The King-Dom Come? (Dr. Anthony Stringer)
This is a portion of Martin Luther
King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail. King was a
Christian, and used Christian symbolism to make powerful statements.
Though many of us here today are not Christian, I ask that you accept
King's use of Christian language and symbol because for me to
alter them would detract from the power of his words. King writes:
"I must admit that I was initially disappointed to be …
categorized [an extremist]. But as I continued to think about the
matter I gradually gained a bit of satisfaction from being considered
Was not Jesus an extremist in love?
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that
despitefully sue you."
Was notAmos an extremist for justice?
"Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a
Was not John Bunyan an extremist? "I
will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my
Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist?
"This nation cannot survive half slave and half free."
Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist?
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of
extremist will we be? Will we be extremists for hate or will we be
extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of
injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice? In that
dramatic scene on Calvary's hill, three men were crucified. We
must not forget that all three were crucified for the same
crime—-the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality,
and thusly fell below their environment. The other, Jesus, was an
extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his
environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation and the world
are in dire need of creative extremists."
The King-dom Come?
Earlier, I had to ask your indulgence of the Christian symbolism in
the passage I read to you from Martin Luther King's letter. I had
to do so because King was a Christian. You cannot progress far into
his writings or his speeches without running into his Christianity.
You can't truly have an authentic encounter with King, without
also to some degree encountering his Christianity. It is an essential
part of who he is. His Christianity is the foundation for his vision
and it fundamentally shaped his character.
The other thing you can't escape when you enter into King's
writing or you listen to him speaking is his blackness. Now this may
seem obvious until you consider the fact that for a black man or a
black woman to be accepted by the dominant culture in America, they
have to, by and large, stop sounding black. Turn onBryant
Gumbel. Turn on Brenda Woods.
And then close your eyes. What do you hear? You hear a black person
who has learned to get over by sounding white.
Now I say this without intending any criticism. I am proud of Bryant
Gumbel and Brenda Woods. But no matter the context, no matter the
situation, no matter the circumstance, even in his most articulate
moments, Dr. King sounded like just what he was — a black, Southern
Baptist preacher. Earlier we had what I consider to be an essential
and inescapable encounter with Dr. King's Christianity. We are now
going to have what I think is an essential and inescapable encounter
with Dr. King's blackness.
Now I know some of you are starting to get a little worried. Some of
you are starting to sweat. But you can trust me. I got you through the
Christianity part relatively unscathed. I can get you through the
black part, too. Now in doing the black part, we're going to have
to violate one of our UU taboos. Now I'm not criticizing. I like
taboos. They help maintain structure and order in society and I like
structure and order.
But just this Sunday, just this service, we're going to violate
one of those taboos. And after this service, I promise, we'll go
back to doing things the normal way. But today, we're going to
violate the taboo that says you must sit there and listen to me
quietly. You're going to violate that taboo by every once in a
while saying "Amen." Now I realize that you're not used
to this and that you're not going to be very good at it. But
that's okay. We're going to practice. And so that you
won't have to worry whether it's the right time to say
"Amen," I'm going to cue you.
Okay, let's practice …
As suggested by the title of my sermon, I want to raise the question,
"Has the Kingdom come?" The Kingdom I speak of is the one
articulated in King's writings and speeches. When King began his
ministry in 1954 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery,
Alabama, America was a very different place than it is today. King was
in this first pastorate only a year beforeRosa
Parks grew sick and tired of being sick and tired and
refused to yield the seat on the bus that was rightfully hers. King,
along with others, most notably Ralph David
Abernathy, organized and led the year-long Montgomery
bus boycott. The success of that boycott catalyzed the changing of
America and catapulted King to a place of prominence in what then
would have been called the Negro or the colored community. Catapulted
King to a place where he could begin to articulate a new America. To a
place where he could envision a Kingdom. To a place where he could
begin the long journey to that Kingdom.
