Football and Justice: Fire in the Belly

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay

Audio Recording

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Mostly when I think of football and justice, I think of Colin Kaepernick courageously taking a knee, showing how football and justice can be paired – and how fraught the pairing can be, as people redefined his witness as being disrespect of the flag, rather than respect for all the black lives that are in jeopardy in our nation.  I have the greatest respect for Mr. Kaepernick, and for his bravery, making a statement that he knew could, and indeed so far has, jeopardized and maybe ended his career.  But years before he proposed a place for justice in football, there was a very different pairing of football and justice – in that episode you heard earlier from Garrison Keillor’s nostalgic radio show A Prairie Home Companion.  Garrison Keillor is now one of many tarred with the brush of sexual harassment in his behavior to a colleague.  For a long time, he was the welcome, down-home voice of the Midwest, a staple on national public radio, a writer and wry commentator enjoyed by many, including many Unitarian Universalists.  But as he made clear in his show more than once, the admiration wasn’t reciprocated.  In most mention of us, he portrayed Unitarian Universalists bemusing, superficial, silly.

And, as you heard in the reading earlier, he thought we are wimps.  Open-minded, peaceable wimps with a lot of good intentions but no passion, nothing to center us or make us strong.  We just stand around arguing and then go and run off in all directions.  We’re not out to win, just to have an interesting experience followed by a discussion.  We disdain and criticize traditional religious experience.  Our sermons are amusing and we appreciate the finer things and though we are small and low-attendance, we always look on the sunny side.

His skit is funny – funnier in the broadcast with the songs actually sung and the dialogue acted out.  And it’s not like he only picks on us: he says Baptists backslide and Jews are morose and makes fun of Mormon’s undergarments and Lutherans coldness and Episcopalians being an aging denomination.  And his jabs are not, of course, wholly true for any of the faiths they are making fun of.  But they’re also recognizably relevant in what they say.  I laughed when I heard this story the first time, (on my way home from leading a church service, coincidentally) – I laughed – but it galled me at the same time.  It still does.  It galls me because it only makes sense if we are recognizable in what he says.

I have definitely known UU churches like that – preoccupied only with themselves and their own internal values and issues.  As any congregation knows, those values and issues can feel like a lot.  Budgets.  Conflicts.  Behaviors.  Buildings.  Policies.  Agendas.  By-laws.  Archives.  Did I mention behaviors?  Those are all part of any faith community and they can be plenty all by themselves, to juggle, to pull into alignment, and hold within a single structure.  It’s not surprising that sometimes any of us can lose sight of the point or think that all those are the point.

Many years ago, now Starr King Seminary President Rosemary Bray McNatt, an African American minister in our movement, authored an article in our denomination’s World magazine.  Rosemary wrote:

“…in the middle of my seminary education, my literary agent called with an intriguing proposition. Would I be willing to be considered as co-writer of Coretta Scott King’s autobiography? I was one of several people being considered, but the book’s prospective editor was said to be partial to me. I was more than willing to talk about it, and a meeting with King was arranged at the editor’s office.

I didn’t make the final cut, but that is not why I tell this story. During an hour of wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned to her that I was in seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. What frankly surprised me was the look she gave me, one of respect and delight.

“Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin,” she told me, explaining that she had been, since college, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which was popular among Unitarians and Universalists. “And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

What surprised and saddened me most was what she said next. Though I am paraphrasing, the gist of it was this: “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”

It was a statement that pierced my heart and troubled my mind, then and now. I considered what our religious movement would be like if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had chosen differently, had cast his lot with our faith instead of returning to his roots as an African-American Christian. Certainly no one with King’s gifts would have lived in complete obscurity. I realized, however, that our liberal religious movement would have neutralized the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century. Certainly his race would have been the primary barrier. In a religious movement engaged until the 1970s in the active discouragement of people of color who wished to join its ministerial ranks, King might have found his personal struggles to serve Unitarian Universalism at least as daunting as the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Even if race had disappeared as an issue, King might have found the barrier of theology insurmountable. Though from the very start of his theological training he revealed a decided bent toward liberal religion, by the time his faith had been tried by the civil rights movement, King had said No to the sunny optimism of liberal faith—an optimism frankly untested in the heat of the battle for liberty and dignity for African Americans.

