Back to the Future: Building Beloved Community, The Legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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This is Unitarian Universalist Minister Rev. Ben Meyers’ sermon celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday and delivered to our congregation on Sunday, January 15.

Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California

Rev. Ben Meyers of San Mateo, California

Yesterday, this congregation opened its heart and its doors to our neighbors and friends for the twenty-eighth consecutive year of celebrating this holiday, which commemorates the life and legacy of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. We organize this event in conjunction with the Annual Essay, Poetry and Art Contest. This contest, which honors the Rev. Dr. King, Jr.’s legacy, is sponsored each year by the North Central Neighborhood Association, of which we are a part and which has been a strong community alliiance for thirty-four years.

The contest is an Institution within our city and county. It is the foundational piece of a curriculum for many teachers in the San Mateo school district who use this contest as a platform (and launching pad) for teaching about the legacy of Rev. King and the history of the civil rights movement. It is a tradition that instills a sense of pride in us. It was initiated two years before King’s birthday became a national holiday in this country.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1928)

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1928)

In discussing the many elements of today’s service, our Worship Leader joked, saying that with all its many activities and high level of participation, this service would resemble “A Happening” harkening back to the 60s and 70s…Now for those of you who weren’t around in the 60s or maybe don’t remember them…”A Happening” was similar to what we now call “Flash Mobs”…and for those of you who don’t know what a flash mob is…its like “A Happening” from the 60’s or 70’s. Sorta like…Woodstock. 😉

A happening, in other words, was a significant event that was not precisely planned but that organically emerged from the moment, usually by necessity or simply out of the spirit of the moment. We are beginning to see the spirit of “Happenings” repeating themselves with the coming ‘peaceful but resistant’ transfer of power from the ending of the Obama administration to the start of the new President’s administration.

In many ways, we, as a nation, are heading ‘back to the future’, repeating ourselves. We are, it would seem to me, to be going “Back to the future”, as in that movie from the 80s. We are going back to the future not only because we sense or fear that our country is poised to take a few steps backwards in the realm of human dignity and civil rights, but also because we have a strong sense that in order to counter these backward steps, we would do well to return to the roots of our struggle for human rights in this country. This will restore our convictions as a foundation in the battle for the future of our country — a battle for its heart and soul.

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The theme for this year’s MLK Poetry, Essay and Art contest was, “Beloved Community: What does it mean to you?” I was pleased that the committee adopted this topic. It was my hope that it would entice and inspire our students to – not only focus on this phrase “Beloved Community” – the centerpiece in Rev. King’s work- but to bridge the divide in this nation caused by the triple threats of poverty, racism, and militarism. I also hope they will identify with the roots of this ideal. I hope that they learn this is not something that King alone created, but that it was an idea that preceded him and one that has a rich history of inspiring many justice-makers in this county.

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And so I decided that I would base our annual MLK Sunday service on this same theme as we honor a man who was more than just an inspiration to us in this country and the leader of the Great Civil Rights struggle of the 20th century, but one who continues to be the source and hope for the Dream of American Justice and the building of Beloved Community in the 21st Century.

I think it is also important that we look back to know where we have come from, to see  that what we face now is not entirely new terrain, and to understand that as we plow ahead into the struggle to create more Beloved Community in the face of current disharmony, hatred, and divisiveness.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)

The phrase “Beloved Community” was coined in the early 20th Century by the Unitarian Theologian and Philosopher, Josiah Royce, who was also one of the founders of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the largest, oldest inter/multi-faith peace and justice organizations in the United States. It was established in 1915. [worth looking up: forusa.org]. He was a teacher and mentor to some of the most progressive minds of his time, like T.S. Eliot, George Santanyana and W.E.B. DuBois.

Josiah Royce’s writing influenced many prominent Social Reformers of his time, including the young Martin Luther King, Jr. Royce wrote:

“Since the office [or purpose] of religion is to aim towards the creation on earth of the Beloved Community [ …] the future task of religion is the task of inventing and applying the arts which will win all over to unity, and which shall overcome their original hatefulness by gracious love, not of mere individuality, but of communities.” The result, said Royce, “is the creation of heaven on earth, a form of [beloved] community we work to create marked by unity and gracious love.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., a member of the same Fellowship of Reconciliation, where he learned the teachings of Josiah Royce, brought the phrase into more common use, comparing the creation of Beloved Community to redemption and reconciliation among all people. Dr. King saw it as a source of powerful change from the disharmony and disparity of HIS day to the harmony and equality he sought to create. You can hear these ideals echoed in King’s words when he said:

“It is the spirit of Beloved Community and this type of [agape] love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of people…The goal of creating a beloved community for all people, will require a qualitative change in our souls  as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” ~ Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., 1957

In his struggle to bring greater justice and equality into the world, King was not simply targeting legislation for desegregation, he was after a transformation in the hearts of all people so that we might learn to live and love together as one people, as a Beloved Community. An all encompassing Beloved Community was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s end goal.

While the specific point of struggle began around racism in America, he also spoke out and marched and protested against war and poverty, fighting against all injustice and oppression. He was working to create a Beloved Community based on equality and justice for all.

It is now our turn to continue his work. Our responsiblity goes beyond the historical perspective of instilling the legacy and the message of building beloved community among our young people through activities like our Annual Essay, Poetry and Art contest. His work must be OUR own daily work with and within the greater community. We must continue doing what we have done for so long with renewed vigor and purpose and the intention of bringing it into a world that is threateningly poised to dismantle the very gains that we cherish, which we cannot take for granted.

img_6595Unless we rise in body and spirit and resist, unless we insist on the persistence of the values we hold dear, which are really the cornerstone of our faith and our nation, we will lose them. Now more than ever, we are called to heed the words of the Rev. Dr. King, who, amid the challenges of his time and against the voices of hatred and intolerance that are with us still, said:

“This is where we are. Where do we go from here? First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses, and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values…”

What is needed is a recognition that power without love is reckless and abusive and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice. Justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

Let us stand on the side of love…Amen.

– Rev. Benjamin Walker Meyers

Benediction: Words of Martin Luther King, Jr., adapted, Rev. Ben Meyers
A time like this demands great leaders;
Leaders whom the lust of office does not kill;
Leaders whom the spoils of life cannot buy;
Leaders who possess opinions and a will;
Leaders who have honor;
Leaders who will not lie!
A time like this demands people who can stand before a demagogue (and damn…treacherous flatteries) without winking!
Brave and courageous people, crowned by the sun, who live above the fog, in public duty and private thinking) and who will seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with their Gods…
Let us be those people!

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