“People Get Ready”

“People Get Ready”
A Sermon by Rev. Annie Gonzalez Milliken
January 19, 2020
At First Parish Bedford, MA


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
Ghana reminds us that freedom never comes on a silver platter…
You better get ready for some homes to be bombed.
You better get ready for some churches to be bombed.
You better get ready for a lot of nasty things to be said about you…
You better get ready to go to prison.

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
-1957 after a trip to Ghana

When Martin Luther King jr. was a new pastor, 26 years old in Montgomery, Alabama he got involved in the Montgomery bus boycott. To his surprise once the boycott got going it was going well. They had a meeting of various leaders and especially of the pastor’s involved in promoting and supporting the action and they decided to form an organization. That organization would become the Southern Christian Leadership Council. The SCLC previously mentioned in the story about Ella Baker. They decided they were going to elect a president and they elected King. He was surprised and after that meeting they were going to have a mass meeting and that was how they were organizing. They didn’t have social media of course, they had mass meetings. Everybody would turn out and they would have a message. People would come together and get connected and decide what they were going to do next in their movement. So King as the new president was to give the speech at that mass meeting that night but they had been meeting all day trying to figure out their new organization and this is how he describes the situation.

“It was now 6:30 and I had to leave no later than 6:50 to get to the meeting. This meant that I had only 20 minutes to prepare the most decisive speech of my life. As I thought of the limited time before me and the possible implications of the speech I became possessed by fear”.

Each week I need at least 15 hours to prepare my Sunday sermon. I don’t take that long but I don’t think my sermons are quite as good as Martin Luther King. He continues; “Now I was faced with the inescapable task of preparing in almost no time at all a speech that was expected to give a sense of direction to a people imbued with a new and still unplumbed passion for justice. I was also conscious that reporters and television men would be there with their pencils and their sound cameras poised to record my words and send them across the nation. I was now almost overcome obsessed by a feeling of inadequacy. In this state of anxiety I had already wasted five minutes of the original 20”.

Now I doubt any of us has ever been suddenly called upon to give a decisive speech to turn the tide of racial justice in the country but I bet that all of us have had a time when we became obsessed with a feeling of inadequacy and whatever it was that we had to do we couldn’t get past that feeling that we weren’t up to the challenge, that we didn’t have enough time, that we weren’t ready for it.

I know I’ve felt that way many times in my life. When I think about this particular anecdote I think about a time when I was quite new in trying on ministry. When I was 24 years old I did a summer internship at a hospital called clinical pastoral education. That’s where you learn about being a chaplain and you learn pastoral care skills. As a young minister in formation, or well in my case I was young as a minister in formation, whatever your age. So one of the aspects of this role is to have shifts on call. I remember that the first time I was on call overnight to be the one Chaplin to serve any emergencies that should come up. The first time nothing happened and I was relieved but the second time there was a code called out on the speaker of the hospital which meant that the chaplain had to go show up for anything that was life-threatening. I remember I went to the elevator and I could barely remember what floor to get off on. I was so similarly obsessed with a feeling of inadequacy. What the heck was I going to do if someone was dying. I was 24 and I’d gone to one year of seminary and had done a couple workshops about chaplaincy. They were going to know as soon as they saw me that I couldn’t offer anything and what was I thinking and who decided to put me in this position etc.

I think this can happen to us because so often it’s true we are faced with things we are actually not ready for and sometimes we’ve chosen the thing we’re not ready for. Like I chose to do a chaplaincy internship and Martin Luther King chose to take on this leadership role. Sometimes we choose a new job or we choose to get married, we choose to have a child.  We make a choice that makes a big change in our life. Even if we choose it we might still not feel ready. And then of course there’s the things that we do not choose that life throws our way and so often life throws things at us that we are just not ready for. Things that we don’t want to be happening, diagnoses and injuries and losses and conflicts and unforeseen struggles that we just aren’t ready for. And then of course there’s the big picture I don’t think any of us is ready for; climate catastrophe. I don’t think we’re ready for war with Iran. There’s a lot of things that we’re not ready for and so I find it actually very comforting to read about Martin Luther King. This person we’ve lionized and statue-fide and made into a hero! How unready he felt when he had to go and give a speech at a mass meeting. This is what he said about what he did next when he only had 15 minutes left of the original 20 after he’d spent five in a state of anxiety.

