Martin Luther King Jr. in 2023

Homily copyright (c) 2022 Dan Harper. Delivered to First Parish in Cohasset. The homily text may contain typographical errors.


This morning’s reading is from the book Race and Secularism in American by Jonathan S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd.

“Thirty feet high, arms folded, with a steady, piercing gaze, Martin Luther King Jr. now stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Completed in 2011, the King memorial seals the embrace of the once-controversial leader by those across the political spectrum….. Ornamenting King’s tall figure are fourteen engraved quotations from his sermons, speeches, and writings. Justice, Love, and peace are recurring themes. ‘We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’ ‘I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.’ … Amazingly, nowhere among these quotations is there mention of God, sin, Jesus, heaven, or hell. King the Christian preacher is absent. Even more astounding, there is no mention of the African American community for which King so vehemently fought. … King’s mainstream success, it seems, has come at the cost of his own religious and racial identity. Or, put another way, the careful management of race and religion are the prerequisite for accepting the public significance of a fundamentally raced religious figure….

“[But] Martin Luther King Jr. did not speak in a secular, race-neutral language. He preached, and he preached from his position as a black American. … In his final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, King imagines a conversation with God, … cites [the Biblical book of] Amos, describes his miraculous survival from an assassination attempt, prophesies his own death, and concludes, ‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!’ King speaks in the first-person plural about black Americans: ‘We mean business now, and we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world….’ In short, King’s critical voice was not just a moral voice. It was a theological voice, a black theological voice. This is the voice that is muted and managed by the secular and postracial regime of America in 2011.”

Homily — “Martin Luther King Jr. in 2023”

This morning’s reading raises a challenging question: Is our culture trying to take the religion out of the Christian minister named Martin Luther King? Is our culture trying to take the blackness out of the African American activist named Martin Luther King? Based on the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., the answer appears to be yes.

Honestly, a lot of people would find it easier to believe that we’ve entered a post-racial world where we no longer have to worry about racial conflict. But by any objective measure — wage disparities, health outcomes, average family wealthy — racial inequality still persists in the Unites States today. As much as we might wish we’re in a post-racial world, the reality is that we’re not.

And honestly, a lot of us Unitarian Universalists would find it easier if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had not been a Christian minister. These days, Christians are stereotyped as being racist, anti-gay, and anti-Semitic. Of course we know that Dr. King was a different kind of Christian, someone who fought for racial and economic justice as a central part of his religion. But it would be easier if he were something else.

But let’s think for a moment about why it is so important that martin Luther King was a liberal Christian. Many of us, when we think of Christianity, focus our attention on Christian beliefs — belief in God, belief in an afterlife, belief in Jesus as a spiritual leader. But the Christian stories, the Christian myths and narratives, were perhaps more important in Dr. King’s preaching and public speaking. He was a master storyteller. He retold ancient stories that helped us to understand ourselves, that energized us to fight injustice and change the world.

One of King’s favorites stories, a story he returned to again and again, was the story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom. This turns out to be a particularly powerful story, because it comes from the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, and so it is also considered a sacred story by Jews and Muslims. Not only that, but the story of Moses is such an integral part of Western culture, it can be shared by people of other religions or of no religion at all. And Dr. King was particularly good at working with people of other religious traditions. Lewis W. Baldwin, a scholar who studies King, recently said, “Dr. King came up with a new and creative approach to interreligious dialogue, rooted in a Christian-Jewish-Hindu-Buddhist-Islamic solidarity … [He connected] people of different religions in his struggle for civil and human rights.” With that in mind, let’s look at the story of Moses and thin about how Dr. King used this story to unite people of religions.

Moses, you will remember, belonged to the Israelite people. But he was born in Egypt, at a time when Egypt was ruled by the Pharaohs. The Israelites were slaves of the Egyptians. Moses’s mother, worried about what the future held for her infant son, came up with a novel strategy: she left him where the Pharaoh’s daughter would find him. The Pharaoh’s daughter decided to raise the baby boy, and so Moses became a trusted part of the Pharoah’s royal family.

