‘Listen!” Jesus said. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. . . Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And Jesus said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
Many thanks to all who were present at Diocesan Convention. In my address, Becoming Good Soil, I invited all congregations to take part in a diocesan wide strategic planning process and I write to ask your participation in this holy work. My prayer is that as we take stock of our strengths and challenges as a church–where we see fruitfulness in our ministries and where we struggle–the Holy Spirit will clarify our vision of God’s preferred future for the Episcopal Church in the varied communities and contexts of our diocese. From that vision, it will be our task to establish mutually-discerned goals in each region and invest our resources toward their accomplishment.
As your bishop, I remain convinced that the work of becoming good soil in our congregations is best accomplished working together rather than separately. Working together, we can identify and strengthen ministry opportunities few congregations can realize on their own. The planning process will also help us determine how best to invest collective diocesan resources.
We are in the process now of establishing leadership teams for each of the eight regions of the diocese. Over the next two months, each team will determine how best to engage the regional congregations and convene a discovery session. We’re working to schedule all the regional discovery sessions in the Lent and Easter seasons (March-May), and we will publish those dates as soon as possible.
There is also a congregational component in the strategic planning process. We have engaged the consulting and coaching services of The Unstuck Group, a Christian organization that assists congregations and judicatories to invest in health and overcome obstacles to growth. As part of our collective work, every congregation has the opportunity to invest in its own soil.
If you have not already done so, I invite you to take the Unstuck Group’s online parish assessment. It provides a starting point for conversation as you identify where your congregation falls on a life cycle common to all churches. From that assessment, both clergy and laity can make prayerful and strategic decisions about next steps in leadership.
All EDOW congregational leaders may take an online leadership course, Leading an Unstuck Church, free of charge (normally a $500 charge per congregation). The course includes 12 sessions, ideally suited for vestry meetings or other leadership bodies. This is an investment in your leadership, so that congregational ministries may flourish. Ms. Mildred Reyes, EDOW Missioner for Formation is your point of contact to enroll in Leading an Unstuck Church. You may register with her via email.
For those inspired to make an even deeper commitment, there is the option of a year-long strategic planning process, supported by both the Unstuck Church Group and the Diocese, which would be customized to your parish and would include opportunities to form learning cohorts with other congregational leaders.
I welcome your thoughts as this process unfolds. Feel free to contact me anytime.
May God continue to bless us all as we tend to our soil in faithfulness to the One who sows the seeds of life within and among us all.
‘Listen!” Jesus said. “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
I speak you today about the work of becoming good soil.
In December 2017, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry invited a small group of leaders to help him think through an issue on his mind. This was six months before his sermon at the Royal Wedding made him the most famous Episcopalian on the planet. But his sermon wasn’t news for us. Bishop Curry has inspired the Episcopal Church with his preaching for years. Since his election as presiding bishop in 2015, he has been a one-man revival, traveling around the country and the world, calling upon us and every member of the Episcopal Church to renew our commitment to Jesus and his gospel of love.
The Presiding Bishop describes himself as our C.E.O.– Chief Evangelism Officer. He speaks of following Jesus with passion and joy. That’s what the world is responding to–his joy in following Jesus, even as he unflinchingly engages the most challenging and controversial issues of our time. He’s not afraid to talk about race, about gun violence prevention, about the scandal of separating children from their parents at the border, but he does so in the context of his commitment to follow Jesus in the way of love. “The church is a movement,” he says any chance he gets, urging us to think of ourselves the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement. Every time he says that, we all cheer.
But the reason he wanted to meet back in December of 2017 was that he realized the Episcopal Church was, in many ways, stuck, and that his preaching alone would not make us unstuck. Our church needed a revival of faith embedded in our personal lives, in our structures for the church’s ministry, and an outwardly focused commitment to love, as Jesus loves, our neighbors, and foreigners, and our enemies.
So the Presiding Bishop wanted to talk evangelism strategy. For two days, a dozen of us prayed and wondered together how best to be faithful to Jesus and his movement. What more could the Presiding Bishop do? What could we do, not just to ensure the survival of our churches, but that we as a people might become more joyful, loving, and compelling in our witness as followers of Jesus?
