© Jeremy D. Nickel 2011. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 16, 2011

If you were lucky enough to be invited by President Obama into the oval office, you would upon entering no doubt be dazzled by all the historical artifacts in the room. It is, after all, one of the most incredible repositories of American history. To your left as you walk in you would see Samuel Morse's 1849 telegraph model, across the room hanging over the fireplace hangs a portrait of George Washington. There is of course that famous desk, the one we imagine John Jr. may still be hiding under. But one new addition to that room that has gotten a lot of buzz of late is a rug that President Obama had commissioned for the room. What makes this rug so special is that it has Obama's five favorite quotations woven into its design.

The first is that most famous of quotes from President Franklin D. Roosevelt "The Only Thing We Have to Fear is Fear Itself." The next, from President Abraham Lincoln, reads "Government of the People, By the People, For the People," followed by John F. Kennedy's stirring reminder that "No Problem of Human Destiny is Beyond Human Beings," and Theodore Roosevelt's assertion that "The Welfare of Each of Us is Dependent Fundamentally Upon the Welfare of All of Us." The fifth and final quotation, attributed in this instance to Martin Luther King, the only non-president to make the cut, reads: "The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But it Bends Towards Justice."

This too is one of my favorite quotes, and I love that Obama has so symbolically and literally woven it into our national tapestry. This quote gives me hope when I am battered at the end of a particularly stinging news cycle like the ones we have been surrounded by lately. Sometimes - and it seems as if 'sometimes' is all too often these days - we feel that there is no hope, no progress being made by us human beings. But then I am reminded by this quote of my limited vision, of my small little moment of history, and I am reassured that although from right up close it sure looks like two steps forward, three steps back, that there is a larger narrative of human struggle. That, indeed, the moral arc of the universe is long, but that is does eventually bend towards justice.

But there is a difference between the way I regard this quote and the way Obama does. And that difference is that, although I hold King as perhaps the pinnacle example of what a human can accomplish in but one lifetime, when I hear those words I hear them not in King's voice, but rather from the mouth of the man that actually originally spoke them, the ahead of his time: the revolutionary abolitionist Unitarian Minister Theodore Parker who was in many ways predicting the later success of King and Obama when he said about 100 years before King's time: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

Now, my guess is that there is very little new information or insight I could share with you on the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. This is of course not due to any lack of achievement or relevance on King's part, but rather to the fact that he has become such a sainted figure in modern America that his story has been told and retold, spun and re-spun, in so many ways in so many articles and sermons and books that he has become an essential part of our national identity. We know King. But what we do not know very well is the story of so many of those whose work King continued. King was a giant among his contemporaries, but he was not the first to fight for the words of our constitution to be more than merely dried ink on parchment. And our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors did much to prepare the ground for the work of King.

So I wish to tell you the stories of two of these ancestors that I think all people, but especially we UUs should know better.

I turn first to the original speaker of those words now made so famous by King a century after their original utterance. Born in 1810 in Lexington, MA. Theodore Parker was for the first two decades of his life a self-educated man, who through his own hard work and amazing mind gained entrance to Harvard University and then Harvard Theological Seminary.

He found like-minded thinkers among the transcendentalists and became a close friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through his interactions with the transcendentalists and his seminary studies he was deeply influenced by the new field of biblical criticism and went so far as to publicly deny such traditional views as the literal meaning of the miracle stories, the authority of the bible and the special divinity of Jesus. The reaction to Parker's ahead-of-his-time conclusions was swift and harsh - nearly all Boston-area pulpits were closed to him and he lost many friends from the larger theological community. He continued to hone his thoughts and though he rejected traditional institutional Christianity, he retained his faith in God but suggested that people experience God intuitively and personally and it is in that individual experience that people should center their religious beliefs, thus positioning himself perhaps as one of the first modern Unitarian Universalists.

But not all were against the positions that Parker had so publicly struck, and in January of 1845 he was invited to preach in a renegade Boston church. His words struck a deep chord and he was quickly installed as the minister of a most radical new church that counted amongst its members Louisa May Alcott, William Lloyd Garrison, Julia Ward Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The congregation quickly exploded in numbers to over 7,000 members. This is what happens when you speak truth to power.