But Moses had a strong sense of right and wrong. When he was grown up, he saw one of the Egyptian slave masters beating one of the Israelite slaves. Moses could not stand the injustice of this, and killed the wicked slave master. But then he had to flee from Egypt. He fled to Mount Horeb where the god of the Israelites appeared and told Moses that he must return to Egypt to help his people escape from slavery.

So Moses went back to Egypt, and went to Pharaoh, and said to him, “Let my people go.” Pharaoh refused, of course. But Moses had the god of the Israelites on his side, and with the help of his god, Moses forced all-powerful Pharaoh to release the Israelites from slavery.

The Israelites fled from Egypt, and headed towards the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, where they knew they would be safe. At the last moment, Pharoah sent his army out to capture the Israelites. Pharaoh’s army caught up with the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. But the god of the Israelites had a plan — he allowed the Israelites to cross the Red Sea on dry land, but when Pharoah’s army came along, the waters of the Red Sea rose up and engulfed them. (The story isn’t exactly clear how this happened. I always imagined that the Israelites crossed an arm of the Red Sea at low tide, but Pharaoh’s army was foolish enough to try to cross when the tide was rising).

The Israelites had to spend forty years wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. They could not return to Egypt, obviously. They were refugees, and no other land would let them enter. The wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula is a desert. There is not much to eat there. But the god of the Israelites sent down manna, a nutritious food that apparently tasted something like flatbread flavored with coriander. Eating manna day after day got pretty boring, but at least they didn’t starve to death.

Finally, after many adventures, Moses and the other leaders of the Israelites found a country where they could go and live in freedom. They called this new country the “Promised Land.” But by this time, Moses was one hundred and twenty years old. He knew he would not live long enough to enter the Promised Land himself. He turned over the leadership of the Israelites to Joshua, who was sort of like his vice president. Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo, from the summit of which he could see the Promised Land spread out before him. And there he died.

That’s the outline of the story of Moses. Let’s think about why this is such a powerful story.

First of all, the story of Moses tells us that everyone has human rights. Even thought the Israelites were a despised minority, they had human rights just like the all-powerful Pharaoh. In the story, those human rights came from the god of the Israelites. But like all stories, this story can be interpreted differently by different listeners, and when people from other religions hear this story, they can substitute something else for the god of the Israelites. Some Unitarian Universalists, for example, might feel that human rights come from the inherent worth and dignity of every person, but we can still appreciate the power and the truth behind this story.

Second of all, this story gives a sort of playbook for how to fight for your human rights. The story of Moses makes it clear that it’s NOT easy to free people from slavery. The enslavers, people like the Pharaoh, do not want their slaves to go free. The Pharaoh and other enslavers may eventually agree to give their slaves freedom, and then change their minds and try to enslave people all over again. Then once the formerly enslaved people finally get free of Pharaoh, their troubles are not over, and they may have to wander in the wilderness for years eating nothing but manna. Even then, just like Moses, some of those who fight free of slavery will not get to live in the Promised Land. Like Moses, they will die just when victory is in sight.

Third, the story gives us Moses as a role model for reluctant leadership. Moses could have stayed his whole life in the comfortable entourage of the royal family of Egypt. But his strong sense of right and wrong forced him to take action. Even then, even when he took action by killing the Egyptian slavedriver, he just wanted to escape. But his god — we might equally say, his conscience — held him to a higher standard. Moses decided he had to go back and confront Pharaoh, even though he didn’t want to. Moses didn’t really want to be a leader at all, but he realized he didn’t have a choice. His conscience would not let him back down.

Probably the most powerful part of the story is the ending. Moses did not live to see ultimate success. Yet he fought for his people’s freedom anyway, because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes, we have to do the work even though we know that we’re not going to live to enjoy the final fruits of success.

You can see what a powerful story this is. You do not have to believe in Martin Luther King’s Christian god in order to feel the power of this story. You do not have to be a Christian, Jew, or Muslim to feel the power of this story. This is a universal story, a story of how to break free from enslavement.

