So we are here on MLK Sunday, and that’s kind of special. And it’s special because of the commitment that Dr. King made, not only to this country, but indeed to the world. And so it’s important that on this particular day, we take time to look at what it really means to be followers of Jesus, but also of Dr. King.

Now I have a few political announcements I need to make. It’s called Factual Minimums. So everything you see in the book, in the bulletin, is true. You can fact check it. You can go to the newspapers, you can go to Wikipedia, but it’s true. I did go to college. I have one wife that I’ve been married to for 63 years. I have some children and some grandchildren, and I do worship at the Cathedral. That’s true. Check it out. Go to Wikipedia or talk to my biographer, Hildi.  She’ll straighten you out. I say that because one of the things that I’ve been able to do as Fran and I live in a retirement center in Silver Spring, is that there are a number of people there that just make you come alive. And one of those persons agreed to join us this morning, and her name is Mrs. Hortense McClinton. She’s 104 years old. So watch what you say. She knows a lot.

And the other thing is I want to acknowledge is that you know, your kids keep forgetting that they came through you. So you get bossed around and you know that go here, go there, do this, do that. And that happens. That happens a lot. So you get used to it. So you try to figure out what are your next steps? And so, you know, my daughter is here with her daughter, my granddaughter, who’s named after me. And, so I’m sort of under, you know, a little pressure here. And my wife also keeps telling me that we’ve been married 63 years. That if I want to make 64, there are some conditions. So I’m thinking, I’m thinking a bit about those conditions.

So what’s important, particularly in the kind of climate in which we live, is to be clear whose side we’re on.  Dr. King’s phrase is, “we are now in that period called the fierce urgency of now”. You know what I’m talking about? The fierce urgency of now is here. And it is up to us to see how we are going to respond to the fierce urgency of now. You know there, I’m kind of tired of MSNBC, and CNN and all the people who have, who tell me what I need to think. Give me the background. It’s really kind of hard to separate that sometimes. And yet I’m aware that it’s there. So what I’d like us to do now is to just pause for a moment. Our son-in-law’s sister, Katie Sonin, who is a Supermom, has two beautiful kids, sent me this prayer. It’s from the Iroquois, that’s the short version. There’s another name which is hard to pronounce, but I’m not on the sports channel trying to figure out what those names are. But it’s Iroquois. So pay attention to what they were saying in this prayer. Let us pray. And I thank Katie for sending this to me.

“Oh Lord, today we have gathered in this sacred place and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now we bring our minds together as one, as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people. Now our minds are one”

One of Dr. King’s favorite poems goes thusly. He says, “I’m tired of sailing my little boat far inside the harbor bar. I’d like to go out where the big ships float out on the deep, where the great ones are. And should my frail craft prove too slight for storms that sweep those billows o’er” – now pay attention. He says, “I’d rather go down in the stirring fight than be drowse to death by the sheltered shore.”  Now, Dr. Benjamin Elijah Mays, who was president of Morehouse College at the time Dr. King was a student there. And any Morehouse student who was at Morehouse’s the time Dr. Mays was there, well remember this quote. So, when Dr. Mays heard this favorite poem of Dr. King, he gave it his own interpretation. So, Dr. Mays says, “I would rather go to hell by choice than drift into heaven with the crowds”. Let me say that again. “I’d rather go to hell by choice than drift into heaven with the crowds”.  There’s a whole lot of people on Capitol Hill who are, well anyway.

So the significance of this is that we like to play it safe and King, understanding the fierce urgency of now, knew that playing it safe meant that you stayed inside the boundaries. They say I’m a Presbyterian, but I probably am not. But sometimes I follow the Book of Order. Sometimes I don’t. It just depends on how I’m feeling that day. But those are lines that I’m supposed to follow as a quote “Presbyterian minister”.  But suppose as often it is something that’s in the Book of Order, is out of order, such as how we should look at sexuality, how we should look at our neighbor. And it kind of divided the Presbyterian Church for a while because most of the time they’re afraid to sail that little boat out onto the deep where the great issues are. It’s so easy to stay by the shore. And King called us to go beyond the shore, to take on the principalities and the powers, to understand what it means to be in captivity, to understand what it means to live with your back against the wall. And in order to do that, you’ve got to sail that safe ship of being an Episcopal, being a Presbyterian, being a Methodist, out beyond which makes the Bishop uncomfortable.

So in this climate of where it’s important to understand that the shore is not safety, it’s time to go out to the deep water. That’s so difficult for us in this, in the climate in which we live.  We’re defined by the party. We’re defined by our race, our class, our color. But I want the God of your life and mine to define me as a child of God. One who seeking to be at one with my neighbor, one who is seeking to understand what it means to live with your back against the wall. That’s where you and I need to be. And I think that’s what Dr. King meant when he talked about moving your little ship far inside the harbor Bar where it’s safe. So what do we do? Do we storm the Capitol? Do we rail at the walls, at the people?  One of the reasons I gave you my credentials is that it’s so easy as we understand it, there’s a person by the name of Mr. Santos. You know that name? See I couldn’t do that as a black person cuz my color would give me away. I mean, they’d start checking me the first moment I decided I was gonna run for an office. I mean, it’s a reality.

