A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay
None of us comes through life unscathed. Some of us have come through a lot – and maybe aren’t done, by a long shot. How do we manage in lives and a world that can throw us so off-balance, hurt us, sometimes even break us – and yet we live on.
Opening Words: On this Day 53 Years Ago
To listen to opening words by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
Opening Words Text
Welcome everyone to the First Unitarian Church in Providence and to our worship service. I have to start today by reminding us all that this is a historic day. On this weekend of people marching for our lives, on this day when we can celebrate our youth showing us a world we have dreamed about, on this day when we have heard the voices of girls like 11-year-old Naomi Wadler who lifted up all the young black girls who will not grow up because their lives were taken by gun violence, on this day when we have supported each other and our youth in committing to a present – not a future – a present where lives are protected because they are precious and guns are controlled with strict and sane and effective legislation, on this day I would like to remind you that on this day 53 years ago, in 1965, the third Selma March – because they did not give up when they were thwarted and persecuted and attacked and endangered – on their third attempt the marchers finally reached the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama.
The 1st Selma march had been organized for March 7, 1965, after a white policeman killed Black civil rights demonstrator Jimmy Lee Jackson following a half-block church march and vigil two weeks earlier. That 1st march, from Selma to Montgomery, was also meant to continue to peacefully demonstrate, in the face of violence, for Black voter rights across the American South. This was the march that became known as Bloody Sunday, when 600 marchers were attacked by state and local police with nightsticks and tear gas.
In the wake of Bloody Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., called for clergy from all over the country to come join in a follow-up march, 2 days later, again from Selma to Montgomery. Many did, including a number of Unitarian Universalists. 2,500 protesters marched in the 2nd Selma march, 53 years ago. They were turned back by state and local police after crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Dr. King asked all the marchers to come to a meeting that night and the marchers dispersed. That afternoon in Selma 3 UU ministers: Orloff Miller, Clark Olsen and James Reeb were beaten by white men armed with clubs. Rev. Reeb was hit in the head with a club and he died two days later.
The third march started March 16. With Army and National Guard protection, the marchers successfully reached the state capitol in Montgomery on March 25th. Another Unitarian Universalist, a white woman named Viola Liuzzo had grown up in the south and after Bloody Sunday she had driven from her current home in Detroit to assist the Southern Christian Leadership Conference by helping to transport marchers in her car. On this day, 53 years ago, Viola and a young black man, Leroy Moton, were driving on Rte 80 in Alabama when four Ku Klux Klan members pulled up alongside her car and shot her twice in the head, killing her instantly. She was 39 years old. Her car crashed off the road. Leroy Moton survived, went for help and his life was impacted ever onward by that day and its aftermath.
So I’d like to invite us to take a moment of silence and awareness, in connection with our nation’s history around justice and marching and life and change, in connection with our own UU history around all these, a moment to think about what happened fifty three years ago this morning. They were marching right now, 53 years ago. People died for the law that safeguards the democratic process, which is for us Unitarian Universalists a principle of our faith. Brokenness abounds, as does courage, and therefore, hope. Thank you, Rev. Reeb and Viola Liuzzo who gave your lives for justice and to heal what is broken. Thank you to all who marched, and thank you for the spirit that is in us also, to march, to change this world, knowing that the most powerful blessings in the world are justice and love. Confirmed by our history, compelled by our present, may we make the very most of this day we have been given, starting right now, together.
To listen to the sermon by Rev. Liz Maclay, click on the arrow below, at the left side of the box
There are unquestionably implications for our topic today in national and local events, not least the school shooting last week in Maryland and the amazing marches for our lives yesterday that happened all over the country and of course here in Providence. And I’ve spoken a lot about larger events and imperatives in recent months. So today, while the topic has those implications and I honor them, I’m also speaking on a much more intimate level when I say that we’re all whole, and we’re all broken. If you could physically see what I’m talking about, you’d see that I’m broken in quite a few places. I’ve got fractures and fault lines all over me, and the longer I live, the more it’s so. If I live to be old, I’ll be like one of those very old paintings covered in what’s called ‘craquelure’ – that web of fine cracks where the varnish or paint has cracked again and again over the long passage of time. Vintage pottery also can have that kind of a web of fine cracks – but in pottery they call it – perhaps tellingly – ‘crazing,’ – and it’s more superficial than craquelure; crazing is fine crackling in the glaze merely and not the pottery itself. Crazing cracks can often be seen but not felt, so while they impact the overall identity of the piece, they don’t compromise its integrity. The piece looks it’s been shattered, but it hasn’t at all. The cracks are just part of the aging, part of the crazing-process – and yes, I use that term advisedly – the crazing process – of each individual, ahem I ‘m sorry I meant to say of each individual piece.
Now in my case some parts of me have been merely crazed, superficially marked. Other parts of me feature craquelure: real cracks that mark but do not diminish the whole. Still other parts of me have been shattered, actually broken, and reassembled with care, sometimes by me, sometimes with help from friends, colleagues, mentors and advisors, when I couldn’t get a good look at the broken part or couldn’t reach it. And some broken parts haven’t been reassembled at all, they stayed broken and missing but other parts got added in elsewhere that helped me stay balanced over all. Sometimes adding new parts helps make up for pieces that stay missing.
