Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Red Lollipops and Mountaintops

In both Middle and Upper School Chapel today, we celebrated the work and witness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The celebration was delayed because our chapel day last week was January 20th, and instead of worshipping together we all watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. How fitting it was, so many people the world over observed, that we were able to wake the day after the dreamer's holiday and discover the dream had come true...

Exodus 3:7-10; Psalm 16:1, 5-11; Luke 6:27-36
When I was in high school I joined the Poetry Club. I liked writing and even though I was pretty shy, I thought it would be fun to talk with other folks about the poems we all wrote, and to learn to read poetry aloud, which is much different than reading a paragraph. So I went after school to my English teacher, Mr. Pell’s classroom, where the desks were arranged in a circle and some of the other club members were already sitting there. We pulled out our poems and one by one started to read them out loud.

I was amazed at what I heard. All kinds of images and symbols and words we all only barely knew. The poems were deep and rich and filled with meaning. After each reading, we talked at length about we had heard and where the poems had taken us.
Then came my turn. I flipped my notebook open to the page I had decided to share and began reading my poem. When I was done, there was an awful silence. No one said anything until finally one person spoke up. “Your writing,” he said, “is so simple, kind of like a big red lollipop.”

I was devastated. Right away I thought of how the rest of the poems had been like gooey, chewy chocolate bars with complicated layers of caramel and nougat and cookies and crisps. Red lollipops were for kids. I wanted my writing to be as deep and rich as everyone else’s, the kind of poems that you have to work at enjoying to their fullest, like a chocolate bar whose textures and flavors linger in your mouth and you have to tease them out with your tongue. A red lollipop, though? There’s not much there…

As I got ready for today’s chapel services, and especially for this sermon, I felt like I was right back in Mr. Pell’s classroom again. Since we’ve been back from our winter break, we’ve heard from the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church, a prominent former governor of Mississippi, and the President of the United States, men and women who have blazed trails through history 
and accomplished extraordinary things. And now comes…my turn…lollipops, anyone?

Today, because we did not have chapel last week, we are honoring the life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose words, both poetic and prophetic, have now inspired generations of Americans to make true the declaration our founding father wrote so long ago, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal…

Martin Luther King’s speeches are full of stunning images drawn from the headlines of his day, headlines highlighting the horrible injustices that many have suffered simply because of the color of their skin. His speeches are full of pictures painted with sweeping strokes of words about dreams and marches and mountaintops. His words sing of harmony and freedom, repeating the refrains of people who longed to be free at last. And through it all he weaves threads from the holy scriptures of his faith, including the scriptures we heard today with their great golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you.

And yet, despite the exceptional quality of Martin Luther King’s speeches, despite the many honors and awards he received, including the Nobel Peace prize, despite the crowds who gathered to hear this poet-prophet speak of love and justice and what he called a kind of dangerous unselfishness… Despite the wonder of his words, there was nothing at all complicated or layered or mysterious about his message, a message so simple and eternal that we’ve heard it echoed already this year in the words of Bishop Jefferts Schori, who called upon us to arise and shine the light of God’s love in the lives of all who live in darkness and fear. We heard King’s message echoed in the words of Governor Winter, who challenged us to take our place in history by standing up for freedom and justice for all. And we heard King’s message echoed in the words of President Obama, who urged us to remember that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness, that we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and that we are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth.

And so it is that despite the richness and depth of history, despite life’s layers of meaning like the layers of a fine chocolate bar, there is nothing at all complicated about how we are called to live – it’s a red lollipop life. I’ve learned that doesn’t mean it is childish, or that there is nothing to it, but rather that like a red lollipop we are called to a life that is simple and straightforward and sincere. Martin Luther King wrote, Everybody can be great... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve (although it will make your English teachers happy if you do). You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle…you don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity…You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.

On the night before President Obama’s inauguration, poet Suzan-Lori Parks read her own words on National Public Radio, and if ever there was a red lollipop poem, this is it. Simple. Straightforward. Sincere…

U being U
Mr. President Elect
Makes me want to get MY stuff

I feel like starting with something RADICAL
Love my Neighbor
Like share what I’ve got
Like think for myself
Like ask the hard questions
Like lean toward the good and help keep the peace

You being you, Mr. President-Elect
Makes me want to look on others with respect
Makes me wanna
Practice Radical Inclusion, you know,
Open my heart wide, especially in the presence of folks who
Are not like me, you know,
Work to see my Brother
In the Other
You make me want to entertain all my far-out ideas
Make me wanna represent the race, as in the human race,
And know that, like You, I too am Prized…

I feel like picking up the trash in the park or on the beach
I think I’ll teach, and learn, from all I meet
I think I’ll apologize in person for all our faults
And try to make amends for our shortcomings…

Because I believe
In the dream
And I am ready
To wake up
And live it.


1 comment:

Julie Nolte Owen said...

Thank you. I'm sharing the poem at the end of the sermon with my students today. I had not heard it.