A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, September 27, 2009
STANDING ON THE SIDE OF LOVE:
A Sermon for Yom Kippur
Now God said to Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against their wickedness.” But instead Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish and went and found a ship. God sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest, so that the ship was about to be broken. The mariners were afraid, and cried every one unto their god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it. But Jonah was down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.
The shipmaster came to him, and said, “O sleeper, arise, call upon thy God that we perish not.” When he saw what was happening Jonah admitted that he was the cause of the storm. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging.
Then God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights when Jonah prayed from within the fish's belly, repenting his sins and his flight from his task. And so God caused the fish to vomit Jonah upon the dry land. And for the second time said, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh.
And Jonah entered the city and he cried, and said to them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”
And God saw their work and that they had turned from their evil ways; and God forgave them.
But this displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed to God, and said, “I beseech thee, take my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”
So Jonah went out of the city and sat in the dust. And God prepared a vine, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might shelter his head from the heat.
— The Book of Jonah (adapted from the King James Version)
Leonard Cohen sings to us there’s “a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” I believe this is one of the most important insights we can have. And so, today I want to talk about that crack, that wound we each have. Today let’s reflect a little about something perhaps a bit uncomfortable for us: about wounds, yours and mine. And, then, let’s talk a little about what we can find if we don’t turn away from the hurt, about that light, that light which we, of course, know by many names. And, then, just a little, let’s consider where that light might lead us.
Three anecdotes. Each is fresh in my memory. The first took place at my house. We’re having some work done on a fence and as I was leaving to come to a meeting here, the carpenter saw me, walked over and asked, “Did you leave a blanket on the side of the house?” I thought that a strange question, and said, “Well, no…” He then suggested the likelihood someone is camping out in the space between our house and our neighbor going down the hill. As I said, I was leaving for a meeting at the church, so I didn’t have to decide what to do about it at that moment.
As many here know my upbringing was marked by poverty. While we never found ourselves in shelters or in a car, we did live in motels at least once, maybe twice. My memories of my childhood perhaps understandably are all seen through a glass darkly. But, let me tell you, I see the homeless and I know there but for the grace. So, Jan and I discussed it later that evening and we decided first, we weren’t going to throw away the blanket or send the person away, whoever she or he might be. But we also decided we weren’t going to adopt the person, either. Instead we decided as long as poop was buried we would simply live and let live. I freely admit no option actually felt good. And of the whole thing, well, it was very much like poking a stick in a not fully healed wound. Somewhat anticlimactically, we later discovered it was in fact just a blanket left by a painter who had used it as a drop cloth. But the sense of unease it revealed for me, and my realizing both my concerns and my limitations, continues.
Similarly, this past Monday I was walking from my office to the car through that lovely vestibule we have in the new building. It was set up for our monthly Food Pantry, truly one of the most amazing things we do here. They, we, provide food each month for an average of a hundred families. Among the people there that caught my eye was a Hispanic family. They included I think three children, one a little girl who smiled shyly at me while half hiding behind an older sister. I also noticed a very old African American man with such sad eyes it broke my heart. And, there was an elderly white man in a suit. It hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time. The sleeves were badly frayed and his shirt and tie were both wrinkled. I swear he looked like what I feel my father would have looked if he had made it to his eighties. And here too, as I climbed into my car and drove off I felt an old wound, the oozing of some deep unnamable pain.
And last, I was having lunch with one of our African American members and we were talking about this Standing on the Side of Love project and about how the issues of race needs to be one of the areas of focus. In our conversation I observed that while Don’s ministry collapsed due to his own deep wounds, wounds so large that he couldn’t do what he hoped to; still a sort of covenant had been forged here during his time among us. Something important, and for which I personally remain grateful. Which was to look hard at social justice issues, and among them in particular to consider questions of race.
My friend, our friend spoke of the difficulties among us, here in our church, not of racism in the up front and ugly sense, but of those things that flow out of what has to be called white privilege. This is the sense in the air that the majority is normal, and that if you’re not part of that normal in whatever way, you’re often objectified. Which, if you’re confused, is almost always a bad thing.
She had a couple of examples I’d like to share. First she alluded to a white member who confused two black members, who really don’t look alike. She also cited a conversation where a white member asked a not particularly tall black member if he played basketball. From one angle these are not big matters, a confusion of faces and a rather stereotyped assumption of interests. But for people who don’t look like the majority, who experience these little, and much larger things, too often; well, they poke sticks into wounds. And make some, maybe many of those, yes, among others, but particularly of African descent question how open we really are to embracing those who we say we want to come among us and become us. We are challenged to be the open and welcoming people we say we want to be.
Now I’m actually more concerned about my own reaction in this conversation, specifically my wanting, indeed my hasty eagerness to be a problem solver, rather than any part of the problem. But there’s a nasty little truth in this moment of sharing. I could have been either of those speakers. In race matters, I, like all of us, need to know what the wounds are. We won’t be of much use if we don’t know ourselves. Much of the time it is that which is unconscious which drives us. And when that’s a wound…
When I find myself in conversations about race I often have a small flash of memory from my young adolescence when my father went to jail and I was sent up to Oakland to live with my grandmother and auntie, and how I was placed in a poor school that was almost entirely black. And how I was beaten up regularly, or at least until I learned how to run between classes and how to hide.
Thinking of this part of my past, of course I thought of wounds, old wounds, and how hard it can be to acknowledge wounds; it can be very hard even to look at them. Now, this is actually a sermon about hope, about possibility, about our human ability to shift, if just a little, and in that to find joy at the heart of it all. I think of the possibilities that flow out of being honest with ourselves, and my heart overflows. This is good news, friends.