So I can say now that I’m healed and I’m better, and know that I am, and I’m not. The cracks are still visible if you have the right lens and in some places the repaired cracks are extra strong because of what was used to fill them, and in some places they’re still a little fragile, for the same reason. Some of my pieces I broke myself, some of them got broken by life being rough with me, or people being rough with me, some of them were broken by friends, or lovers, through carelessness or selfishness. Mostly though I walk around looking pretty together, or so I like to think, so that you probably wouldn’t know about the brokenness unless, like now, I tell you. But that’s me. Oh, and yes, I know, that’s you.
The lens that shows me, reminds me, of my brokenness also shows me, reminds me, that we’re all cracked and broken, we’re all healed or repaired, we’re all stronger and more fragile, we’re all whole and missing some pieces. Every single one of us is the same in this way, the differences are just the details and degrees.
Sometimes it’s just us, sometimes it’s a community, or a city, or a nation that’s broken. And still, always, the brokenness is not the end, no matter how much it feels like it, or seems like it or looks like it, brokenness is not the end because it’s never the whole story. The other part of the story is what the Sufi Muslim mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, or Rumi as many of us know him, put so well: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
Rumi lived in 13th century Persia and he knew about wounds. When he was a youth the Mongols invaded his country and his family became refugees who journeyed for many years before finding a new home. They passed through many countries and when they finally settled in Turkey, Rumi’s mother and brother died soon in their new land. Rumi married and his first wife died. His life was filled with richness and tragedy, enough that he knew what it means for light to enter through a wound. In a life filled with study and reflection, Rumi believed that music, poetry and even dance – Rumi’s son is the one who started the practice of whirling dervishes whose constant spinning is a form of mystical prayer and contemplation – that these were paths to reach God. Across the centuries, many voices that say the same thing. Contemporary African American writer Alice Walker said: “A writer’s heart, a poet’s heart, an artist’s heart, a musician’s heart is always breaking. It is through that broken window that we see the world…”
So maybe we should add ‘everyone’s heart’ – because it’s true and because it helps us to hold that idea close, that our brokenness is not shameful, not strange, not isolating, and not the end. It is a window, a scar, a bridge, a lesson, a doorway and in passing through it we learn and come to new understandings that are critical for our lives and our humanity. This is when we gain compassion, this is when we gain wisdom, this is when we gain hope, this is when we gain, as well as lose, as long as we find a way, (eventually, not right away but eventually) a way to look beyond our brokenness.
Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes has been hailed one of the top ten English language preachers in America and he taught a preaching class a few years ago at a UU ministers’ conference. He talked about being with a group of high-powered black colleagues, preachers of national stature, who were talking trash, ministry-style, half-joking, bragging in the most dramatic language possible about what their ministries accomplished, the change, transformation, justice, redemption, hope they were bringing and generating in the world. And as they went around the circle, identifying their ministries, he started to stress about what he was going to say, how he was going to identify himself and his vocation. And he’s ambitious, like them all. His wish is to be America’s preacher, and he’s totally got my vote, but that’s for another time. Finally his trash talk turn came and everyone was looking at him expectantly, and challengingly, and the words came in a flash, he said: “I bring the dead back to life.”
He told us UU ministers this and we were all like ‘what was that now?’ But here’s what he meant, as he explained it. Dr. Forbes ministered for years with an urban community in deep poverty, families and individuals drowning in death, drugs and violence. His biggest challenge was how to offer hope to people who had no cause for hope, people whose children were dead, whose children were killing other children, people who beat on, and were beaten on, every day; people who had no resources. Forget good schools, they didn’t even have safe schools, they didn’t have heat in the winter, they didn’t have food in the fridge, if they had a fridge. They didn’t have work, they didn’t have help, they didn’t have power, they didn’t have avenues for change, there was no reason to tell these people to keep on, no way to help them keep on. His job was impossible. Except that he had to find a way.
The way he found was through the story of Ezekiel, Ez 37:1-14
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live…”
‘Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are cut off completely.’ That is it, as bad as it gets, death in life, hell on earth. Ezekiel says God will help, especially at such times.
Part of what mattered for Dr. Forbes’ people was that their suffering was real and recognized. He didn’t say ‘things aren’t that bad,’ he said, ‘my god, things are this bad, biblically bad, this community is like that dreadful, deadful valley of death, that land of dry bones, full only of lost hope, cut off completely. And Dr. Forbes’ message was help will come. If you have no spirit left within you, a spirit will come from beyond you and help, infuse you with spirit. And amazingly that is what happened. Making a long story unfairly short, things did start to get better – and even just that for that, for things to begin to get better – was extraordinary. People began to find opportunities to pitch in together, they found some resources available to them and shared them – and it helped. Infused with spirit, they began to reclaim hope, and with hope, they began to reclaim their lives, even with all they had lost, all that had been broken.
Now we are not a bible-based faith like Dr. Forbes’, so I’m not sharing the story of Ezekiel with you as a proof for hope, I’m sharing the story of Dr. Forbes’ community as a proof for hope.