Part of the problem, we told ourselves–maybe you’ve told yourself this–is that we Episcopalians, in general, don’t like to talk about our faith. As a whole, we don’t invite our friends to church very often. And while every Episcopal congregation likes to think of itself as warm and welcoming, the data suggests otherwise. We acknowledged that, as a denomination, we can be rather inflexible when it comes to our preferences in church. Our preferences may be fine, but starting with them may not be the most fruitful approach to evangelism. On and on we talked about what we could do better, how we might try harder.
Finally, someone asked the Presiding Bishop what was his greatest concern. He was quiet for a moment. “As I travel around the church,” he said, “I worry that the majority of our people don’t know for themselves the unconditional love of God. I worry that the reason they’re hesitant to speak of Jesus is because they don’t know him, really. I know that we need to learn to be more welcoming, to stand for justice, and do all sorts of things,” he said, “but I wonder if our people could use a bit more Jesus.”
He didn’t get any argument from us. There wasn’t a person around that table who didn’t need a bit more Jesus, including me. I found myself thinking about a passage I had just read in a book by the Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton about the power of the Holy Spirit: “I think that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives,” he writes, “a bit like someone who is sleep-deprived, nutrient-deprived, or oxygen-deprived. Many Christians haven’t been taught about the Spirit, nor encouraged to seek the Spirit’s work in their lives. As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own power and wisdom.” I know what it’s like to try and live the Christian life by my own power and wisdom. It’s exhausting.
At the end of our meeting the Presiding Bishop told us that he wanted to spend the rest of his tenure helping Episcopalians experience the love of God, and to deepen our commitment to follow Jesus in the ways of love. We said that we wanted to help. The circle soon grew wider to include many gifted teachers and writers in the Episcopal Church. From this rich collaboration was born The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Focus life. At the Episcopal Church’s General Convention last summer, the Presiding Bishop asked every Episcopalian to adopt the Way of Love as our personal rule of life.
There’s nothing radically new about the Way of Love. It’s a gentle reframing of ancient spiritual practices that have formed the church from its earliest days and point us back to the promises made at our baptism. They are practices that help us remember that the church is not a building, but is a gathering of people who experience God through the spiritual presence and teachings of Jesus and have chosen to follow him in his ways of love for the world. You each received a small card with the practices described inside. They are to turn, to learn, and to pray; to worship; to bless and to go, and finally to rest.
The Way of Love is the presiding bishop’s invitation to us to invest in our spiritual growth and ensure that all we do as the Episcopal Church is rooted in a love relationship with Jesus. Our diocese was the first in the country to offer liturgical resources to explore the Way of Love as part of Sunday worship which nearly thirty congregations in the diocese have offered or are offering now.
Wouldn’t be amazing if we all focused on core spiritual practices, not just once, but on a regular basis, as part of what it means for us to be church? There are many to do this: you might read in small groups Bishop Curry’s latest book, The Power of Love, this Lent or at another time, copies of which we have on sale at the Way of Love table. You might host a Way of Love retreat, as St. John’s, Lafayette Square and St. Albans Parish are doing this Lent. You could ask members of your church to give their testimonies on how one of the spiritual practices informs their life, as Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver Spring is doing now. The possibilities are many, and there is a large and growing body of spiritual resources that we will continue to curate on the diocesan website.
This time next year, our Chief Evangelism Officer will be our preacher at Convention, and he will lead a diocesan revival the night before. I’m confident that the event will be compelling enough for us to invite our friends. But surely we also want to invite those same friends to visit our joyful, healthy, compelling faith communities. Practicing the Way of Love together is but one way we can work to tend to the spiritual soil of our lives and our congregations. Then when others ask us what it means to be an Episcopalian Christian, we can not only point to the Presiding Bishop, but describe how we, as communities and individual disciples, are walking in Jesus’ way of love.
There are other ways we can to tend to our soil. One of the reasons I wanted you to hear Nancy Beach is because the kind of relationship health and alignment among congregational leaders that she describes is foundational for everything we do. To the degree that congregational leadership is healthy, ministries can thrive, even in the most adverse circumstances. Conversely, to the degree that our leadership is languishing or conflicted and relationships are strained, ministries are diminished, no matter how hard we work at them. We all have room for growth and improvement here–none of us, I daresay scored a “ten” in every area of congregational health. These are important conversations to have, honestly and courageously. And we, your diocesan staff, are here to help.