Drawing a comparison to the biblical Moses,
King said in one his most moving speeches, that he had been to the
mountain top, had seen the promised land, knew it was there, and knew
surely that we would get there. Will the congregation say
"Amen." Knew we would get there but knew just as surely that
he would not make it there with us.
The Kingdom that King envisioned is everywhere in his words from 1955
until his death in 1968. It is a Kingdom in which African Americans
would not be mired in unremitting poverty. It is a Kingdom in which
African Americans need not fear to travel too far south or too far
away from kith and kin. It is a Kingdom in which weary travelers would
be welcome at every hotel, inn, and way station, regardless of skin
color, regardless of station in life. A Kingdom where skin color is
not cause for suspicion and does not guarantee conviction. A Kingdom
that reaches out to include all its citizens in the voting booth, in
the halls of learning, in the workplace, and in the institutions of
power. It is a Kingdom whose citizens do not shy away from each other
in ignorance, intolerance, fear, and hatred.
And without question, we have come so very far since the buses stopped
rolling in Montgomery because one lone woman would not yield her seat.
Will the congregation say "Amen." But have we reached the
Kingdom? Before we answer, we must pause to remember what we celebrate
today and tomorrow.
We celebrate what has gotten us thus far on our journey to King's
vision. You know the great things. You know the bold strides King
took. Leading the Montgomery bus boycott when he could have settled
instead for a quiet and prosperous pastorate. Assuming the presidency
of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Claiming and never
letting go of the moral high ground of peaceful demonstration and
civil disobedience when he could well have pandered to and fomented
the anger of the dispossessed. Speaking the truth, time and again,
though it cost him friends and gave ammunition to already powerful
enemies. Putting body and soul on the line in that harrowing march
from Selma to Montgomery. And again, a final time in Memphis,
Tennessee, where an assassin caught up with him at last.
Ever broadening his vision. Ever widening the scope of the movement.
Taking bold strides. From segregated bus seats to segregated water
fountains, bathrooms, and movie houses. From segregated movie houses
to segregated schools. From segregated schools to voting rights. From
demanding voting rights to demanding an end to poverty. From
antipoverty to antiwar. From antiwar to envisioning, in his words,
"a reconstruction of the entire society, a revolution of
values." His first book, published in 1958, was entitled
appropriately enough "Stride Toward Freedom." King was a
taker of bold strides. Will the congregation say "Amen."
But we must look back with pride and admiration not just at the bold
strides. We must honor also the small strides. The small steps. The
quiet, persistent acts of courage, by men and women of all
complexions. Acts which do not make it into the history books, for
there the bold strides alone are recorded. But acts which nonetheless
must never fade from our memories. Bold strides point the way, but it
is by small steps that people and society follow.
Over the past weeks I've listened to many stories from members of
UUCA and T.H.E. about their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement
and the subsequent movements it helped to inspire. I've heard
about many small steps taken with courage and compassion.
Beth Gross' integration of a northern
white community and her persistence in showing up at the PTA and the
other community forums where her dignified and graceful presence was a
statement in and of itself. Anne Olson's
voter education work which led her from one small southern
congregation to another where she trained people who were about to
vote for the very first time in their lives. Nan
Orrock's lifetime of work as civil rights activist,
peace activist, labor activist, women's rights activist, and
I heard stories from Angelika Pohl; stories
about coming to this country as a child from Austria, wanting to find
a place for herself, yet recognizing the injustice of segregation in
the South. A recognition that led Angelika to breach a cultural taboo
and to join with blacks in picketing Rich's because of their
segregation policies. I heard stories from Janet
Paulk from the times when she worked as part of the War
On Poverty Program in Charlotte. Stories about the sadness of seeing
children blighted by poverty, lack of education, and lack of
opportunity. Stories of the fearful and rabid racism on the part of
the whites who could not understand the work she was doing. But also
stories filled with the exhilaration of knowing you are a part of
something that is changing the world.