And so when we look at that, we, we wonder how in heaven’s name did that happen in this country in which we live? And think about it, just a couple years ago, an insurrection, the very place where the insurrection took place, one dares to sit in the seat, refuses to resign for a good reason cuz Mr. McCarthy needs his vote. And it’s as simple as that. But if you want to stay by the sheltered shore, you don’t want to look at that. What you want to do is play the game, go along with everybody else, finding a way to just sort of coast. But the time for coasting is over. It’s over. Why are, where are the churches, the synagogues? Where are they?  In our day, there was King, there was Hesburgh.  They got together quite a bit. And there was also Rabbi Heschel.  Heschel, King, Hesburgh. Where are they? Why are not the religious leaders out in the streets protesting? What went on for, I don’t know how long, was it a week that it went on, trying to elect someone to be the Speaker of the House? Was that a week? Did we all watch that?

Where were we and why didn’t we all go to the Capitol, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish? Why did we not go to the Capitol and say, “Enough, this is enough”.  But we are too afraid. It’s safer at the sheltered shore, kind of coasting. I remember when I was growing up how I was afraid to go into the deep end of the pool, because I was just learning how to swim. And I wasn’t sure quite sure what the deep end was like, but I knew I’d never know what the deep end was like unless I ventured out into the deep waters. And what Dr. King is calling us to do is to venture out into the deep waters, where the big ones are.  Where the big issues of life continue to challenge us and to call us into being.

So the question then is, what will it take? What’s it going to take? See, at my age, I don’t have to be right, I just want to be heard.  And I’m going to be heard. Except at home, of course. So I want to be heard. We need to be heard. We want to be heard. We have to be heard, that we cannot keep going along the route that we’re going and expect things to change. And we’re staying the same. It’s very, very difficult for us to move out in the deep with the great issues of life continue to challenge us.

When I was growing up, and you’ll see it in our biography, I used to sit in a little chair next to my grandmother in her rocking chair. And every day at the end of the day, people coming home from work would come by my grandmother’s house, Mrs. Overby, and say, “Mrs. Overby, can I come and sit a spell?”  “Can I come on your”, you know, lt had the wraparound porch, “Can I come and just talk to you?” And as a kid, I wondered, why were all of these people coming to Granny’s rocking chair just to talk.  “Mrs. Overby, you know, I had a hard day today” “Mrs. Overby, you know, I’m having trouble with my children.” “Mrs. Overby” “Mrs. Overby”.   And I wonder, what was the magic? What was the magic she had that people would come and want to sit a spell and just talk. And I figured out that there was something magic in what Granny had. And I imagine that Mrs. McClinton can tell you of a lot of stories, being 104, growing up in a little black town called Boley, Oklahoma, 60 miles from Tulsa, where you know all the rides took place. I go to her apartment, and I just sit and I listen.

I would love to meet the people who run Black Lives Matter. I really would. I mean, Andy Young tried to talk to them. They didn’t want to talk to him. They said he had his time. Well, there’s more. And what has happened since George Floyd? Have we gone out into the deep water since that time? Are we still talking about it? It’s interesting. Mrs. McClinton, one day I was walking through Montgomery Station and I had my Black Lives Matter t-shirt on, and a little woman probably in her eighties or nineties came up to me and said, “Sir, all lives matter”. Now do I get in a big fight with my neighbor and have this dialogue about why it can’t just be all lives matter. You know that not all lives are getting beaten up and shot and all of that, but I decided that I needed to talk to her another time. So I gave her a pass and I’m still looking for her. So we can go on and have that, have that conversation.

And so what what’s important for us to remember here is that our race, our sexuality, our class, our culture keeps us in the shallow end of the pool. We’re afraid. As Bonhoeffer says, “What’s the cost of discipleship?”  What does it really mean to be a disciple? What does that scripture we read this morning mean, do you remember it? That we, the scripture that was just read, who were called to do? What is the price we are willing to pay to be a disciple of Christ?

Now, I’m not giving up my Mercedes. I want to be clear about that, not about to give that up. I’m not about to give up some other things that are very important to me. And that’s the issue. So when you think about white fragility, the notion that there’s something you have to give up that, that blacks and people of color will do to you what you have done to us. Where’s the evidence for it? Are we going out, searching for white people? What we want to do, and we’re trying to do it here at the cathedral, what we want to do is because there is significance of the place. This is a particular significant place. Good things happen here. Good things can happen here because it is in fact the Cathedral. And it wants to become the Beloved Community. In the beloved community, you can be wrong, you can be old, you can be dark, you can be what, but in this space, as one person, as one community, you can say, thank you Jesus. Thank you, Lord. My eyes were closed, but now they’re open. I was blind, but now I see.

