First Unitarian Church of Providence
worship & spiritual practice
about sunday services


A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, May 3, 2015

A Meditation on Faith and Hope

My soul proclaims the beauty of God,
my spirit rejoices
because the Beloved looks with favor on the lowly.
And so from this day forward all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
She is nothing less than that mercy found by all in every generation who are willing to stand
vulnerable and present.
So much follows this.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
She casts down the mighty from their thrones,
and lifts up the lowly.
He fills the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
She has come to the help of those who give themselves to her,
for she is mercy itself.
This is the once and future promise to Abraham and Sarah,
and to all who follow the great Way,
Even you and me.

— The Song of Mary (Freely adapted)

I have some bad news. But, also, I have some good news.

The first part is actually hardly news. Unless, that is, you have been hiking the Appalachian train and had all electronic devices turned off. Once again our country is wracked by revelations of how unjust things are. Most recently the tragic incident that appears to have begun with a young man looking a police officer in the eyes and then running, and ending with him dying from a broken spine. Well, not ended. Charges have been filed against six officers, the most serious second-degree murder. While some might suggest this is evidence of justice in action, it doesn't take a lot of honest looking to see that deaths, particularly of people of color, mostly of men of color while in police custody usually end with no action against the involved police.

In the middle of all this there was a riot. Our country has seen riots before. And while I join with all who decry the destruction and the actual human hurt that this caused and am not impressed with the minimizing of those consequences for many people as "a few broken windows," there is another truth that can, and for the most part is lost in so narrowly focusing on the destruction and ignoring why the riot took place.

On Facebook there's a meme that reads, "The Gay Rights movement began with a riot," in reference to Stonewall. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, "a riot is the voice of the unheard." These riots are sparked by something. And that something is despair. Despair on the part of too many excluded from the mainstream of our culture with its various avenues of possibility. What many of us have a hard time seeing is the evil mix of poverty and racism, and the ways people are trapped. And what people do when they are trapped.

We live in dangerous times. Those various avenues of possibility I mentioned are, I believe, beginning to close for most of us. Our middle classes are under enormous stress. The cost of educating our children is quickly moving out of reach for increasing numbers of families. Despite the near miraculous change in health care eliminating "pre-existing conditions," and providing genuine help for the poorer among us, costs continue to spiral out of control. Here's a scary statistic. Today something in the neighborhood of thirty five percent of Americans need some help just to get by. And some politicians say the fix to this is to end the assistance.

Many people say the poor just are lazy, which is an ancient canard, as ancient as wealth and poverty. They haven't seen - innocently or willfully, I don't know which although probably a mix of both - haven't seen how hard people have to work who live at or near minimum wage just to pay the rent and put food on the table. If, that is, they can get work. Times are increasingly precarious, a tiny percentage of us are doing very, very well, a larger percentage of us are doing okay, but all it would take is losing that one job to throw us into the ever growing group at the bottom, for whom there is less and less hope. And, let's be honest, the people who get it worst of all are people of color.

There's a litany of despair. Racism. Class and economic disparity. The whole ecological catastrophe. I could go on. The bottom line of it is that the situation is dire. And, a worm in my heart; I'm haunted at a recent Gallup survey that show little or no confidence in congress or, and this really scares me, pretty much all forms of news, while the most trusted institution is our military. This is a very scary combination when we live in such tumultuous times.

I have looked into the abyss. Despair floats up from it, a great noxious cloud.


And that good news. This is May. May is an amazing month, particularly for those of us who live in harsh climates. Just look at the magnolias coming into bloom is a hint at other possibilities. But the thing I like most is how in the largest of the Christian communities May is thought of as Mary's month. For me, being in Annie Dillard's felicitous term "spiritually promiscuous," it is a season of birthing hope, and in particular I find it calling me to, in the context of all I've just said, think of the divine feminine.

I get those who critique the mainstream of Christianity for its relentless masculine imagery and how that actually speaks to a hole in the human heart. Now, I do not blame that litany of problems I've just repeated on the relentless masculine, or as some call it the patriarchy. Well, not exactly. What I do think is wrong is how in this world we have divided our understanding of things in ways that have proven to be more harmful than helpful. This could be lined up with how the things we see as good, are traditionally what we consider masculine: such as decisive, hard, aggressive, and ambitious. And, with that how we have denigrated those traits we've traditionally considered feminine: open, soft, receptive, and accepting.

I suggest that what has been, to use an old term, the dominant paradigm; the one most identified with the masculine god stripped of openness, of softness, of receptiveness, and of accepting others, represents the perspective that has fostered the state of affairs we are currently caught in. We live in a world where the strong oppress the weak, and where the closest we get to justice is an eye for an eye.

But, even as we totter at the edge of disaster, where the options seem grinding poverty for most, increasingly it looks like a poisoned planet and or a military dictatorship, something else is happening, something I find that gives, or can give us hope. Genuine hope.

I think of May. And I think of Mary, the hidden corrective to the relentless message of dominance in Christianity, and I think of her sisters throughout the world, in all the world's religions, in all sorts of manifestations, some sweet, some terrifying. Taken together they speak to another way of seeing, another way of being, a way that might be our way through.