At the same time, while it is a universal story, Dr. King used this story to point out the particular challenges faced by African Americans in the United States. Like the Israelites, after African Americans were finally freed from slavery in 1863, Pharaoh didn’t want to let them go. We could say that African Americans have been wandering in the wilderness, and still are wandering in the wilderness — they’re still wandering in the wilderness because they still don’t have wage equity, they still have less household wealth on average, and as we have seen in the COVID pandemic they still have worse health outcomes.

So it is that Martin Luther King used powerful stories from his religious tradition to get at universal truths for people of all religions, or of no religion at all. But we need to remember that Dr. King remained firmly grounded in his own liberal Christian religious tradition. To understand why this is so important, let’s return for a moment to King scholar Lewis Baldwin, what argues: “The man and his legacy are being distorted. His legacy is being hijacked, misinterpreted. For an example, on the extreme right of the political spectrum, there are those who argue that Dr. King was opposed to affirmative action, and they make that argument without any proof at all…. the people who make these claims obviously have not read Dr. King.” Baldwin goes on to add that most of us who are religious liberals DO understand Dr. King correctly. However, Baldwin goes on to add that we have not pushed back adequately on the “distortion of Dr. King’s message, his ideals.”

And one of the ways we religious liberals can push back against misinterpretations of Dr. King is that we can embrace the whole of his teaching and preaching. He was an African American man who used the challenges faced by his race to reach out to people of all races. He was a liberal Christian who used the wealth of his religious tradition to reach out to people of all religions.

A curious incident on the road to Jerusalem

The sermon below was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, California, at the 9:30 and 11:00 a.m. services. The sermon text below is a reading text; the actual sermon contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2015 Daniel Harper.

In the story for all ages this morning, I told you about how Jesus came to Jerusalem, and about how for some people he may have symbolized the hope of spiritual leadership against the occupation of Judea by the foreign Roman Empire.

Now I would like to tell you story of a curious incident that happened while Jesus was traveling to Jerusalem. We Unitarian Universalists are quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus was a religious leader who fought for social justice, like Martin Luther King. We are much less comfortable with the story of this curious incident. But since I am a Unitarian Universalist, I feel we should look carefully at that which makes us uncomfortable.

So here’s the story of the curious incident:

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Of course he knew he was taking a risk by traveling to Jerusalem: that his visit could be perceived as defiance to the Roman empire, and that his visit could be perceived as challenging the religious leaders at the Temple of Jerusalem. When we remember that we Unitarians insist on the full humanity of Jesus, and when we remember that the we just recognized the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s march to Selma, you and I will be tempted to draw parallels between Dr. King’s religiously-inspired social justice movement, and whatever it was that Jesus was doing.

But —

According to the old stories, Jesus was also a faith healer.

On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his many followers traveled through the city of Jericho. As they were leaving Jericho, according the book of Christian scriptures called the Gospel of Mark, a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road called out to Jesus. When you imagine this blind beggar, call to mind someone who is wearing cast-off clothing, someone who is dirty, someone who lives on the streets because there is no other place for him to live, someone who is as low in the social hierarchy as you can go. If you’re thinking about a street person that you might see in the city, go lower still: there were no social services in Judea, there was a much wider divide between the haves and the have-nots, and physical disabilities were most often perceived as the result of a person being taken over by a demon. No, this blind beggar that called out to Jesus was lower in the social hierarchy than a street person is in the United States — and that’s saying something.

This blind beggar calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many among the followers of Jesus tried to hush him up. Here’s how I imagine the conversation: “Dude, what are you doing, we’re on our way to JERUSALEM! Jesus doesn’t have TIME for this right now. Look, here’s a piece of silver [that would be a lot of money to give a beggar!] — here’s a piece of silver, now hush up.”

Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. were on the march to Selma, doing that arm-in-arm social justice walking thing with some heavyweight social justice leaders — as in that famous photograph that shows Dr. King with John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — imagine if Dr. King were walking along like that, when up pops this homeless disabled guy and says, “Dr. King, heal me!” All the organizers of the march are going to converge on that homeless guy, slip him twenty bucks, and get him to shut up so that Dr. King can proceed to Selma without being delayed.

