I’ll start with a story about a little boy whose church has stained-glass windows. He’s fascinated by them. He asks his Mom, “Who are the people painted on the windows?” She replies, “Why dear, those are saints.” Later on, at home, he tells his other Mom about what he’d seen at church. And this other Mom asks him, “Tell me what it means to be a saint?” Her son replies, “Saints are people the light shines through.”
The question before us today is, What does a person need to be like to make a difference in the world? Does being a leader mean being larger than life? Bullet-proof? Infallible? Perfect?
Someone the light shines through?
Barack Obama was and is a great leader. Famously, he said to America, “Yes we can.” But years earlier, as a sophomore in college, he hotly and cynically ridiculed such idealism, disbelieving that he or anyone else could make a true difference. (See the reading, posted below.)
Long before his political opponents charged him to be all flash and no substance, he said, “Pretty words don’t make it so.” “That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me.”
Can you relate to Obama’s story? The irony of it? Is there in your own leadership story a time when you totally believed something couldn’t be done—or it could be done but by anybody but you—but then it WAS done, and the person who had done it was YOU?
“We are made for community,” says liberal Quaker and activist Parker Palmer, and therefore “leadership is everyone’s vocation.” That’s our focus today—exploring what this means, and doing it in light of a not-very-well-known story about a leader who came before Obama, paved the way for Obama and so many others, and who has inspired millions around the world.
This leader, who said, when civil rights marchers were facing the dogs and clubs and fire hoses of Birmingham, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
This leader, who said, “All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
This leader, who said, “I have a dream.”
Monday, we celebrate one of the greatest of great leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream of racial and social justice.
But he too had to grow into his leadership.
Here’s the not-very-well-known story of this. It had to do with the time he was invited to become part of the Montgomery bus boycott. As you know, first there was Rosa Parks—her refusal to obey the bus driver’s demand that she give up her seat. Dr. King’s biographer Marshall Frady tells us what happened next: “[Rosa Parks’ NO, and her arrest,] quickly set off a spontaneous combustion among Montgomery’s black citizenry to boycott the city’s segregated bus system. Almost immediately, mimeographed leaflets calling for the boycott were coursing through the city’s black neighborhoods. But when, the night of Mrs. Parks’ arrest, a local social activist by the name of E. D. Nixon phoned the young Martin Luther King Jr. to ask him to join in the boycott movement, King, out of some uneasiness beyond just his absorption in his multiple other duties, seemed curiously reluctant: ‘Brother Nixon, let me think on it awhile, and call me back.’” Marshall Frady goes on to say that, “Concerned at King’s hesitation, Nixon called Ralph Abernathy…. Abernathy then called King to exhort him about the elemental importance of cooperating in this boycott effort. King finally agreed to lend it his support…”
That’s the story, and it is about a pivotal moment in Dr. King’s leadership. It was a momentous crossroads in his life, although he could not have known it at the time. Ultimately he did accept the call to leadership, and in this way achieved great visibility and respect as leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which in turn led to his role in founding (with others) the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and then to his leadership in civil rights campaigns in Albany, then Birmingham, then Augustine and Selma, and then the March on Washington and his soaring “I have a dream” speech, and beyond.
But it all got started with Montgomery, and Dr. King’s answer of YES.
But what if he had, instead, stayed in that position of “thinking on it awhile”—which is really just a nice way of saying NO? What if? Without Montgomery, would there ever have been a “I have a dream”?
Hindsight is 20-20. “We live forwards,” said philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “but we understand backwards.” With only the knowledge that is given us in the moment—already full of the pressures of existing responsibilities and anticipations of future work we already know of—it is truly understandable and fully human to hesitate when a call to something new comes before you.
Dr. King was only human, and this is something we need to be reminded of, so that we can be confident leaders in our own right.
Here’s why I say this.
We take a hero figure like Dr. King and we lose touch with his story. Soon enough, someone who had just as many flaws and complexities as the rest of us becomes transformed into a super person, untouchable. A change agent who leapt from the womb holding a protest sign. He was fearless, but we feel fear. The work came naturally to him, without any effort or awkwardness, but as for us, we endure setbacks, mistakes, trial-and-error. He was bottled lightning, but we have to pinch ourselves to stay awake. The perfect snappy comeback was always on his lips, but as for us, it’s usually only 12-24 hours later when the perfect snappy comeback pops into our minds.