He said; “With nothing left but faith in a power whose matchless strength stands over against the frailties and inadequacies of human nature I turned to my God in prayer. My words were brief and simple asking God to restore my balance and to be with me in a time when I needed his guidance more than ever.” And while my theological language is different than the language that Dr. King was using in his Christian faith in the black Baptist Church, I too had a similar way of dealing with my feelings of inadequacy. When I was in that elevator. I remember doing a very simple breathing meditation. I would breathe in and I would think about pulling in the power of love that I believe is in the universe and in all of us. And when I breathed out I would imagine breathing out all of the ego attachment that all of the focus is on me. It was a kind of practice of humility.

I think that prayer is also a kind of a practice of humility in a way of saying, well this is not really about me this is about something a lot bigger than me and if you’re a black Baptist preacher you’re going to say this is about God. And if you’re a Unitarian Universalist you might also say this is about God but you might say this is about love. This is about my commitment to justice. This is about my integrity. This is about helping someone. It’s a way of de centering ourselves to get out of all that chatter of fear and inadequacy. A way of re-centering us on what is most important to us. On what sustains us. I think it is a very important spiritual practice because when we get into that state of humility not only can we move forward with less fear but we’re also more open to learning and that’s one of the most wonderful things about doing something that scares us. We almost always learn something from it and in fact in that chaplaincy program it was an education program. The whole point was that I was supposed to be learning about pastoral care. So maybe it was okay that I didn’t already know how to do it. In this great turning we shall learn to lead in love in this great turning. We shall learn to lead in love.

Another thing I wasn’t ready for was when I had a kid. I kind of thought that maybe I was more ready for that than I was for chaplaincy but I was wrong. I think I was more ready for chaplaincy and in those first six months or so it was my community that kept me going. It was me being able to rely on other people. Certainly for things like meals and doing the dishes but also for the emotional support that I didn’t know I was going to need The people who would talk me down when I was freaking out about how I couldn’t possibly keep this little human alive and how I live the rest of my life and also keep this little human alive. It seemed impossible. It was the people who I leaned on and learned to lean on in that time that kept me going and that was not a practice that I had been particularly accustomed to, leaning on other people for emotional support and to talk me down. I preferred being the talker downer. The one offering the support.

But it was absolutely vital that I lean into that interdependence. I think that’s one of the other key ways that we get ready for the things that we can’t be ready for, is by making sure we’re strengthening our interdependence. Because we can’t get through anything alone. We have to rely on each other to get through. I know we do a good job of that in this community. Trying to create a space where we can reach out for help when we need it and get those meals and get those rides and get that emotional support. We need to all keep strengthening that practice because that practice is a practice that can see us through a lot. We shall be known by the company we keep. By the ones who circle around to tend these five. I know the people working on this movement that we now call the civil rights. A movement that knew that people had to come together and support each other and they also were learning something very important about coming together across differences. I think that is another key piece of our interdependence.

Now those mass meetings that I mentioned included a lot of kinds of different people. This is the way that King described it. “Looking back the mass meetings also cut across class lines. The vast majority present were working people yet there was always an appreciable number of professionals in the audience; physicians, teachers and lawyers, sat or stood beside domestic workers and unskilled laborers. The so-called big Negroes who owned cars and had never ridden the buses came to know the maids and the laborers who rode the buses. Every day men and women who had been separated from each other by false standards of class were now singing and praying together in a common struggle for freedom and human dignity”.

I hope we do that here too. And I think we do when I think about bringing together people who hadn’t been previously moving together in a common struggle for freedom and human dignity. What came into my mind was the dinner that John Gibbons mentioned last Sunday. The dinner that we had with our sanctuary guests and her family and her church friends and our sanctuary committee. There we didn’t all speak the same language, we didn’t all speak the same theological language either. Even when we were having the translation that brought the two languages together we had a wide variety of different experiences when we were gifted with that statue about the full armor of God. That’s a very different theological language and than most of us are used to in Unitarian Universalism. John said yes we are in a spiritual fight and yes we are fighting together a common struggle for freedom and human dignity. We shall be known by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change alive from deep within.