But whatever Jesus’s followers said to the blind guy, he wouldn’t shut up. He shouts out: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Son of David, indeed! Here’s this blind beggar shouting out his feeling that Jesus is descended from the line of kings of Jerusalem. Talk about deliberately provoking the Roman authorities!

And what does Jesus do? He stops, and tells his followers to bring the blind guy over. The blind beggar makes his way through the crowd to Jesus, and Jesus says to him: “What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

To which Jesus responds: “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Upon which, the blind man regained his sight and… (1)


Upon which — my Unitarian Universalist skepticism kicks in. (Did you notice the same thing in yourself? Did you notice your skepticism kicking in?) The blind man regained his sight? — I don’t think so! Modern medical science would not be able to cure someone of blindness just by saying “Your faith has healed you”; so there’s no way some wandering, semi-literate Judean religious teacher could cure blindness in this way.

And here we might get into arguments with our conservative Christian neighbors. There are many conservative Christians in the Bay Area who do believe that Jesus made it so that this blind man could see again. We might also get into arguments with some of our more liberal neighbors, people inspired by the New Age, who are not conservative Christians, but who do believe that such miracles happen. We might also get into arguments with our liberal Christian neighbors who don’t believe in the literal truth of such miracles but who see miracles as metaphorically true, or who choose not to impose anachronistic twenty-first century Western worldviews on first century Middle Eastern stories. Being Unitarian Universalists, we find it easy to get into arguments with lots of different people!

But personally, I’m not particularly interested in getting into such arguments. I am especially not interested in arguments that aim to debunk this story of healing because it is unscientific. I am not interested in such arguments because from my point of view, there’s a big difference between curing someone, and healing someone. In a perfect example of what I mean, I can point to hospice programs. A hospice program cares for people as they are dying. Hospice programs do not cure people, nor keep people from dying. But I can tell you from personal observation that hospice programs do provide some sort of healing benefit to people. My mother was in hospice before she died; my partner’s mother was in hospice before she died; my father is currently in hospice. In each case, from the point of view of the dying person, hospice helped them to become more whole as persons, to be healed even as they moved towards death.

There is a difference between what dying feels like to the person who is dying, and what an objective scientific observer would report from the outside. An objective scientific observer who is confronted with a terminally ill person is going to conclude that death is — let’s say — 99% likely. That’s the objective viewpoint. From an objective viewpoint, we might say that if there is a one percent chance that the person might actually recover, then we should keep that person in a scientifically-run hospital with all the latest technology, hoping to prolong their life as much as possible. But the dying person might have another viewpoint; they might prefer the quality of life they get in hospice care, avoiding what appears to them to be intrusive medical procedures.

There is a difference between curing and healing. The science of medicine now has a great deal of technical know-how, and medicine can cure many ailments that would have baffled the people of Jesus’s time. Thank God for that! I for one am glad that we can cure so many ailments.

But healing is a different matter. If you are healed, as opposed to cured, the final result will be different. To illustrate what I mean, let me tell you another brief story from early on in Jesus’ ministry. Here is how the story is translated in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

“Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told [Jesus] about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And [Jesus] cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (2)

Feminist Bible scholars have pointed this translation is wrong. Instead of saying, “she began to serve them,” the translation should read, “she ministered to them.” In the original text, the word used for what the woman does is “ministered” — the same word that is used to describe what the male followers of Jesus get to do. In other words, this woman engages in the same kind of religious leadership that the male followers of Jesus do. Unfortunately, the sexism that pervades our modern culture always tends to obscure the religious leadership of women. In fact, this woman does more than many of Jesus’s male followers: her house becomes the place where Jesus does even more healing. (3)

(And if I were in a snarky mood — OK, OK, I am in a snarky mood! — since I am in a snarky mood, I could go on to point out that, like Biblical scholarship, supposedly-objective science is also pervaded by sexism. We all know that science is sexist, we all know that women are underrepresented in the hard sciences, we all know how medical science is more likely to research specifically male medical problems than specifically female problems. All this can be objectively proven. And beyond sexism, we know that science is pervaded by racism, beginning with the Enlightenment attempts to provide scientific “proof” for race and racism, proceeding through the twentieth century with scientific eugenics, up to the present day is ways we may only dimly recognize but which will no doubt embarrass us when the next generation points it out to us. That’s enough snark for now, and so I’ll return to the sermon.)