What other ways can we tend to our soil? I learned long ago as a parish priest that spiritually healthy and well-resourced congregations are more joyful and fun to be a part of than conflicted, struggling, or under-resourced congregations. We’ve spent considerable time and energy in the last few years addressing the resourcing of congregations, and that soil-tending work will continue. It is the driving impetus behind all our collaborative endeavors, the establishment of the diaconate, congregational growth grants, internship placements for new priests, the financial resources committee, and the investment in diocesan staff who can be of concrete assistance during times of leadership transition, the cultivation of new ministry opportunities, and congregational care.
From the beginning of my episcopate, my primary vocation has been to strengthen the spiritual vitality and structural capacity of our congregations. I’ve dedicated my life to this work because, like you, I love the Episcopal Church and I don’t believe that institutional decline, or even maintenance, is God’s preferred future for us when we have so much to offer. The Episcopal Church is a spiritual treasure on the spectrum of Christianity, a sacramental and generous way of living the Gospel of Jesus that is of priceless value.
There are amazing expressions of hope and vitality throughout the diocese, for which I give thanks to God, and there are places where we are, in one way or another, are a bit stuck, and sometimes overwhelmed by the challenges we face, not to mention the challenges in our communities and the nation as a whole.
All these things were on my mind when, not long after that gathering with the Presiding Bishop, this wonderful diocese granted me a three-month sabbatical. During that time I studied non-Episcopal churches throughout the geographic boundaries of our diocese, churches that are thriving within the actual soil that we share with them. I introduced myself to their leaders, studied their offerings, learned all that I could about the way their ministry is structured. In every church, I was met with warmth, respect, and an eagerness to share.
I could speak at length about what I learned and how much we have to learn from our siblings in Christ from other traditions. But my learnings, important as they are, were not the most important fruit of my time apart. That fruit was more personal.
Jesus wanted to have some conversations with me about our relationship. You would recognize from Scripture some of the questions I heard him ask–questions I have circled around all my life: “Do you love me?” “Who do you say that I am?” “What do you want me to do for you?”
In long stretches of silence, Jesus and I looked back together on the seven years I had served thus far as your bishop, which was an exercise in both humility and gratitude–humility for my mistakes and all that I am still learning, and gratitude for the privilege of this work and for you. “Did I still feel called to this work?” I’m not sure who asked the question first, Jesus, or me, or my sweet, long-suffering husband Paul. But it was an easy question to answer. Yes, without hesitation. Because I love Jesus. I love the Episcopal Church. I love serving as your bishop, and I love you.
Then Jesus and I looked toward the future. “What kind of bishop do you need me to be?” I asked him. “What kind of bishop does the Diocese of Washington need now?” I had a strong sense that the diocese needed a different kind of leadership in the next seven years, but could I be that leader? How did I need to change and grow?
“You’re trying to do this too much from your own strength and power,” Jesus told me. No surprise there; it is, to quote St. Paul, “the sin that lives within me.” “Abide in me,” Jesus said, “and ask our people for help.”
What came to me was not that I needed to make a change in direction or initiative, but rather that Jesus was inviting me to rededicate my life to him and to the spiritual practices that keep me close to him. And that I needed your help in clarifying our vision and priorities for the next season of ministry together.
Thus when I returned from sabbatical, I asked diocesan leaders to help establish a process of taking stock of where we are now–our strengths and challenges, where we see fruitfulness in our ministries and where we struggle–and then together commit to a mutually-discerned vision of God’s preferred future for our diocese. I am persuaded that this work is best accomplished taking into account the distinctive contexts of each geographic region and constituency, building upon the work we have begun, so that we can establish particular priorities and goals for each and direct resources and energies accordingly.
This is the work of strategic planning, which In some ways is an organizational expression of a rule of life, a way to focus our energies and practices toward greater health and vitality. Several of our strongest congregations engage in this work regularly; some of you are in a season of planning now. Our schools do this work as a matter of course. Washington National Cathedral has just completed the discernment phase of its strategic plan, and is now setting up structures for implementation.
