Think about your personal experiences with the place beyond hope and fear. I’m certain there’ve been many times when you found yourself stepping forward without hesitation. Something in the situation called you into spontaneous action without calculating costs and benefits. This is the definition of courage—actions that spring from an open heart without premeditation. (The word courage comes from the old French word for “heart.”) Sometimes these spontaneous actions are good; sometimes they get us into a lot of trouble; sometimes people lose their lives rushing in to save others. What’s important to notice in your experience is how it felt to be fearless. You were also hopeless. You did what had to be done as it appeared in that moment. You weren’t thinking of outcomes, and you had more than enough energy.
Mike had seen better, and much worse, days. He was a familiar presence in the neighborhood we both called home. He lived in one of the SROs – Single Room Occupancy – buildings – what used to be called a boarding house or flophouse. He was one of several local personalities who had been a long-term in the local psychiatric hospital, placed there as a teenager, whether for true psychiatric reasons or perhaps for developmental disability reasons, living there for decades, then released in the 1980s during the era of de-institutionalization.
I think it’s fair,
though perhaps not kind, to say that he looked odd. Perhaps even intimidating if you didn’t know
him. He had never hurt anyone. He was mostly quiet – not like Geography
Jerry, who had a similar backstory and asked the same geography riddles over
and over. Sometimes Mike hitchhiked from
the Main Street to the village, which is how I got to know him just a
little. Though I gave him a handful of
rides over the years, I don’t think I ever became familiar to him. But he did to me. Familiar and appreciated.
One time, when my
kids were still in elementary school, we rode our bikes to the local soft serve
ice cream joint. I noticed Mike in an
unexpected circumstance: wielding his large flashlight in a menacing manner at
three kids – middle schoolers, I’d say.
I’d seen the flashlight before – you never saw Mike without it – but it
was usually in his back pocket.
I told my kids to
stay put – out of harm’s way – then approached Mike. Not sure what to do, I
knew something needed to be done, and quick. I couldn’t tell what was going on,
but I did not want him to hit the kids.
That would be all kinds of bad. I moved closer cautiously, my heart
beating hard in my chest, keeping a cool distance from the heavy object in his
hand. Calmly, gently, I asked, “Hey,
Mike. What’s up? Something seems wrong.”
Cutting to the
chase: no one got hit or hurt. Mike kept
his flashlight. The three middle
schoolers got a mild tongue lashing from me. It turned out that those kids had
been taunting Mike – he was an easy target for bullies, even ones much smaller than
he. They had tried to take his cherished
flashlight. Mike responded fiercely,
protectively, defensively. I can’t say
that I blame him. So, I even had a semi-maternal conversation with Mike about
potential consequences of his choices.
It taught me two
braver than I think I’ll be when the moment demands it.
aren’t always what they seem.
In this case, my
first impression was that Mike was the aggressor. Not true.
It has helped me
to understand that in other situations, say, when a Black kid hits a white kid
first, it’s important to listen and find out more. It’s just possible — and in
some situations, likely — that the white kid (whispered loud enough only for
the Black kid to hear) said the n-word first.
If so, it changes who the aggressor is and who needs an ally to
“Herein the afterlife, everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive. This comes as a shock after your Earthly life, where making one choice causes the other choices to disappear.”
So begins the short story titled “Quantum” in the David Eagleman’s book called, Sum: forty tales from the afterlives. In these forty stories, each 2 or 3 short pages long, we experience possibility and mystery at the same time, someone with a deep irreverence that is salted with reverence (or is it a deep reverence that is salted with irreverence – I think you’ll need to decide), and someone who ably mixes science with godtalk, balancing cleverly on the edge between rationality and irrationality, curious about all the possibilities.
David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford, a former Guggenheim fellow,and host of a show about the brain that aired on PBS. He calls himself a “Possiblian,” a term coined by a friend of his after reading the book. Eagleman describes it this way:
“Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position,agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”
What I find most brilliant about how this book works its way on the reader (or listener):whether you believe in a god-induced afterlife or believe that is utter poppycock and go for the “we’re all worm food” approach, these stories invite you to loosen your grip on whatever certainty you bring to this human question. These little, innocent stories are neither little nor innocent in their power to be a pry bar applied to the arrogance of our own certainty.
Today’s service is strongly informed by two of Unitarian Universalism’s foundational tenets. One of this is our humanist leanings, that whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, our focus returns again and again to this world, being not so much concerned with whether there is another world post-death. (In this way, we share a commonality with Buddhism.)
The other foundational tenet at work in our service today is Unitarian Universalism’s affirmation of religious pluralism. With this in mind, I alert you to the delightful song we will hear during the offertory — Iris Dement’s, “Let the Mystery Be,” the lyrics of which go:
Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever And some say you’re gonna come back Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour If in sinful ways you lack
Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas I think I’ll just let the mystery be
We not only tolerate different theological perspectives; we understand ourselves to be enriched by them. While each of us individually might lean one way or another on the question of an afterlife, how can we do anything but follow the wisdom of that song? Just let the mystery be.
Death is a serious topic. It can be heavy. The afterlife, an afterlife, the possibility of afterlives – can stumble into causing unintended offense, can lead us to develop arrogant stances as we push away the doubts and fears that can arise when we enter into this topical territory. In the spirit of today’s service, I invite us to actively invite in curiosity –not just intellectual curiosity but spiritual curiosity — about the mystery. I invite us to engage with the topic seriously, without taking ourselves – or our own opinions – too seriously.
This service includes five of the forty tales from the book, sum. Four are read by people in this room. One is a beautiful brief film.
It was not easy to cull and curate which tales to include – I wanted to stretch time and, I must admit, I might have overdone it. It we go long and you need to leave before the service is over, please do so.
So let us begin our dancing and dallying with afterlives with this humorous video not at all related to David Eagleman, but from the comic duo, The Kloons.
That’s what the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is trying to do.
Given that it is the eve of election day, given that one of Unitarian Universalism’s core principles is to actively engage in democratic processes, it seems befitting that we explore how change is brought about.
I am a big fan of voting, even when the choices are not what I would choose, knowing that people have lost their lives striving to gain and protect the right ot vote. I hope that any and all of you who are eligible to vote will do so on Tuesday – especially given the credible reports of active and intentional voter disenfranchisement happening across the nation, targeted at communities of color – Black voters in Georgia, Brown voters in Texas, indigenous voters throughout North Dakota. I would love to hear of any of your efforts to support others in their voting, wherever they live.
This morning’s sermon is an exploration into other ways in which we, little people living love out loud, might affect change. I’m going to do it by looking at how change came about right here, in this locale, 200 years ago, nearly exactly, because it is related to one of the ways that we, as a congregation, are trying to affect change today.
So I share with you a quote from Rebecca Solnit – one of my favorite sources on hope — on the nature of change. We’ll revisit it a bit later in the sermon. She wrote,
Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army. It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension. Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather. (Hope in the Dark)
Two hundred years ago, in 1818, someone spoke up for the vulnerable. They spoke up because they had a connection to someone in a position of strength who used their voice. They used their voice in a public setting. It informed and inspired others who were outraged at the injustice at hand. They met together. The discussed and decided on a plan. And not just in one place, but in three counties altogether. They used the system – they petitioned the NJ Assembly, probably – because that was how it was done in those days, just as it is done today – they sought out their Assemblyperson (well, in those days, their AssemblyMAN) who petitioned the Assembly. Unlike today, justice was swift. On October 31, 1818, “An Act to Prohibit the Exportation of Slaves or Servants of Color out of New Jersey” was introduced. Four days later, 200 years ago yesterday, the bill was taken up, amended, and voted on. It passed unanimously. Two days later, New Jersey petitions the U.S. Congress to end the illegal interstate slave trade.
