A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, September 19, 2010
THE DOORS OF PEACE
A Yom Kippur Meditation
He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, a rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!
&mdash Edwin Markham
Doug Marlette was among my favorite cartoonists. Mostly I knew him from his political cartoons, which were generally liberal and which appeared pretty much everywhere. Although Tammy Faye Bakker once called him a tool of Satan, I found his work was not marked with that raw and partisan hatred we too often see today on just about every side. I think he well deserved his Pulitzer Prize. Sadly, he died a couple of years ago in an automobile accident.
But, what brings him to mind for today is that Marlette also had a daily cartoon strip. Over the years I would run across reprints of it here and there. Called Kudzu, it was largely a celebration of things Southern, and featured, among other characters, a Baptist preacher Will B. Done.
Two things sparked my thought about Kudzu. For one, Peace Day, the United Nations sponsored International Day of Peace is the 21st of September. We here in Providence are mostly celebrating it on the Sunday closest to the 21st, which is today. There are many things going on, among them our service here, and later between three and five, the Peace Flag Project downtown at Burnside Park at Kennedy Plaza.
And, second, I find it particularly meaningful that in the Jewish tradition Yom Kippur was just observed, with that hard look into the heart of judgment, and the sincere seeking of reconciliation. I think these things are intimately connected.
I really like the Kudzu cartoon, and have alluded to it on occasion. I looked around the web and couldn’t find a copy. Still, I think I can describe it pretty accurately, certainly the punch line. Three panels, as I recall. Throughout the preacher Will B. Done is watching. In that first panel a batter has just swung and the umpire is calling out strike three. The second, however, is a strike five. In the third panel, against still another swing has the preacher commenting, “I hate playing against the Unitarians.”
Actually that’s a Universalist theme we’ve inherited, but no doubt it runs a wild and wondrous current through our liberal faith, a spring, a life-giving well. And I appreciated the thumbs up, even if it came from the back of his hand. In the justice/mercy dichotomy, while I think justice important, bottom line I’m a mercy guy. I’m all for second chances, and third, and one hundredth.
I know my own life is marked by second chances, both personal and societal. I’m a pretty self-aware person, and over the course of my life my choices, my actions, have not all been, shall we say, up to my highest ideals. Justice untempered by mercy would put me on a pretty hot seat. I know it. And I’m grateful for those who would cut me a little slack. And I try to return the favor.
In addition to the personal, there is also societal.
As a child of poverty, college was not supposed to be part of my future, and I left High School without a diploma. Later, I tried community college. Actually, it took a couple of tries for it to take. In many countries, such second and third chances are not part of the deal. But in California in those days with its open admission and cheap registration, I got those second and third chances that led directly to my standing in this pulpit.
I mentioned Yom Kippur. I’m quite taken with this season, which begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, inaugurating the days of repentance, and culminates in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which, was observed from sundown on this past Friday through sundown yesterday.
I think part of the reason I’m so taken with Rosh Hashanah and particularly with Yom Kippur is how it touches on both justice and mercy, but, also, how in the last analysis it is about the mysteries of peace both within our individual hearts and scattered promiscuously upon this planet. So, all of these things have set my heart to bubbling, to my reflecting on the nature of forgiveness, of justice tempered, of second chances, and how these are essential ingredients to peace of any sort.
Now, some of us find our deepest inspiration in the wilderness. I appreciate that. But for me it is within our human communities that I am personally most moved, most horrified and appalled, but also most moved to joy and aspiration. Cities can be, often are, the archetype of human failure and, for me, of human aspiration, of human possibility. In this context of longing for peace, of seeking to understand justice through a path of mercy and compassion, through that willingness to start over, again and again, my mind, my heart flows to that archetype of dream where East and West meet, that city of the human heart, Jerusalem. In another Jewish celebration there is a toast, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” I would offer that a meditation on Jerusalem brings all these themes together, and points us on our way.