Now, I first heard Tony Morgan utter the phrase “holy interruption” at a leadership conference in 2017. He stood on a stage in front of nearly 2000 people, and on a whiteboard drew a simple bell curve.
“I am the founding director of an organization that helps churches get unstuck,” he said. “We’ve worked with hundreds of churches of all sizes, denominations, and in varying settings. What we’ve learned is that all churches experience a similar life cycle.” He proceeded to describe the phases of that cycle: Launch/Momentum, Growth/Strategic, Growth/Sustained, Health/Maintenance, Preservation/Life Support.
As Tony described what churches experience and how they function in each stage of the life cycle, I recognized our congregations in both their opportunities and their struggles. I was intrigued by the specific, practical suggestions Tony offered to support congregations in stages of momentum and health and to move out of stuckness and decline. There is always hope for transformation and new life, no matter where a church is in the life cycle, but to move from maintenance and preservation to momentum growth and sustained health requires more than hope, more than trying harder at the things that are no longer bearing fruit.
I invited Tony to address our clergy conference last spring, and many responded positively to his ideas and shared them with their vestries. Several asked if we might bring Tony back and organize learning cohorts. Based on that response, we decided to invite Tony to speak at the pre-convention event last night–all of this in hopes that you might find hope and inspiration and concrete suggestions for moving toward or sustaining momentum and health.
As we began in earnest looking for professional guidance to help us in the work of strategic planning, the Unstuck Group submitted a proposal, which was the one we accepted. I was drawn to them because of the reality-based practical nature of their approach. Working with them will give every congregation that chooses to engage an opportunity for self-assessment and collaborative learning.
Wouldn’t it be amazing for us to be able to say in three to five years, “Here are the fruits of tending to our soil, fruits of spiritual growth, more vibrant congregations, and deeper engagement in our communities, in faithfulness to Jesus and his mission of love?
My friends in Christ, I invite every congregation represented here to participate in this season of collective discernment and strategic planning. I ask for your help, excited by the possibilities of what could be true for us in the years ahead. I also want to be the kind of bishop who is held accountable by God and by you to the mission, vision, and collective priorities that we discern together.
Among the first steps: all congregational leaders–clergy, wardens, and vestries–will soon receive an invitation to take an online assessment to determine, in broad strokes, where your congregations fall on the life cycle. You’ll also be given free access to an online course sponsored by the Unstuck Group, to learn more about their process and specific suggestions for each stage of the life cycle. For those who’d like to make a deeper commitment to your own work as a congregation, there is the option of a year-long strategic process for you, and the opportunity to form learning cohorts with other congregational leaders.
We’re in the process now of establishing leadership teams in each region of the diocese. In the next two months, each team will determine the best way to engage the regional congregations and convene a discovery session. It’s an opportunity for congregational leaders to pray together, share their experiences, and listen for God’s call.
When the discovery sessions are completed sometime in late spring, one or two leaders from each region will join diocesan staff for a 2-day retreat, to pray and reflect on all that we’ve learned in the discovery process. That group will begin the process of articulating the core mission for congregations in the Diocese of Washington, a collective vision of God’s preferred future for us, and identify specific goals for the next three to five years. We’ll then go back to each of the regions for your feedback and refine goals for each of the regions. God willing, we will complete this phase by the fall of 2019 and begin structuring and equipping ourselves for the work of implementation.
The success of our efforts depends on the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and on our collective willingness to engage. “We will walk into the Kingdom of God together,” in the words of Daniel Berrigan, “Or we won’t walk in at all.”
Friends, it is not our responsibility to sow the seeds of new life. That is God’s work. But we are responsible for the quality of our soil.
Every Sunday as I make my visitations to the congregations of our diocese, I ask God, first, to allow me to see every person as God sees them, so that I might lift up and encourage all whom I meet. Then I ask for a glimpse of God’s preferred future in that place. Invariably, what I see, and hear, in the beautiful diversity of our people, is joy. I see our leaders free to invest themselves in ministry, with buildings and structures well-suited and resourced in service to that ministry. I hear people speak confidently of their journeys of faith and relationship with God in Jesus. I always see children, and elders and all ages in between, and obvious signs of an outward focus of active service, community engagement, and the necessary work of justice.