So one of the things that continues to haunt me is I still believe that it’s possible. It is possible for us to live together. It is possible to do that. We’ve done it before. We’ve seen it, we’ve experienced it. So we’re thinking about creating something here that allows everyone to bring his/her own issues without judgment. As Walt Whitman says, “Be curious, not judgmental”. Why is that so hard for us? Why is that so hard?

I remember going to Selma. I was in my twenties. Andy is just a few years older than me. He was leading us. And in those days before you went to the demonstration, you had to go to church. Do you know the Brown’s Chapel? Look in your history books. He had to go to church.  For who, in his or her right mind would go in the midst of a rabid crowd without going to church first?  And Andy and I talk pretty frequently and we say, you know, we look back on that we were young and foolish, but we weren’t afraid. So we were going back to the airplane that August Busch had loaned to us because there were no planes. Everybody was going to Selma. It’s pretty cool, you know. If I show up, that means I’m in. No, it doesn’t. So a lot of people had just shown up. So we’re on our way back to the plane. And all of a sudden, my colleague, the late Reverend Carl Dudley, just a fine, fine gentleman, white, called me to be his associate at Berea Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

So we’re on our way back and we get surrounded by a large group of people, and they were taunting and they were shouting, calling us names. And in one nanosecond, one of the protestors spat in my face. And in one moment, I felt the rage that no one would violate me in that way. And in the next second I realized my wife is expecting our second child. And so I wiped my face, looked at Carl. He looked at me. We were in our twenties and we just decided to run. And we ran and we were in good shape, so we left them in the dust. But that, but it was that day that I decided that even though I had been through non-violence training with Andy just a couple of weeks before, that that wasn’t enough for me. So I had to make the decision what my role would be in the movement. And I decided that it was better for me to figure out how to build interracial congregations. I’ve had four congregations in my lifetime, and they’ve all been interracial, intercultural, interfaith. So I know it can be done. So why don’t we, why do we not follow Jesus? Why is it so difficult to say “I forgive you”.  “I was wrong about that”.

And so I stand here with a lot on your minds as well as my own. And I realize how important it is to really be a follower of Jesus. To follow Jesus mean there’s a price you have to pay. That’s what Bonhoeffer meant by the cost of discipleship. There is a cost. Are you willing, as a scripture asks you to, are you willing to follow Jesus? Are you willing to pay the price, the cost that Dr. King paid? And if you’re not, what are you doing here? Why are you wasting time? So I want to close with a reminder to myself that if you are willing to step out on faith, there will be a price. But in the vernacular of the people, God always has your back. And I know people think I’m crazy half the time, and I probably am, but I believe what we’re looking at this morning can be every Sunday, every day where we work, where we live, whatever we do, that we can all live together and find a way to love each other so that the God of your life, the God of my life is one.

I close with, I love Langston Hughes. And Dr. King loved Langston Hughes. And he talks, Langston talks about the story of a son who had come to his mother, just upset, said, “Mom, white people have gone crazy. I can’t get a job. Everything is just bad. I’m ready to give it up”. And the mother listens to her son very patiently, very quietly. And then she looks at her son and says, “Well, son, I’ll tell ya, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. It’s had tacks in it, and splinters and boards torn up places, with no carpet on the floor, just bare. For all the time I’ve been climbing on, and reaching landing mostly where there ain’t been no light. So don’t you sit down, child, because you’ve had a few bumps in the road. Don’t you turn your back because you find life is difficult, for life ain’t been no crystal stair”.

Life is not a crystal stair. And so I remember, I can’t sing what the song that our foreparents used to sing just resonates with me now. And if I was one of those good black preachers who could sing, I’d do so, but I can’t.  But I’m just gonna quote it. Because I think this is what the country needs. This is what we need. And the song says, “Fix me. Fix me, Jesus.  Fix me. Fix me, Jesus”.  Fix America, Jesus. Fix the divide, Jesus. Fix everything that is broken, Jesus. “Fix me. Fix me. Fix me. Jesus”. Oh, my, my. Oh, that we would just get fixed, that we could understand it’s okay to be wrong. We’d understand that God is calling you and me to this moment, to walk in the light, to be not afraid, to take on the challenges and see that we are one.

Let us pray. Lord, we thank you for your servant, Martin Luther King Jr. And all that he stood for. We sit quietly in the safety of this sacred place. And yet we can imagine dangling over our heads, a thread. Howard Thurman calls it “that sacred thread. It’s the thread that when I’m lost, I pull it tight. When I’m baffled, I pull this imaginary string”. Thurman goes on to say, “That string, one string, is a strange thread. It is my steadying thread. God’s hands hold the other end”. Hold on to that thread. Walk together, children, don’t you get weary. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised Land. Amen.


The Rev. Dr. Paul Smith