We lose touch with our heroes’ stories, and in this way we lose touch with our own powers and potentialities. We hear a call to leadership, but our response can be, Who, me? Yet the message of the life of every hero who has ever gone before us, or who may be in our midst right now, is that you don’t need to be perfect to have a dream. You don’t need to be perfect to make the world a better place. You don’t have to already know how to preach if it is your dream to preach. You don’t have to already have the right credentials or know everything there is to know to step up.
If you are feeling the need to do something in your life to make some dream real, you don’t have to wait to start until the circumstances are absolutely ideal. You don’t have to wait until you’re the right age. You don’t have to wait until the kids are grown. You don’t have to wait until the job is secure. You don’t have to wait until you have enough money, your relationships are all better, and you have all the big questions of life figured out related to God, immortality, the meaning of life, and the existence of extraterrestrial beings.
You just don’t have to wait until all your ducks are in a row.
Just do it.
Just do it even if at first you do it badly.
Anything worth doing is worth doing badly while you learn to do it well (Zig Ziglar).
I am so grateful for a hero like Dr. King. a man who, at a critical juncture in his life, hesitated. The world did not need a perfect person to do what he did. The world did not need that. The world needed him.
And the world needs you and me.
Leadership is everyone’s destiny, in some form, big or small.
Small, in fact, is the form of leadership we are most times called to. Most times it’s not about big things at all. It’s instead about the quality of how we show up every moment. The quality of our interpersonal influence.
For example, something happens or does not happen in our congregation, and it does not feel good—right there is a call to leadership. What do you do next? Do you indulge suspicion, in your mind go straight to the worst possible explanation for why it might be happening, cultivate disgruntlement, divide people into US vs. THEM, spread a spirit of war around rather than of peace?
In such moments, you might feel two wolves inside you, in your heart, circling round and round, snapping at each other; one represents hatred, the other represents healing, and the one that you feed is the one that prevails.
Leadership is about which one you feed.
Leadership is just as Parker Palmer puts it: “I lead by word and deed simply because I am here doing what I do. If you are here, doing what you do, then you also exercise leadership of some sort.” Even just to smile across the room at someone—just to acknowledge their existence—can be a kind of leadership, an exercise of influence that is truly important. Just by smiling across the room, you are living into a larger vision of a community that strengthens and encourages.
Someone was talking about this just the other day—how horrible and withering it feels to notice someone looking at you but they don’t smile, they don’t acknowledge your existence. But leadership is about making the Beloved Community vision real, in acts both big and small. You see a piece of trash on the floor, and you pick it up even if you aren’t the building attendant, even if you aren’t part of the paid staff, even if you hear a voice in your head that says, “Ahh, this is a LARGE congregation—surely someone else will do it.” No. YOU do it, and as you do it, your simple act of leadership is helping to create the Beloved Community vision that says, We are all in this together. Our Stone Soup miracle requires every one of us. Pull together and not apart. Everyone chip in. The ministry here involves every friend, every member, because that’s what it takes to live out our mission of changing lives. That’s what it takes.
Leadership is everyone’s vocation, expressed through acts both big and small. It’s about how we use our influence, in alignment with our values. It’s about how we respond to the call, when it comes.
And now we turn to the last part of Dr. King’s not-very-well-known story we’ll consider today: Ralph Abernathy, talking Dr. King into accepting the call to leadership.
This represents another aspect of the hero story that is easily passed over. Often the message put out there (or the one received) is about rugged individualism. One person acting alone. Nothing or not much about family, the larger supportive community, the worship services, the committee work, the coalition building, the flurry of letters and emails and phone calls, and, in the midst all of it, above all, key sustaining friendships. People whose judgment you trust, so that even if all the world is criticizing you, if THEY believe in you, YOU believe. People who will lift you up when you need it; people who will bring you back down to earth, when you need that.
Nothing about any of this, mentioned in the standard story. Just one person acting alone. Rugged individualism.
It’s just not true. You can’t get to Dr. King without his parents and family and teachers, the black church community, liberal religious communities like this one, all the committee meetings, all the worship and prayer and hymn singing, all his friends and colleagues. You just can’t get to him without Ralph Abernathy—the man who reconnected him to his sense of call and purpose when he hesitated. The man who was with him throughout, until the very end and beyond.
I’m asking you this morning: Who is your Ralph Abernathy? Who believes in you, so you can believe?