There is already, in every place, the fruits of good soil, cultivated over the generations, and in every place, there is the need to further tend to our soil. The same is true for every one of us: we each have parts of ourselves that are like the good soil in Jesus’ parable and other parts in need of tending. The same is true for our diocese as a whole.
May God guide and sustain us all in this season of taking stock of our soil–individually, in our congregations, and as diocese–and working together to tend to that soil. In this next season of ministry, I pledge to God and to you my whole-hearted effort to be among you as a co-gardner in the cultivation of good soil.
Let’s not do this work from our own strength and power, but by relying on Jesus, He is the source of our strength. He is the strength of our life. He is the good news we have to share. And his promise to us is this: If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit and all will know that you are my disciples.
He also commanded us: Love one another, as I have loved you.
The world will know we are Christians as we follow Jesus in the Way of Love.
‘Some seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And Jesus said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
As Diocesan Convention approaches, I am grateful to God for all who will gather at Washington National Cathedral this weekend. Over 200 people have signed up for the pre-convention on Friday evening. Tony Morgan, author of The Unstuck Church, will speak on the life cycle of congregations and offer specific strategies to promote and sustain spiritual health and to address the ways all congregations can get stuck in habits that lead to decline.
For those unable to attend, Tony’s presentation and the question/answer session that follows will be livestreamed and available for later viewing on the diocesan website. (Check the Convention web page closer to the event for the link.)
On Saturday morning, we convene for Convention, the annual legislative gathering of diocesan lay and clergy leaders. Again, the Convention will be livestreamed for those wanting to participate from home, and we will post both the sermon from our Convention preacher, Ms. Nancy Beach, and my address on the diocesan website. (Check the Convention web page on Saturday morning for the livestream link and later in the day for the other materials.)
Much of my address will focus on the upcoming diocesan-wide strategic planning process that will officially begin in mid-February. More on that process in the coming weeks, but for now, please know we are in the process of establishing leadership teams for each of the eight diocesan regions, and I invite you to email me if you’re interested in exploring that possibility.
Each congregation will have the opportunity to engage in a process of self-assessment and online learning, guided by our consultants from the Unstuck Group. We’ll also engage in regionally-focused discovery sessions this spring, to invite your input and to create a space for congregational leaders to gather in prayer and guided conversation focused on congregational strengths, challenges, and future possibilities.
At Convention we will offer thanks for several diocesan leaders who are completing terms of faithful service: Mr. Paul Barkett is stepping down as diocesan treasurer; Mr. Jim Jones as chair of the diocesan finance committee, and Ms. Mary Kostel, as diocesan chancellor.
We will also pause to celebrate and give thanks to God for Paul Cooney’s 17-year ministry as Canon to the Ordinary. Words cannot sufficiently express our gratitude for Paul and our prayers for the life adventures that await him. I invite every congregation to remember Paul and Linda Cooney in your prayers this Sunday. What a faithful disciple, servant leader, and good friend Paul has been in the Diocese of Washington!
Canon Paul E. Cooney
“Here comes the dreamer. Come now, let us kill him . . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
The idea of establishing a federal holiday in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surfaced shortly after his assassination in 1968, but as you know, it was resisted mightily for years. The first time time it came up for a floor vote in House of Representatives was a decade later, and it failed, the main arguments against it being the expense of giving federal workers a day off, and that to honor King would go against long-standing tradition only to honor with a holiday those who had served in public office. Behind those sanitized reasons was an ugly smear campaign, spearheaded by Senator Jesse Helms, among others, branding King as a communist conspirator and unworthy for public recognition. Efforts then turned toward galvanizing the general public. In 1981, six million signatures were collected for a petition to pass the law, the largest petition in favor of an issue in US history. President Reagan initially opposed the holiday and only signed the law into legislation in 1983 when it passed in Congress with veto proof majorities.
I was living in Arizona in early 1980s, a state whose elected leadership, including the governor, vowed to fight to the end any official celebration of King’s life and legacy. I was stunned by the vitriol and ferocity of resistance. But I confess, at age 23, I didn’t know very much about the Civil Rights struggles that dominated the years of my childhood and about which I learned nothing at all until I was in college. Nor did I have a sufficient framework to understand the continued racial tensions and disparities of our society. In Arizona, nearly all of that tension and all the disparities were between the dominant Anglo and Native American and Hispanic populations of that land.