In his famous essay, “Pilgrimage to Non-Violence”—published in the Christian Century’s series, “How My Mind Has Changed,” in 1960—King made some trenchant comments about liberal theology that bear discussion:

‘There is one phase of liberalism that I hope to cherish always: its devotion to the search for truth, its refusal to abandon the best light of reason. . . . It was . . . the liberal doctrine of man that I began to question. The more I observed the tragedies of history, and man’s shameful inclination to choose the low road, the more I came to see the depths and strength of sin. . . . I came to feel that liberalism had been all too sentimental concerning human nature and that it leaned toward a false idealism. I also came to see that liberalism’s superficial optimism concerning human nature caused it to overlook the fact that reason is darkened by sin. . . . Liberalism failed to see that reason by itself is little more than an instrument to justify man’s defensive ways of thinking. Reason, devoid of purifying power of faith, can never free itself from distortions and rationalizations.’”

If you look at the cover of your order of service, you’ll see a blindfolded female figure, the classical depiction of Justice.  She holds not only scales, but also a sword.  Let me say here, I’m fine with that.  A sense of balance, judicious evaluation, subduing bias, being very, very careful, is not enough.  Not nearly enough.  We need also a fire in the belly. We need to fight for what we believe in, fight with the sword that is the pen, fight with the sword that is our tongue, fight with the sword that is our legs and our feet, marching, fight with our hands that hold the hands of others and thus swell our strength with numbers, the sword that is us: sharp, important, with a long reach, able to cut a long swath.  I am not interested in winding flowers around images of what we fight against or singing sings that merely lift up our own self-image, and I don’t imagine you are either.  That is not what we are about.

I want to clear about that, because we have flower communion here as do most Unitarian Universalist congregations – and flower communion is a service that honors a vision of religious and spiritual freedom for all people, represented by the variety and beauty of flowers. That vision isn’t soft, it’s powerful, it was considered so powerful and threatening, so subversive by the Nazis that they killed the Unitarian, Norbert Capek who had created the flower communion service in Eastern Europe in the 1930’s.

I want to be clear about that because we have transgender people our congregations – they are part of us just as everyone is part of us, just as everyone who feels they belong here, belongs here, you and me, those who are young and those who are older, those who are all colors of the human rainbow, those who are single or married, those who have children or don’t – all the myriad differences I can’t list because it would take too long and because I won’t possibly catch them all.  Yes, we proudly make this a home for all religious liberals and that is not actually funny, and it’s certainly not a weakness or even a quirk.  It is our badge of honor.  It set us apart from every religious movement in this country that we were the first to make no distinction in how we treat marriage based on gender.  We honor the humanity of anyone over anything else.  Is that funny?  No, it’s great, capital G kind of Great.  And even though it is great, we know well it is not enough.

So I want to be clear, gathered across our differences, in this place of welcome and honor for all the good souls who come here, that we reach out.  We didn’t just marry same-gender couples in our churches, we worked to make sure they can marry anywhere – and we made it happen, in the leadership of the marriage equality movement across this country, one state at a time.  We are reaching out to compel our representatives to protect our climate and our future as deadly seriously as they must.  We reach out with our giving, our food, our service to support precious organizations offering sustenance, shelter and support to many people who need just that all around us.  We are in community with our Christian, Jewish, Muslim and other religious brethren in programs and projects that further our shared commitment to peace and justice.  This time last year in Washington DC, our churches and parishioners’ homes filled with people from across the country for the women’s march – I ran into Unitarian Universalists throughout the women’s march, people I knew, people I didn’t, people wearing Standing on the Side of Love t-shirts, and UU church sweatshirts and carrying church banners – we were a significant presence in that crucial event that shifted the world’s understanding of our Presidential election and what it said about our nation.

