"Who Decides What Narrative?"
A sermon by Rev. Charles Blustein Ortman, delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, February 12th, 2017
READINGS: ANCIENT & MODERN
Our ancient reading is the record of Flavius Josephus, the historian credited with chronicling the ancient Hebrew story of the Siege at Masada, one of the final events in the First Jewish–Roman War. It occurred from 73 to 74 CE on a large hilltop in current-day Israel. According to Josephus the long siege by the troops of the Roman Empire led to the mass suicide of the Sicarii rebels and resident Jewish families of the Masada fortress. Josephus cites the following speech as being delivered by Elazar Ben Yair, leader of the rebels on the last night of the siege:
Brave and loyal followers! Long ago we resolved to serve neither the Romans nor anyone other than God Himself, who alone is the true and just Lord of mankind. The time has now come that bids us prove our determination by our deeds. We have never submitted to slavery, even when it brought no danger with it. We must not choose slavery now, and with it penalties that will mean the end of everything, if we fall alive into the hands of the Romans. God has given us this privilege, that we can die nobly and as free men, and leave this world as free men in company with our wives and children.
Our second reading is by Jeremy Taylor, a Unitarian Universalist minister as well as one of the nation's leading scholars on dreams and the meaning of dreams. This is an excerpt from his essay “Trump: The Shadow King of Uniquely American Creativity,” published in the Winter 2017 edition of The Wisdom of Your Dreams Newsletter. Jeremy Taylor wrote:
I know that within myself, and within everyone who reads [or hears] these words, there is a similar potential [to that of Donald Trump] of as-yet-unexpressed creative energy and possibility. Perhaps the greatest good that can come from Trump's victory in the electoral college may be conferring "historical permission" on all of us to reach into our own unconscious depths and find the passion and the as-yet-unimagined creative ideas necessary to move us into a future that expresses and gives concrete shape to our deepest beliefs and experiences of the America that was created as "a new nation" – the first one founded with the avowed purpose of facilitating the evolution of greater conscious self-awareness in the entire human species.
Welcome back for week number two of February Focus Month, We Are a Community of Story. Hopefully this extended time of a month will give us an opportunity to look deeply at our theme over the course of these several weeks, giving us all an ample opportunity to recognize and to own who we are in relationship to our theme. I hope, this will also provide an entrée into narrative, story, as a primary religious vehicle for finding and making meaning from the experiences of our lives, as well as by providing a roadmap into the world of our aspirations.
Last week we began with "Once Upon a Time..." or, "Long Ago and Far Away..." It was an exploration of the potential of narrative for providing meaning in the present and for engendering faith and hope in the future: the future of our lives, of this congregation, the future of our nation and our world. That sermon is available on line and printed copies are in the Parlor of the Parish House.
A point from last week that I'd like to bring forward this morning and throughout the month is best summed up by mythologist Robert A. Johnson who said that myths are stories that aren't necessarily true on the outside, but that reveal deep truths on the inside. So, stories are a way of telling the truth that lives within us. Stories tell us to pay attention to our lives, for in each of us and in all of our days, there exists the extraordinary, that which can provide us with grace, with beauty, and with fulfillment… if we pay attention and are open to them.
Today I want to look more closely at our relationship, our religious and spiritual relationship, to narrative. Who are we? Who are you, in the story of your own life? Who are we in the story of this moment, in the unfolding larger story of humanity? Who put you where you are in the story? Is this where you, where we, want to be? How might each of us want to reshape the emerging narrative of our life, and how might all of us want to reshape it for our collective lives, in order to intentionally and positively impact the future and the generations who will follow us?
Let's look at a historic religious narrative to see how this tale from the ancient past might help us to answer these questions. I'm guessing that a number of us here have some familiarity with the story of the siege at Masada. I also imagine that a number of us are not so familiar. I remember my introduction to the story. It was back in 1981, when ABC created a miniseries of those events that were based on the historical novel The Antagonists by Ernest Gann.