And buoyed by this success, Parker began what would become his lifelong pursuit, the abolition of slavery. Most famously he fought against the fugitive slave act, which was a sort of uncomfortable compromise between the North and South that although slavery would remain illegal in the North, Northerners were still required to return any runaway slaves to their owners in the south. Parker called the Law "a hateful statute of Kidnappers" and personally ensured that it would almost never be enforced in Boston, encouraging his many supporters to help hide runaway slaves and assisting them in being smuggled to safer places. Parker himself was arrested on many occasions for thwarting the implementation of this law; perhaps modeling for a future generation what civil disobedience in the face of unjust laws could look like.

In 1859 Parker was forced into an early and sudden retirement from his work when he contracted Tuberculosis. He continued writing, but died a year later. Like King, he was able to see over the mountaintop, but was not able to go to that place himself. He died less than one year before the union would split and the true fight for the end of slavery began. But as his words are woven into that rug, we can see now how they were woven into all that came after his death. That spirit of standing up to unjust laws with all the energy one could muster lived on. His legacy was alive long before King officially resurrected it.

The other Unitarian I want to tell you about today left behind no brilliant words to remember him by, but is a beautiful thread in that rug in Obama's office nonetheless. In many ways James Reeb connects our Unitarian legacy in an even more intimate way with the work of King.

Born in Wichita, Kansas on the first day of 1927, Reeb was, like Parker a century earlier, also active early in his ministerial career in Boston. Reeb was stridently committed to the civil rights movement and encouraged the members of his church and of the larger Unitarian movement to do the same. Reeb and his wife lived their beliefs by living and working in the poor black neighborhoods surrounding the city, where he felt like his work could have the greatest impact.

In 1965, at the height of the civil rights struggle, Reeb, now associate minister of All Souls church in Washington D.C. and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was one of the very few white ministers who answered the call of Martin Luther King to join him in his march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery.

Reeb thought nothing of leaving the safety of his family and congregation to dive head first into what he believed was the most important issue of his life, carrying that baton from Parker to finally realize the promise of our constitution.

Reeb met up with some of his other brave colleagues for dinner in Selma the night before the march was to begin. After sharing a great meal and fellowship with his fellow freedom fighters, he walked, along with two other colleagues through the dark backstreets of Selma, on their way to a meeting led by King that would lay out the final preparations for the next day's march.

As the small group of ministers approached the meetinghouse, they were suddenly accosted by a large and angry mob of whites violently opposed to Kings work. Reeb, ever the peacemaker, attempted to calm the situation, but someone from the crowd burst forward and struck him in the head with a club. Reeb was rushed to a nearby hospital, but there was nothing the doctors could do, and he died two days later.

Much as our President this week eulogized those struck down in Tucson this past weekend, King gave the eulogy at Reeb's funeral. Inside that stuffy and packed auditorium he spoke these words that I believe echo through the ages to our ears today with just as much relevance as the moment they were first spoken:

"Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb? The answer is simple and rather limited, when we think of the who. He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder. There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon, that I asked a few days ago as we funeralized James Jackson. It is the question, What killed James Reeb? When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows. James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights."

If I were to change but a few words of King's eulogy, to substitute for Reeb's name that of any of the six citizens who lost their lives last week in Tucson, and to swap South Vietnam with Afghanistan, this message is still one we desperately need to hear today. The problem, the blame for where we are as a society does not rest with some other 'they.' The fingers pointed towards specific politicians miss the larger point. The failure is ours. It is mine and yours as much as it is anyone else's. The baton that was passed from Parker to Reeb and so on through the ages is always searching for a new outstretched hand to grab it and run. That arc of the moral universe does not bend itself; it is not governed by natural laws like gravity, but rather by the blood, sweat and tears of human action. It bends slowly towards justice not by design but because still too many of us continue to seek the safe security of stained glass windows, and too few of us are willing to live as these men all did, putting their values into action with every breath they took.

May these stories of our ancestors inspire us to boldly transform this hurting world, to add our own thread into the rug of human history.

May it be so. Ashe.

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