Martin King: A Life of Service

Rev. Henry Simoni-Wastila
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/17/2016


Martin Luther King, Jr. was under no compulsion to choose a way of life that he knew would make him a target. The fatal shot was not preordained by fate. That someone chose the means of violence and decided to take actions to assassinate him was not something predestined to occur. History did not demand it. God did not will it. Martin King was murdered when a series of decisions and actions in the lives of many people came together, tragically, sadly, and unnecessarily. All of these strands of causality and history led to a day that could have turned out differently. And all of these strands can mean something more positive in the future based upon our choosing better ways. In his own beautifully expressed words, “We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” (MLK, RR 584)

King died because one man, actually many, chose to believe that power comes from the barrel of a gun. Rev. King died also because he believed that the power that motivates us most fully does not come from physical force, but from the mind and the heart and the will. It is those ideas we think in our minds, those feelings held in the heart and those many choices made by our will that are the source of power. He believed in the rights of all men and women. Ultimately any document containing a Bill of Rights is more powerful than the muskets of any revolution. Ultimately, our desire for a non-violent and fair society must rely upon non-violent ideas, feelings and decisions. As he wrote, “We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means” (MLK, RR 584).

 One of those strands in the rope of what actuality happened were the decisions that King made as a student and a minister. He chose to attend seminary. He chose to pursue justice as a cause and a career. He chose to accept a leadership role in the civil rights movement at a dangerous time. He chose a life of service, a life of service. This benign decision was made in recognition of the risks it entailed for himself, the costs to his family and the possible benefits to fellow Americans, both black and white. He was not forced to take this course. His life could have, could have, been different.

MLK attended the seminary at Boston University, where I did a graduate degree. I had one of the same professors as he, Walter Muelder. There was one section in the theology library that held all the early philosophy books. It was nice to stand where I knew MLK must have stood as a student. It was also a little scary, knowing he would be assassinated.

There was no necessity for him to push the envelope, to be a public figure, to take the risk. He very well could have chosen a quieter form of ministry. He could have chosen a career in another field. He could have, but he didn’t. He chose a life based upon a vision of justice and equity. He wrote,

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

For the common good, he chose a life of ministering to others, a life we are all called to as well, in our own capacities, as a form of shared ministry.

When we remember that he did not have to take on the vast system of racial hatred, we are brought to see how great the cost was for him and his family.

This congregation stands for racial equality. We are a place of sanctuary, of freedom, of justice, of human acceptance. Here is a place, a community, a beacon of the message of fairness and equality. I do not know how to say it any more bolder than to say we declare racial prejudice to be a wrong.

Racial prejudice, gender prejudice, class prejudice, orientation prejudice are wrong. As King wrote, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” People cannot decide to partial out justice and expect society to work. By the very act of segregating, society isn’t working. In Robert Ingersoll’s words of many years ago, “The superior person rises by lifting others.” Racism works on the opposite principle. It tries to assert that the superior person is superior because he or she lowers others. That philosophy is similar to the philosophy that power arrives from behind the barrel of a gun. Ultimately, however, a society based upon that philosophy becomes a “war-of-all-against-all”. This pseudo-superiority is a state of nature. The darkness of competition sees no reason to stop the war.

Yet as he wrote: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 

King’s non-violent method recognizes that, “People are not superior … by the accidents of race or color” (Ingersoll). “Accidents” is a philosophical term for secondary qualities of a thing, not there substance. If it is true that the superior person does not lord it over others, but rises by lifting others, than Martin King was, indeed, a superior person. He lifted black Americans from the injustice of segregation and many white Americans from also having to participate in the same injustice.

At an emotional level, race elicits strong reactions. We are social beings. Human beings thrive on contact with others. But we also know that a clear boundary from one another is frequently needed. Sometimes boundaries are poorly defined. Sometimes the positive energy of our social nature has a mirror side, a darker side. Just as being together is powerful, so too can the other, the outsider, become a powerful threat. As in Life Lesson #7, which as the reading itself said, we all forget: “You cannot love or hate something about another person unless it reflects something you love or hate about yourself.” There is some truth to that. It is the division of the “us” and the “them.” My tribe and yours. Competition. War. Hate.

The human bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood are strong, but likewise does fear and hatred of the power of the other tribe rage in us. We know the strength of the pact, the team, the army lined out against us, because we know the driving, powerful capacity of any group. How to we overcome this. One way is by universalizing the group with which we identify. We begin to identify, not with this clan or nation, but with all. We become more universal in our thinking. When we are part of  the whole of humanity, we can overcome the division of us-and-them.