Like millions of viewers across the country, I was glued to the television for each of the four episodes. The setting was ancient Judea, during the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. The leader of the Hebrew rebels, Eleazar, establishes a camp on Masada, a towering citadel built by Herod that offers protection from the Roman legions. The story is filled with treachery and spies, with devotion to God and tenderness of family. The Romans, who had been buffooned too many times by the Zealots, are determined to eradicate the encampment. Within this backdrop are the stories of desperate human experience – Jews wrapped in resistance; Romans bent on persistence. Throughout the saga, tension mounts, and all the while the Romans continue to build a ramp up the mountainside, which would eventually provide them access to the rebel encampment.
I can remember watching and wondering – how in the world were the Jews going to get out of this impossible predicament? But the advertising trailers had promised that this was a story of Jewish courage, determination and, finally, a story of victory. The ads promised that there would be victory! And each night the tension grew.
On the fourth and final night of the miniseries, as the ramp nears completion, Eleazar faces the fact that the final confrontation with Roman forces was not far off. The Zealots break into Herod’s armory and begin to prepare for what they believe will be a straightforward storming of the fortress walls by the Romans. When the ramp is complete though, the Romans wheel out an enormous, armored siege tower with a huge battering-ram.
As the tower begins moving up the ramp, Eleazar has his people build an inner wall that will absorb the blows of the ram and not shatter. Made from wooden beams taken from Herod’s palace roof and packed with dirt, the rebels finish this backup wall just as the tower reaches the top of the ramp. The Romans easily break through the outer, stone walls of the fortress, but the ram is no match for the improvised inner wall. The Roman General Silva orders his men to set fire to it. Expecting that it would take all night for the wall to burn through, Silva has his men stand down. [ source article at this link ]
That's when the truth of the story, the truth which instills this story with both power and horror, becomes evident. The next day, the Romans break into the fortress, only to discover that Eleazar and his people had all committed suicide during the night. Why? How could they do such a thing? It was so that they might die nobly and as free human beings; so that they might leave this world in the company of their families and not as slaves and prostitutes at the mercy of their enemy.
I was not a child in 1981; I was 31 years old. Still, as the truth became evident, I felt numb. Thirty-five years later, I have to confess that I'm still haunted by that outcome. It's not unlike the experience I, and I imagine many of you here, had when, 15 years ago, we watched news footage of the World Trade Center towers, between the time they were struck by the airliners and when the towers collapsed.
In both of these events, Masada and 9/11, a dramatic, disturbing and forbidding narrative was created by one group of people to be played out at the extreme expense of the other. The Romans and the terrorists were intent on determining the destiny of their victims. But in both cases, those who were being acted upon chose – with some kind of deep courage and self-determination – to write their own final chapter in their own way. God willing, none of us here will ever face a predicament where we would have to choose between such drastic options.
Still, we are invited by these stories to ask: Who were they? And… who are we? Who are you, in the story of your own life? Who are you/we in the story of this moment in the unfolding larger story of humanity? Who put you in this story? Is this where you, where we, want to be? How might you/we want to reshape the emerging narrative of our life, of our collective lives, in order to impact the future and the generations who will follow us?
I don't begin to imagine that everyone here agrees with my assessment of anything, let alone of everything. Still, I feel compelled by my calling to bear witness to you of the truth that I experience. That truth, since our recent elections and the Inauguration, fits into a narrative that I'm not so willing to abide.
I'm not talking about being disappointed by the outcome of the election. I'm scared – afraid for our country and for the world. I'm afraid for the well-being of our democratic process and of our religious values. I've heard them skewered too often by our new president with arrogance, insensitivity, bullishness and even with treason. I'm not questioning those who voted for Mr. Trump. I'm sure people had many different reasons for that choice, and I'm not addressing those here. What I am addressing is the hateful and arrogant manner in which our president has dismissed and bullied any individual who has questioned him on any level. I'm addressing the way in which he has marginalized and jeopardized the safety and well-being of so many Americans who are part of our traditionally marginalized communities. I consider his behavior in this regard, and in so many other areas, to be, at the very least, no less than evil.
Since the election, I have, as have many of you, been activated to speak out and act on behalf of the values we hold dear, on behalf of our brothers and sisters who are being marginalized and jeopardized. These actions of ours constitute our efforts to be accountable for the narratives in which we find ourselves.