During the decades running up to the civil war, there was a period in our national history that some have come to call the “Second Middle Passage.” The Middle Passage – the “first” one – is that era and process when Africans were stolen away from West Africa and forcibly brought to this continent (and parts of Europe) as slaves. It is a believed that at least two million Africans lost their lives as part of the Middle Passage (and that does not count the twice that amount who died between being stolen from their homes and brought to the coastal ports where they were loaded onto ships.)
During this Second Middle Passage, approximately 835,000 enslaved African Americans – that’s far too close to a million — were moved to the Deep South, both overland and by boat. Moved there from the more northern parts of slave-holding states and some, as we know from the movie, Twelve Years a Slave, and as we know from our local history, from the North, where slavery had been abolished outright, or gradually (as was true here in New Jersey). It is documented that enslaved peoples most feared being moved to Louisiana, fearing it to be a “death sentence” given the harsh conditions there. That destination, along with Mississippi, is where the Lost Souls ended up.
It is during this period that the infamous slave ring, located here in East Brunswick, overseen by a sitting Middlesex County judge, operated. It is during eight months – February to October — that four boatloads with at least 144 people were sent from this region, South, to line the greedy pockets of a few white men, empowered by their formal and informal roles in society.
Here’s the thing that I want you to take away from this: yes, this travesty is a part of our history, as is the whole white supremacy in the form of slavery, that got transmuted into Jim Crow into mass incarceration via the 13th Amendment. I don’t want you to forget that.
But what I want you to take away is that alongside that part of our nation is the outcry against injustice and in this case, that brought the injustice of the Van Wickle Slave Ring to an end. People, once informed, gathered together and worked to end it.
Would that happen today? Does it happen today? When we hear of outrageous miscarriages of justice, do we act to bring them to an end? Or is our response becoming ever-growing numbed to the relentlessly increasing tally of injustices?
When word of this infamous slave ring in the home of Judge Jacob Van Wickle got out – through an editorial in a Philadelphia newspaper written by the son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin – people (men, actually, given the era) in New Jersey gathered together. The Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping met in 1818 – first on July 28 in Rahway, then in New Brunswick on August 10.
Here is a text from a contemporary newspaper:
We are much gratified to find by the following articles from the New Brunswick Times of yesterday that the abominable business of kidnapping has been taken up in earnest in New Jersey, and that an Association is forming for the purpose of preventing that infamous and diabolical practice. As that state appears, for some cause or other, to have become the central point of operations for the ruffians who are engaging in stealing men, women, and children such an Association has become most urgently necessary. We hope the gentlemen concerned in it will make thorough work in bringing the kidnappers to speedy and condign punishment; and if the laws of the state are not sufficiently energetic to put an end to it, we trust they will use their influence to obtain from their legislature such as shall be effectual.
The efforts “to advise and adopt measures to prevent the illegal traffic in People of color” was lauded. Yet critiqued was the “thinly-attended” nature of the meeting, “a cause of sorrow, not only on account of the wretched victims of this traffic, but as it bespeaks an apathy in the community at large on a subject which ought to excite the feelings and call forth the exertions of all benevolent men [sic].”
I feel that. Can you feel that? Not enough people showing up. The lion’s share of the work falling on few shoulders. It’s demoralizing. It’s exhausting.
Yet, as the crab of change, scuttling this way and that tells us, it need not be an indication that change won’t happen, that relief and healing won’t be on its way, that the moral arc of the universe won’t allow us to bend it towards justice. There is a second half of that quote I shared from Rebecca Solnit — the one about change being a scuttling crab? – and it goes like this:
All that these [changes] have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope. To hope is to gamble. It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
I have to say, as I hear these words aloud, that they sound like what must be going on in the hearts and minds of those people who left Honduras, are going through Mexico, and are going to ask for asylum at the U.S. border: betting on a future, uncertainty, another world might be possible.
“Hope just means another world might be possible…” like a world in which a free African American might not have to live in fear of being stolen into permanent slavery in the Deep South. Like Black and Brown people need not live in fear of being killed by men with guns standing their ground, with law enforcement using disproportionate force, with white women reporting them for going about their day-to-day. Our Jewish kindred and siblings don’t have to live in fear of losing their lives if they attend Shabbat services. Oh, the sorrowful list is too long for the spoken tongue, but it weighs heavy in our hearts.
Change happens, but we don’t always know how it will come about. This does not give us permission to let it fall to others, for change is only possible, not guaranteed. It does mean that while we act to bring about justice, we must be open to our efforts having impacts that we cannot foresee, as well as the efforts of others impacting us in ways that we cannot always understand.
Such was the case in 1818. Newspapers wrote about the horrible slave ring and people read about it and weighed in. Those few folks organized and in the end, petitions from Middlesex, Essex, and Somerset Counties went to the state legislature.
From that, exactly 200 years ago yesterday, because of small groups of outraged people who gathered together publicly (instead of just complaining aloud into their social media feed), stopped an abomination of a corrupt judge from stealing the freedom of other humans.
Little people living love out loud.
This history is now remembered because of a small, stalwart community group that is based out of this congregation, but is larger than just this congregation, refuse to let this historical tragedy be erased, which really means, to let it fester with all the other wounds of white supremacy in our nation, the ones that are surfacing now and have been all along. A small community group that welcomes your support and your participation to ensure that this piece of history gets some of the healing that it deserves. A small community group that has room for more – room for you? — to help build a public memorial so that those people who were sold south are not forgotten, so that their names – Roda, 14 years; Mary, 2 years; Augustus, 4 years; Florah, 23 years; Susan, 7 months; Margaret Coven, a free woman – as former members of our communities, are re-membered back home. We can all do that – our children can do it, you can do it – pledge to re-member – Simon, a free man and Regina, six weeks old – any of the names that are on this poster. We can be part of the healing.
I am drawn to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project because I believe that remembering can be healing. There are so many lasting wounds from the seeds of white supremacy planted in the past, its toxic flowers blooming still in our time. This story, this history, is our nearest wound. And one that was not getting much attention until we brought our attention as a congregation to it. One that was not getting much healing, until we brought our institutional and personal attention to it. We are the ones we have been waiting for. We are made for these times.
We don’t have to get all of East Brunswick or Middlesex County or New Jersey involved. My sense is that it would be beneficial to have more people involved – more from this congregation, more from other local congregations and community-based organizations throughout the region – but history tells us that change is not linear, change can happen even when it is a small group of people who come together in outrage and sorrow.
Change happens when we vote.
Change happens when you come to a Lost Souls planning meeting on the first Tuesday of each month (yes, that’s this Tuesday) at 7pm.
Spirit of Life and Love,
Possibility of Mercy and Peace,
Impulse towards Compassion,
Yearning for Comfort in times of Fear,
our hearts echo these words
from the poet Warsan Shire:
We lament the very fact of this lamentation.
A lamentation making of our eyes a fountain of tears to weep for the death of our human family through needless violence.
We seek deep soul searching and wide soul healing in ourselves throughout the land and across the earth.