We are near the end of Rosh Hashanah, tonight at sundown Yom Kippur will be observed in Jewish communities of every denomination. This is, of course, the New Year within the Jewish calendar. And it is among other things a time to reflect on who we are and what we’ve done. Specifically it is about recalling where we’ve fallen short, and it opens an opportunity to make amends. I think we can profitably reflect on aspects of this season in the Jewish community. I say this because this season is about facing our wounds, those cracks in our being, and how if we allow ourselves to see our wounds we then have a possibility for a kind of healing.
Now I need to distinguish between how I’m using healing here and what I’d call curing. These wounds are often so deep they do not ever completely go away. Still, they can be addressed psychologically, and it is wise to do so. But, really they’re spiritual things. They have to do with how we stand in the world, how we relate to each other in the deepest sort of way. And healing in this sense is letting the light shine through them. I suggest that light is some deep knowing about who we are as individuals, and more than that, how we relate to each other, indeed to the whole precious world. I hope you notice any spiritual healing isn’t actually just a private thing, it is also very much social.
My best read on what we are about in this lovely liberal religion can be summed within three things. The first two are observations about us as individuals and community. The third is a call of hope. Our way teaches the preciousness of the individual, the fact that each of us is woven out of each other and the world, and how this dual knowledge leads us to act in the world as if everyone is a relative: sisters, brothers, parents, aunties, cousins.
The light that shines within us is an amazing and terrible power. It is the deep knowing we are all connected. Among names that work for it I suggest love is one of the most compelling. Not Hallmark card love, but rather the terrible love that Christina Rossetti sings of as the key to life and death.
Last year for Yom Kippur I reflected on the nature of second chances, and third, and fourth chances. This is a great theme of Yom Kippur. In doing so, I drew upon a text closely associated with this season, the story of Jonah. Well, you’ve heard that story once again. Second chances are wonderful things. But there’s more to that story of an ancient prophet. I suggest it also has to do with wounds.
Remember Jonah was called by God, may I say he was called by love; to proclaim repentance to a people who had turned away from their deepest possibilities. He was called, if you will, by his own deepest values to then go and call people back to their better natures. Of course in this story Jonah thought it too hard, maybe too dangerous and tried to run away. The litany of this man’s wounds is pretty long. Mostly we get how he is cowardly, and as we learn toward the end of the story, he is mean. Although even while he is sitting there sulking that the people to whom he had preached and had repented and therefore were not destroyed, God, love, nonetheless, caused a vine to grow and its broad leaves to give him shelter from the heat of the sun.
Another point. He doesn’t actually change all that much throughout the story. But he changes enough. His wounds don’t completely heal, but they heal enough for him to be of use. And that, frankly, knowing who I am, and how little my character has changed over time, it gives me hope. I think about what happened to Jonah while in the belly of that beast, where he marinated, he softened, just enough to do the job for which he was called.
We offer a number of ways to marinate without being overwhelmed. Our Zen group is one. More useful for most of us is our homegrown spiritual discipline called Small Group Ministry, which here we’re calling Chalice Circles. It’s amazing what the arts of conversation and particularly of listening can do for us. But even giving an hour a week to come together and reflect on matters we might not otherwise do, is a big way to throw your heart into this great work.
Christina Rossetti sang, “Love is the key of life and death.” I think about that, and I think a lot about the word most closely associated with this season: Atonement. In English we get that delightful play of words, at-one-ment. Traditionally Yom Kippur is about three things, reclaiming our at-one-ment with ourselves, with our neighbors and with God. Or, you might prefer, I do, to call that mystery which unites us, love. The love that matters to me is the deep knowing of our connections, of how we truly are one family.
And, today, I want to offer ways for us, wherever we might be on the journey of self-awareness, to be of some use. I suggest very strongly doing is part of the healing. Our giving some part of ourselves to reaching out is a very important part of any authentic spiritual path.
After our service most of the committees that comprise our Social Justice ministry will be offering you a chance to be involved. I think of our Community Food Share Pantry, that amazing project. I think of the Neighborhood Social Justice committee and its latest project, which if you’re on the more adventurous side, you might want to consider. They’re partnering up with Direct Action for Rights and Equality to train people to visit those who’ve been particularly hard hit by predatory lending and to advise them of their rights.
Or, perhaps you like one off deals. Our First U partnership with 350 dot org, which addresses the air we breathe, will be sponsoring an opportunity to learn more and the many ways to be involved on October 24th. They need help to make this event happen. Perhaps you are that helper. I think of our Legislative Ministry committee which partners with other UU churches to address legislation in the light of our UU values. I think of Peace Flags and its annual exploration of peace and what it can mean for us, and the nations of the world. I think of Welcoming Congregations and its cousin Standing on the Side of Love which addresses issues from Marriage Equality to the treatment of immigrants both legal and illegal and how they’ve become the most popular scapegoats for the ills of our times, as well as looking for ways to heal the wounds and divisions of racial relations. Important, important things, all of these, and many more. These just start the list. Please visit the tables and see where you might find yourself.
It is a central part of the process of healing. We look into our own hearts with relentless honesty. We find the crack and we find the light. We catch for ourselves that sense of unity, that fire of love, and then, and then, we reach out to another. That is the secret of Yom Kippur. That is the promise of an authentic spiritual life. That is our call in this beautiful, sad, and joyful world. Let us stand on the side of love.