A Sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
To listen to Liz’s opening words, click on the left in the box below:
I am so glad to be here with you
All week, I know many of us just held on and that was all we could do
And I am so glad, so fed, to see your dear faces friends.
After this week of anger and spectacle and sadness,
We come into this church
To remind ourselves that there is still that which is holy
Compassion, respect, truth, commitment, honor, faith and love.
Take a breath with me won’t you?
Take another breath.
We are here together.
We are here together.
Compassion, respect, truth, commitment, honor, faith and love
They are here too.
This church, this faith, this gathering of souls,
Come, let us worship together.
To listen to Liz’s prayer, click on the arrow at the left in the box below:
I’m looking for a prayer I can’t find
A prayer for the women hurt once again by the blows of the past week
A prayer for the girls who haven’t been hurt yet,
For all the people who haven’t been hurt yet, but will be.
I want to find a prayer for the men who have been hurt too,
And for the men who are feeling the hurt on behalf of the rest of us.
I want to find a prayer about all the ways our culture teaches women that our role is the victim, the object, the satisfaction of another.
I want to find a prayer about all the movies and stories and ads and lives that tell women that we can flee, and we can serve, and we can love, but we have no other power.
I want to find a prayer of anger that some boys and men believe they have the right to sex, to hurt, to do whatever they want.
And I want to find a prayer of gratitude for all the boys and men who have nurtured girls and women, cherished us, expecting we have every right anyone else does.
I want to find a prayer of courage in the midst of all this talk of women and men for all the trans people whose gender is different, and struggled to find their fit, and live at risk because they live who they are.
I want to find a prayer of disillusionment, again, in this country that elects so many people who cannot be, will never be, not even close to what we need them to be.
Deprived of vision, deprived of greatness, deprived of wisdom, deprived of healing, deprived of humility, deprived of brilliance, deprived of insight, deprived of compassion, we are starved for all they do not have, those with the power to shape our lives,
We live all of us in this cage that rebuilds itself against all our efforts, as fast as we work to take it apart, to take it down, it grows again, as soon as we turn our attention away, even while we work at it and stare it down, it grows again.
I am looking for a prayer that speeds our work and powers our hands and fills our hearts so that no cage can hold us.
I am looking for a prayer that salves our pain and releases our anger and lifts our despair so that no cage can hold us.
I am looking for a prayer that strengthens our bonds and builds our faith and fires our resolution so that no cage can hold us.
I am looking for a prayer that changes our vision and grows our wisdom and fills us with honor for each other so that no cage can hold us.
I am looking for a prayer, but what I find is you.
I am looking for a prayer, and what I find is you.
I see we are each others’ prayers,
And the only answer we will find in this life.
I see your work and hands and hearts.
I see your bonds and faith and resolution.
I see your vision and wisdom and honor.
I see the answer to my prayer. I see the answer to my prayer.
To listen to the sermon, click on the arrow at the left in the box below:
(A poem by May Sarton)
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before—”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
– May Sarton
It has been my intent to talk about creation – literally the act of creating – as divine gift, something eternal, essential, precious and even sacred, something that can heal us and even offer us joy when we ‘indulge’ – and I use that word advisedly – when we indulge our capacity for creation. I was going to talk about how the process of growing into adulthood in the modern West is one that too often diminishes our capacity to create. Fred and I were talking about this earlier this week, and he was saying how when we’re children and someone asks, “Who here can dance? or draw? Or sing?” — we all can. But as we grow up we begin to learn – or believe – that actually we can’t. And by adulthood, plenty of us can’t dance, or sing, or draw. We have been stunted, cut off from aspects of our nature that have been part of universal human experience, human living, human record – and religious experience – since before recorded time.
I’m still going to talk about that but I’m also going to – going to have to – talk about the impact of the Bill Cosby sentencing and the Brett Kavanaugh hearing on our women, our people, our nation and our spirit. And while they are in some ways very different topics, in the end, what I am talking about, in this month of looking at vocation and call, what I am talking about in both instances, is wholeness. That’s what comes of following what calls to our deepest, truest selves. And it’s what comes from acknowledging the violence we have suffered, or done to others, the violence our society inflicts on people, that we are taught to inflict, or accept, and thereby perpetuate.
Wholeness is what May Sarton’s poem is about, her poem that addresses both areas at once. Wholeness is becoming oneself – fully, at last, our deepest, truest, best self. And the hope for us in her poem is that it comes, she says, after she has been dissolved and shaken, deferred her own selfhood to the selfhood of others, feeling always pressed and rushed, never able to stop and stand and stay and be – herself, to perceive her own weight and density – the fruition and fulfillment of all she was and all she had to offer.