We witness a society
that fosters ever greater violence
among strangers and neighbors
among friends and lovers
among cities and nations,
We cry stop,
knowing it is our hands
that must do this work of peace.
Let it also be the hands of neighbors and strangers, Of friends and lovers. But fervently, we pray, Let it be our hands.
This congregation’s work this weekend
and in the coming months
is to cultivate the conditions of safety,
knowing we cannot do it just for ourselves,
sowing the seeds of peace not just in our own lives,
but in all the lives of all whom we touch,
and the communities in which we live.
May we use this strange privilege of being alive to honor those whose lives have been stolen and their families who miss them so.
We speak the names of the houses of worship where, in the United States, where there have been fatal shootings in the past twenty years, in their order of occurrence. As we do, you are invited to come forward and place a bright gem – like the flame of our chalice, a beacon of hope for so many — in either of these wells of grief, a symbol that though these places have experienced deep violence and though there are real people who have lost their lives to that deep violence, we shall do what we can to make that loss not be in vain, we shall do what we can to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible, we shall do what we can to build a safer, less violent world.
Let us begin.
Wedgewood Baptist Church Greater Oak Missionary Baptist Church Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church of Lynbrook Conception Abbey Turner Monumental AME Church Living Church of God
World Changers Church International
West Nickel Mines Amish School
Zion Hope Missionary Baptist of Detroit
Ministry of Jesus Christ Church of Baton Rouge
First Presbyterian Church of Moscow
First Congregational Church of Neosho
New Life Church First Baptist Church of Maryville Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church Reformation Lutheran Church of Wichita Sikh Temple of Wisconsin Victory Way Assembly Church of God in Christ
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Ellicott City
First United Presbyterian Church of Coudersport
Hiawatha Church of God in Christ
Overland Park Jewish Community Center
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Mosque in Queens
Keystone Fellowship Church St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church Islamic Center of Quebec City Burnette Chapel Church of Christ First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs St. Alphonsus Church
And just yesterday, Tree of Life Synagogue, our hearts broken into far too many pieces. For them we light these eleven candles for the eleven people killed.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the lamentations hold a particular structure, and somehow, despite the sorrow they convey, all the heartbreak they express, they end in praise of the Divine. This seems unbelievable.
While it is true that sometimes that praise is felt, it is also perhaps more often, aspirational — a declaration that in expressing gratitude, we retain, reinforce, and reignite our humanity.
As we bring this lamentation ritual to a close, let us remember the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and be inspired by them: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Here is what I have been learning as we face the new normal of increased violence in our midst.
First: Of the emergencies that happen at houses of worship – the violence that erupts – only 1% are about an active shooter. So many more are about medical emergencies, or the aftermath of weather-related disasters. So, while we need to take seriously the risk and reality of human-spawn violence, we must also put it in proper perspective.
Secondly: more often than the media would have us understand, violence at houses of worship is often rooted in domestic violence, a societal and individual disease that can be traced back to many of the mass shootings in this country.
[and I feel the need to say here, in case that any one of us is feeling smug, that Unitarian Universalists we are not immune from that kind of violence, either being a victim, survivor, or perpetrator. ]
Thirdly: there are things we can do to increase our security (hint: we need a different key and lock system to our front door!), but there are no guarantees, no iron-clad contracts we can sign, no perfect solutions that we can buy or barter, that offer absolute security, that give us complete safety. Humans are complex animals – the ones out there and the ones in here. That complexity allows for inexplicable beauty. And that complexity allows for gut-wrenching violence we cannot fully guard against.
All that and there are things we can do that are worthy of our time and treasure, worth of our efforts, worthy of the great love that wells between us and among us.
In one of the materials that FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency – puts out to help houses of worship prepare for emergencies, they have this useful four-word advice, presented in linear and chronological order:
Train (which I take to mean: learn and teach)
We spent yesterday in a workshop, ably led by Rev. Aaron Payson, our guest today, who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry. It was the planning of a small group that is relatively new to the congregation –so new, that our name didn’t make it onto the updated list of committees and task forces (though we fixed that) – called the Safety Task Force, that brought that training to fruition and will take on the work of making what we learned operational.
Thank you, too, to all of you who brought that workshop into being and all who attended. We were over thirty in the room, including some folks from the UU congregations in Hunterdon County and in Montclair. We had invited other UU congregations and some of our interfaith neighbors to attend – knowing that our faith calls us to share our resources whenever we can.
So there’s two of the four FEMA points: plan and train, teach and learn. And plan some more.
When it comes to report, I think FEMA means: talk with each other, talk about the worries and the fears, don’t keep them inside, where they fester, where they can take on the worst aspects of what fear does, sometimes coming out racialized, sometimes coming out as distrust of a stranger without clear basis, sometimes as isolation.
[Okay, that’s probably not what FEMA meant by report, that might be my generous, spiritual, optimistic of what they mean. I’m willing to acknowledge that possibility.]
What about that first bullet point? Connect. The most important. I think of as both the first and the last, for I don’t see this list as linear or chronological, but circular: we start with connection and we end with connection. And repeating: we connect throughout, as well as training (or learning) and planning and yes, even reporting (talking), over and over and over again.
What FEMA means when they say “connection” is not all that far off from what I might say: attend to and nurture connections with other houses of worship and with first responders. FEMA suggests that we invite someone from the nearest house of worship to be on our safety task force and, if invited, someone from here serve on theirs.
[Think of that! I just met one of the pastors from the closest church to us. Do any of you know where it is or what its name is? This is a little bit of a trick question because they don’t have their own building yet. They rent at the Y, just a little bit down Tices Lane. Some of our older members and those who keep our own history will remember that is how we started, too, meeting at the Y, meeting in school classrooms. Their name is Point Community Church.]
So that’s what FEMA says about connection. I want to add to it that the solutions at hand, imperfect and limited in scope as they are, are very much like the poet Mark Nepo says, “Everything I could need or ask for is right here— in flawed abundance.” The strategies for connection are ones we have known all along:
Know each other.
Weave tighter the tapestry of our covenantal life together.
Show kindness and care for one another beyond what is easy or quick. Such kindness is the gift that keeps on giving, good and right at the time and also a seed that sprouts and blossoms in times of emergency and dire need. There is a sudden, urgent, choiceless trust that emergencies demand of us – this becomes more available if we cultivate the ground with kindness and generosity well ahead of time. Often and early, they say. Often and early.
And I mean this among ourselves for sure. I mean this for today. At coffee hour. Get to know someone unfamiliar to you, deepen your polite surface relationship with another, reach out to someone whose absence has become bigger than their presence lately.
And I mean this among our neighbors and fellow residents. Ones with whom we feel an immediate resonance and ones with whom we might fear that there is no common ground.
Let me share a story of why I think this might be worth the effort and any discomfort.
In one of my seminary classes, we had two guest speakers. A minister from Newtown, Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook mass shooting took place, and the minister at Old South Church in Boston, which stands next to the finish line of the marathon. She had been in the church tower when the bombs went off. The minister from Newtown – several years after the massacre — spoke of how in that town they don’t much like the term, “healing” but speak of “continuing the journey.” The minister from Boston shared the story of area clergy going out to check in on folks who were homeless and living in the area, people already quite vulnerable, making sure they were not lost or losing it.
