To Serve With Integrity: MLK Sunday

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 01/18/2015


“What Sun Wanted,” in Telling Our Tales, edited by Jeanette Ross

Sun, as you know, is very powerful and can see a great distance. Watch the sky, and you will see that Sun is also very particular, moving the same way every day. Sun wants no surprises. In the beginning, Sun wanted someone strong, like, well, like the sun, to be in charge after everything was made. That would be right, and that would be good, [at least according to Sun.] So Sun showed each animal and plant where to put their feet or roots and told them they were supposed to Stay Where They Were Put after Sun went back up into the sky to start another day.

 Now Sun went to the water. Fish wanted to swim around, look for food, and find a hiding place in the rocks, but this isn't what Sun wanted. Sun marked out a place in the water, put the fish inside, and ordered two alligators to guard them. Alligators are very large compared with fish.

 Now Sun called the birds together and gave each one a branch on the tree, and then sent a puma to watch by day and a jaguar to watch at night. It was getting late, time for Sun to leave. Sun ordered the chattering woodpecker to sit on the highest part of the tallest tree and to peck out a warning if anyone disobeyed orders. Good. Sun went back to work in the sky.

 I don't have to tell you that the fish didn't like this at all.  Neither did the birds. The birds squawked and argued with each other and couldn't enjoy the morning sun, while the fish swam this way and that way, bumping into each other, looking at all the fish food on the other side of the alligators. It wasn't long before a fine, fat, and hungry fish sneaked out of the pen. One quick eyed alligator was right behind. But when this alligator got caught up with the runaway fish, she got so excited she forgot that she what she was doing and ate the fish instead of chasing it back. [But she figured it was a] fair punishment…and who would miss one fish? The alligator’s mate saw this and moved in closer to the other fish, in hopes that another one might need to be punished. Both alligators kept getting closer, closer. The fish circled around more and more desperately, looking for a chance to get away. By the time Sun reached the highest part of the sky, more fish broke out of their fish place, and just as quickly a few more were eaten. The birds quit squawking at each other and began jumping up-and-down on their branches, complaining loudly. “Fish moved! Alligators moved!”

Tat a tat! The woodpecker knocked a warning to Sun.

 Sun looked down, not at all happy about this, and ordered fences to be built everywhere and more guards posted.  Lizards and frogs and more alligators around the fish! Foxes and wild dogs and snakes around the birds! While Sun was talking, giving instructions, the alligators ate a few more stray fish.

 Sun turned back into the sky to finish the day. But now all the animals were tired of sitting still. Alligator squeezed in so close that fish bumped fish shoulders. Suddenly, all the fish burst out of their pen; alligators and frogs and lizards chased and ate everything they could see.  Birds flapped in every direction. Woodpecker rattled an alarm to Sun and the animals scattered even farther as Sun stomped down from the sky.

 Alligators were afraid as they felt the heat of the angry Sun getting closer to them. They couldn't get away fast enough – they had to slither into the mud to hide from Sun and protect themselves from the heat.

 And Sun was angry. Who broke the rules first? Where were the alligators hiding? Sun marched back and forth, back and forth across the mud, over the backs of the alligators. Stomp, stomp, stomp. Ouch, ouch, ouch! Flashes of Sun’s power flew in all directions into the sky and water and forest.

 It was time for Sun to go down behind the trees. Sun left for the night, and the alligators crawled out of the mud very slowly, with bumps all over their backs, which you can see to this day. But all this had been so much trouble that Sun gave up on keeping things organized on earth. That is why the Orinoco people say you can find sacred spirits everywhere, and that is why the animals of the earth wander where they please.

Reflection                                                                 Rev. Megan Foley 

Sometimes you come to a worship service and the message is sort of hidden, and maybe you think you know what it is, and other times you’re not sure.  But today, our message is very plain, so we’re going to say it a bunch of times.  This is it: Sometimes we need to be brave and strong on the inside to change what is happening on the outside.  Can you say it too? Sometimes we need to be brave and strong on the inside to change what is happening on the outside. 

Think about our play.  Was Sun’s system a good system for the animals on earth?  No. Did the fish and the birds stay in the place where Sun told them to stay, even though that was safer for them?  No.  Even the guards, the alligators, did they do what Sun told them to do?  No. 

We all from time to time find ourselves in situations that are unfair, unjust and even dangerous.  What do we do when those things happen?  How can we change the situation, or make it better for us or for the people who are being treated unfairly?

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible about this, in the book of Daniel.  This book was written, they think, about 170 BCE, which was about the same time as the Hanukah story happened, you know when they were in the temple with the oil that was running out?  That’s when it was written, but the story is about a time long before even then, when the Jewish people had been taken as slaves into the Babylonian kingdom, around 600 BCE – about two thousand seven hundred years ago, which is a heck of a long time ago.

In this story in the book of Daniel, the Babylonian king who had conquered the Jews decided that it might be useful to have some help around the palace, so he decreed that the strongest and smartest young Jews should be brought in and trained in the Babylonian ways so that they could assist the kingdom.

This would sort of be like if the earth were taken over by aliens, and they took all our property and bossed us around and told us where to live and where to go, and then their king said, “Bring your finest human young people to our palace so they can be useful to us.”  Some of us people would probably say, great, I’m happy to join the new forces.  That sounds like a safer life for me.  That’s a little like the alligators, guarding the fish.  They were in a bad system, but they had privileges. 

But I bet there would also be some people who would say, hey, you can make me come to the palace, but you can’t make me into one of you, because your ways are not good ways.  And that’s what Daniel thought.

