What Saves Us? Getting Past What Dooms Us and Other Adventures

A sermon by Rev. Liz Lerner Maclay, delivered by Neil Bartholomew

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The great American philosopher William James once wrote, “A great many people think they’re thinking when they’re merely rearranging their prejudices.”  While it’s been a while since he set that thought down, it still matters – maybe it matters more, even.  Because we are clearly living through a time when prejudices, misconceptions, societal untruths and our own egos are being scrutinized and addressed – and doing this truly, really getting merely rearranging – or denying – our prejudices, misconceptions, societal untruths and own egos is massive task, the work of a lifetime, the work of a civilization.  We know this is imperative.  And we are trying to find our way into and through it, step by step, and almost all we know right now is that this is hellishly – and I use the word advisedly – hellishly hard.  And the other thing we know is that this will save us, each other, if we can find our way, living truly into that interdependent web of all existence that we claim as a foundational reality of our faith.

Just last week, the columnist David Brooks wrote about this in the April 6 issue of the New York Times: “Our individualistic culture inflames the ego and numbs the spirit.”  And the remedy, according to him, is to get broken open by life at some point, to embrace the spiritual aspect of living and the unconditional love offered by family or friends, to give ourselves to a larger journey, less about ego and self, more about others and making commitments to a greater whole.

Salvation is our theme this month.  If we consider “salvation” traditionally, it is Christian, and means being rightly grounded in the faith, with the quality of our belief, the quality of how we live our belief, or both, so grounded that we are saved from sin and damnation by living in relationship to Jesus and thereby earning the sure promise of heaven after we die.  That is not what I’m talking about this morning.  I’m talking about a larger definition of salvation that transcends Christianity, indeed that transcends any particular creed or religion, but that can be found in many different religions and religious stories, that is actually rooted in human experiences that every one of us has had and will have again.  Salvation as redemption, as deliverance, as escape, as rescue, as recovery, inherently personal, even intimate.  And that’s what makes it religious, because in religion what matters the most to us isn’t what’s denominational, or creedal; not someone else’s pronouncements or theological precepts but our own experiences.  Our own experiences of the holy.  Our own experiences of miracle.  Our own experiences of evil, or of transformation.

So while there are a lot of big concepts attached to salvation, especially now in this season of spring, of Passover, of Easter, and let us not forget, April Fool’s Day not too long ago, I don’t want to focus on the big stuff that is so impersonal.  I want to focus on the immediate, on the particular and deeply meaningful personal experiences that those big holidays and concepts remind us of.

Let’s start with April Fool’s Day.  It’s also my birthday, which wasn’t fun when I was little since it’s day of tricks and jokes.  Because of that I’ve never actually liked April Fool’s Day per se.  By its nature – fooling and taking advantage of people – you wouldn’t think it could be tied to salvation… unless you’ve ever seen Queer Eye.  Queer Eye is the ultimate makeover show – five suave yet also vulgar gay guys make someone over, head to toe, including their clothes and living space.  It used to be Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, making over one inevitably hapless straight man but in the reboot that started recently, it’s 5 new guys and they work with everyone – gay or straight, white folks and people of color, people with some means and people with none, people who are okay with gayness and people who aren’t.  It always begins with the Fab Five, as they’re called, driving to meet their next subject, charging pell mell into their subject’s space, playing with their hair, poking into everything, closets, laundry, refrigerator, making a lot of tasteless jokes and generally behaving like a pile of puppies that certainly looks like the start of an April Fool’s prank.

And it always ends the same way because as they go along they ask their subject questions and listen to the answers, they pay attention to what their subject says and also to what isn’t said, they lift up what they see and what’s possible and what healing and self-care is needed in order to help their subject achieve their goal:  to get back into life after the loss of a spouse to cancer, to gain a foothold in life after having been shunned by family for being gay, to raise money and awareness to better support a volunteer fire station, to redo two sisters’ tiny barbeque joint and market their remarkable barbeque sauce,  to get over shyness and gaming addiction to engage the real world, to recover from significant failures and losses in order to be a better spouse and parent for their family.  The Fab Five do their thing and people become cleaner or kinder, more expressive or more grounded, and of course, always, better looking.  Somehow they always do this on terms that work for each subject – and those terms look very, very different from one show to the next.  They spend about five days lambasting their subject with décor, self-reflection, relationship advice, fashion, hair products, shaving tips, affirmation, and cooking tips. Every time they’re done the people are transformed and yet still very much themselves.  Every person says their own version of the same thing – they’ve been infused with a new sense of self, of their value and possibilities in the work, new hope for the future, new standards, new capabilities, a new beginning.  Mamma Tammye Hicks, a black woman from the town of – wait for it – Gay, Georgia, a woman with a gay son, Miles, who was not welcome in her conservative church, a woman they worked with not only on her own behalf but on behalf of that very same church, creating a community center for the church and an opportunity for reunion and healing there, said this a year after her experience with the Fab Five: “It was a life changing experience.  Things are so hateful right now.  Everywhere you look, you see hate.  But they are instruments of God’s love and grace to a hurting world.  Their purpose is making this planet a better place for all.”

Now granted this is reality TV, and the one thing we know about reality TV is that it’s all scripted.  I may wonder that the Fab Five, with their astonishing combination of puppy energy and taste, can possibly work a meaningful transformation but the people they work with seem absolutely to have been changed – or not changed – but helped, elevated, strengthened, opened up and renewed.  They emote.  They hug.  They hold themselves differently.  They take risks.  They seem to feel, at the end of their experience, that they have been changed in ways that matter.

