Four people with taper candles light chalice framed by two rings

“We Cannot Walk Alone” – January 15th, 2023

Jan 16, 2023

Reading: “Choose to Bless the World,” Rev. Rebecca Parker

Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.

The mind’s power,
the strength of the hands,
the reaches of the heart,
the gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting

Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
bind up wounds,
welcome the stranger,
praise what is sacred,
do the work of justice
or offer love.

Any of these can draw down the prison door,
hoard bread,
abandon the poor,
obscure what is holy,
comply with injustice
or withhold love.

You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?

Choose to bless the world.

The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
a moving forward into the world
with the intention to do good.

It is an act of recognition,
a confession of surprise,
a grateful acknowledgment
that in the midst of a broken world
unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.

There is an embrace of kindness
that encompasses all life, even yours.

And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
there moves a holy disturbance,
a benevolent rage,
a revolutionary love,
protesting, urging, insisting
that which is sacred will not be defiled.

Those who bless the world live their life
as a gesture of thanks
for this beauty
and this rage.

The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
to search for the sources
of power and grace;
native wisdom, healing, and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
the endeavor shared,
the heritage passed on,
the companionship of struggle,
the importance of keeping faith,

the life of ritual and praise,
the comfort of human friendship,
the company of earth
the chorus of life welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility, waiting.

 

“We Cannot Walk Alone”

“There are those wonderful moments in life when you speak before a group that is so near and dear to you that you don’t feel like you have to engage in the art of persuasion. You don’t feel like you are in the midst of strangers. You know that you are with friends. I can assure you that I feel that way tonight…” These were the first words that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before the several thousand Unitarian Universalists who gathered together on the evening of May 18, 1966, at the annual Ware Lecture at General Assembly in Florida. For those of you who are new to our faith, General Assembly is an annual gathering of UU’s from around the country who come together to worship, learn, grow, imagine, expand, and vote on initiatives that our larger organization, the UU Association, implements. Thousands attend. I’ve talked about it before–it’s a kind of wonderful UU revival. Every year that I serve as your minister, I will be encouraging you to go. I just bought my plane ticket to Pittsburgh last week.

And every year, on the second night of GA, we attend the Ware Lecture. In 1966, Rev. King titled his lecture, where he spoke those opening words, “Don’t Sleep Through the Revolution.” It’s spectacular. You can go to the UUA website and read it in its entirety, as you can every other Ware lecture over the years. They are wonderful.

But I must say, I was most gripped this past week by those opening words to his audience, his friends. Because it reveals something that was, hands down, the burning coal at the center of the civil rights movement, and the burning coal at the center of King’s theology. That all of us are, in his words, “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.” You see the reason Rev. King travelled all the way to Hollywood, Florida in 1966, at the height of the civil rights movement where he would have been highly sought after as a keynote speaker and preacher in countless venues, was because he was among friends. These were relationships, carefully forged and nurtured for years, with UU ministers, leaders, and congregations. And we need to know this. Not so that we sit back and congratulate ourselves, but so that we might draw from the lessons it teaches us and carry them forward.

It’s all about relationships my friends. This is why we call ourselves a ‘covenantal faith’-it’s so deeply relational these promises we make to each other.

Rev. King often preached the gospel from chapter 12 of Luke, about “The Man Who Was a Fool.” Briefly, the story of the fool is this: it’s about a man who by today’s standards would be considered successful and rich, yet Jesus called him ‘a fool.’ Bold. So here was this rich man whose farms were so plentiful in their yielding of crops that he built larger barns and newer constructs to support and house his plenty. And when he did this, he said, YAY ME. I have set myself up for many, many years. Retirement has arrived and I get to put my feet up, take ease, eat, drink and be merry. I worked hard and I get to reap the benefits. But God had different plans for him in this gospel, and at the height of this man’s prosperity he dies. And Jesus calls him ‘a fool.’

Rev. King preached: “The rich man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependance on others. His soliloquy contains approximately sixty words, yet “I” and “my” occur twelve times. He has said “I” and “my” so often that he had lost the capacity to say “we” and “our.” A victim of the cancerous disease of egotism, he failed to realize that wealth always comes as a result of the commonwealth. He talked as though he could plow the fields and build the barns alone. He failed to realize that he was an heir of a vast treasury of ideas and labor to which both the living and the dead had contributed. When an individual or a nation overlooks this interdependence, we find a tragic foolishness.”

He had lost the capacity to say “we” and “our.”

“We cannot walk alone.” Those are also Rev. King’s words, borrowed from his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and they are the title of this sermon today. We cannot walk alone. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. We cannot walk alone, less we become fools.

Dominant culture, the culture we were all reared up in, teaches a different story. As a middle-class white woman, reared up by a long line of working-class white women, I have been taught that my success is invariably linked to my capacity to not need anyone else’s help. I have value in society when I prove that I can do it all alone–parent, run a house, work, and build a life for myself. This is the measure of my success. And I have been taught to claim it as so: none but me and my go-to attitude made this, and can make this, possible.

This taught success story not only keeps us all in a state of industrialized toil and burnout, but also keeps us ignorant to the ‘vast treasury of ideas and labor’ that has made our successes possible.

This taught success story is a core tenet of individualism. It is the opposite of interdependence.