Of course, ancient Judea was also pervaded by sexism and racism, and Jesus himself certainly appears sexist by my standards (though he seems to me to be less racist than anyone living in the United States today). But the feminist interpretation of the story makes the point that when the woman was healed of her fever by Jesus, she immediately turned around to engage in ministry herself. She was healed, and then she became a religious leader; and the way she became a religious leader was to minister to others, to even heal them of their weariness and their hurts and their self doubts.

This I believe is really the point of Jesus’s healing ministry. Did he actually cure people of physical ailments? We have no way of objectively answering this question two thousand years after the fact. Many of us skeptical Unitarian Universalists would say — no, he didn’t actually cure people.

But did he heal people? Oh yes. Yes indeed. I think Jesus healed people in much the same way hospice heals people who are dying: they are still going to die, but instead of being emotionally overwhelmed by death, they are healed to that they can more fully experience the love that surrounds them. So it is that when Jesus heals the blind beggar, Jesus may not cure his eyesight, but Jesus does heal his soul. And so the blind beggar “followed Jesus in the way” — he followed in the way of love and kindness, and by so doing he both loved and experienced the love of others. When Jesus healed the woman with the fever, she in her turn took on religious leadership, and in her turn helped to heal others; and that makes two miracles: a woman in religious leadership, and a person following in the way of love and kindness.

When we can see this difference between curing and healing — where curing can be objectively measured and subject to scientific rigor, while healing must be judged by the subjective viewpoint — when we can see this, we might better understand some otherwise intractable problems.

Let’s take for example the problem of racism in the United States. We can provide cures for racism through laws and regulations, through addressing objective mechanisms that perpetuate racial bias; we can even provide cures for racism through physical actions like marching on Selma and protesting Ferguson and writing letters to elected representatives. But we also need healing, and therein lay the brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr.: he not only worked toward a cure for racial bias, he helped heal people of racism.

Let’s go on to the problem of death and dying. In the end, medical science cannot cure death: my father is in hospice, and he will not be cured. But he is in hospice care, and that has helped to bring him some healing — not a cure, but healing.

We could go on to many other problems that face us. For some of the problems that face us, it is not enough to cure the problem by finding a rational, scientific solution — we also need healing. And for some of the problems that face us, a cure may not impossible — but healing may be possible.

As a skeptic, I do not believe that the blind beggar was cured by Jesus. Jesus did not repair whatever physical ailment afflicted his eyes or his nervous system. In fact, the Gospel of Mark says only: “Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” His faith made him well; he was healed, not cured. As a blind beggar, he had been kicked to the margins of society; but Jesus helped heal his soul, so that he could once again see love and kindness. No wonder he followed Jesus in the way. No wonder he joined a religious movement that promised to spread love and kindness throughout Judea, even to Jerusalem, even to the place that embodied oppressive foreign rule.

And we may all hope for this kind of healing in our own lives. Each one of us probably has problems or pain or sorrow that we wish could be cured, but where we know a cure is difficult or impossible. Yet even when a cure is impossible, we may still be healed. And if we are healed — even if we get just a little bit of healing — we may find ourselves like the blind beggar, getting up off the side of the road, and following in the way of love and kindness. We may find ourselves like the woman with a fever, who was healed, who got up, and who continued her healing by ministering to others. For this is how healing works: when we begin to be healed, we are no longer isolated in pain or difficulties, we are returned to the web of interdependence of all beings, we are returned to love.



(1) Retold from Mark 20.46-52, New Revised Standard Version translation.

(2) NRSV, Mark 1.29-34

(3) For a concise statement of this viewpoint, see Mary Ann Tolbert, “Mark,” The Woman’s Bible Companion, ed. Carol A. Newsome and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 1992), p. 267.