Each minister shared their perspective on what helped them to help their communities and congregations. Both tragedies were quite different from each other: different causes, different communities, different impacts. Yet both clergy affirmed that their interfaith connections and connections in the wider community served them well in the aftermath of the traumas. It made quite an impression on me.
Just last month, we had the great fortune to have Rev. Kimberley Debus facilitate a workshop for us and then preach from this pulpit. You might know this, though I am not sure why you would, but Rev. Kimberley is a HUGE fan of the old television show, The West Wing. Are there any West Wing fans in the house?
By huge fan, I mean she recently helped organize the very first convention of fans of West Wing, where several hundred people gathered in a hotel outside the DC Beltway, to gush and swoon over the show. Rev. Kimberley preached on Sunday morning, using one of the episodes – the one titled, “War Crimes” from season 3 – as her scripture. The sermon is utterly fantastic; I will post a link to it in next week’s eblast. Her sermon was so motivating that I re-watched that episode. It made me think of us gathering today, a day after taking a training about how to protect ourselves after a worst-case-scenario.
You see, one of the threads in the show, which aired 17 years ago, is a church shooting. I don’t know about you, but sometimes my memory can lead me to a certain kind of amnesia. I seem to remember only the most recent horror, in this case, even though I know about the other too many shootings in houses of worship: Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.
And there is the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008 – the facts of which share at least one echo with the West Wing story, as well as in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year: a white man with a history of domestic violence came seeking to do violence to his partner (or ex-partner) and brought that violence into that congregation’s sacred space. Which, as I mentioned earlier, is what the data tells us, too.
The other thread of the show, intertwined with the first one, is President Bartlett’s interpretation of a passage from the Christian scriptures, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “be subject to one another.”
The show’s message, and mine here too, is that the strongest and best antidote we seek when seeking safety in an unsafe world: be subject to one another. Know one another. Be beholden to each other. Be accountable. Be in relationship. Go out of your way for each other. Be in covenant with one another. Connect, connect again, and then re-connect.
It is a short quote from the Christian Scriptures, which I don’t often use as a source for my sermons, but I offer it here now because I think there is deep wisdom for us to take up if we are willing. If it is a struggle for you to gain wisdom of that particular set of ancient texts, then I encourage you to source it from the Church of the West Wing, a people who might not revere, but do appreciate, the not-quite-prophet-but-damn-fine-television-writer, Aaron Sorkin.
Be subject to one another. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that there is an abundance of home-made French fries, or whatever comfort food we need, enough to help all of us navigate these stressful and distressing times.
Not fictional characters. People with real lives: deceived, stolen, sold back into slavery, removed to a place with no promise of emancipation. Real people, with real lives, and real names:
Regina, aged just 6 weeks
And many more. It is past time to re-member them.
This year marks 200 years since a travesty took place right here in Middlesex County.
I am Reverend Karen G. Johnston, the minister of The Unitarian Society in East Brunswick. East Brunswick is the town where the corrupt Middlesex County Judge Jacob Van Wickle lived and used his home and property to hold captive African Americans, some of them free, some of them soon to be free. It is there he held a kangaroo court, abusing his power and a strange loophole in the law that said if someone – and let’s be clear, it was someone Black – consented to being sent to the Deep South, it would be okay.
This is how he called before his court a six-week-old baby, “asked” her if she would like to go South, at which she cried, at which he took this as her consent. Then he turned to her mother with the same “choice.” Your daughter is going South – and you?
These enslaved people were members of our larger community, some lived locally, some were from further afield, but all were lost to us, sold down the river, leaving on four ships that sailed from Perth Amboy February through October. It is around this time in October, 1818, that the fourth and final ship sailed and why I read you some of their names tonight.
Final ship, because good people of this region came together, bringing this travesty to an end. Because of their outrage, their organizing, and their lobbying, a law was passed in the NJ Assembly on November 3, 1818, outlawing the sale of enslaved people from this state to other states in this nation.
The Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is an all-volunteer effort, made up of community members working towards ensuring these souls lost from our community are RE-membered. We are working towards building a public memorial that will include all the names and ensure this history cannot be erased, forgotten, or white-washed again.
At a time in our nation’s story when some communities choose to keep statues that glorify a past of harm and oppression, this public memorial can be an act of healing. We hope you will help us build it. We hope you will help us re-member these lost souls.
Time for All Ages was the story of the change in title of the Jason Shelton hymn from Standing on the Side of Love to Answering the Call of Love to be more inclusive of all the bodies we humans have.
What if we were to paint the exterior of the building, to make it shiny and bright again? Oh, yes, we did that this summer.
What if we were to fix the rotting wood that was letting it “rain” on the inside, over by the piano, in fact, was allowing mushrooms to grow? What if we re-glazed the windows up there? Or replace the windows in the TUS wing, the ones frames that would sometimes let the panes slip down to the ground outside? What if we were to do that?
Oh, right: we already did! Thank you, Building Task Force, and the many others who helped, for your work in making this happen and nearly seamlessly so!
Those of you who have been around for a long time, you know that we didn’t have our nicely-sized kitchen until the 1980s, didn’t have the Montessori wing until 2000. Buildings change (though the jury is out on parking lots). While this building has always stayed a sanctuary for many, the physical form has shifted over the years, on the outside, and even more so on the inside.
This is a “What If” sermon. Perhaps last week could be characterized as a “what if everything goes wrong” sermon. Today is opposite of that. It’s a sermon that asks “what if we could do ANYthing?” It asks, “if you didn’t worry about money, or how much effort, or whether you personally had the time, what if we did…[fill in the blank]?” My request to you is — just for the next half hour — leave outside these walls and the walls of your mind, any limitations and notice what wild ideas spark excitement or possibility in you on behalf of this community.
Let us begin.
What if this beautiful plot of land our founders gifted us could feed anyone who might need sustenance, decades and dozens of decades from now, as the reality of food scarcity grows for more of us? I wonder if our land could sustain berry bushes, fruit trees, or other perennial foods? Might this be our gesture of love?
What if we put together families with young children (who naturally make noise – bless them and keep them coming back) and folks with mobility challenges (who don’t want to have to navigate our stairs inside this room – bless them and keep them coming back)? Oh, wait. We already do that. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. What if we imagined our space anew, perhaps emptying it out completely, and imaging the space based not on our past patterns and needs, but based on our current aspirations and our future needs? What losses might we grapple with? What aspirations might we move towards? There used to be what seemed a permanent structure here, where these intended-to-be curtains are now – what might seem immovable, just might not be, if the will is there.
What if we met at a different time, a time that didn’t conflict with mandatory sports practice or theater rehearsals? Late Sunday afternoons, staying for an early shared dinner – no dishes to wash at home? This idea was raised at last month’s workshop; not by me, though I am intrigued.
What if we created a private, welcoming space for those with breastfeeding needs? Oh, right – that need was raised and immediately, you made it happen. It’s one of the classrooms – there’s a little sign on the window to let you know.
What if every other January we were thank all the chairs of all the unelected committees and task forces and teams, and then de-chair them? Why stop with chairs? What if we emptied out all those groups and then let them fill up again?
It sounds whacky, doesn’t it? Well, for some of you, who have been serving as a lay leader for long period of time, it probably sounds like relief. It makes me nervous just to think about – so much so that I want to be clear that I am not proposing this. But I do wonder about it. What might we lose? What might we gain? Can it hurt to talk about?