Its Arabic name is al-Quds Sharif, which means Holy Sanctuary. And that certainly is a powerful layer of meaning for us all, if we’re seeking to understand a complex community with its divided heart and persistent longing in the face of war and tribulation as an image of ourselves, a metaphor for who we are and how we might be. Of course its oldest name is Jerusalem, which speaks to that deepest longing of human hearts. I gather the name comes from two ancient roots, “y-r-h” which means something along the lines of direction or instruction or teaching and “s-l-m” which means wholeness or peace. So, Jerusalem is the teaching of peace or the place or abode of peace. And, also, I hope you caught, peace means wholeness. This city, so torn by strife, is often called the door of peace.
Of course everything is complicated, muddied if you will, by contending forces, and multiple claims, pretty much all of which are to one degree or another legitimate. And no one seems immune to this roil of contention. A few years ago one of Jan’s co-workers, who is of Armenian descent was celebrating Easter in the ancient Christian church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Its care is divided among different flavors of Christian. And her experience at that service was a near riot between the contending Christian factions pushing beyond their boundaries, possibly only held at bay from seriously hurting each other by Israeli soldiers, who, frankly, weren’t all that gentle in keeping order. In the not-quite riot Jan’s co-worker’s husband was pushed to the ground. Not a very happy Easter.
So, what in this mess is a pointer for us, here in Providence, Unitarian Universalists recalling Yom Kippur, a Kudzu cartoon, and observing an international Day of Peace?
As I understand the etymology, peace is essentially a treaty. It is a covenant of presence and harmlessness. For it to work there must be an inner component as well as an outer one. As I see it the treaty is a call to wholeness. When we look at Jerusalem as an image of both our selves and of our condition in the world, we see the contending forces of our own hearts, apparently irreconcilable, and possibly that is so. But, in the face of that most reasonable doubt, of uncertainty for the outcome of any project dedicated to peace, one more thing: Edwin Markham’s famous poem, a drawing of a circle large enough to include us all. For me that’s the image of Jerusalem. Or, it can be.
But how to draw that great circle, considering all the obvious and seemingly insurmountable difficulties facing the project? I have a few thoughts. There’s an old Zen saying, fall down nine times, get up ten. Or, some such number. That and that other great Zen chestnut how our path is all “one continuous mistake” certainly inform my walk toward peace, both inner and outer. And, perhaps yours? Here I think of that Kudzu cartoon, again; strike whatever. One more chance, one more chance, as long as breath allows, one more chance.
But I’m also of a practical turn of mind. And so beyond this encouragement to keep on keeping on, and to draw a circle that includes everyone within the city of peace, I would like a few more steps, as clearly stated as possible. Which brings us back to Yom Kippur.
Poking about the Yom Kippur traditions, thinking about it, looking at it through the lens of liberal religion here are four steps we might consider to allow our desire to draw that great circle of peace around our hearts and the hearts of this hurting world. First, owning up to our own part in the mess. Second, turning our hearts once more to our highest aspirations, toward our better angels. Third, reaching out to another, to do our own part in the healing of our many communities. And, fourth, to rededicate ourselves, and to rededicate ourselves again, endlessly to this way of peace.
Okay, owning our own part in the mess. I think we got it right within liberal religion when we walked away from the idea of shame. No free floating guilt about being good enough. But, we also have too often also cut ourselves off from guilt. Guilt is like pain; it is a reminder when something is going wrong. In the case of guilt it is often enough our deeper self, telling us we have done something harmful. We need to assess our own actions and thoughts relentlessly. Look hard. Take inventories. If you feel a pang of guilt, look at it. It may be pointing to something you need to attend to.
Second, what to do with that information? Well, let us recall the moral compass that rests in our hearts, that part of us which knows we are precious as individuals but only exist because we are all part of the great family of things. Let us remember the family, and that we are part of it, and we will have a pretty good idea of what to do next.
Which is the third point. Reach out. Don’t keep it private. Do something for someone else. We’re talking about the family, after all. Small or large, your call, but, for goodness’ sake, do something.
And fourth, do it again. Strike three, strike ten, strike one hundred. Know our hearts are Jerusalem, contending and yet one. Draw the circle wide. Include everyone. Leave no one behind. There are so many souls, thirsting for justice, for mercy, for love, for peace. Come and drink freely from the well at the center of that city of peace.
Drink deep. And refreshed take up the task again. Come, dear ones; make the world a holy sanctuary. Come, my friends; draw the circle wide and join with all to make this world a holy shrine.