And, I feel this as a great shift, a message being whispered here and there, and proclaimed in ever-louder voices. It is a call to open our hearts to this larger perspective. There is a universal message, a message that proclaims we are all of us one family. And, it has at its heart the stories of the divine feminine. Which is, of course, the message of divine wholeness, of our hope when we embrace the whole of our possibility. In this wholeness there is healing. In this wholeness there is liberation.

And it's happening all over the world. In these worst of times, there is a message of hope. In Afghanistan, in villages where women are kept in bondage and ignorance, they whisper to their daughters the secret message: they are equal to the men. That's God's real message, the god that includes the divine seen in both male and female. We're all related, and more; within the web, we're all one. In Saudi Arabia, women gather in secret and talk of driving and voting and how that is their divine right. In America young women demand to be paid the same as men, and they know the day one of their number will be president is not far off.

The great hubbub around homosexuality turns on the same issues. Strict prescriptions about sexual roles have assured the old paradigm. And they've been used to subject women and sexual minorities in exactly the same way. This is why those of us concerned with the firm establishment of women's rights are almost always equally concerned with the rights of lesbians, and gay men, of bisexuals and transgendered people. If one is oppressed, we're all oppressed. And, and, this extends out, as obvious as the nose on your face. White people cannot be free and equal unless black people, people of Asian descent, and Latinos are, as well. It is critical to notice how in the history of the oppression of people of color, how sexuality has hung over those issues, as well.

So, in these hard, hard times, I suggest there is a fix. And I acknowledge, for many of us, it may be too hard. However the cost of not going for it is terrible, so please, let us open our eyes and see, open our ears, and listen. Open your heart as wide as possible. Do that and the path becomes clear.

I've repeated this story at least once in my tenure here, but it represents a turning point in my life, so I hope you don't mind hearing it once again. Many years ago, when I was in a seminar with the ethicist Karen Lebacqz, the conversation turned to feminism. I stated, perhaps naively, perhaps not fully getting the nuance of it, that I am a feminist. Several people did not think it possible. From my perspective today, another dangerous way of dividing us. But, Karen took hold of the conversation and pointed it right. She said, "James, absolutely, you can be a feminist." There was a silence, pregnant, if you will. And then she added, "All you have to do is to become a sister."

Become a sister. So, much in that. Challenge. Invitation. Possibility.

Now for roughly half of us here, you might ask what's the big deal? But, for the other half, more or less, it can be a very big deal. In fact I know as I say these words for many it is a bridge too far. Actually, I think the deeper invitation may be illusive for many of us, whatever our gender by birth or choice, to the degree that gender identity is ever actually a choice.

I think of that young man who went to the good rabbi and said what must I do to be saved. And he replied love God and love your neighbor. And the young man said, I have done these things, but my mind is not at rest. The rabbi then replied, give up your privilege, and follow me. And the young man couldn't. I know how Karen's words lodged in my heart, how for several heartbeats I thought that's too hard.

Challenge. Invitation. Possibility.

But. I suggest we have come to a time where we can't indulge the divisions, the false divisions anymore. There are counter forces that are taking our world and us to its destruction. We need to pay attention, and we need to open our minds and our hearts, and to see how the great mother, how mother Mary beckons us.

I understand those who doubt a philosophical shift having a spiritual story that simply includes the divine feminine is going to address racism, classism, economic disparity, or ecological catastrophe in a way that actually causes change. They're right. Unless, that is, it is the story of a conversion, a turning of the heart. There is a place we can go in our being, to a new perspective about the world.

Become a sister.

There's a place we can go where we can see the Black Jesus, where we can find the homeless Jesus, where we can discover Jesus is a woman. Let's shift the image for a moment. Sometimes it can help if we don't hold our metaphors too tightly. Jalalluddin Rumi sang of the invitation in another way, "Out beyond our ideas of wrong and right, there is a field. I will meet you there." Out beyond our divisions, which have a certain utility, absolutely, I'm not saying collapse everything, but which when held tightly as the only truth become snares of our hearts, and lead us to do terrible things - out beyond all these divisions, black and white, male and female, rich and poor, there is a field.

I'm not saying in that field there isn't black and white, there isn't male and female, there aren't rich and poor. But it does mean there is another truth, as well. It's not an either or. We are distinct, but we are related. And our actions have consequences for our relatives as well as for us, you and me. We are in that field one family. If we can find that field in our own lives, we find at the same time a new way to engage the distinctions and differences that are not oppressive, that do not leave some behind. That does not poison our world.

From that field we can engage in ways that heal.

And so the invitation. Field. Mother. Let's return to that original image.

The call is to know your mother. You know her when you notice the divisions in our lives are only half the truth. Find the other half, and you are free.

Become a sister.

It means letting go of fixed views. It means being open to new ways of living.

Become a sister.

It means allowing yourself to experience the real world, where each of us as we are, are also part of something, if you will, all children of one mother.

So, become a sister.

Do this and tears will be wiped away, despair will become opportunity, and our lives, our lives will become an ode to joy.

And a blessing to this poor and yearning world.