Individualism, not individuality–there’s a difference–individualism is the principle that teaches total self-reliance: in action, in belief, and in thought. It is a corrosive thread, a great lie, that touches us all and we have built collective altars to concepts like independence, self-reliance, self-sufficiency. Words that sound like freedoms and liberties and success stories–American Dreams, right?–but really draw each of us into a deeper and deeper state of disconnection, isolation, depression, and apathy for our fellows.

Interdependence, which Rev. King knew was the antidote to the venom, smashes this to smithereens. DIS-MANTLES individualism. For it is the state of being connected to one another. Sharing in labor, sharing in care, sharing in successes, sharing in failures. Knowing that nothing we accomplish or achieve is possible without a whole vast network of people both living and long gone who made it so. Interdependence is the capacity to say “we” and “our.” Eco-systems are interdependent. The Oak Tree cannot be the Oak Tree without a vast network of mutuality and interdependence. Neither can we.

And listen, as one of my colleagues, the Rev. Molly Housh Gordon, says: “the invitation in these kinds of hard truths are not towards shame, but towards relationship.” I hope you hear that wisdom. It’s not my fault nor am I bad person for being socialized this way. Racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, colonialism, classism–these are systems of thought and being that I inherited but did not create. I didn’t have a choice as a child. But I do now. So, it’s my responsibility, now that I see it, to learn better and do better. Got it?

It’s our responsibility as UU’s to learn better and do better. For yes, individualism is alive in our congregations too! What this ‘learning better’ means for us, in this community, is that we need to keep practicing we-ness, interdependence, mutuality, reciprocity, shared ministry, that celebrates the sacredness that is each of us as individuals with unique and blessed gifts to bear out, but always knows that who we are as individuals is shaped by and shapes the WE. Relationships, not shame.

How we show up matters my friends. How we listen to one another and the WIDE VARIETY of perspectives and experiences, matters. How we reckon with and own our history, made up of a vast network of unknown hands and hearts, matters. How we share in leadership-MINISTRY-matters. How we ask for help…matters.

Shared Ministry, something I have been and will continue to bring forward here at First Parish–particularly this month as our theme is Finding Our Center–shared ministry is our UU faith’s way of meeting this moment and attempting to build and practice Beloved Community. Interdependence. One that sees each of us as arriving with a unique gift to cultivate and bear out. A ministry that matters. And that can’t be nor should be, made manifest alone. It requires forging and nurturing relationships, and many hands working together towards a common and meaningful purpose. A mission. Gone are the days when the minister thinks they can do it all or are expected to. Gone are the days when one person feels like they must do it all or are expected to.

We cannot walk alone.

Rev. King is a great example of this. Not only did he preach this doctrine again and again, but he lived it. He was a truly gifted man, yes. But let us not be tempted by dominant culture’s myth of any charismatic and gifted leader single-handedly moving a people and generation towards justice. Honestly, much of his gifted-ness had to do with knowing how to work with people, alongside them, consult with them, dream with them, empower them, trust them, be changed by them, be inspired by the love he found in and with them.

The story of the Civil Rights Movement was never just about a single man. It was a story about the collective. The we. Masses of African-American activists and citizens, with a bounty of gifts that were born out: sitting in, marching, boycotting, door knocking, organizing, planning, delegating–in a massive network of mutuality that whirred and thrummed day and night from sea to shining sea. We see Rev. King at the head of the march, but we also see hundreds of students mobilizing, countless women who never stopped organizing behind the scenes like Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Cotton, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Height, and thousands, THOUSANDS, of unknown people making courageous decisions on behalf of the WE. If you want to learn better, take a closer look at the network of friends Rev. King had. It sheds so much light on why his sermons and speeches taught about the earth-quaking power of WE CANNOT WALK ALONE.

Today so many of us are looking for that one leader who will rise to the top of the movement and be this generation’s Rev. King. News flash: we are who we are waiting for. And it begins here. Among us. In us. This is where we practice it. And nurture it. And if you are saying to yourself, I don’t have any gifts to give. Or the gifts I have are surely, surely too small. I promise you, you are wrong. Believe me when I tell you that no one comes into this world without gifts to bear out. Precious, sacred and good. The work is discovering WHAT they are, not IF they are. And we are here to companion you in this. At this church. That is what a spiritual community such as this one does.

So often I hear in congregations: we need to get out in the community and DO MORE. Yes, I am certain we need to do more and many of us are called, thanks to their blessed gifts, to this kind of justice work. And how are we making the movement for collective liberation manifest here, within these walls? Within our governance structures, within our committees, within our small groups, within our exchanges with one another? Within ourselves and in our lives? Dismantling oppressive systems is not just out there…oh it’s in here too.

When we learn better, we do better my dear, dear friends. My spiritual companions.

As Rev. Rebecca Parker says:

“…The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
to search for the sources
of power and grace;
native wisdom, healing, and liberation.

More, the choice will draw you into community,
the endeavor shared,
the heritage passed on,
the companionship of struggle,
the importance of keeping faith,

the life of ritual and praise,
the comfort of human friendship,
the company of earth
the chorus of life welcoming you.

None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility, waiting.”

May it be so. And happy birthday Rev. King.

Often referred to as “The Black National Anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing was a hymn written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900.The song became a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement, it was sung during organizational meetings for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during marches and quoted in countless speeches by Rev. King. Let us sing this hymn together holding close in our hearts all of those who have lived and died for the promise of its message–particularly, particularly black people in this country.

Won’t you now rise in body and spirit and sing hymn #:149 Lift Every Voice and Sing

Reverend Sophia Lyons
Website | + posts

Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.

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