that was greater than I had ever seen before.”6
And I read all of this and I wondered: How did he do it? I mean, the depression seems understandable enough—only the delusional could face the day-to-day struggles toward racial justice in the 1960s U.S. South and not experience a little depression and hopelessness and despair from time to time. But how did he keep going? Why did he hold fast to the principles of active nonviolence? How could he not become so bitter and despondent that he lashed out in violent speech against his enemies and resign in despair?
That’s when I realized I finally had to preach a sermon on “love.” In addition to Smiley’s book on King’s final year, I had also been reading through the collected sermons in King’s book, Strength to Love. And for a minister who has never really preached a sermon on “love” before, I was struck by how many of King’s sermons began with scriptures on love:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:7-8, NRSV)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:43-45, NRSV)
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal…and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, NRSV)
Love was the bridge the King used to cross the divide between absolute despair and realistic hope, facing the risk of failure while continuing to strive for a better future and a more just world.
Love was the disarming tool of nonviolence King employed to meet his enemies’ violence with a weak force,7 a soul force, that can never be overcome with the weapons of the strong.
Love was the energizing, empowering, animating element in King’s life. Amid looming depression and in moments of hopelessness and “frantic melancholy” and justified despair, love compelled King forward in the work of justice.
Love was the lenses that allowed King to see the humanity in the face of others—even his enemies.
As far as love goes, I’m probably not your best teacher—a preacher who has hardly preached on the subject in thirteen years. But today, as I continue to learn from the life of that Baptist preacher from down in Atlanta, Georgia, this is all I’d say in the way of a lesson: Pay careful attention to those forces that erode the possibilities of love.
These forces come in many forms: Sometimes outright propagandized accounts of other races and cultures and religions like the words of Franklin Graham last week when he publicly denigrated the entirety of the world’s Muslim people in order to protect his own privileged religious, racial, and cultural position.
Sometimes the forces that erode the possibilities of love hide from our eyes the complex ways that injustice and violence are upheld by institutionalizing prejudice so that, even when we witness injustice with our own eyes, we blame the victim for their own oppression and deny that prejudice had anything to do with the situation at all—like in so many recent cases in which justice was denied the families of slain black men.
Sometimes the forces that erode the possibilities of love are so deeply embedded in the mythos of our nation that we don’t even see them at work on our minds and hearts, insuring that we will continue our complicity with an oppressive status quo.
Pay careful attention to those forces that erode the possibilities of love. Far from the “love” that I have so long avoided preaching about, King explains, “When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response…I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life.”8,9
So today, we’ve still much still to say and do concerning King’s triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. But it isn’t hatred that upholds these systems of oppression. A little apathy will do. What King’s legacy continues to teach us is that all you really need in order to uphold an oppressive status quo is for people not to really care at all. Then hopelessness and despair will have their way. We’ll avert our gaze from those whose lives are ravaged by multiple systems of oppression and we’ll pretend that all is well, so long as we don’t see. But love opens our eyes.
Love is the bridge that crosses the divide between absolute despair and realistic hope.
Love is the disarming tool of nonviolence we’ll use to meet our enemies’ violence with a soul force that can never be overcome with the weapons of the strong.
Love is the energizing, empowering, animating element that, amid looming depression and in moments of hopelessness and “frantic melancholy” and justified despair, will compelled us forward in the work of justice.
Love is the lens that allows us to see the humanity in the face of others—even our enemies.
So today, even when the problems looming are so large and despair is an ever-present threat to our resolve, let us renew our vigilance toward those forces that erode the possibilities of love.
Rev. Cody J. Sanders, Ph.D., is the pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square, Mass. At the time he preached this sermon, he served as Assistant Minister for Pastoral Care at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis, Calif. He is the coauthor of Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Everyday Church (2015), author of Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow: What All Christians Can Learn from LGBTQ Lives (2013), and editor of the second edition of Rightly Diving the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2013).
1“‘Outrageous’ or Overdue?: Court Strikes Down Part of Historic Voting Rights Law,” CNN.com (June 26, 2013), Online at: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/25/politics/scotus-voting-rights/.
2Joshua Holland, “Five Eye-Opening Facts About Our Bloated Post-9/11 ‘Defense’ Spending,” AlterNet (May 27, 2011), online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/151119/five_eye-opening_facts_about_our_bloated_post-9_11_'defense'_spending.
3“Security Threat Nixes Islamic Prayer Call from Duke Chapel,” WRAL (January 15, 2015), online at: http://www.wral.com/duke-reverses-plan-to-allow-islamic-call-to-prayer-from-campus-chapel/14359650/.
4Quoted in Tavis Smiley with David Ritz, Death of a King: The Real Story of Der. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Final Year (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014), 175.
5Smiley, Death of a King, 194-5.
6Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King quoted in Smiley, Death of a King, 165.
7To capture a part of what John Caputo means by weak force it is helpful to make a connection to his conception of the kingdom of God: “The kingdom of God obeys the laws of reversals in virtue of which whatever is first is last, whatever is out is in, whatever is lost is saved, where even death has a certain power over the living, all of which confounds the dynamics of strong forces…The kingdom of God is the rule of weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for an offense, release and let go. The kingdom is found whenever war and aggression are met with an offer of peace. The kingdom is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time, a way of living without why, living for the day, like the lilies of the field—figures of weak forces—as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, containing and managing risk. The kingdom reigns wherever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful are put on the defensive.” John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006), 14-15.
8Martin Luther King Jr., “The Quest for Peace and Justice” (Nobel Lecture December 11, 1964), Online at: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/king-lecture.html.
9The African American poet and educator, bell hooks, adds, “Love is profoundly political…Only love can give us strength to go forward in the midst of heartbreak and misery. Only love can give us the power to reconcile, to redeem, the power to renew weary spirits and save lost souls. The transformative power of love is the foundations of all meaningful social change...Love is the heart of the matter. When all else has fallen away, love sustains.” bell hooks, Salvation: Black People and Love (New York: Perennial, 2001), 16-17.