This place—this community—can itself be a support to you. But you’ll get out of it only as much as you put in.
So, how much are you putting in?
We need our communities of support. We need our Ralph Abernathys, to grow into the leadership that is naturally ours.
Almost eleven years ago to this day, back in 2009, when the historic thing happened, and Barack Obama had his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Inaugural Bible, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court asked if he would swear to uphold his audacious oath, and Obama said he would—when you think on this, I want you to think of a person named Regina, whom Obama knew in college. Regina had just heard the youthful Obama deliver his very first political speech, about apartheid in South Africa and the need to stand up for social justice. He felt swept up in this; he was feeling the call. Yet at the same time, he was full of self-doubt, and cynicism. At a party that evening, Regina congratulated him, calling his speech wonderful, but he cut her off, said, “Listen, you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But I don’t believe we made any difference in what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so. That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me.”
Barack Obama, hesitating….. But what happened next was this. He shares the story in his book Dreams from My Father: “Regina stuck a finger in my chest. ‘You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything’s about you. The rally is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It’s not just about you. It’s never just about you. It’s about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you. They’re not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting bruised. And neither am I.”
That’s what Regina said. Right words at the right time.
“Strange,” says Obama, “how a single conversation can change you.” “What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push against whatever power kept [a person] stooped instead of standing straight. The determination to resist the easy and the expedient. You might be locked in a world not of your own making … but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.”
This is what both Dr. King and Barack Obama had to learn, as part of growing into their leadership, and we are learning that too. That it’s not about us. It’s not about our discomfort, our irony or sophistication or our ego getting bruised. It’s about me needing you, and you needing me. It’s about people who need our help. Children depending on us. Cleveland needing us to use our power in partnership with others towards the end of justice.
Let us be Ralph Abernathys and Reginas for each other, to call us back to this wisdom when we forget.
Let us be determined in growing into our leadership.
We might be locked in a world not of our own making … but we still have a claim on how it is shaped.
“Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“All people are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
The Dream is no mere thing of the past.
It is ever before us, and it calls.
READING BEFORE THE SERMON
Our reading for today comes from Barack Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father. The time is 1981, and he’s a sophomore at Occidental College in Los Angeles, protesting the apartheid system in South Africa.
It had started as something of a lark, I suppose, part of the radical pose my friends and I sought to maintain, a subconscious end run around issues closer to home. But as the months passed and I found myself drawn into a larger role—contacting representatives of the African National Congress to speak on campus, drafting letters to the faculty, printing up flyers, arguing strategy—I noticed that people had begun to listen to my opinions. It was a discovery that made me hungry for words. Not words to hide behind but words that could carry a message, support an idea. When we started planning the rally for the trustees’ meeting, and somebody suggested that I open the thing, I quickly agreed. I figured I was ready, and could reach people where it counted. I thought my voice wouldn’t fail me.
Let’s see, now. What was it that I had been thinking in those days leading up to the rally? … I was only supposed to make a few opening remarks … [but] when I sat down to prepare a few notes for what I might say, something had happened. In my mind is somehow became more than just a two-minute speech, more than just a way to prove my political orthodoxy. [I thought of how powerful a speaker my father was.] If I could just find the right words, I had thought to myself. With the right words everything could change—South Africa, the lives of ghetto kids just a few miles away, my own tenuous place in the world.
[I spoke passionately that day, but after other speakers took my place on the stage, I found myself] on the outside again, watching, judging, skeptical. Through my eyes, we suddenly appeared like the sleek and well-fed amateurs we were, with our black chiffon armbands and hand-painted signs and earnest young faces. […] When the trustees began to arrive for their meeting, a few of them paused behind the glass walls of the administration building to watch us, and I noticed the old white men chuckling to themselves…. The whole thing was a farce, I thought to myself—the rally, the banners, everything. A pleasant afternoon diversion, a school play without the parents. And me and my one-minute oration—the biggest farce of all.
At the party that night, [my friend Regina] came up to me and offered her congratulations. I asked what for.
“For that wonderful speech you gave.”
I popped open a beer. “It was short, anyway.”
Regina ignored my sarcasm. “That’s what made it so effective,” she said. “You spoke from the heart, Barack. It made people want to hear more….”
“Listen, Regina,” I said, cutting her off, “you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But I don’t believe we made any difference in what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so. That’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me….”