And while we may gape at some of the pranks and jokes along the way, somehow they are part of a package that carries a powerful message about a racially and culturally diverse group of very gay men connecting with everybody, about friendship, about trust, abut love, about humanity and possibility, ultimately about small “s” salvation.  Honestly, how many of us wouldn’t like 5 funny, gifted, energetic, loving and affirming people to come into our homes, ask us what we need, shower us with care, help us see gifts and possibilities in us that we never knew, help us overcome our frailties or failures, showing and telling us in constant and myriad ways that we are worthy, attractive, gifted, fine, not just fine, fabulous.  They are like the people of St. Andrews church that Annie Lamott writes about, a black church that received her with welcome, that showed her when you are at the end of your rope, they tie a knot in it and help you hold on. We might never conceive of it, but I think Mama Tammye is right – the Fab Five are a force of love, I have begun to think of them as a kind of church on wheels, a ministry of fabulous.  They offer, as Emerson discussed, not tedious instruction but dynamic provocation, at first hand, soul to soul.

This is Palm Sunday, the anniversary of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  Next Sunday is Easter Sunday.  While many of us may not find meaning in the details of Jesus’ suffering and resurrection, all of us can find meaning in the story of a life lived in full realization of faith, a life so inspirational that those who followed the teachings of Jesus could not and would not and did not let go of him and what he meant to them.  I am always struck by Emerson’s idea that what set Jesus apart was not divine birth but a unique capacity to recognize and honor the divine in everyone, which in turn magnified the sacred within him.  Howsoever we understand the divine, whether we believe in a deity or simply a power and inestimable value and beauty in all life and in this planet, the more deeply we honor the divine, the more that honoring grounds our own living.

A mistake that is too often made is to value the teacher more than the teachings.  In the Bible, part of the point of Jesus’ resurrection is to give him a chance to tell them to believe in him and what he taught, even unto death and beyond, that his death did not make all he had taught and preached into a lie or a mistake.  It is a story encouraging faith to be stronger than the usual realities of life, a faith that can endure suffering and tragedy and still be renewed.  A faith that reminds us that an end can always be a beginning.  Especially when we look at the story as a metaphor, as indeed some bible scholars believe the Bible should be read, the story becomes one of renewal and hope against all odds.  Likely most of us have had that experience of suffering we endured that changed something within us, gave us a new capacity within us, breaking us, as David Brooks wrote, and breaking us open.  Not that I always agree with it, but the Easter story is the ultimate example of that old philosophical maxim of Frederick Nietzsche’s:  whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong.  It’s not about the teacher, whether the teacher is Nietzsche or David Brooks or Annie LaMott or Mama Tammye or the Fab Five or Jesus – it’s the lesson the offer, the provocation, soul to soul that they prod us with, that matters, that and whether we truly take it in.

In this season of new beginnings and liberation, of life that triumphs over death and exodus that frees people from their enslavement, our own liberation and new life hangs in the balance.  One the one side, a new existence, unprecedented in history, where we all cast off the shackles of othering and diminishing and judgment and hate.  And on the other, the old, ancient cycles of longing and despair, striving and subsiding into the old ways that are so deeply woven into all we know, into our very brain patterns and evolution and DNA.

Last week, I was at the Revolutionary Love conference along with a group of folks from First U.  I had my eyes opened.  I knew that in some Unitarian Universalist circles, things were feeling less like a faith and more like a circular firing squad.  Preoccupied with my pain over that, I didn’t know that this dynamic goes far beyond our own movement into progressivism generally.  I realized it when we heard the brilliant Rev. Traci Blackmon from Ferguson MO tell us that “we do not need to be uniform, we just need to be united.”  And again when we heard the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, host of the conference, preach to us:

“We are on a developing journey in relationship and love.  Love needs to be the proof text.  Why are we being rigid and so strident with each other?  Because we are afraid we’re gong to be left out or shut down.  But what does love say?  Passing the test looks not like getting all the answers right or perfection, it just looks like love.  All of us are chosen.  Don’t you want to let go of the stridency and stay in love?  A new thing called love.”

Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian and Muslim woman leader, one of the founders of the National Women’s March was one of the last speakers at the conference and she struck the same note, saying, “Unity is not uniformity.  This movement of progressive faiths and people is not uniform; we’re all different.  So we will have different ideas.  And still we have to hang together, like a family.  It can’t be conditional – solidarity doesn’t work if it’s conditional.”

We’re not meant to stay the same, in the same place, in the same circumstances – all of us are meant to grow and change and be changed.  And there is always a way forward from what oppresses or pains us.  All life is a journey.  All journeys hold the possibility or promise of something good ahead of us, something more and something better, a promised land, a promised existence of freedom to be and live fully and without oppression

What saves us?  Life, light, softness, beauty, especially unexpected beauty.  Wisdom.  Patience.  The provocations of goodness and love that come in so many forms, especially the unexpected ones.  Sometimes we save ourselves, and sometimes we are saved by others, the people who love us, the people who like us, the people who challenge us with love, the people who inspire us, the people who believe in us and who hold us and whom we hold.  We save each other all the time in such small and large ways.  Look next to you, behind you, a few rows over.  Salvation is a human experience and often, it is not a divine but a human moment.  Some of our saviors are, will be, in this community.  May the spirit and beauty in this season and its holy days remind us of our own power to save, in all our particularity and difference, all that makes us unique in the service of all that makes us one, so that when we can save, when we can save, by God, let us do it. Amen.