“Struggle” Duffy Peet

First Parish of Watertown  – January 16, 2011

Call to Worship – from Richard Gilbert

Come into the circle of caring,
Come into the community of gentleness, of justice and love.
Come, and you shall be refreshed.
Let the healing power of this people penetrate you,
Let loving kindness and joy pass through you,
Let hope interfuse you,
And peace be the law of your heart.
In this human circle,
Caring is a calling.
All of us are called.
So come into the circle of caring.

Reading _ from Bearing the Cross, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Council by David J. Garrow

Sermon – “Struggle”

Duffy Peet

Struggle, it is something every one of us in this room is familiar with. On some level, in some manner, each of us has encountered and been involved in struggle. Struggle is an integral part of being human. But it isn’t limited just to us humans or even to living creatures large or small. Struggle can be found in all that we see around us. An initial reaction to the word is likely to be less than positive. The word seems coarse and hard with its guttural sound. Struggle! It is quite likely that many of you, like me, would generally prefer to have less struggle in your life and not more. But there is very little if any chance that we are going to eliminate struggle while we live. If you are hoping that struggle will soon be a thing of the past in your life, I would suggest you not hold your breath waiting for that time to arrive.

As I would imagine most of you already know tomorrow is a National Holiday. It is the day set aside each year to honor the late Martin Luther King, Jr. Typically when the word holiday is mentioned we think of a day off from work, a break in our regular routine, or a time of celebration. Each of these applies to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. But there is something else that the day reminds us of as well. It reminds us of the significance of struggle. Like Independence Day, July 4th, Martin Luther King, Jr. day symbolizes a watershed movement in our country for an end to oppression and domination. Like Veteran’s day, the holiday invites us to remember King and all those who fought, and those who died, for the high ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence; “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Like President’s day that replaced the two holidays honoring Presidents Washington and Lincoln, tomorrow honors an important leader in our country. But King was never elected to any political office. He was a minister, a Baptist minister, who became a prophetic voice not only in his church or even his denomination but for all those who had suffered the effects of racism and prejudice. He never served in the armed forces but he was a warrior just the same. He was a warrior who not only believed in and preached nonviolent resistance, he lived it. And like other prophets and warriors who came before him, he didn’t get to witness the realization of his dream. In his dream everyone, irrespective of race, would be considered equal under the law of the land and there would be justice for all. In his dream all people would someday treat one another as brothers and sisters.

It is easy to think of King in very positive terms. He was a leader who believed in many of the values we hold dear. He stood for justice and equality for all. He spoke out for those who were less fortunate, calling this country to provide for the poor and the needy. He was critical of our country’s involvement in war because he believed that violence was not the way to resolve problems. Along with these aspects of the man, there were also other less admirable attributes. As the reading suggested, King liked to “bend an elbow,” or more pointedly, he liked to indulge in the consumption of alcohol and not always in moderate amounts. He was also unable to remain faithful to his wife. He seemed to be speaking about some of his shortcomings in sermons he would deliver to the Ebenezer congregation that he served. One Sunday morning he told the congregation “We often develop inferiority complexes and we stumble through life with a feeling of insecurity, a lack of self-confidence, and a sense of impending failure. A fear of what life may bring encourages some persons to wander aimlessly along the frittering road of excessive drink and sexual promiscuity.”  It might seem that I am being critical or disparaging by bringing up these aspects of Dr. King.  My intention however is not to put him down but to lift him up. He understood and championed the value that is stated in the first of our UU Principles, “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Martin Luther King, Jr. is someone we should all hold in very high regard. We should also recognize that he was a person who had flaws and shortcomings just as we all do. He had personal struggles that at times were greater than he was able to overcome. His struggle against oppressive systems in our culture led to increased freedom and justice for millions of people. His struggle against his own personal daemons reminds us that he was flawed just as we all are. By acknowledging that he struggled with flaws within himself while confronting what he saw as wrong in our country we are able to see him in more realistic terms. The earlier reading I shared helps us to see that in many ways he was much like ourselves. He felt insecure and overwhelmed. He doubted himself and wanted the struggles he was dealing with to somehow be reduced or eliminated. Haven’t all of us felt that way at some point in our lives? I know I certainly have. I think back to only a few months ago when the Ministerial Fellowship Committee told me I wasn’t yet ready to be accepted into the fold of UU ministers. I believed then just as I believe now; that my calling is to work for justice, to offer hope and assistance to those who are struggling and to help build communities where love and compassion are guiding lights on the path. When I was told that I wasn’t ready yet to be a minister I became confused. I experienced doubt, doubt in myself and doubt in the choices I had made. When I later learned that I wouldn’t be able to meet with the Committee again until March of 2012 I wondered if I would be able to see the journey through. The encouragement and support I received from members of this congregation, from students and instructors I had met while attending school and from UU ministers who know me buoyed me while I rolled and tossed on turbulent seas those days and weeks after that meeting.
On one level, there are immense differences between the struggles I face or you face, and the struggles that Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved in. I don’t know that any of us will be faced with making decisions that will impact our culture and our country as significantly as King did. On another level I realize that none of us know when some decision we make or action we take will have an important influence on the life of another or even on the lives of many people. I think of Rosa Parks, a seamstress in a department store, who has been called “the mother of the freedom movement.” On December 1st, 1955 she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. Her decision was pivotal to the civil rights movement and to King’s rise to a position of leadership in that movement. Supposedly when she was asked years later why she sat down at the front of the bus that day she replied, “I sat down because I was tired.” She wasn’t talking just about being physically tired. She was indicating “that her soul was tired, her heart was tired, her whole body was tired of playing by racist rules.”  She was tired from the struggle of dealing daily with the oppression of racism. Parks had no way of knowing that her decision would have such a powerful effect on herself, on others, and on our country. Like Parks, we have no way of knowing when some action on our part may make a significant difference. I recall a time while living in Montana when I was feeling stressed and wanted to take some time out. My wife and I decided to go cross country skiing in Glacier National Park as a way to relax and get rejuvenated. As we were skiing I noticed the tracks of a person in the snow. For almost as long as I can remember I have been interested in tracks. You see tracks tell a story and the more you learn about how to read tracks the more detailed and interesting the story becomes. The story these tracks were telling concerned me. We were over twenty miles from the nearest town, there had been no other vehicle in the parking lot that day, and the tracks seemed to wander in an erratic fashion. We would later meet up with the person making the tracks and I would learn more about the story of the person who made them. The young man was homeless and had hitch-hiked to Montana from Ohio. He shared with us that three days before someone told him of a cabin where he might stay. He had been wandering in the woods ever since. He was wet and cold. He had eaten the last of the food he had and he had no idea of the grave danger he was in. After sharing with him some of our food and water we convinced him to give us his pack and to follow us back to where we knew we could find help. The Park Ranger we eventually made contact with told us that had we not been there that day there was a strong possibility the young man would have eventually succumbed to the elements. I was out there that day in an attempt to get away from my own struggles only to meet up with someone whose struggles were clearly more urgent than my own. As I put on his pack that day, a pack that held all of his worldly possessions, I felt its weight. I noticed how much more difficult it was for me to maneuver. I tried to imagine carrying it for three days while walking through the snow not knowing where I was or where I was going. I forgot about my own struggles, the reason I was there in the first place. In putting on the pack I felt the purpose that was calling me that day, the purpose of assisting another in their struggle. Before heading out that day there was no way for me to know that in trying to put my struggles aside for a time I would end up taking on the weight that another was carrying. The three of us then began the two mile journey back to where help could be found.

