A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
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“We have our hearts to give, we have our thoughts to receive; and we believe that sharing is an answer.”
Though we have always been a worldly faith, concerned with the issues of our day, in the 23 years since I became a minister, we have become more deliberate about our hearts, our thoughts, and our sharing – urgent, more careful, more honest, more unsure, more reactive and more responsive. We are hearing ourselves called, laypeople as well as ministers, to working with and in support of black and brown people within and beyond our congregations to reduce and end their jeopardy and persecution in this nation; we are working to advocate for and shelter undocumented immigrants and their children and families, for the rights and safety of gay and trans people still facing persecution and brutalization, for the poor in need of security and shelter and hope, for children who deserve safety and education throughout our country. We name the profanity of guns in this era that insists on their sanctity, and examine our own racism and grow our engagement into relationship and community with people of all cultures and heritages, and lead congregations of different and complicated individuals into that same examination and evolution, while trying to remind ourselves and our people and our nation that there is such a thing as truth – even when truths are disparate – and that there are facts that require our understanding, and science that requires our respect, and wonders that require our reverence, all of which is not unrelated to the imperative that we need to ensure we don’t turn this planet into a husk. We work for death with dignity, so that when we come to the end of a livable life we can end it with some sense of readiness and peace. Clergy are writing and preaching and speaking out and rallying and arrested, arrested so often these days it doesn’t even make the news. It barely rates a Facebook emoji.
Responding to all this, we are struggling to find and maintain our compass as a faith, which is taking our ministries and this congregation to new levels of inspiration and challenge.
Thandeka, the theologian and minister who just spent a week and a half talking with us about the yearnings and opportunities this congregation holds, has a picture displayed in her home. It’s a photograph taken in Ukraine of Orthodox priests standing between Ukrainian special police and demonstrators opposing them. In the photo, there are three priests, one holding a tall cross, standing in the open, charged, dangerous space between the police and the demonstrators. Standing there, they are witnesses and peacekeepers, holding the space in order to hold up humanity, to hold back death, to hold on to peace.
This is so like the American experience UCC minister Traci Blackmon from Ferguson, Missouri has spoken about; her story of how every night for months and months in the wake of the police killing of Michael Brown Jr., the demonstrators and the police massed out on the streets, and the clergy were there also, on the streets, in the charged, dangerous space between the demonstrators and police, in t-shirts that proclaimed they were clergy, holding the space, using the power of their witness and presence and words to try to keep anyone else from being killed.
As Thandeka points out, many clergy inhabit the most charged spaces these days, trying to use our witness and presence and words to hold up humanity and hold back death and hold onto peace for all people. And of course ministers don’t do our work alone, we do it most of all with all the people we serve, who are facing the same challenges and realities.
What makes this possible? What makes it possible to hear the call, answer it and keep answering it, even when it breaks our heart, even when ministry takes us into charged, dangerous spaces? It’s a question for all of us, I think, because faithful living, especially now, requires engagement beyond what we already know, and that fact that this is necessary, and often good for us, doesn’t make it easy. So it is not something to take for granted. We all know how hard it is to do things that are hard, how hard it is to be brave, how hard it is to endure – there are real risks and deep exposure in being Unitarian Universalist these days. Given that it is hard, I think harder than it used to be, to really engage as Unitarian Universalists, how do we stick the landing, how do we stay and grow and retain not just our honor but our joy in this liberal, worldly, challenging faith?
In the end, ministry – both the big M ministry that is the charge of the minister, and the small ‘m’ ministry that is the charge of all of us Unitarian Universalists, because together we are the fullest fruition of this faith we all share – these ministries are only possible when we embrace the co-existence of opposites. It so often comes down to that familiar chestnut of the author E. B. White: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” But in fact, the savoring and the saving are both essential. Because we only want to save what we savor, what we love. What we love and take joy in are those same goodnesses that must be available, and possible, equally available and equally possible, to everyone. The necessary freedoms: to marry, to work, to live, to learn, to be out in the world in all our fullness without fear or retribution, to have a thriving world to be out in, to pursue what calls us to its study or engagement. We feel deeply their urgency and ultimacy, and our own part in ensuring them, the daunting charge the great Christian mystic Teresa of Avila expressed in her terms: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours; no feet but yours.”
