An Invitation to be Maladjusted (sermon)

READING ONE

I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.

The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.

(Bob Herbert, https://www.jacobinmag.com/2013/12/bob-herbert-on-nelson-mandela-1918-2013/, December 8, 2013)

READING TWO

This comes to us from a lecture given by Dr. King in 1966 to the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists:

I talk a great deal about the need for a kind of divine discontent. And I always mention that there are certain technical words within every science which become stereotypes and cliches. Modern psychology has a word that has become common—it is the word maladjusted. We read a great deal about it. It is a ringing cry of modern child psychology; and certainly we all want to live the well adjusted and avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities. But I must say to you this evening, my friends, there are some things in our nation and in our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted. And I call upon you to be maladjusted and all people of good will to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realized. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity. I must honestly say, however much criticism it brings, that I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and to the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

An Invitation to Be Maladjusted

Last August, as part of a busload of people organized by the UU congregation in Meriden and the NAACP in that same city, my daughter and I traveled overnight to arrive at an ungodly hour at the parking lot of RFK stadium in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC.  We both wore our mellow-yellow Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts to attend the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

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Standing on the Side of Love is a community of people compelled to speak out against oppression, united in the common belief that love is the ultimate guiding force of our world.”  Started in response to the 2008 shooting at the UU church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where the shooter targeted the congregation because they were explicitly welcoming of LGBTQ peoples and presented liberal stances on many issues.  Out of that tragedy came the passionate embodiment “of harnessing love’s power to challenge exclusion, oppression, and violence based on sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, race, religion, or any other identity.”  Standing on the Side of love has become a multi-faith effort, birthed among the UUs, open to all.

In 2010, as part of Standing on the Side of Love, the Thirty Days of Love project was formed.  Thirty days of love – which this year, started yesterday and goes through February 16 — is a period of intentional action, service, education, and reflection to focus on this essential work. Many congregations make a commitment that on at least one of the Sundays during those thirty days that worship is dedicated as part of this collective effort.  And so here we are, the 16 of us sitting together in the vestry, much warmer than in the cold sanctuary, a part of a host of peoples across the continent, who are celebrating love and justice.

Tomorrow is the holiday our nation has chosen to commemorate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.  It is a time when we, communally and intentionally, reflect on progress, acknowledge failings, and renew our dedication to continuing the work – both outer and inner work.  It is a time we can actively choose to rededicate ourselves to being “maladjusted.”

An illustration of Rip Van Winkle, by Ashley Smith Collet

An illustration of Rip Van Winkle, by Ashley Smith Collet

In 1966, Dr. King addressed the annual national gathering of Unitarian Universalists .  He began the address with that story from our time for the young at heart: he recounted the story of Rip Van Winkle.  His point: it’s possible to sleep through important things, and it’s possible to sleep even through a revolution.

In re-reading this speech that was given before I was even born, I wondered how much of it was still relevant.  Forgiven for the dated phraseology, there is still much to be harvested here.  I offer this humble attempt to connect Dr. King’s words to this place and this people so dear in our hearts:

King suggested four ways to avoid sleeping through the Revolution:

  • First, instill within our congregations and spiritual communities “a world perspective.”  Our churches practice, sometimes skillfully, sometimes clumsily, how to open our doors and hearts to our neighbors and to the so-called other.  Dr. King goes beyond encouraging us, he demands that spiritual communities look to the wide world, both to understand themselves better and to contribute to a larger, more just understanding of who we are and how we can be with each other in the world.
  • Secondly, that faith communities and congregations explicitly and publicly take stands that affirm the essential immorality of social inequities based on race (and I would add, or class or gender or any other cultural category).   We see this in Village Church’s choice to be “open and affirming.”  The church’s web site proclaims that “we welcome everyone regardless of ethnic background, economic circumstance, sexual orientation, family configuration, or difference in ability.”  This is a very good statement not only of fact, but of ever-renewing aspiration.
  • The third thing was to “refute the idea that there are superior and inferior races.”  This seems like an easy one, because… who would ever support such a worldview? When racism looks like segregation, when it looks like discrimination in access to institutions of power or home loans, when it sounds like hateful, bigoted words, it’s easy to identify and condemn. Yet, unconscious race-based judgments come unbidden to all human beings.  I see them in myself and am not proud.  Until we, particularly those of us who benefit from white privilege, recognize this collective vulnerability, and see how it is manifest in our lives and institutions, we remain in its thrall.
  • Finally, Dr. King made the connection between religion and social justice inextricable.  He did not mince words: “It is not enough for the church to work in the ideological realm, and to clear up misguided ideas. To remain awake through this social revolution, the church must engage in strong action programs to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination.”  This is closely linked to his first admonition to look to the world, looking outside of these walls, outside of our families and town, and out into the wide, wide world.  Yet there is an uneasy balance involved, especially at this particular moment at Village Church: where there is a really strong need to get the ship in shape, patching the holes and ensuring proper stores, before it sails too far. Some believe – rightly so – that we cannot have church without mission and some believe – again, rightly so – that we cannot do mission without having a church.