It is the nature of congregational life to have good-byes – congregants leave, staff leave, groups finish their lifespan. There used to be a Men’s Group here, I have heard told. And a writer’s group. A Green Sanctuary effort. In the past two or so years, we’ve said the Social Justice Committee, the Knitting Group, the Book Club all stopped meeting. I like to think of this as right-sizing ourselves and allowing a fallow time to make fertile ground for what comes next.
What if we had a flat screen that allowed us to show announcements before and after the service ended? That could allow us to show video clips or images without creating a tripping hazard with electrical cords and visual clutter with a laptop and projector? What if it didn’t ruin our Sunday morning service, but enhanced it?
What if we had a small group of people who listened to the joys and sorrows spoken here on Sunday mornings, and sent out cards of condolence or cards of shared joy, extending the circle of sanctuary beyond the time we meet in person together?
What if we were to answer the call of love, not just changing the words in a hymn, but by growing the accessibility of our space? More and more of us will have trouble navigating these few steps. There are already people for whom this sanctuary is no sanctuary for them because it is not accessible. What if we built a ramp along that wall that allowed folks who already love it here to continue to love it as they age or as their body changes? One of our members, an architect whose expertise is accessibility, says it’s possible.
What if we were to acquire a generator – remember last week when I preached about building “islands of sanity”? Given extreme weather related to global warming, given how climate chaos will mean that more often there will be storms like Hurricane Michael (bless those in its direct path), there will be more super storms that directly impact our community – might we equip ourselves to be a community center? Might we acquire stores of food and water so that if there is a last emergency, we might be one of those needed islands of sanity? Could this be our gesture of love?
What if, given the possible threats some of us are seeing to access to reproductive health, we were to keep a stash of Plan B, the expensive oral medication that if taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, stops conception? Frankly, that is something I recently put in place and want to let you know. It is my hope that if you know someone who has need of it, please get them in touch with me right away. At this point, it’s a small stash that I keep, bought at a significant discount; if there is a use, I will keep replenishing it as long as I can.
You might have noticed that the sermon came a bit earlier today that is typical. In a few minutes, after we sing our final hymn – one that I hope will remind us all that so much is possible, especially when we lean on one another – we will take the offertory and get to hear a beautiful song about being refuge and sanctuary to one another. Then we have time set aside for you to speak with one another, forming small groups where you are seated (though you are welcome to get up and move, especially if you notice that someone is on their own and does not want to be). Small groups of 2 or 3 or 4 – more is probably a bit cumbersome – and do some “what if-fing” of your own. You can reflect and connect about ideas that I raised or come up with some of your own. You’ll hear the chime ring when it is time to extinguish the chalice and bring the service to an end.
What if all that we do, we do awake and purposeful, we do as a gesture of love?
(This sermon was preceded by the poem, Monet Refuses the Operation.)
Are there Star Wars fans in the house? Can I get a sense with a show of hands: how many of you have seen the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi?
To get everyone on the same page about this, there is the expected hero – a reluctant hero, someone who lost everything, abandoned his past (as well he should, he was a Stormtrooper) but reluctant, sometimes scared, running away. In the movie, his name is Finn. In our own history, he’s John Murray.
The unexpected hero – heroine – of The Last Jedi is Rose – a lowly mechanic, fiercely devoted to the resistance and to bringing down the Empire. Rose has a vision and it is one she will not give up on, even when all odds are against it. In our Universalist story, Rose is Thomas Potter.
And in the movie, Rose is the one that says the most important line:
That’s how we’re going to win.
Not fighting what we hate.
Saving what we love.
Remember Finn and Rose. Because now, I’m going to tell you more about John Murray and Thomas Potter, because 248 years ago today, was the birth of Unitarian Universalism’s very own miracle story. But I have to go back a little in history before we can go forward.
Many of the Universalists in New England and here in the Mid-Atlantic emerged out of the ranks of Baptists, unsatisfied with the theology they were given. Through their direct experience of god (I hope you hear there the allusion to the first source of Unitarian Universalism) they came to understand that salvation was universal.
As such, these folks can be considered proto-Universalists and one of the roots that feed what became Universalism, which, I hope it is obvious, became Unitarian Universalism. There are many bright names associated with this heretical sect of Christianity. Some are from England. Some from this country:
Benjamin Rush (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence).
Olympia Brown – first woman whose ordination was recognized by a denomination.
And the best name, the horseback circuit-riding preacher who visited every state in the union (at the time): Quillen Shinn.
And, of course, John Murray.
I say, of course John Murray, because we just heard a jonty ditty about him – Preach the Gospel of Love, a song that reveals the story of the preacher who lost family and fortune in England, set sail for this continent, got stuck on a sandbar, was found by The Last Jedi’s Rose – I mean, Thomas Potter, and lived out our faith tradition’s very own miracle story – except it actually happened. And right here in New Jersey.
Potter was one of the proto-Universalists – he had come to believe in universal salvation, and it had isolated him, but it did not deter him. He waited ten years after building that chapel for the right preacher – Finn – I mean, Murray – to appear. The right preacher to affirm what his heart already knew: god’s love had to be bigger than anything horrible we mere humans could do, else god not be god. God had to be the very essence of love. God was, indeed, Love.
You don’t actually have to believe in god to see how powerful this understanding of god is.
Turns out that once Murray preached in Good Luck – now Murray Grove – the Universalist watershed was opened. He continued north to New England, eventually rooted himself in Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts, but traveled some, including back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Murray is described both as a zealous preacher, but also not particularly candid. It was still a heresy to preach Universalism – heresy with significant consequences. Universalists – decades and even a century after Murray’s heyday – were considered the source of mayhem in society. If they didn’t believe in hell, what kept them from perpetrating crime? Universalists were sometimes persecuted and accused of crimes they did not commit.
So, Murray was a bit cagey. He used logic, applied it to Scripture, and in his preaching, lead the congregation, step by step, to what to him was a forgone conclusion (god is love, there is no sole Elect who will be saved; instead, all will be), but left it for the listeners to come to that conclusion themselves.
Side note: His preaching was both zealous and logical…and primarily extemporaneous. The Unitarian John and Abigail Adams encountered Murray and found his style of preaching to be… “distasteful” — a quintessential conflict between Unitarians and Universalists at that time that still has echoes to this day in our Association. I’m guessing that was because it was more emotional than the style to which they were accustomed.
Consequences for heresy: pulpits were closed to Murray once his reputation for Universalism got around. Not only that, sometimes there was violence. There is the famous – and true – story of the time Murray was preaching and a stone was thrown through the window, landing near him. Without skipping a beat, Murray walked over to the stone, picked it up, and told the congregation, “This argument” (pointing to the stone in his hand) “is weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.” Not unlike today’s fake news: given its propensity, its influence is weighty, but it is not rational and we cannot let it be convincing.
What else do I want you to know about Universalism? Well, as I’ve alluded, having no hell below us was not an easy sell. How do you compel people to be good without fear of eternal damnation? It’s a fair question. One that lives with us today in many forms, including “How is it fair that people can do terrible things and too often seem to flourish?” We see it when we struggle with our First Principle to include people whose actions we find abhorrent.
Nineteenth century Universalists tussled with these very questions. Their answer led to two camps that ultimately created a schism. There were Restorationists – folks who believed that everyone goes to heaven, but depending on how they lived their lives on earth, it might take them awhile to be “restored” to heaven. They didn’t call it purgatory – that’s a Catholic term – but I can’t tell the difference. If you know, please make an appointment and fill me in.