We often talk about the opposing poles of pastoral church and prophetic church, about the church that takes care of people, healing, deepening, holding, versus the church that is calling, serving, urging people to how we need to be in the world. But of course here too it is both, and again, they make each other possible. We can only help the larger community grow and heal and be well-served if we ourselves are healing and growing and well-served, we can only hold if we ourselves are being held.
Some of my thoughts this morning come from an exciting conversation I had with my good friend the Rev. Vanessa Southern. In that conversation, she told me that years before the great Rev. A. Powell Davies came to All Souls in DC and worked with the congregation to take the church’s long heritage of justice, racial integration and civil rights work to new levels, including seeding UU churches around the DC beltway, years before that, he served another congregation in Summit, NJ. At the 100th anniversary of that other church’s founding, the congregation invited former ministers and other formative leaders to celebrate and recount the church’s story. Muriel Davies, Rev. Davies’ widow, was one of those who came. While talking about her late husband and his ministry, Mrs. Davies said something surprising. She said that though her husband was known for his prophetic sermons, it was his pastoral sermons he liked the best, and that he preached the most. The prophetic sermons were far fewer, she said. Isn’t that surprising, given how much of his legacy was a tremendous justice mission. Or maybe it isn’t surprising. Maybe, like saving and savoring making one another possible, maybe holding people so often, so well, fortified them, and his relationship with them, for the hard, demanding work of justice. Again, the one making the other possible.
So lately I find myself thinking about all these apparent sets of seeming polar opposites that aren’t actually opposites, that are actually deeply related pieces of a whole. The rock and the wave. Sometimes in ministry we have to be a rock – we will not be moved, we have to pull our own Gandalf: ‘you shall not pass,’ -– place ourselves to hold against a hurricane of events or devastation. Other times we have to be a wave, responsive to the tide, part of the tide, rolling, moving, taking our place within a surge and helping our people find their places too, surging and surging and surging again as we answer the call of the times and the urgencies that come in all our lives and that we meet or temper with the power of community. But again, that’s too simple, because while the rock and the wave are real, and again, intertwined, the wave slowly wearing at the rock, the rock always interrupting the wave, and while they make for a cool sermon title, there is a third aspect overlooked and darn it, I can’t even find a stirring term for it. I think I have to call it ‘the pillow,’ – which is not cool at all, but essential nonetheless, because really it’s about being, providing, a soft place to land. Where people can come and find the support they need, they have to have, to live in this world full of rocks and waves. And the pillow, while less sexy as a metaphor, matters a lot, as much as the other two, especially now when our society feels so abraded and abrasive, when we come here from days and work and struggle and news that can feel excoriating and unrelenting.
And part of why we are here is that all of us have felt compelled by some vision of who we can be at our best and what can come from all of us doing that together.
(sung) “We seek elusive answers to the questions of this life. We seek to put an end to all the waste of human strife. We search for truth, equality and blessed peace of mind. And then, we come together here, to make sense of what we find.”
Over time that makes us not just participants in that vision but keepers, custodians, of that vision of who and what we could be.
And there is this other piece of that: how often then we are destined to fall short. Because holding up ideals is both essential and fraught. If risks are real, then we are guaranteed to fail, plenty of times, maybe even more than we succeed. This means that to be a community or a leader, we have to hold as a central piece of our sense of our faith, expecting mistakes – mistakes which will require forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation. The place of mercy in our faith is in actual, explicit debate right now in the larger world of our faith, because lately it’s so easy, so seductive, so satisfying to go high judgment and low on mercy, high on attack and low on kindness. Unitarian Universalism is at a crucial juncture within the life of our country, with an ironic juxtaposition of national issues evoking deep, emotional responses in us all. On the one hand, so much that was so hard won is now in jeopardy, or being dismantled. Civil rights, voting rights, marriage equality, environmental protection, pollution regulation, endangered species, birth control and a woman’s right to choose, more than I can possibly name here – crucial gains, even when they were incomplete. The ugliness and untruths and unmaking that surround us is enough to make us crazy. It’s no wonder we feel abraded and appalled and aggrieved. It’s no wonder we’re loaded for bear.