But let me be the first to admit that the sun is not shining and more is required.  We must engage more closely and often with our interfaith friends, especially our Jewish and Muslim neighbors who receive prejudiced treatment, including threats, including here in our city and this state, all the time.  We must work harder for the environment – as much for the larger world as for our own riverways and bay that hang in the same precarious balance.  We have made a declaration that black lives matter, a declaration that is a commitment to ongoing learning and action, relationships and advocacy,  a commitment that requires our renewed discernment and attention now – what do we do next as a congregation to make that declaration meaningful?  What will we do next within and beyond these walls about immigrant rights and citizenship and families?  What about the military-industrial complex and the wars we are not finishing and the peace we are not making.  What about our free market system which is values profit over people unless the people are those strange legal ‘individuals’ otherwise know as corporations, in which case they are the most important people anywhere.  “Corporations matter.”  There’s no need for any signs to affirm that reality.   And the National Rifle Association matters, guns matter, matter more than people, more, even than children, still, and whatever the tipping point is – if there is one – it wasn’t the murder of tens of children in their school and it isn’t the shooting of hundreds at a concert.  Having won a measure, a small, precious, measure of gun control in this state last year, celebrations are in order – and then we choose our next commitment, the next difference we can and must make, and we prepare and we go. We must do this all from a place of faith, faith in the world we work for, faith in the power of goodness, faith in the strength of many, faith in the rightness, the destiny of all people to come together, eventually, to make one world that is good to each and every one of us.

This is what is before us and I am fired up.  I am eager to engage. I am looking at 2018 and working to discern what justice priorities we have before us. Will you join me in committing to 5 significant things we can do this year to make a difference?  You may know already that the East Side Monthly came out last week, profiling some new East Side clergy.  We clergy were united not only by our gender, but by our belief that faith requires action, faith needs to be manifest in what we do.  There are important initiatives before our legislature this year.  There are important opportunities to green our lives in our homes and in this church.  There are important possibilities for growing our multicultural, multiracial awareness and capacities.  Please be in touch with our Standing on the Side of Love team as we work to discern this year’s justice priorities.  Please be in touch with our Green Sanctuary team as they work to make our campus more ecologically responsible and faithful.  Please be in touch with me, if you’d like to be part of a team going to New York City this spring to attend a remarkable weekend conference about doing powerful and effective multicultural, multiracial, interfaith and justice work with joy and inspiration. Get ready to staff our sanctuary church or lobby at the State House or learn to compost.

Think about what your 5 commitments might be, whether you would do them alone or with others, about what you are capable of, and what matters most to you.  Take time to make your choices thoughtfully – because I’ll be circling back to you, here in worship, another Sunday, about what you’ve chosen.

I hope 2018 will be a strong and beautiful year of living what we believe, all of us.  Because we are not soft tendrils.  I’ve never been a soft tendril in my life.  Yes, I bend but I never break.  This congregation is not made up of soft tendrils.  We are survivors.  We are caregivers.  We are pillars.  We are leaders.  We are workers.  We are believers.  We are doers.  We are fair and fierce, persistent and passionate, caring and courageous, and a force to be reckoned with.  Like all denominations, we have some communities that spend their time and treasure just on staying as they are.  That is not us.  And that is not our movement.  Let us remember how we have had clergy and congregants in the vanguard and leadership of every major fight in this country: for religious freedom, for the abolition of slavery, for public education, for women’s rights, against McCarthyism, for civil rights, for gay rights, we have been in the thick of those fights again and again, and we have won.

We have an important year before us.  Every year before us is important.  Live into your power.  Love your power.  Own your power.  It is in and all around you.  Justice is our promise and our charge.  Happy new year, everybody.  Let’s go.  Amen.