And I heard stories of personal transformation. Stories from people
likeGail Livingston. Growing up in a small,
segregated town in Mississippi, she didn't march or protest back
in the 60s. Nonetheless she could not help but be affected by what she
saw around her. Gail could not help but be affected by the way
James Meredith was treated when he tried to
integrate the University of Mississippi the same year she entered as a
freshman. She could not help but be affected by the death of
Medgar Evers, and the way small town
Mississippi reacted to that death. What she saw around her changed
her, in quiet ways, that would not blossom until many years later when
she began to raise children of her own in a way that guaranteed they
would not learn the prejudices she had learned early in her life.
I could go on to tell you about Marti
Keller's ministry to women and children of color,
the work of labor organizers Vicki Berrong
and Paul McLennan with MARTA employees, the
antiviolence work of Qiyamah Rahman, Eric Jacobs and
Carole Anderson's protests against the U.S. Army
School of the Americas. But the stories truly would never end.
Let me ask instead for those of you who have been involved in civil
rights or subsequent human rights work to stand so that we may
recognize you. There are six flowers on the table in the center of the
sanctuary. Would three of you from this side and three from this side
come down and take a flower each on behalf of all of you. And accept
our applause as thanks for each of your small steps on behalf of many
But have we reached the Kingdom? Have we reached the place Dr. King
saw from that metaphorical mountain top? I believe that the man who
broke the back of segregated public transit in Montgomery and who,
instead of resting on his laurels, looked for what was next to do — I
believe that man, would say no. The Kingdom has not come. I believe
the man who saw Lyndon Johnson's Great
Society legislation pass but then felt compelled by his sense of
justice to come out against Johnson's escalation of war in Vietnam
— I believe that man, would say no. The Kingdom has not come.
He would look out on all that has been done and say there is yet more
to do. He would take yet another bold stride, forcing us to take yet
another small step. He would look at the way our schools and
communities are quietly becoming resegregated and would say our
journey has just begun. Thirty-six percent of black Americans live in
communities and attend schools that are so deeply segregated that the
term "hypersegregation" is now being used by social
scientists to describe it. We have not come to the Kingdom.
King would hear the claims that the playing field is now level, would
hear his own words twisted and parroted by those who attack
affirmative action programs and he would say, sadly, the Kingdom has
not come. He would look at the plight of black farmers, their ranks
numbering 925,000 in 1920, but today dwindled to fewer than 18,000.
King would look at black farmers today and perhaps be reminded of the
sanitation workers he had flown to aid when he was gunned down. King
would look at the $150 a month being offered to black farmers by the
Department of Agriculture in payment for decades of loan
discrimination and would be shocked by the injustice. The Kingdom has
King would look at the disingenuous denials of Mississippi Congressman
Trent Lott and Georgia Congressman
Bob Barr, who will speak before any racist
group with a checkbook, and he would say in indignation and outrage,
that the Kingdom is still very far away. King would look at the
maximum penalty 6 month sentences handed down byJudge
Robert Elliot in the trial of the School of the Americas
protestors and would be struck by the irony. This now 90 year old
judge, known none too affectionately as "Maximum Bob," is
the same anti-integration judge who jailed Martin Luther King some 20
plus years ago. The Kingdom has yet to come.
And so, even as we honor the bold strides of our heroes, cheer the
small steps of our congregants, we must acknowledge that the journey
has yet to end. As we look to past accomplishments, we must nourish
future hopes. I ask now for the children and the youth who are present
in the sanctuary to stand.
You have seen the adults and senior members of our congregations stand
and receive our acknowledgment. Their small steps have brought us to
the present. Your small steps, and perhaps even great strides, will
take us to our future. On the table in the center of the sanctuary is
a container of seeds. I ask each of you to come down and take one
seed, symbolic of what you shall one day do. As you come down, accept
our applause for the small steps and the great strides in the cause of
justice that we challenge you to take in the years ahead. Please come
The Kingdom comes with us. It rides upon our shoulders. Bold strides
may point the way, but in steps small, persistent and true, comes the
Kingdom. Will the congregation say "Amen."