Then there were the Ultra-Universalists – they believed that everyone goes to heaven and immediately, no matter how they conducted themselves in this earthly realm. They had a slogan that has been resurrected on a modern day UU t-shirt. The slogan went “Death & Glory!” meaning that immediately after death came “glory,” (another name for the heavenly hereafter). While it may be hard to see the fairness in this, it is logical within the parameters of Universalism.
And that was one of the things: Universalists welcomed logic. And science. Not fearing either in their understanding of god and the world – another thing that set them apart from some other Christian sects. And like the Unitarians, in the early 20th century, they were initially challenged by the emerging humanist movement. Yet, rather than turn their backs on it, they engaged it, and ultimately, found their balance with it by coming to the believe – and without denying the existence of god — that it was acceptable to no longer wait for divine intervention, but to take god’s work into our human hands.
John Murray had a vision, considered heretical by some, true beyond contemporary dogma, by others. What does the story of John Murray teach us now, all these years later? Is it anything more than just a piece of dead and gone history?
(If it were, I wouldn’t be preaching it today.)
One lesson – a hard one — from the John Murray miracle story is that one person’s vision can be powerful, but it is not enough. A vision, no matter how powerful, how real it is, can be broken and lost in the midst of oppression, trauma and unremitting loss.
Yet here’s the good news, the happier lesson: such a vision, in order to survive, needs to be shared by others, needs safe haven, needs more than just one person to give it shape and life.
This is where Thomas Potter comes in, with his persistent faith, his hope of ten years, enduring mockery from his neighbors, holding fast to a vision he had that it was possible to have a world in which there were no elect or chosen, but that what he would have called god’s embrace was wide enough, more inclusive than what the prevailing culture could imagine at that time.
What if Thomas Potter had not had a vision that caused him to build that chapel? Had not seen beyond what was in front of him, empty land, tangible, yes, but not the reality to come?
What if the vision that John Murray had for himself, sculpted from the rubble of betrayal and violence that led him to flee England, to be done of ministry and preaching, had remained solid, demarcated, untouched by the lens offered by Thomas Potter? What if – and I’m thinking now to our reading of the poem, Monet Refuses the Operation — it had stayed like the way the doctor sees the Houses of Parliament, not like how Monet saw them?
Even bigger, what if their vision of the world, of human relations, and ultimately how they understood god, had stayed stuck in the traditional, the orthodox, the lines clear between heaven and hell? What if they hadn’t visioned that there was no hell below us? That whatever of divine energies there are in the world, they are loving, not damning?
And so we encounter the question – how can we be like John Murray, sure, but how can we also be like Thomas Potter? How can we not necessarily be Finn, the reluctant hero in the Last Jedi– but be Rose, who tells us that in wanting the change the world, in resisting Empire, it is not that we fight what we hate, but that we save what we love.
Save (or invent) an immigration system that is fair.
Save (or invent for the first time) a criminal justice system that isn’t inherently racist.
Save a judicial system with judges who don’t harm women in their private hours. Or public ones.
What if we save a world we love in which there is an end of stark divisions in how we see the world, and that beauty and a deep unity are our guides in how we make and remake it – like Monet.
That we save a world we love that believes survivors of sexual assault, that doesn’t produce death threats and hostile, aggressive politicians, or judicial nominees with a barely-hidden propensity for misogyny.
That we save a world we love that not just tolerates, but celebrates, different theological, spiritual, and ethical world views, including – and this is part of both our history and our future legacy – those who do not claim any god as their guiding source, as well as honoring those who do – again, ending needless stark divisions in this realm of human co-existence.
May we, with Unitarian Universalism as the ground below us, covenanted relationship as what holds us together, and good companionship throughout our days, may we be able to see – as the poet’s Monet could – “how heaven pulls the earth into its arms and how infinitely the heart expands to claim this world.”
May we hear ever the call, given to us by our history, re-gifted to us every day we connect with our Unitarian Universalist values and principles, that Love is the guiding force in the world, and can be ours, if we choose it, over and over again – choosing not to fight what we hate, but to save what we love, giving the world not hell, but hope.
(A heads up: last Sunday, when I was not here, I was actually attending the 9am service at First Baptist of Lincoln Gardens, in Somerset. If you are not familiar with First Baptist, it is a Black Baptist church with at least 5,000 members. The worship and theology there are, shall I say, a little bit different than here. I attended as the guest of a new acquaintance. Nearly an hour had already gone by when the pastor warned us all that he was just about to start the sermon and that it was going to take 35 minutes. Now, this sermon is not going to be 35 minutes. But I am giving you a heads up that I think it’s going to be a bit longer than usual…)
We all are familiar with the “I Have a Dream Speech.”
For many of us, perhaps most of us, it can still make your spine tingle. Dr. King’s oratory was fierce and moving, his vision: powerful. When he said – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – it seemed actually possible.
This an undated photo shows Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, and ignited the boycott that led to a federal court ruling against segregation in public transportation. In 1955, Montgomery’s racially segregated buses carried 30,000 to 40,000 blacks each day. (AP Photo/Daily Advertiser)
He spoke those words after Rosa sat down so that Martin could stand up with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
But that speech was before the Voting Rights Act of 1964 – its promise and its limitations — and the Noble Peace Prize of that same year, and Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It was before John Kennedy was shot, before Malcolm was shot, and most certainly before Bobby Kennedy was shot, because he was killed after an assassin’s bullet killed Martin at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
That “I Have a Dream” speech was well before Dr. King joined his voice to those speaking against the war in Viet Nam. That he did a year before he died – actually, exactly a year: April 4, 1967, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He had quietly stated his opposition to the war before then, but on that day, in front of the media, in this very public setting, he formally broke from the policies of President Johnson, a strategy that many in the civil rights movement thought foolhardy.
And it was way before Dr. King, in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, spoke out in new ways, before he began to sound more like slain Malcolm or a representative of the newly emerging Black Panther movement, just a month before he was killed. In his speech to Union 1199 in New York City, a speech called, “The Other America,” Dr. King moved ever deeper into a radical analysis – radical, meaning getting at the root of a thing – of the causes of racial oppression, examining and identifying the interconnected means of oppression: racial, economic, and imperialistic.
On April 4, just ten days from now, we mark fifty years since Dr. King was murdered. Next Sunday is Easter, which does not seem like the right time to speak to this uneasy anniversary. And the following Sunday, April 8, I will be at the Revolutionary Love conference, where many of the people carrying on Dr. King’s radical legacy that justice is what love looks like in public, including Reverend Dr. William Barber and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-coveners of a resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, that crushed legacy of Dr. King’s is being brought back to life, nationally, as well as in over 30 states, including here in New Jersey, with a planned forty days of action between Mother’s Day (May 13) and June 21, culminating in a rally to launch a multi-year campaign of massive non-violence to address economic poverty with a morally-centered agenda.
So today, we’re looking at Dr. King’s legacy, or lost legacy. Not the palpable legacy that has put Dr. King on a pedestal. Not the legacy that moves the King Estate to sell rights to his “I Have a Dream” speech to sell Ram pick-up trucks on Superbowl Sunday. Not the legacy that has made Dr. King into a milquetoast saint, allowing our revisionist histories of him, his vision, and our relationship with both.