But now, now she can. The poet is utterly present to herself, and to this expression of herself, the eternal moment unspooling, the shadow of her hand on the paper, the shadow of the word as thought shapes the shaper – her words pour out and she sees what she knows and feels and says – she forms and is formed in the same act, the same unfolding, formed and reformed, refining, combining, becoming, being… her art.
Her poem is her song, her life becomes her energy, the rush becomes timelessness in that state, that deeply zen state, where we are utterly inhabiting the moment, the creating, thinking not about self but about creation – creation that is, of course, its own expression of the self we have left far behind in that moment of genesis that stops the sun.
The great Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing died in the 1840’s. He was born in Rhode Island. His grandfather, a signer of the Declaration of Independence for Rhode Island, hated slavery, and his father was a lawyer who defended the rights of slave traders. (Shannon Riley, archive.vcu.edu). Channing was one of the defining voices in early American Unitarianism, one of the voices heard by members here when this church changed from Congregational to Unitarian. Rev. Channing had many members in his prominent Boston congregation who depended on the slave trade for their wealth, and he knew that coming out against slavery would risk his ministry and his church. But he did it, and in the end he grounded his abolitionism in theology. He wrote about a foundational right belonging to all people: (I’ve edited this excerpt for gender inclusivity)
“to exercise [our] powers for the promotion of [our] own and others’ Happiness and Virtue. These are the great purposes of … existence. For these [our] powers were given, and to these [we are] bound to devote them. [We] are bound to make [ourselves] and others better and happier, according to [our] ability. [Our] ability for this work is a sacred trust from God, the greatest of all trusts. [We] must answer for the waste or abuse of it. [We] consequently suffer an unspeakable wrong, when stripped of it by others, or forbidden to employ it for the ends for which it is given; when the powers, which God has given for such generous uses, are impaired or destroyed by others, or the means for their action and growth are forcibly withheld. As every human being is bound to employ [our] faculties for [our] own and others’ good, there is an obligation on each to leave all free for the accomplishment of this end; and whoever respects this obligation, whoever uses [our] own, without invading others’ powers, or obstructing others’ duties, has a sacred, indefeasible right to be unassailed, unobstructed, unharmed by all with whom [we] may be connected. Here is the grand, all-comprehending right of human nature.”
Ultimately, that ground laid by Rev. Channing matters now as much as ever. Then he was talking about slavery, but it still applies, now when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, now when we’re talking about #Me Too, now when we’re talking about refugees and undocumented immigrants, now when we’re talking about bullying and trans rights – which are yes, justice movements, but like all justice movements, they are grounded in the needs and lives of individuals, of our neighbors, of ourselves, our trans selves, our bullied selves, our undocumented selves, our refugee selves, our #me too selves, our black selves, ourselves right here in this room. As this week has brought home again. For all that we’ve been talking for centuries in this country, for all that we’ve been talking about human rights and dignity for millennia in this world, for all that we say we are bound to employ our faculties for everyone’s good, and that all people have the right to be unassailed, unobstructed, unharmed by all with whom we may be connected, for all that we agree that it is the grand, all-comprehending right of human nature, it is not so. It is not so.
The creative, generative power we all have to make and be and do and contribute to the flowering of beauty and goodness is not free, is still not free. And the joy that comes with the fullest flowering of our own capacities for beauty and goodness still eludes us, too many of us, too often. For the timeless power of the moment May Sarton inhabits in the blooming of her genius, there is the person who is critiqued or disrespected or impoverished or victimized into the diminishment of talent and engagement, whose self-hood is circumscribed or ignored or worst: sacrificed by another.
Almost every woman I’ve ever known has been sexually harassed. And when I say harassed, I don’t just mean catcalls on the street, I mean followed. Or threatened. Or touched. Or molested. Or attacked. Or raped. And not only women, men too, and trans folk – but almost every woman I have ever known.
And so we began the week with the sentencing of Bill Cosby, with the final acknowledgement that “I Spy” and Fat Albert and the Huxtables were all a façade, and even a tool, for a predator. It doesn’t just hurt – and make us angry – as it always hurts and makes us angry when we learn about the devastations of a predator. It also hurts because of all the women – tens and tens of women who have publicly come forward over decades – and all the ways they were ignored, rejected, denied, condemned and silenced. And it also hurts because it poisons and reveals the lie of something, someone, we thought was good and true.