On the other hand, we are in this time of revelation, confronting painful realities about how incomplete our gains were, how much we still hadn’t even recognized about racism, sexism, transphobia, anti-Semitism, myriad challenges and flaws in our religious institutions and in our own psyches. We’re amazed, we’re excited, we’re demoralized, we’re outraged. “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Right? Right, and we see religiously-oriented outrage fueled also in larger movements of revelation and change across our nation. The issue how do we handle our legitimate outrage.
The great African American essayist and philosopher James Baldwin warned against the seduction of taking comfort in rage and misery. (essay Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone) Because we could just settle for taking comfort in rage and ministry – some people do – and where would that lead us?
There is no way to take our place in charged and dangerous spaces unless we can offer each other more, unless we can live into the wisdom of religious leaders like the Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis who calls us to community wherein “We don’t let our particularities allow us to diminish each other – any of us.” Or Mama Ruby Sales, who says “Can we be human and not use our particularities to eviscerate another – or each other?” Or Thandeka, who suggests Love Beyond Belief – where our community is not defined by any particular theology, but by our lived experience that tells us that connection with each other, and opportunities to inhabit spirituality and sacredness together, will keep us strong in these times that try our strength so enormously. (sung) “And we believe in life, and in the strength of love; and we have found a need to be together.” This is the challenge we have to meet now because our ideals will always outstrip our wisdom and practical knowledge and experience of how to live into those ideals. We have to know that sometimes we will fail, sometimes we will all fail, we will all break our vows 1000 times as the mystical Sufi poet, Rumi, once wrote, and this is most true in times of great intensity and change, like now. Our religion will not thrive, we may not even survive, if we don’t take care of each other in the midst of our growing and learning.
So how do we invite one another join again and again in the adaptive, creative, hard, and unclear work of seeking, marching, stumbling toward our ideals. Of holding ourselves – and each other – accountable not just for authenticity or integrity or justice or change, but also for respect, compassion, mercy, forgiveness? Being called to serve in community means we are responsible to each other, responsible not just to our own understanding and perceptions, but to each others’ understandings and perceptions – that is what makes faith community and larger religious life so complex – and rich – and powerful. And is only possible or real when we are answerable for care and respect with each other. It cannot be a one-way street – care and respect are not owed from some to others, they are owed both ways, all the time, across all relationships in a faith community. That’s true in any religion, but certainly it is true for us Unitarian Universalists, care and respect being indivisible from our first principle of respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. The whole point of congregationally-based faith, after all, is to journey together. Otherwise we lose a vital part of the ideal, each other, on the way.
In this month when our theme is unity and diversity, the interrelationship of one and many, of a part to the whole, we have to remember the commandments of the heart that ground our faith in a ministry we all share and are all responsible for. We are here because we believe in congregational religion and Unitarian Universalism. We believe in it so much that we share our lives, our families, our treasure and our hearts with it. We depend upon our leaders and also, eventually, ourselves to go into that charged, dangerous, peace-keeping, life-saving, soul-honoring space that moves not in some elusive and false sense of a linear perfection, but the perfection that lies in moving between those various poles of faithful living: the saving some days, the savoring on others, the prophetic and the pastoral, the wave and the rock and yes the pillow — embracing all. None of it more valuable than the other, none of it expendable, together like water and sun and earth to a plant. Visions of the ideal have drawn all of us into this faith, and will pull us like a north star through the life of congregational religion. But let us remember that this paradigm for the success of crazy, beautiful, beloved community, sets us up also, inevitably, for encounters with failure and error and disappointment, which are hard, hard, to hold. I know your hearts are big enough to hold it, to engage risk, to acknowledge and learn and heal from mistakes and failures. Your commitment, your insight, your courage, your hearts are beautiful, and gifts to this faith, this congregation, we share. So may we keep our hearts big and practiced in forgiveness and mercy, with arms ready to help the stumblers, – who are all of us – help us stay and grow together, holding one another as we seek the path that brings us forward, to that beloved place of our dreams that is only made real by how we go there together. Amen.