(But maybe, just maybe, it’s the “I Have a Dream” legacy that his granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, 9-year-old granddaughter spoke about at yesterday’s March 4 Our Lives in Washington, D.C. where she said, in response to gun violence in our nation, that her dream was “enough is enough.”)
When I mention our revisionist tendencies, I’m talking about how in 1999, the Gallup Poll calculated a list of people most admired at that time by the American people. Dr. King was #2 (after Mother Teresa). The funny thing – not funny-haha, but funny ironic – was that in the years leading up to his death, thirty years before he came in at #2, Dr. King rarely appeared on their list of top ten most admired people. In fact, using their scientific means to measure such things, in 1965, the year after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, it was 45% for both negative and positive regard. And in 1966 – the last year Gallup measured in this way – Dr. King was seen positively by 32% of those polled… and 63% saw him negatively.
It makes me think of the reading in the back of our grey hymnal, #565, from Clinton Lee Scott:
Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet sometimes gather up the stone to build the prophet’s monument.
I am going to read some of Dr. King’s words from that speech fifty years ago; Kathy is going to offer current information on each of the areas of concern that Dr. King raises.
Dr. King: “There are literally two Americas. … I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of Hope into the fatigue of despair. In that other America, millions of people find themselves forced to live in inadequate substandard and often dilapidated housing conditions. And these conditions: they don’t have wall-to-wall carpets but all too often they find themselves living with wall-to-wall rats and roaches.”
“In New Jersey, the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,420. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities — without paying more than 30% of income on housing — a household must earn $4,734 monthly or $56,810 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into an hourly Housing Wage of $27.31.”
The most expensive areas: Middlesex, Somerset, and Hunterdon Counties, where the necessary “hourly housing wage” (definition: what it takes to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental) increases to $31.81.
Dr. King “In this other America, thousands – yay even millions — of young people are forced to attend and adequate substandard inferior quality less schools. and year after year thousands of young people in this other America finish our high schools reading at an eighth- and a ninth-grade level sometimes.
Not because they are dumb. Not because they don’t have innate intelligence. But because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated — if you will — that the best in these minds can never come out.”
[The UCLA Civil Rights Project report, published last September] shows that New Jersey has moved another substantial step toward a segregated future with no racial majority but severe racial stratification and division. The resulting harms affect a continually growing sector of the population and mean that schools are not serving their historical function of bringing newcomers and excluded groups into the mainstream of the society.
Although the state has invested billions in trying to equalize school funding under a remarkable series of orders from the NJ Supreme Court, profound racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps remain in educational outcomes. School segregation in NJ is not only by race, but it is double segregation by race and poverty with black and Latino students in schools with far poorer classmates—conditions research shows to be linked to educational inequality. There have been no significant efforts to change these patterns.
Dr. King: “The most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. By the millions, people in the other America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. … Now what we’ve got to do is to attack the problem of poverty and really mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty because what we have now is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
I need not remind you that poverty — the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of Despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.”
“The rich keep getting richer in New Jersey and the poor aren’t keeping pace, new data shows. Income inequality in New Jersey, or the gap between the rich and poor, now ranks 12th-highest in the nation, according to the latest 2012-2016 Census data. It’s getting worse in 14 of the 21 counties, with the other seven remaining steady. The gap is most pronounced in Essex County. Home to both Millburn, which has one of the state’s highest median household incomes at $190,625, and Newark, which has one of the state’s lowest at $33,025, Essex is one of the most economically segregated places in the country.”
It is hard to see much, if any, progress in the past half century since Dr. King’s death. Some progress in some areas, perhaps for a small slice of Black and Brown communities, but little or no movement, perhaps even movement backwards in other areas. I think to how the pervasive presence of gun culture – gun chaos, really — in communities of all shades and socio-economic statuses, has worsened most every ill in our society. It leaves a person feeling despondent, as Dr. King himself would speak to in some of his speeches, including in this speech about The Other America.
Perhaps this is where music – yes — and gathering together in community – such as happened across our nation yesterday with the March 4 Our Lives, which USA Today said was the largest single-day protest in our nation’s history (with an estimated 800,000 in attendance in DC – the first Women’s March, to compare it to, had 500,000). Perhaps these things can enter in and save us not from such a harsh reality, but from despondency in the face of that reality, so that we might change that harsh reality, so that we might bend that moral arc of the universe towards (what?) ___________________ (justice).
We are blessed and honored to have with us today Terri Lynne Goines, one of Nick’s students from Rider University, who has shared with us the gift of her voice. I knew when I began planning today’s service to honor the anniversary of this infamous deed in American history, that I would want for us to be able to sing what has been called and claimed as the National Black Anthem.
I am also very aware that for a congregation whose membership consists of some, but only a few, people who can claim this song as part of their cultural heritage, that it is important that we be thoughtful and intentional.
I knew the origin story of Lift Every Voice and Sing, but I didn’t know how it came to be part of our Unitarian Universalist hymnody. I learned that from a colleague, the UU minister Joanne Giannino. In a sermon she wrote, she asked the following questions:
Does it make sense for congregations made up mostly of people from the dominant culture to sing African American spirituals? … have they earned the right?
Does it make sense for people who have no lived experience of racism to sing songs that tell a story that isn’t their own? … As new voices try to learn something they can’t quite know but might access through the song, a story, an image, will that matter?
Perhaps singing songs together, and doing so from a variety of traditions, helps us to know one another, help us to recognize and honor each other, helps us to respect boundaries at the right times, to transcend them when that serves a greater good. Perhaps like James Weldon, who was so moved by the experience of turning his spoken word into song, even as the words to that very song recalled a brutal past (a brutality that did not stay only in the past but continued, continues, in the now), that we, too can be moved by the fires of commitment, to “sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, the hope that the present has brought us.”
For this song with gravitas and history, we come close to earning the privilege of its gift as part of our worship when we seek its story and context, when we give its history the respect it is due. As I thought about how to do this, I knew it would be wrong to just sing this song, so I knew that we would need to learn the history. Also, it did not seem right, given that we are a majority white congregation, for a white person to sing it. And because this is worship – not performance – it seemed wrong just to invite Terrie here to sing for us while we only passively received the song.
So on this day when we honor the vision and legacy of Dr. King, raising up that radical aspect of his vision so often erased, it is that we sing, lifting our voices to the chorus, a hundred years plus in the continual making, of voices singing together. Please rise in body or spirit, as we all sing together the National Black Anthem, our hearts and minds commemorating the tragic day nearly fifty years ago, when this nation and this world lost a voice for justice, peace, and true human decency.
In the 1960s, the Unilever corporation, in their quest to make and sell laundry detergent, encountered a problem. Now, remember, this is more than fifty years ago, so the ubiquitous form of laundry detergent in our homes was…powder, that came to us in rectangular cardboard boxes. Remember?
Unilever’s system involved pumping, at high pressure, from a gigantic outdoor tank, liquid detergent into an indoor space, through a hose, out a nozzle, where the fine mist of liquid detergent would make contact with air, dry, and fall to the floor where it was then scooped cardboard packaging.
However, the nozzle kept clogging. They had invested in a brilliant, knowledgeable engineer to design the correct nozzle but that did not work. The situation was too complex for the approach of analyze problem, design solution, experience success.
So they turned old school: trial and error.