The ancient Hebrews did not ask to be subjected to the tyrannical onslaught of their Roman pursuers. Those people who were simply at work in the WTC on 9/11 did not choose to be terrorist targets. Yet, in the end they all chose, as difficult as it must have been, to determine their own fate.
Many of us here do not feel that we chose to be a part of an American narrative that is so utterly un-American in its values and in its character. And yet this is the narrative in which we find ourselves. How might you/we want to reshape the emerging narrative of our life, of our collective lives, in this newly evolving narrative, so that we might protect our values and our neighbors, so that we might impact the future and the future generations?
It's important to resist that which is unacceptable. To do that, we do well to have our efforts supported in some religious way. It becomes more of a religious thing when we are joined in resistance within the context of community. We here are a community of story. We do well to attach our resistance to a story that comes out of our past, leading us from where we are now in the direction of the future that we aspire to promote and to be a part of in the days to come.
I was grateful this week to come across the essay by Jeremy Taylor that was excerpted in our second reading this morning. From his Jungian perspective, Taylor lays the foundation for what we might well use in the creation of a new story of resistance. He writes:
To my mind, our personal, as well as our collective shadow has been given projected shape in his behavior. President Donald J. Trump is the "thing a person has no wish to be," as Carl Jung defined the shadow.
And so my friends, here's the thing – we don't need to deny the story that we are actually a part of. Truth is, that story is also a part of each of us. We won't get anywhere denying the reality in which we exist. The ancient Hebrews did not deny their reality, neither did those at the World Trade Center. They faced their reality and made a choice. It had to be a very spiritual choice, because it was about nothing less than the way in which they would sever their bonds with life.
However, the form in which the shadow manifests, hides the very thing that we need to acknowledge in order to move forward with our lives...
We are part of a story that we would do well to hold carefully, for it will be within our embrace of it that we might find our capacity for coauthoring the direction in which this story might yet develop. Will we choose to be the ones we are called to be in the next chapter of this narrative? Will we choose to be the ones to write the pages of our destiny, based on this new reality in which we find ourselves? These were the same questions faced by the ancients. These are the questions for us, if we are willing and committed to write from our faith and not out of fear.
I've been addressing narratives of a grand scale here this morning. But the same elements hold true for each of us on our personal journeys. I have to imagine that this room (that the world) is filled with many of us who are in need of recognizing and becoming accountable for our own stories, for our individuation, as Carl Jung would say.
And so we might ask again – Who are you in the story of your own life? Who are you in the story of this moment in the unfolding larger story of humanity? Who put you in this story? Is this where you want to be? Where you want us to be? How might you want to reshape the emerging narrative of your life, of our collective lives, in order to impact the future and the future generations to follow?
In closing, I'm part of a group of old college friends from Champaign-Urbana back in Illinois. We stay in pretty close contact through the magic of email. Lately many of our messages have been an effort to share inspiration with one another for the facing this new world we live in. One of our group is a poet, David Schafer, who shared a piece that he'd written this week. I find it to be profoundly inspiring and to the point of our exploration this morning. And so I share it with you here. It's entitled:
"the day dawns."
there is a powerful force
within each of us
to be whole
like the pull
that brings man & woman
to create new life
so in every human being
just as the day dawns
& light fills the world
how do I know this?
I don’t know this
it is not about me
or what we think
it’s about deep inside
what we feel
to be true
we need to be whole
mind & body & brain
sounds pretty good alright, yeah?
so, slow down: listen
live to see the dawn
& light fill the world
In the days to come we will indeed need the support of stories of resistance and persistence, stories of service and of love for justice. We will need to remember stories of challenge and struggle and even devastation, so that we might help to write the next chapters of whatever story we will be a part of, to be sure that they include resurrection and redemption.
We are a community of story. Stories, whatever the era, are always about the here and now. The sharing of stories is an age-old practice in the traditions of religion. Stories are a way of telling the truth that lives within. Stories are a way of telling us each to pay attention to our very ordinary, day-to-day lives, for in each of us and in all of our days, there does exist the extraordinary, that which can provide us with grace, and beauty, and fulfillment… if we pay attention and are open to them, if we own them, taking and making our place in them.