And I’m thinking of how much ugliness our country has allowed ourselves and even embraced in the events leading up to and out of the last presidential election. And I’m thinking about the brokenness separating communities from each other, and individuals from each other. And I’m remember that old saying – you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. There are lots of attributions for that saying – I learned once upon a time that it was the 20th c. Russian revolutionary Lenin who said it, but in fact it goes back well before him, and is documented in 1796 in French of course, since the topic is omelettes after all: “On ne saurait faire d’omelette sans casser des oeufs.” – it’s attributed to Francois de Charette a French nobleman who fought in the American Revolutionary war and also later fought in vain to save King Louis the 16th and Marie Antoinette from harm during the French Revolution. Given all his involvement in revolutions, his wisdom regarding omelettes and eggs might be surprising, and then again, it might not be. His point, after all, was not to break eggs but to make omelettes, to create something larger, more complex, more integrated, that required the breaking of individual eggs as part of the process.
So let’s take his metaphor, and notice that whether the brokenness is in a nation, or a community, or one person, the challenges are much the same. Our very language affirms this along with the insights of Rumi and Alice Walker. English comes, in part, from Ancient Greek, so there are foundational ideas in Greek that exist as the roots of our own words and ideas. In Ancient Greek, the word for ‘break’ is luo. It means break but it also means to loose or untie, to annul, to release, to free, to discharge, to dissolve, to dismiss, to destroy, to overthrow, to remove. Or as the modern American poet T. S. Eliot wrote “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
The two are inextricably tied, brokenness and wholeness, ending and beginning, bound and free, scarred and healed. None of us is any of these without the rest. We are broken. And we are free. We are wounded and wiser, dissolved and released, everyone of us here today, mourning and alive. Our brokenness does not define us – if anything we are defined by what we do with our freedom, with the choices we face every day.
That’s what living a whole life looks like in the end, wholeness that is comprised of brokenness, freedom defined by choices. We are the omelettes life makes by breaking eggs, the bruised and ground herbs that can heal, the cracked grains that give sustenance. Lessons and examples are everywhere we look. We are broken and beautiful, precious and vulnerable, and free. No one lives unscathed, none of us, not one. The wound, the cracks and gaps, are where the light enters us… when we let it enter us, when we let it in. We can only see through our heart’s broken window when we look. If we won’t let the light in, if we can’t look through the window, it doesn’t happen. This is not to say that bad things, things that break us, are all gifts, redeemed when we make lemonade out of lemons. But it is to say that any redemption, any good that could possibly come out of the bad, out of the suffering, any learning, any growing, any grace at all, can only happen if we make room for it and allow it to happen.
Every day the news brings us reminders of the larger brokenness in our nation and our communities. Every day the phone or email bring us reminders of our individual mortality and fallibility and the heartbreak that always attend the breathtakingly brief span of our days. Now more than ever we need to remember that even when our heart breaks and we see and feel only its jagged pieces, that’s not the time to shut down and turn away. That’s the time to hold our heart tenderly – to ask for help in the tender holding of our heart – and to remember to attend to our brokenness until we can see beyond the jagged pain to what our broken heart can show us, and teach us, about what matters. All that, from the help we need, to the lessons of our broken hearts, is the light coming in. And when we have let the light in, what does light do? It illuminates. When it illuminates we see better, we see new things, new perspectives, new shadows, new realities, new details, new truths, new paths, we see more and better than we did before. So when the light shines, may we let what we see in, may we let what we see find a home in us, may our brokenness even become places where light may shine for others. Even, may you, may every one of us, be a source of light for another, exactly because we are broken… and free. Amen.
Excerpt from Part of a Larger Life by John Saxon
Source of all, all life, all love, known and unknown in so many ways,
In the coming silence of this room and in the silence of our hearts, may we hear the call to a wider perspective and a deeper resolve.
May we live with greater compassion and care for ourselves, others, and creation.
May we touch each other more deeply, hear each other more clearly, and see each other’s joys and sorrows as our own.
May we strive to be and become more than we are: more loving, more forgiving, more kind, more honest, more open, more connected, more whole.
May we heal and be healed.
May we face the uncertainties and tragedies of life with hope, faith, and courage, knowing that Life is a blessing and that we are not alone.
Now, in these moments of silence, may our hearts speak silently all the prayers of our lives—our souls’ greatest joys and deepest sorrows, our triumphs and failures, our regrets and fears, our disappointments and losses, our hopes and dreams.
This morning, the silence will be filled with our prayers. And the silence will be our Amen.
Our closing words are from the preaching of the Rev. Kay Northcutt, an inspiring preacher and leader. She is not a Unitarian Universalist, but she believes in the life-saving, life-affirming power of our UU faith to heal and save, one person at a time. So I offer you her words, for healing and holding on to:
You are life-savers.
You are mosaic-makers
called to put broken bit by bit –
creating patterns of beauty and meaning
out of pain and loss.
You are bone-carriers
like the Israelites,
who lifted the bones of their ancestors
and took them across the boundaries into the desert.
Bones are heavy things,
but what you inherit from those who come before is rich,
so make sure you take them with you.
Find your greatness!