I eventually returned to the East Coast where I was raised to attend seminary and subsequently ordained. It was then that I made an intentional commitment to spend the month of January leading up to this weekend reading King’s writings and the historical context that led up to and followed the Civil Rights era that defined his life and ministry. As a parish priest, I began the practice each Martin Luther King weekend of reading excerpts from his writings or other works that shed light on his spiritual stature and transformational leadership.
My book this year was a memoir, written by the southern historian Timothy Tyson, entitled Blood Done Sign My Name, which tells the story of the killing of Henry Marrow, a black man, by a three white men in Oxford, North Carolina in the spring of 1970. The three men felt justified in murdering Marrow outside the town’s general store because he had allegedly “said something” to a white woman behind the counter. Marrow was beaten and killed in broad daylight as he lay on his back, begging for his life.
Tyson was ten years old at the time, the son of a white minister in Oxford, and through a child’s eyes he watched as his town erupted in violence, laying bare generations of racial tension that, frankly, shocked the white population. “We’ve always had good relations here,” they would say to anyone who would listen, having successfully suppressed from public record and collective white memory the worst incidents of their racist past, successfully cloaked with the veneer of white paternalism. But the generation of African American men who fought in Vietnam would have none of it. King wasn’t their hero, either. Non-violence resistance meant nothing to them.
Years later when, as a historian, Tyson reflected on what happened in his hometown, he wrote this:
So while this is the story of a small boy in a small town one hot Southern summer, it is also the story of a nation torn apart by racial, political, social, and cultural clashes so deep that they echo in our lives to this day. The cheerful and cherished lies we tell ourselves about those years—that the black freedom movement was largely a nonviolent call on America’s conscience, which America answered, to cite the most glaring fiction—do little to repair the breach. There are many things we never learned about the civil rights struggle, and many other things we have tried hard to forget. The United States could find work for a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission like the one that has tried to mend the scars of apartheid in South Africa; any psychiatrist can tell you that genuine healing requires a candid confrontation with our past. In any case, if there is to be reconciliation, first there must be truth. The truth will set us free, so the Bible says, and my own experience bears witness. . . My search for the meaning of the troubles in Oxford launched me toward a life of learning, across lines of color and caste, out of my little boy’s vision of my family’s well-lighted place in the world and into the shadows where histories and memories and hopes abide.
In the last few years, it seems part of our nation, with great reluctance and resistance, is slowly coming to grips with the racial violence that historically follows any significant change that threatens white supremacy.
After the Civil War and the official abolishment of slavery, we now openly acknowledge that Slavery By Another Name kept millions of African Americans in actual bondage through imprisonment on false charges and involuntary servitude from which there was no recourse for release, a practice with full collusion with elected officials that continued until World War II.
After countless legal and social struggles to abolish the Jim Crow laws and segregationist policies of the 20th centuries, we now recognize a New Jim Crow era came into being through the purportedly color-blind policies of mass incarceration that, to an alarming degree, disproportionately keeps African Americans disenfranchised and imprisoned.
And with Ta-Nahisi Coates’ haunting reprisal of the Reconstruction-era black politicians lament We Were Eight Years In Power, there is little doubt that after the Obama presidency, we now live in the racial undertow that helped fuel the election of President Trump.
If Dr. King had survived to celebrate his 90th birthday among us this year, he would not be a moderate voice for gradual social change. He never was. But he would have carried the mantle of love, love that he believed until his last breath was our only hope. “Hatred is not overcome by hatred,” he said more than once. “Only love can do that.”
Among the many commemorations of King’s life across the city this weekend, later today Washington National Cathedral will present The Other America, a service in which excerpts of a speech Dr. King gave at Stanford University in 1967 will be read and amplified by musical and dance performances.
This is King at his most somber and unflinching: “There are literally two Americas,” he said.
“One America is beautiful. . . This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity.
But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men and women walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.