The young Jews in the story were brought to the palace and they were treated as Babylonian scholars.  In some ways that was good, because they got to go to school and they had plenty to eat, but in others ways it was not so good.  Daniel was a very faithful Jew, and it was part of his religion that he could only eat certain foods.  The king wanted all the young people to eat what he ate, which was all sorts of food that was not allowed in the Jewish religion, plus a good bit of wine.

Daniel asked the palace master who was in charge of him if he could stick to his religion, and not eat the food that the king was giving him.  The palace master said he didn’t know, because if Daniel was eating only vegetables and water and got thin and weak, then both the palace master and Daniel would get in trouble.  So Daniel asked for a trial period of 10 days, where he and the other Jewish students would eat the food that they were supposed to eat according to their religion.  And Daniel and the students prayed to God, and said to God, “God, if we’re supposed to eat these certain things, but we’re stuck in this palace where we’ll all be in trouble if we don’t follow the king’s rules, can you please make it so that we can follow our own religion and not get in trouble by getting thin or weak?”  And in the story, God answered Daniel’s prayer.  Daniel and his friends stuck to their religion’s diet, and still stayed strong and powerful.  Daniel ended up being a close advisor to the Babylonian king, and was able to help the rest of his people by being in such a powerful place. And he was able to do that without compromising his religious beliefs.[1]

In our religion, Unitarian Universalism, we don’t have rules about what you can and can’t eat.  But we do have certain guidelines and principles, right?  We think every person should be free to figure out what is right and true for themselves.  We think every person is important and has value.  We think we should try to be kind and fair to each other.  We think that what happens to one of us happens to all of us, in some ways, so if one of us is hurting, we’re all affected.

Think back to the story about the Sun for a minute. Can you think of ways that what the sun did was against our religion?

Let’s say you were a little Unitarian Universalist fish, and the big Sun had put you in a cage in the river.  What might you do to show that you are a Unitarian Universalist fish?

What might you do if you were a Unitarian Universalist alligator?

And do you remember our words for today? Sometimes we need to be brave and strong on the inside to change what is happening on the outside. 

And when we are strong and brave on the inside, sometimes we can make what’s happening on the outside better.

Today we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., who was a great man who helped make our country better by making things more fair and more kind for all of us.  Martin Luther King did a lot of thinking and talking about how to do the right thing.  He once said, “On some questions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but we must do it because Conscience tells us it is right.”

Let’s say our line again: Sometimes we need to be brave and strong on the inside to change what is happening on the outside.  Dr. King would say, sometimes we’re going along in our regular lives, and something tells our consciences, “this isn’t right.” And we have to decide then if we’re going to do what’s safest or most comfortable for us, or if we’re going to do what’s right. 

I hope that a lot of the time we’ll listen to our consciences and do what’s right, even if it’s hard. 

But it isn’t even always all that hard to do the right thing.

Does anyone know who Archbishop Desmond Tutu is?  He’s a very peaceful and very good priest from the country called South Africa.  In South Africa, when Desmond Tutu was growing up, they had a system there similar to the way our country was before Martin Luther King got his way.  People with dark skin were treated very badly, and people with light skin got a lot of favors.

This was true in big ways, like the white people got the good land and the good jobs, and it was true in small ways too.  Archbishop Tutu has dark skin, and he has said that “In the days of apartheid [which is the name for the social system that forced black folks into a lower status than white people] – in the days of apartheid, when a black person and a white person met while walking on a [sidewalk], the black person was expected to step into the gutter to allow the white person to pass and [they were expected to] nod their head [at the white person] as a gesture of respect.”

So one day, when Desmond Tutu was nine years old, he had an experience that he says was the most important of his whole life.  He and his mother were walking down the street.  “A tall white man dressed in a black suit came towards them.” What was supposed to happen, what had always happened before in this situation, was that the black people stepped off the sidewalk and gave the white person a polite nod.  But that day, something very different happened.  “This day, before…Tutu and his mother could step off the sidewalk, the white man stepped off the sidewalk and, [as Tutu and his mother passed], the white man tipped his hat in a gesture of respect to the mom!”

“The white man was Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest who was bitterly opposed to apartheid. [This event] changed Tutu’s life. When his mother told him that Trevor Huddleston had stepped off the sidewalk because he was a man of God, Tutu found his calling. “When she told me that he was an Anglican priest I decided there and then that I wanted to be an Anglican priest too. And what is more, I wanted to be a man of God” said Tutu.

Huddleston later became a mentor to Desmond Tutu and his commitment to the equality of all human beings due to their creation in God’s image was a key driver in Tutu’s opposition to apartheid.”[2] And nowadays, apartheid is no longer the law in South Africa, in large part to the work that Tutu has done through his life.

Stepping off the sidewalk first, that’s not such a big deal.  That’s not so hard to do.  It’s a little thing that tells the world that you don’t agree with the way things are.  And while it takes a little bit of bravery to be different, it’s worth it, right?  I bet Father Huddleston didn’t know that a hero like Archbishop Tutu would be created from his act.  We don’t really always know what sorts of changes will come from the things that we do.  They could be bigger than we ever expected.

Let’s say our sentence one more time: Sometimes we need to be brave and strong on the inside to change what is happening on the outside.  It’s up to us to make a difference.  We can’t be waiting for Martin Luther Kings to pop up all the time.  We can’t wait for the Sun to change ways.  We need to be the ones whose consciences lead us to action.

Annie Dillard’s classic words: “There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit.”

But we are the people we have been waiting for.  If we want the world to be different, it’s up to us to make that difference, in big ways and small ways.  And there is no time like the present.  Amen.


[1] Adapted from Hebrew Bible, Daniel Chapter 1, New Revised Standard Version.

[2] From, which reports: This story has been widely reported including by Tutu himself in a 2003 interview with the BBC and in Tutu’s Nobel Prize ceremony