Embracing failure as the teacher it is, they made ten copies of the nozzle, adjusting each one just a bit, each differently, then tried it out. They then took the one that was most successful, and copied it, creating another ten nozzles, varying that one ten different ways, just slightly. Over and over again, trial and error, refining the nozzle’s design.
After 45 generations and 449 ‘failures’, they had a nozzle that was outstanding.
I hope, whatever it is that you are trying to figure out in your life right now, that it does not take 449 trials for you to reach outstanding. However, given that you are still breathing, you will, no doubt, encounter moments of trial and error, of actual failure, sometimes more than you think you can in that moment bear, and you will have to choose how to respond. We will have to choose how to respond. I will have to choose how to respond.
I think this is a good question for each of us individually and most definitely an important question for us as a congregation in the 21st century.
The Berry Street Lecture is the longest, consecutively-running public lecture in the United States, and it’s ours – it is Unitarian Universalist. In 2015, Reverend Sean Dennison, who currently serves our UU congregation in Ashland, Oregon, gave a talk with the title “Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option.” But he was being clever, playing with words. He was suggesting that failure is not an option because it is inherent in the process, it is unavoidable. We cannot help but fail. Sean noted that, “If our mission is big enough, we will fail….It is inevitable.”
Oh, I am not a big fan of this particular growth opportunity. The lesson of befriending failure. The lesson of appreciating, or even just accepting, imperfection. They say that best sermons that a minister preaches are the ones that we ourselves need to hear. I don’t know if this one will be among my best, but I know I need to hear this. Over and over again. I need to hear and practice that failure is my friend. Is our friend. Is okay.
And, at least when it comes to the larger challenges we are facing in our shared congregational life, is just might be what we should be aiming for.
I’m guessing that you have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a non-creedal religion – we do not have a dogma, or set of beliefs, that we must affirm. I’m hoping that perhaps as a counter point to that description, you have heard that Unitarian Universalism is covenantal – that the promises we make to each other, the expectations of how we treat each other, the relational shape we take as a gathered people – these are what bind us, all the way back to our Puritan ancestors.
To live into this reality of covenant, many Unitarian Universalist congregations develop covenants to help, what my friend and colleague, Reverend Jordinn Nelson Long, make “explicit those things we each hold to be obvious.” There are board covenants, and covenants of right relations. Some congregations ask all their committees to develop a covenant. Youth groups have covenants and our children in religious education practice making them as well.
In this congregation, we have a Covenant of Right Relations, developed about eight years ago. The Committee on Shared Ministries developed a covenant this past fall. They are super proud of it and would love to share with anyone who is interested. Even the staff of this congregation has a covenant, finished just last month.
As the staff were in the process of developing our covenant, the outside facilitator noticed that there was a thread running through our process: an impulse towards perfectionism and creating compassionate ways to respond to the inevitable falling short. Responding to this, the covenant reads as follows:
Give each other permission to take creative risks, knowing that not all of our ideas will work out, recognizing that perfectionism is a barrier to growth, viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of relationship, and that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance this process. (**borrowed from another UU congregation because this language is so awesome!)
A more concise way to say that: embrace failure. Take as our ethos the quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Which sounds awesome and clever and poetic and all that, but there’s just one teensy-weensy thing: for some of us type-A personalities, but more importantly, for society in general, we don’t embrace failure. We fear it. Sean Dennison said it this way, “The system has taught us that our value comes from our proximity to perfection.”
While this may be my sh*t, it is not only my sh*t. I know that I am not alone. (Can I get an amen?)
The problem with this, as Sean Dennison also said, is that
… as long as we fear failure—as long as we use up vast amounts of energy trying to be perfect, absolutely and adamantly competent, we are not going to have the energy to be or become the relevant, responsive, passionate, and growing movement of Unitarian Universalists we yearn to be. As long as we are frozen in our tracks by the fear that we might fail or more accurately, that others might find out we fail, we are stuck thinking small, making only the safest of plans that we already know will succeed. But I am here to tell you: You might as well go ahead and plan to fail, because you’re going to do it anyway. You already are.
I want to share with you the closing words by the British author, Neil Gaiman, from his speech to a group of graduates called, “Make Good Art.”
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
Make good art. We could translate this into make good church. And he says make good art and make the art only you can make. This translates into “make good church that only we Unitarian Universalist can do,” so in our case it might be “make good Society” or “make good congregational life” neither of which have the same oomph as “make good church.”
This is what the 21st century America is calling us to do: figure out how to make good art with the ethical, spiritual, and community tools in our possession, here in the midst of a rapidly changing cultural landscape full of division, isolation, institutionalized exclusion, enormous shifts in cultural power and demographics, and at the same time, is becoming less and less interested in congregational life.
Do I think the need for people to gather and to belong and to find purpose will go away? No, because I don’t think the deep need to do these things will go away. In fact, I think these unmet existential longings – to gather, to belong, to find purpose – will only grow as materialism, climate constriction, and authoritarianism grows in our midst. But they are always being met by new means, and this requires of us to follow that Samuel Beckett’s advice, “ever [try]. Ever [fail]. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Two weeks from today, just after the service, and with light lunch provided so that your hungry stomachs will not distract you, our Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, will be facilitating a Town Hall open to all. This meeting was sparked by a series of workshops, the first one called, provocatively, “The Death of Sunday School,” and then re-titled for fear of scaring folks off to “The Future of Faith Formation,” and then the rest of the workshops called, “The Sequel to Sunday School.” Jillian is going to share with you all – since this is your congregation and its life and future, are in your hands and our hands as a shared ministry – information about the changing cultural landscape and how that is impacting religious education.
It turns out that the solutions that worked in the past, don’t apply in the same ways or, in many cases, at all. Just over twenty years ago, there were just over 80 kids enrolled in the RE program with 2/3 – ¾ of them attending regularly. This year we have 23 registered and we have somewhere between 1/3 and ½ attending on any given Sunday. Our nozzle is clogged.
Spoiler alert: no one knows what the solutions to this challenges facing religious education are or are going to be. We – each UU congregation and the whole of Unitarian Universalism (and really, the whole of mainline Protestantism, many Catholic congregations, and most of the Jewish congregations) – can’t just hire an engineer to develop the perfect nozzle. We are going to have to get friendly with risking and failing, with trial and error, with experi-learning, with embracing failure as the cruel and kind teacher it is. We get to practice viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of our relationships with each other. We get to live into the understanding that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance our shared communal life.
It’s exciting and frightening and daunting and stimulating. And it calls on all of us to be a part of it, because while Jillian will be presenting on religious education, the dynamics and influences she will name impact nearly every aspect of congregational life. I hope you will join me in attending this important event.
Whenever I am given a big piece of news, particularly if there is a strong emotional component to it –something that might overwhelm me, or cause me to worry, or be afraid — I go to poetry. With poetry, I am more likely to feel held and I am more likely to feel not so much alone. So I offer you this poem from Wendell Berry, titled, [ten – the Roman numeral “X”], from his collection called, “Leavings:”
I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself. Ah, this will be my spiritual practice, this will be my mantra, repeated mostly for my own ears, my own heart to hear so that I might trust it: For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.
I need this spiritual practice because if our congregants are going to be relevant, while we cannot do it on our own, ministers must lead the way. Doing so not without fear, but in spite of the fear of failure. Perhaps like what Humpty Dumpty experienced as he climbed that very tall wall, before he found himself flying.
For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.
You have to keep on trying, just not the same thing.