I believe it is very likely that neither Martin Luther King, Jr. nor Rosa Parks knew the weight they would be carrying for others. Both of them were aware that they were struggling and that others like them were struggling as well. Both of them knew that something needed to change. They understood that they were not struggling alone. They knew there were others who were in the struggle with them. I believe this is one of the fundamental points of religion. We are not in this struggle alone. Each of us may have our own unique way of understanding or explaining what I am referring to. Some of you may have a sense that a Higher Power is present with you as you walk through life. Some of you may have a Buddhist perspective and believe that if there is no self then there is no way to be alone. Others of you whose beliefs are reflected in our seventh UU Principal recognize the interdependent web of existence and know that there is no way to be alone when all things are connected one to another. However you may think of it what I encourage you to remember is that you are not in the struggle alone. Sometimes we only recognize what we are struggling against. At other times we may be able to realize what we are struggling for. But more important than what we are struggling against or for is who is struggling along with us. Feeling the presence of those who are struggling with us can make the challenges that arise seem somehow less daunting. Knowing that we are not alone in the struggle can give us strength when we are tired or when we are full of doubt.

I believe that all of you know struggle personally. Whatever struggle may have engulfed you I encourage you to consider who could be struggling along with you, who could be willing to help with the load you are burdened with. I know that in our culture independence and self-reliance are highly valued. But I would suggest that our interdependence and our willingness to be there for one another are at least equally important and possibly even more so.

In some religious traditions what a person believes is of paramount importance. The
important beliefs are put into statements or creeds. Unitarian Universalism does not have a creed. We assert that people don’t have to think alike to worship together or to work together to make the world a better place for all to live. So while having a creed is not important to us having a covenant is. Covenant is what unites us. Covenant is what says that we will be there for one another. Here at First Parish we recognize the importance of our covenant with one another. It is written in our bulletin. We say it together every Sunday. Our covenant is contained in the Affirmation and while we have already stated it together earlier in the service I want to invite us to say it together again. As we say it together let us be mindful that we all have struggle to contend with and we each need others to help us along the way. Join with me now in stating the Affirmation that is contained in our hearts.

Love is the spirit of this church
And service is its law
This is our great covenant
To dwell together in peace
To seek the truth in love
And to help one another.

And so it is
And so may it be

Closing Words – from Mark Morrison-Reed (adapted)

The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt, it inspires us to act for justice.

It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.

As we go forth may we feel the bonds that connect us and may we allow ourselves to call on those bonds to overcome the struggles that we must face.

Meditation

Let us be silent for a moment as we join our hearts in a spirit of prayer and meditation.

Spirit of Life, we come together in worship seeking answers to our questions, seeking shelter from the storm, seeking rest on the arduous journey of our lives. We come together with our cares and concerns, with our fears and doubts, with our flaws and failings. Each of carries with us our hopes for the future and the struggles we endure. Each of us knows that the difficulties we have seen are not our last. While we come carrying our own burdens we are mindful of our blessings as well, for we truly are blessed in so many ways. We recognize that there is tremendous inequity and the injustice in our world. So many people have few resources, very little freedom and few options from which to make a choice. Every day we are made aware of tragedy and turmoil in our community and around the world. We are here today as a result of the support we have received along our way. We feel gratitude for all those who have assisted us in dealing with the struggles of our lives. As we recall the assistance we have received along the way may we be reminded that when we are willing to share the load another is struggling under we offer a lift not only to that person but to all humanity as well through increasing the compassion that is present in the world. At this time we give thanks for those who have let us know we do not struggle alone. At this time we commit to being there with others in their time of struggle that we may honor the life that is in each of us and work for the values that empower one another on this journey we call life. Amen