Accepting the Call
October 18, 2020 | Sarah Stewart
A hero's journey is everywhere around us; it's in Disney cartoons, it's in post-apocalyptic young adult novels, it's even in Star Wars. The hero's journey was written by the mythologist Joseph Campbell, which echoed ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung, and it's this story that shows up in folk traditions, and in dreams, and in storytelling, that describe the path of the hero. A film writer named Christopher Vogler was one of the first people to distill this hero's journey for movies, and he sums it up like this. He said, “the hero is introduced in his ordinary world, where he first receives the call to adventure. The hero might be female, so we can sometimes say she. She is reluctant at first, to cross the threshold where she eventually encounters tests, allies, and enemies. The hero reaches the innermost cave where he endures the supreme ordeal. He seizes the sword or the treasure and is pursued on the road back to his world. The hero is resurrected and transformed by her experience. she returns to her ordinary world with a treasure, boon, or elixir, to benefit her world”. If you think about Star Wars, you can see it so clearly in Luke's journey away from Cataline to accept his role as a Jedi Knight and help save the galaxy. But heroism is not just for movie characters or mythical heroes, it's not just for other people. By following the example of real-life heroes, we can be heroic in our own lives and communities.
One such real life hero is Martin Luther King Jr. He began his career with that call to adventure, that we just heard, with deciding with his wife, despite not wanting to, at first, to take up a ministry in the South, to see what good they could do. But I don't want to start there at the beginning of his ministry, I want to start at the end. When Martin Luther King Jr joined, other heroes were setting out on their journey, striking African American sewage workers in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1968, the sewage workers in Memphis, who were all African American men, went on strike in response to the deaths of two members of their union who had been crushed by a faulty piece of equipment. They wanted safety equipment, they wanted adequate pay, they wanted to be paid on those rainy days when they couldn't do their job, and they showed up for work and the city just sent them home; as of that time, unpaid. The men on strike carried signs that said, “I AM A MAN”. Martin Luther King Jr. responded to this strike, and went to Memphis in 1968 to speak to the striking workers where he gave his famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech and he was killed on April 4 1968, while he was in Memphis for that work. “I AM MAN”, said the striking sewage workers, I AM A MAN in my blackness, as a worker, as a human being before God. And we hear this echoed in today's statement, that black lives matter. From “I AM A MAN” in 1968, to Black Lives Matter today. From Unitarian ministers joining in the Selma march in 1965, and one of them, James Reed, giving his life, to Unitarian Universalism support of Black Lives Matter today; the idea that black people are equal in all ways to white people is rooted in our commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We're saying every person has the chance to be that hero, to know their own worth and dignity. And it's not just our faith that has been making this recognition. For centuries, the world has been coming to the realization that any individual life matters, regardless of whether you have money, regardless of the color of your skin. Europe had its own version of slavery, called serfdom. Serfdom and Russia didn't end until the end of the 19th century. Even here in America, individual rights were not guaranteed to every person; women and African American people were not included as having rights in our Constitution when it was drafted; even as recently as World War I, women did not get the right to vote until 1920 in America. And at the beginning of World War I, the European countries counted the armaments more than they counted the men. Because men were plentiful, and guns were expensive; individual lives simply didn't matter. It's something we've been coming to realize over time, as society develops, that each person is sacred and matters to the whole. But then to, it's not just the individual worth and dignity of each person, but the worth and dignity of groups of people. Part of the power of Black Lives Matter is saying to white America, you have refused us personhood based on our group, and we rise in the strength of our group to claim our personhood as individuals. That's what I hear in Martin Luther King’s story about hating segregation in the South, that he said, “I want to be seen as an individual and not discriminated against on the basis of my group”. And yet he returned to the South to be in solidarity with that group, with the African Americans living in the South, living under Jim Crow, to work with them to end segregation.
Our first principle has deep roots in our religious heritage. In Judaism God chooses one nation, one people, and then promises through that relationship, to bring all people into union with God. Islamic laws based on contract; human beings and the Muslim community having standing to enter into a contract of faith with God, so that each person matters in the eyes of the Divine. That quote we heard in Psalm 139 this morning,
“You know that you knew me when my in most parts were being met and the depths of the earth. No matter how far away I go from you God, you know me and you find me there”, this sacred and beautiful notion that every single person is known and loved by the divine just for who they are.