So the last piece I want to talk about and getting ready is courage. Now when I was in seminary I took a class with the late great Dr. James Cone who is a well-known black liberation theologian who came to prominence in the 1970s. He taught a class called Martin and Malcolm. You can probably guess which Martin and which Malcolm that it was about. In that class Dr. Cone was an intense professor and you had to really actually do your readings if you were going to be in Dr. Cone’s class. You couldn’t like skim them like you could for some other classes. He would just call on you and just ask you a question out of nowhere. In this class he was asking us about what was the decisive turning moment for Dr. King. What was the thing that you know that got him into this path he went on. Everybody was guessing all these different things from the readings and finally he was not satisfied with any of our answers and he leaned over and he said it was the kitchen table moment.

This is what he was talking about. This is also Dr. King recounting this event and this was also early on in the Montgomery bus boycott. I think there’s a racial slur that I’m not going to say out loud but you know what it is.

After a particularly strenuous day I settled in bed at a late hour. My wife had already fallen asleep and I was about to doze off when the telephone rang. An angry voice said ‘listen and (slur word), we’ve taken all we want from you. Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery’. I hung up but I could not sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me. At once I had reached the saturation point. Finally I went up to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing to be a coward. In this state of exhaustion when my courage had almost gone I determined to take my problem to God. My head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right but now I am afraid the people are looking to me for leadership and if I stand before them without strength and courage they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone. At that moment I experienced the presence of the divine as I had never before experienced it. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying stand up for righteousness stand up for truth. God will be at your side forever.”

King recounts that just three days later his home was bombed but he says that he accepted this calmly. That he had a new strength and a new trust. His faith was so much stronger than his fear. I know that faith can mean a lot of different things to a lot of people but what I’m talking about is not a belief. It wasn’t that he had a belief that was stronger than his fear. He had a lot of beliefs I’m sure but that wasn’t what got him through at the kitchen table. It was his relationship with God. It was an inner voice. It was something embodied and deeply felt and deeply known. Something he’d been practicing because clearly Dr. King was a praying man. Prayer was not a new thing he was trying out in this moment of need. Prayer was how he got through. It was how he got through that scary speech and the thing is prayer might not be the right practice for each of us but we better have a practice that does work for us. We’ve got to know what we’re going to know in our bodies what is our faith. What is our commitment that we can hold so close to us so that when we are at the end of our powers and we are afraid there’s something there that doesn’t let us go. It’s very hard to do this and the way I try is I try to use any opportunity where I’m afraid as a time to practice faith. To practice that commitment.

I got some really good advice from someone recently who said when you’re trying to force yourself to do something that you’re afraid to do. In my case it was making a phone call. I really hate making phone calls. He said don’t think about all the reasons you should do it. and like that you have to do this thing. Take a moment to get grounded in your values and who you want to be and I kind of was like, okay fine I’ll try it. So I tried it and honestly it was a really big difference. I took a moment just to be like, who do I want to be in this moment. When I had to make a phone call that was making me really nervous and the whole time the phone was ringing I was saying in my head, I am brave I am brave I am brave. Which is very cheesy and silly and I’m not usually an affirmations person but I gotta tell you it really made an impact. So whatever your thing is, whatever area of life you can practice moving through your fear, make sure you’re practicing because we don’t know when we’re going to need it. the most.

But we want to make sure we’re as ready as we can be when that time comes. It is time now. It is time now that we thrive. It is time that we made ourselves into the way. It is time now and what a time to be alive. In this great turning. we shall learn to lead in love. These times are terrifying. There is no doubt and I am very scared. I am scared that I brought a child into a world that is dying and going to hell. I am scared that a fascist is going to steal the next election in the United States. I’m scared but I also have faith.

I believe in us. I believe in our interconnection. I believe that it’s not just about me. It’s not just about you. That there’s something bigger than us. And I believe that we can be brave. I’ve seen us doing it. We are worthy vessels out there like Clarissa Pinkola Estes says we are. Worthy vessels and the more we practice being human, being connected and being brave the more ready we will be for the personal times that we need it and for the big picture. We shall be known by the company we keep, by the ones who serve. It is time now to learn to lead in love. Time to get ready. Time to keep moving through the things that we choose and the things we don’t choose and the times that are upon us because if we stay connected and lean into our values we can make it through. We can chart our way and we can learn to lead and love.

May it be so.