King spoke of a particular revolution, but modern life grants us many simultaneous revolutions, each vying for our attention.  It’s hard to be fully awake for each and every one of them.  I am guessing that most of you were awake for the revolution from vinyl record album to cassette tape to CD to – now – digital downloads.  Even if you don’t digitally download your music, you probably know that it’s out there.

What other revolutions come to mind, ones that are happening in the world now?  [congregation to share]

  • And the Internet – that’s another revolution that was really hard to sleep through.
  • There’s the revolution of what religious and congregational life looks like in the United States – in droves, people are not worshipping together and people, particularly the young, are declining to identify by any one traditional religious affiliation, more and more choosing, “Spiritual, Not Religious.”
  • There’s Peak Oil and the shift from preventing climate change to adaptation in the face of it.
  • The so-called Arab Spring, which is looking quite different in Tunisia than it is in Egypt than it is in Syria. God bless beleaguered Syria and may peace be there yesterday and since that did not happen, soon, soon, soon.

And there is a reverse revolution in our midst, fomenting long before, unleashed in June of last year when the Supreme Court struck down of Section Four of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  According to the ACLU, nearly half the states in our nation have enacted new restrictions on voting access, particularly for students, people of color, and those with disabilities.

And it doesn’t stop there, as we see in North Carolina it is particularly extreme, but being replicated in Georgia, in Alabama.  Not only is voter suppression is on the rise; the legislature voted against expansion of Medicaid, thereby denying half a million people in poverty the chance of affordable health care; state politicians are considering legislation that would try 13-year-olds as adults; the governor proposed to defund certain “liberal arts” courses of study in the public school system, telling students they should just go to private colleges if they wanted to study that stuff; the legislature proactively chose to cut access to unemployment benefits well before our current federal situation of inertia has led to the same situation, leaving many in harrowing financial straits and fraying the social safety net beyond belief.

Nearly every Monday since April 29th, increasing numbers of people – racially integrated, from across many areas of concern and organizing, have been gathering as a part of the Moral Mondays Movement.  Spearheaded by the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, the Moral Mondays Movement calls attention to these draconian actions against the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings and these relentless attempts at disenfranchisement through the disabling of democratic systems.  Reverend Barber calls the North Carolina current state of the North Carolina General Assembly, “constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane.”

ImageThere is a national call to join the righteous people of North Carolina in their protests at the Capitol in Raleigh.  Folks from all over are converging on February 8th to stand on the side of love and justice, to stand against the reversals of great acts of progress made as part of the civil rights movement.

For those of us who cannot make it to Raleigh, North Carolina, we can inform ourselves about these issues and support those who are actively trying to protect the powerless from the powerful.  In fact, we can stand in solidarity by gathering together at the UU Society in Northampton that morning, educating ourselves about what is happening in North Carolina, taking part in a vigil of solidarity.  All here are welcome.

In the second reading today, Dr. King praised the state of being maladjusted.  He praised those who wake up to the sorry and cruel adjustment around them and choose to become maladjusted, and thus a part of the revolution of love and justice.   The people taking part in Moral Mondays in North Carolina are not only wide-awake, they are fully maladjusted and ask the same of us, too.

We’ve taken a trip out of state, but for a moment, let’s come back home, let’s come back to Cummington.  We know that in the mid-19th century, the village of Cummington had a reputation of being friendly for anti-slavery advocates who were chased out of their own communities and produced more than its fair share of residents who worked on the Abolitionist cause.  Yet, though we think of slavery as something of the South, there is evidence that the original owner of the land that became the Bryant Homestead had slaves and likely used them to clear the land.

Cummington church life ran the gambit from a nondenominational antislavery church founded in 1854 to the tragic history of this very church excommunicating seven people for their anti-slavery activism in 1854.  Then, four years later, the church woke up, perhaps to the revolution stirring in the nation.  They became maladjusted and stood on the side of love, passing anti-slavery resolutions.

What revolutions, small and great, are going on right now? Are you sleeping through them?  Dozing?  Or are you wide awake?

How might this church help keep you awake and wake up others?

How might we help each other to become and stay proudly maladjusted?

With great determination to stand on the side of love and justice, let this sermon end with Dr. King’s invitation to join an ever-forming, ever-necessary civic and spiritual organization:

Yes, I must confess that I believe firmly that our world is in dire need of a new organization – the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, cried out in words that echo across the centuries—”Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” As maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free. As maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, cried in words lifted to cosmic proportions—”We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth, who could say to the men and women of his day “he who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” Through such maladjustment we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. (King, Ware Lecture, 1966)

Amen and amen.

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