I am drawn again and again to Albert Schweitzer’s words. These are the words that accompanied our chalice lighting today:
At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.
The world has been filled with people from ancient times on who have lighted the flame and lighted the way for others whose light had gone out. These people can be thought of as prophets. For Unitarian Universalists, these people, these prophets, are all around us. They are religious leaders from the world’s great religions, artists and poets, philosophers, and scientists. Some are ancient, some contemporaries. Some are larger than life and some are quiet voices.
Right now I find myself needing more than a quiet voice or a spark. I’m also hearing from many of you that you are feeling fear and anxiety about the future. Perhaps you feel your view of the world has been rejected, or you feel as William Barber says that your principles have been unelected.
Perhaps like, me, you too need more than a spark. I need something more like a bonfire or maybe a comet. I need some prophetic words of encouragement and inspiration that can light up the whole sky and light up the way ahead. I want someone who I can walk with who makes me believe again and hope again in what’s possible when I have moments of despair.
Now, I know that many of us have a sense of urgency about needing to run out and do something, anything. To do more. There’s so much to be done. There always is. But I also know that many of us have already been steadily engaged in the work for justice and need bolstering to keep going, to keep on doing the work.
The disappointments and setbacks are hard to take. It’s hard knowing that it may get harder still. I for one, need some fiery prophetic voices to embolden me, to give me hope, and to give me courage.
Schweitzer was right. At times our own light goes out. We need others to light the way. Fortunately, here we are at Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King himself is surely one of those fiery prophetic voices. King is surely one of the great prophets of modern times, perhaps of all time, and he’s more bonfire than spark.
Every year around this time, I listen to Martin Luther King Jr. and I read his words. I hear his call for love and justice. Sometimes I wonder how he stayed strong in those difficult days. And then I hear how he remained true to his faith. After all, he’d been to the mountaintop, as he said. And so his words carry timeless truths, ringing as true today as they did when I first heard them. And they sound just as fearless.
King inspires. He offers me courage when my own courage is flagging. And he gives me cause to hope. He insists that we must “rise from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.”
This year I’m also listening to another fiery prophet – Rev. William Barber. I first heard Barber a few years ago at the anniversary of the Selma March. I have been attending to his prophetic message since then. So have other Unitarian Universalists. He spoke at our last General Assembly. His book The Third Reconstruction was chosen by the Unitarian Universalist Association as our common read this year, and some of this congregation’s members have been gathering to reflect on this important work.
Barber has a long and distinguished resume. He is architect of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina and Chair of the Political Action Committee of the National NAACP Board. He works with our denominational leadership and other religious leaders on interfaith actions. He is pastor to Greenleaf Christian Church, a mainstream Protestant congregation, in North Carolina.
Since the election Barber has been an outspoken champion for life, liberty, and justice. Like King, he seems fearless. He, along with a group of interfaith religious leaders, called on clergy to sign on to a letter entitled: “Dear Mr. Trump: Will You Advance a Moral Agenda?” That letter has been signed by nearly 10,000 clergy including me.
The open letter asks for a meeting in a house of worship to discuss a moral agenda before January 20. Time is ticking away. The letter spells out a moral framework, and declares that:
Our faith calls us to love all people but this love can never refuse to tell the truth and stand against hate, systemic racism, and economic inequality. We cannot simply congratulate you on your victory and say, “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. We are bound by our vows to tell the truth in love and stand together for justice, love and truth.
You can see why Unitarian Universalists find a friend and prophet in this man.
As much as I’m in admiration of these prophets, it’s also good to remember that neither Barber nor King nor the prophets before them or the prophets that will come after them are saints or saviors. It’s important to remember this. Often they are perceived as superhumans who can save us from ourselves.
Much as I think we might all like a hero or savior to swoop in to save us right now – from genocide, poverty, racism, sexism, fear, anger, along with all the other ills plaguing us – that’s not what a prophet is or does. That’s not what the Old Testament prophets did and it’s not what King did. And it’s not what Barber is going to do or be.
What they are and can do is speak as people of faith. King and Barber are people of faith speaking deep and profound truths. They are naming what is essential, what is fundamental for a just and peaceful society. They call us back to these essentials. They won’t stop despite discouragements.
In a movement based upon moral dissent, defeat does not cause us to doubt our purpose or question the ends toward which we strive. We do not belong to those who shrink back, for we know the tragic truth of history. When oppressed people shrink back, they will always be forgotten and destroyed. Faith-rooted moral dissent requires that we always look forward toward the vision of what we know we were made to be.
What are those essentials they are calling us back to? What were we humans made to do?
If I were to ask each of you to name what is essential you might offer a variety of answers. I’m pretty sure that hate or violence or xenophobia or racism or sexism or poverty or building walls would not be on your list. Wouldn’t it be something if we could classify these great plagues on life, liberty, and justice as things of the past?!
If I had to boil down to one word what is essential, I would call it love. But it has other names. Kindness, compassion, justice, liberty, truth. The fiery prophets give me some assurance that love is still possible. They give me hope. Hope is also essential.
And for those who rekindle the flame of love and hope for me, I am grateful. I cannot do this work, nor can any of you nor can they, if our spirits are depleted, if our hearts are broken to the point of utter despair, and if the call to love seems like a distant memory. We can’t do this work well if we feel alone or rejected or dejected.
Does your light feel a little dim? Do you need a spark or a bonfire to rekindle the flame in you?
Then listen. Listen to the great Unitarian Transcendentalist Theodore Parker who was an abolitionist and who was quoted by King who was quoted by Barber, saying “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Listen to Carlyle who said “no lie can live forever.”
Listen to the Bible which proclaims, “you shall reap what you sow.” And also taught us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Listen to William Cullen Bryant who said, “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.” Listen to King who said we need “to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope” and make of the old world a new world. Listen to Barber who said: “Your principles did not die. They were not unelected. Love and truth are more powerful and more redemptive than hate. Be revived.”
Listen and let the power of their words and their faith and their conviction and their love and their hope wash over you and fill your hearts and spirits so that you can be revived to the work you’ve been doing all along. Listen and know that there are people who won’t give up and who will be there to carry the torch when your own light is failing.
Know that there are prophets for our own time. There are fiery prophets who can give us courage, who will invite us to walk with them and who will comfort us with the simplest of words: “don’t get weary.”
Friends, these are hard times. Don’t get weary. Find sources of hope and inspiration for the days to come. Remember what is essential.
Remember who you are. Remember who we are, that we are people of love and justice living these principles every day. Remember what you believe. Hold on to the belief that we shall overcome and live in peace someday.
Amen and blessed be.