And our liberal theology has also learned from liberation theology, which teaches that it is the very people who are oppressed in society who know the favor of the Holy One. That's an important point, because we are not simply called to recognize our own inherent worth and dignity and leave it at that. To accept the call, to be a hero, to do good work in this life and in our community, then if we have privilege, we are called to use it on behalf of those who have less privilege, and to stand in solidarity with them as they work for their own freedom. So, if we are white people, then our faith calls us to stand with people of color, and their movements for liberation. If we are straight and cisgender people, we are called to stand with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning people. If we have wealth, we are called to use our wealth, on behalf of the poor. If we have housing, we are called to help the homeless. If we are people who have dominion over nature, as all human beings have come to have, then we are called to help meet the needs of the earth, which cries out to us in this moment.
So many crises are swirling around us right now; the coronavirus, and environmental disaster, and the urgent need to confront white supremacy in America, and a crisis of leadership in our government's highest levels. The killing of unarmed black people in the United States today brings home to our hearts that Dr. King's work is not done, and that there is a call for us to accept a path to heroism that we can all join in on. You may have read or heard of the scholar, Ibram X Kendi, who wrote the book how to be an anti-racist, and he says in his work that America is chock-full through and through with racism; that we bear the legacy of slavery and segregation and of Jim Crow, and of the killing of unarmed black men and women today. And so, we can't be neutral in this kind of a society. We can either go along with the status quo and accept the racism all around us, or we can work to try to create anti-racist policies, and organizations, and goods in our society. He says we never get there, we never become anti-racist people, and we are a long way from achieving an anti-racist America; but if we work toward it, that's the call, we can go on, that's the chance to be heroic in our society at this time.
This week, as your minister, I joined on a call with Worcester interfaith, which is the congregational organizing group that we're part of, with other faith leaders in Worcester, black and white faith leaders, and our state delegation, to talk to them about the police reform bill currently in conference committee in the state legislature. We joined with the Massachusetts ACLU in looking for a bill that would ban facial recognition technology, put real limits on qualified immunity for police officers, and create a strong commission; a civilian commission, to oversee police and create accountability for police. A commission made up of civilians with experience in racial justice organization, organizations working on police accountability, and organizations representing people in over-policed communities. I'm pleased that our state delegation was very supportive of this work. It's the senate bill that has more of these protections and has stronger language in it but it's hard to know if it's going to get out of conference committee. It's work that I will continue to do with our partners and Worcester with other faith leaders and with Worcester interfaith to help see real policing reform in Massachusetts. If we believe that each person has inherent worth and dignity, then we believe that all lives matter. And if we believe that; then we can proudly proclaim that black lives matter. Each one of us, white, black, or brown, can use what power we have to unite with those struggling for their human dignity.
We started this morning with the end of Martin Luther King Jr's life, and I'd like to end with the moment we heard in our reading this morning, from the beginning of his career. Martin Luther King, Jr. was just about done with his doctorate at Boston University. He had the opportunity to teach seminary here in the north, and he seriously considered it. He felt a call to educate the next generation of spiritual leaders serving churches, but he had also received a call to serve a church in Alabama, and he felt that pull to be a preacher to a small congregation, to go with his new wife Coretta Scott King and live in the deep South and unite with people they were already working on civil rights, to try to bring about an end to segregation. Dr. King and Coretta Scott King; they could have stayed in Boston; it would have been easier for them. Their children would have had different educational opportunities; Dr. King would have had a position of prestige as a professor at a university. They chose to throw in their lot with those suffering under Jim Crow in the South. They chose to be part of an oppressed group. They chose to go on the adventure, they chose the path of heroism, they chose the harder path. They chose to work with African Americans in the South, to claim their godliness and their quality; and that work is now ours to do. We are called to be heroes, to use our privilege in the same way, to align ourselves with those on the margins, and witness to their inherent worth and dignity. This is why we say the names of those whose lives have been taken by police; those black men and women whose lives have been taken:
and so many others. We say their names to honor their humanity and to know they were beloved children of God. We say black lives matter because we know every life has inherent worth and dignity. We commit to building an anti-racist world where everyone can flourish and grow.
I love you all, AMEN.