We closed the week with Brett Kavanaugh. However we feel about his presumed innocence or unproven guilt, however we feel about the political process around the hearing on Thursday, however we feel about the statements made or not made by our nation’s leaders, there was also the spectacle of the woman: mild, deferential, apologetic throughout her testimony, and the man: entitled, defiant, outraged throughout his testimony. And there was his bluster and blatant partisanship and dissembling and dishonesty – how can this be the caliber of person we’re willing to give the extraordinary privilege of a lifetime on the Supreme Court of the land?
What do we make of all this? Of all this, along with all that we are each individually carrying these days? How do we move through this time? It’s tempting to turn to something that will numb us or distract us – some form of anesthesia. And there is that idea that when we’re devastated, exhausted, broken, the best way to deal is to do something for someone else, be of service, be of use. This morning I have another suggestion: give voice to yourself and make something. Manifest yourself, lose yourself, find yourself, in the power of creation. Because what pulls us out of brokenness is not distraction, it is wholeness. And there is wholeness in immersing yourself in creation. As May Sarton said, in a single hour we live all of our self and do not move – utterly consumed in something that effortlessly takes all our attention and care, that takes fresh paths through our brains and spirits, that offers thought which doesn’t need to be forced, because it is fulfillment and when you wonder where the time went, that’s when you really live. Not on Facebook or skating across the Internet. Not whipping through your to-do list that just keeps getting longer. Not with chores or duties or even staying abreast of the latest outrage or struggle – put them down. Put them all down. You can always take them up later. You know you will take them up later. So just for now, put them down.
Do you believe that every single person in the world has something unutterably beautiful about them? Unutterably beautiful, I mean it. This is what making art taught me. When I was an art student, in anatomy class, every week, we had a nude model for an hour. Every week, a different model. Usually it was someone none of us knew from the town beyond the campus. Every week it was somebody different, some very different body. A heavy white young woman with a skimpy pony tail. A lithe mixed-race woman with long wavy hair. A super-skinny black man with high cheekbones. Having seen them all once, for an hour, more than 30 years ago, I remember them all now because I looked at them all more intently than I have ever looked at anyone else. I studied them to draw them. And in studying them and drawing them, I saw extraordinary beauty in each of them. The whorled curves of a perfect ear. The long, graceful line of a throat. The clean proportion of a calf. The articulate flex of a foot. It wasn’t sexual, it was mortal and moving. All of us creatures, bodies, people, souls. It lifted and restored me, and – rarely – I captured it, a moment on the paper, with the shadow of my hand on the paper, the shadow of the ink as the shape shapes the shaper. Even now I can look at that art and see their beauty and remember how beautiful every person is, and marvel at it all over again.
What we make gives us back ourselves and gives us to each other. The great choreographer Alvin Ailey used his masterpiece Revelations to fuse his ‘blood memory’ of growing up in Texas with a celebration of African American religion and faith – and he cast a multiracial company of dancers because he was determined to both face race and transcend it. The great painter Georgia O’Keefe said about her art, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else… Nobody really sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time… So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it.” The great cellist Yo-yo Ma is travelling the world right now, playing Bach and pairing his performances with outreach to populations in need, and days of action. Teachers took classes of black students to see “Black Panther” because the children needed to see a vision of a place where white culture was not in charge of the exciting, remarkable environment. Award winning writer Kwame Dawes says, “I’m trying to capture in language the things that I see and feel, as a way of recording their beauty and power and terror, so that I can return to those things and relive them. In that way, I try to have some sense of control in a chaotic world.”
Many of the oldest stories humanity knows say that the first creator was a god – or gods. Whatever we ourselves believe in, if we believe in god, if we believe in good, if we believe just that we have ourselves and each other and this flawed, riven world and this brief moment of life – we have always known how powerful, how essential, how important it is to create; it is how we heal, it is how we change, it is how we learn, it is how we make new life. For god’s sake, let’s not forget it now. Something beautiful is waiting for you to bring it into the world. You have a sacred power for creation within you. Every one of us does. Use your power. In your song, in your dance, in your drawing, in your writing, in your music, in what you make, use your power! When you use the power of your creativity, when you create, with what you create, in this time of brokenness, you will make yourself – and all of us – a little more whole. Amen.
To listen to Liz’s closing words, click on the arrow at the left in the box below:
(adapted from a poem by May Sarton)
Now you become yourself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
You have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces
Now stand still, be here
Feel your own weight and density!
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence
Your work, your love, your time, your face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing
To become the song
Made and rooted by love.
Now there is time and
In this single hour you live
All of yourself.
Stop the sun.