As one parent I know said, racism is based upon ignorance. In that lack of knowledge about another group, people make assumptions. They fall prey to stereotypes. They lack first-hand knowledge of the other. The process of education out of this ignorance may seem stilted or artificial. For instance, Black History Month may seem unneeded, or out of place, until we realize that much of that history had been overlooked in traditional “history.”

Racial prejudice has had a history in our governments, our schools, our churches, our families, our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Racism has been taught to us by parents, teachers and preachers, friends and family. Perhaps, it resides or did reside in ourselves. And perhaps we have had to work our way out of it. Liberal religion, that of ours and others, is a great teacher in working through and out of culturally instilled racism.

At a practical level, we are still working out what equality means. As a society we are trying to figure out what is fair in school admissions, governmental policies, and employment practices. But as individuals, at the level of one person to another, we stand on the principle that “all people are created equal” and that each person has an “inherent dignity.”

Prejudice of people whatever their physical characteristics is deeply wrong. Ethnic stereotyping is wrong.

In our first UU principle, we see that it is right that all people have inherent dignity.

In our second UU principle, we find that the cause of justice is right.

Even opening a door can raise these issues.

A while back, I was having lunch with the family. It was at a restaurant near the Owings Mill Mall. As we left, a woman was coming in with her elderly mother, who had a cane and was going very slow. They were black. I held the door open for them for quite a while. The very old African American woman, probably around 90, said thank you. And I said “You’re welcome.”

I like to remind myself that such a simple act of decent human politeness was something that this older black woman did not experience as a young women. How strange that the world of Jim Crow she knew in her youth had changed and that now, a white man respectfully holds a door open for her! I was not holding the doors open in a patronizing way. We should try to be respectful of all the fellow human beings we see during our time. There’s no great cost. But we should remember that there are times when people have been decisive in ways that did have a great cost, as when King chose a life of service.

His life was not perfect. He made mistakes and misjudgments, but that in no way abrogates the greatness of the many, many decisions with which he was faced. Our human greatness does not lie in our perfection, but in our choices. Ultimately, much of our own happiness depends upon our consideration for others as people, a universal form of love. King was motivated by the universal Christian love called agape.

He wrote “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”


Part of our life of service depends upon small actions. As I reflect upon things racial, I question whether or not I would have had the courage to hold the door open in 1945 or 1953 or 1964. Would the great pressures upon me as a member of the “white community” control my universal concern for all? Would a white person be ostracized for welcoming a black person? Would I have been willing to hold the door open when it had a great cost? Just how far are we willing to push the envelope in our life of service?

The Rev. Carter Heyward writes: “Love is a choice—not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity—a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life.” And I would say that a life of service is a life of love --and a life of love is, in so many ways, a happy, full and meaningful life.

There is the opposite way of life. Sometimes, in our American idealism, in our complete assurance that America is the Puritan city on a hill that shines forth with the grace of God, we forget to acknowledge that African Americans and others have not fully participated in that vision of a shining city. We can so easily believe in the Calvinist, capitalist idea of a community of hard-working, loyal, God-fearing believers who are blessed by the right hand of the Almighty God. Sometimes, it may be easy to overlook the marginalized. If there is anything dangerous for a nation, it is to believe with a jingoistic passion: that we are the blessed nation, that we are the beacon of justice in the world, that we, and not they over there, are sinless before God, that we are right, predestined or justified. Now this is not exactly the Puritan notion for they realized they stood "washed in the blood of the lamb" as they would have said. But hubris infected the great culture that was Germany and it happened to America.

We find hope in King’s words: “Lift us from the dark valley of despair to the bright mountain of hope.” King knew that people could change. He felt called to a life in the service of his fellow brother and sisters – and I do not mean a limited group – but all sisters and all brothers. His life was a life of service to all Americans, to all human beings.

What does a “life of service” mean for us, for those who may aim at being the “superior” person by helping others rise, but who have children to feed, a job to do, and our own little pastures to tend? Of course, no one can define that for us as individuals. Perhaps life is in some ways a life of accumulation. We need to provide for our needs. There is a balance between the forces of taking and giving, acquiring and helping.

But as we accumulate resources, let us also accumulate the wisdom those lesson will teach us. The lessons are continually learned. They are, in fact, repeated until learned. We don’t need to see the end. Rev. King tell us, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase.” So, take that first step. Make the first steps the best positive ones that you can.

And I would like to disagree with Rule 10, the one that says that we “forget all this.” For today we do remember. We remember a life of service, a life chosen in full awareness of its inherent risks, a life of “rising up by help others rise.” --A life not predestined to end in the manner it did, but a life to which we can give more meaning, as we choose in similar fashion, a life of service.