In a sense, the greatest tragedy of this other America is what it does to little children. Little children in this other America are forced to grow up with clouds of inferiority forming every day in their little mental skies. As we look at this other America, we see it as an arena of blasted hopes and shattered dreams. Many people of various backgrounds live in this other America. Some are Mexican Americans, some are Puerto Ricans, some are Indians, some happen to be from other groups. Millions of them are Appalachian whites. But probably the largest group in this other America in proportion to its size in the Population is the American Negro.”
Up until the very end, King’s eyes were wide open to the problems and struggles of our land, yet he refused to give up hope. He was no Pollyanna, but he drew deeply, from the most profound reservoirs of spiritual strength in order to persevere in love. “I’ve decided to stick with love,” he said. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.” These are the same reservoirs we must draw from daily if we are to continue on the long road toward justice.
Today I tend his humble tribute with the words he often used to end his speeches. May you and I take them to heart, dare to live them ourselves, giving thanks this day that such a man lived among us:
Now let me say finally that we have difficulties ahead but I haven’t despaired. Somehow I maintain hope in spite of hope. And I’ve talked about the difficulties and how hard the problems will be as we tackle them. But I want to close by saying this afternoon, that I still have faith in the future. And I still believe that these problems can be solved. And so I will not join anyone who will say that we still can’t develop a coalition of conscience.
And so I refuse to despair. I think we’re gonna achieve our freedom because however much America strays away from the ideals of justice, the goal of America is freedom.
And I say that if the inexpressible cruelties of slavery couldn’t stop us, the opposition that we now face, including the so-called white backlash, will surely fail. We’re gonna win our freedom because both the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of the Almighty God are embodied in our echoing demands.
And so I can still sing “We Shall Overcome.” We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward Justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right, “No lie can live forever.” We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right, “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne — Yet that scaffold sways the future.” With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discourse of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and live together as brothers and sisters, all over this great nation. That will be a great day, that will be a great tomorrow. In the words of the Scripture, to speak symbolically, that will be the day when the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.
I can’t think of place I’d rather be today than here in this church, the first African American church of this diocese, founded by a proud people, whose legacy is entrusted to us. I give thanks for the opportunity to remember King in your company, to hear his words, and recommit ourselves to persevere in faith, hope, and love toward that glorious day.
Image shared from www.biography.com
“Come let us now kill the dreamer, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”
Every January, we as a nation are given the opportunity to stop and reflect on the life, teachings, and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King was born on January 15, 1929, ninety years ago. Like with any icon–a person whose life has taken on symbolic meaning or is worthy of veneration–the meaning of King’s life and witness takes countless forms, some that stray far from the actual man.
Thus we do well to interrupt our lives this week by reading or watching one of his speeches or sermons. His message transcends time and space. Words he spoke over fifty years ago have deep spiritual power and relevance for our time.
Among the many commemorations of King’s life this weekend, Washington National Cathedral will present The Other America, a service in which excerpts of a speech Dr. King gave at Stanford University in 1967 will be read and amplified by musical and dance performances. Featured artists include JJ Hairston, Howard University Choir, Children of the Gospel, the Cathedral Band, and Andile Ndlovu of the Washington Ballet. The event is sold out but may be watched on live stream.
You can watch King’s speech from Stanford here or read the text.
I have another of King’s speeches in my mind this week–a vignette from his last public address.
On April 3, 1968, a storm raged outside the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, and inside King was struggling with exhaustion. Still, he rose to address the crowd gathered and among the many things he said, explained why he had decided to come to Memphis in support of the sanitation workers strike by musing on Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.
In Jesus’ story, two religious leaders saw a man mortally wounded on the side of the road and chose to pass by on the other side. Only a man of a despised race, the Samaritan, stopped to help, illustrating what King called “a dangerous unselfishness,” the essence of love. “The first question the Levite and the priest asked when they saw the wounded man,” King said, “was ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ The Good Samaritan reversed the question, ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”
“That is the question before you tonight,” King told the Memphis crowd. “Not, if I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to me? But “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?”
Dangerous unselfishness is love willing to be interrupted. It is love willing to risk, willing to stand in proximity to suffering and to strive for justice. Jesus concluded his story of the Good Samaritan by urging his listeners to “go and do likewise.” We honor King and are most faithful to Jesus when we do the same.