How Big Our Brave Is

This sermon will make a lot more sense if you first read Doug Powell’s brilliant story about skydiving.

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Sermon – How Big Our Brave Is
So Moses was standing there, at the edge of the Red Sea, and it wasn’t moving.  Surrounding him, breathing hopeful and anxious breaths upon him, were his people, formerly enslaved, and recently inspired to leave all they had known behind for a life he promised would be better.Not far behind them, Moses could hear horses charging in the distance, and the angry shouts of warriors whose slave labor had just escaped.

All Moses and his people had to do was go forward. Freedom was waiting. But there was this sea. This big, deep, wide sea.

And so in that moment you might say that Moses was experiencing “Door face.” Justifiably so.

His people looked at him for instruction -and Moses looked at God and did what any great leader would do in such a situation. He started begging. Please. Please clear the way. Make a path through this sea. Please.

But God had other ideas. Just keep going, God said. You’ve come this far, you can’t turn back now. Just keep going. Have faith. Keep going? Have faith? But there’s an ocean!

Despite this clear and tangible reality, God would have none of it. Just keep going, God said. Have faith. Moses looked around at his people. And his people looked at him. All of them now, with door faces. They could hear Pharoah’s army, coming closer. They could feel their hearts beating faster.

They were indeed irrevocably committed. But to what? Certain and massive death?

But then, from the back of the crowd, a man pushed his way forward.

Nachshon was his name. A regular guy – certainly he’d never heard a voice from a burning bush. But in that moment, this regular man stepped forward, and he started walking into the sea.

Moses just stared at him. Others started to point and yell out. What are you doing? Are you crazy?

But Nachshon just kept going. He waded through the rising tide, and the water hit his calves.

The crowd became silent, just watching him. He kept walking. Water hit his waist. He kept walking. The water came up to his chest, and then his shoulders. He kept walking, the water all around him. Until finally, it was at his nostrils, about to fill his lungs.

And it was at that moment, the Red Sea parted,and the Israelites could continue their journey to freedom, moving safely through the walls of water, safely through the sea.

What gives someone the courage to do something so bold and yet so necessary? What allows us to risk ourselves for the sake of liberation – our own, and others’? What gives us the strength not just to talk about transformation, but to act, to walk into the fire of personal and communal change, to step into the sea? What makes us that brave?

Our common misunderstanding is that such courage comes from fearlessness. We imagine fear itself must be defeated. Anxiety and worry are to be squashed as a source of shame – be not afraid – the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus and American presidents all urge. We go to war on terror.

But fear and terror are a normal, human response to this world we live in.The diagnosable disorder should not be “anxiety,” but “lack of anxiety.” That would be something to wonder at.

Be afraid. I am. A lot of the time. There’s so much we risk in this life by showing up with our whole hearts. So much that’s broken, that we don’t have time to understand let alone help fix. So much we don’t have control over, so much that can and does go terribly wrong. It’s terrifying. Life is so terrifying. But – so what?

Courage doesn’t care whether life is terrifying or whether you’re afraid.  In fact, psychologists and neuroscientists, philosophers and theologians repeatedly affirm that how big our brave is, is not at all related to how big our fear is. Bravery comes from somewhere else. But where?

Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde, a woman whose brave was enormous, observed: “When I dare to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less and important whether I am afraid.”

All my research leads back to this:  Courage comes – again – not from fearlessness, but from a sense of duty. We act courageously when we believe we are serving our vision:  “When I dare to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less and important whether I am afraid.”

Keep walking. Have faith. Don’t turn back.

Duty is not a word I hear Unitarian Universalists use too often.  In fact, it’s not really associated with religious or other kinds of liberals at all. Maybe because it implies a lack of choice, something we do because we have to, not because we have on our accord decided it was right or good.

But like other words we may squirm about, we disregard and misunderstand it to our own detriment. As a covenantal faith, defined not by our shared beliefs but our shared commitments, duty seems like a very Unitarian Universalist word.

We come together out of a shared sense of duty that is ours not because we have no choice, but because we have chosen these sacred obligations. This is our great covenant. We have thought carefully, and chosen to dwell together, to seek the truth, to serve in love.  And as Nachshon reminds us, fulfilling your duty in this way need not diminish freedom, in fact it may be exactly what enables it.

Where it gets complicated, however, is understanding exactly what our duty is, and how following it translates into real life. As psychologist Cynthia Pury puts it, “’I don’t think [any efforts toward] courage is going to go that far unless you help people decide what’s important.’”

When I got the news of Pete Seeger’s death this week, I was puzzling out this precise question: How should we decide what’s important? What tools should we turn to? I figured, someone who lived as bravely as Pete did, might have some ideas about this. It didn’t take long. The 2nd interview I came across, Pete was sharing his thoughts about how to motivate people to do the right thing. How to get people to act on their ideals.

It was from three years ago, which means he was 91. After all he had seen and experienced – the House Committee, being blacklisted – his optimism was inspiring. He still believed that the right song, sung together, could inspire people to change the world. The right song, required two things according to Pete.

First, it needed to embolden a sense of…..duty!!! Seriously, that was his word.  But simultaneously, the song must foster an experience of reverence.  Which he went on to describe as an experience that allows us to perceive “that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, forwards and backwards, that great amplitude of time, which is eternity.”

It is – that moment where you leap from the plane and are held by the sky. When you realize, simply by existing, you are safe. You belong here, in the web of life. In all your beauty and imperfection, you belong here. You are loved, and held, and seen and known and you belong. This feeling. That’s reverence.

Some of us may be grateful to know you don’t need to jump out of airplanes to experience it.

I felt it the first time I saw an older man carrying a sign that said “I love my gay daughter” in a pride parade, I have felt it at hospital bedsides, out on a run, looking in my children’s faces, and in the deep belly laughter shared with friends. Many Sundays, I feel it right here with all of you.

Wherever we find them, as Seeger saw it, these experiences of reverence tell us what matters, they tell us – what is worth stepping into the ocean for.

As soon as I read it, I knew he was right. Bravery motivated by duty – without reverence -isn’t bravery, it’s ego, and arrogance and often hubris.

But bravery motivated by duty and reverence grounds our action in relationship, in the fullest sense.  Where duty is aligned with the first principle – our individual worth and capacity; reverence draws from our seventh, acknowledging the great interdependent web of existence of which we are simply a part.  Duty inspires confidence; Reverence, humility.  Moral courage requires both.

But that’s not all. There’s one final thing psychologists say helps inspire a sense of courage. And for that, I need to tell you a story.

It was, just over two years ago. I was newly ordained, serving in a good church, but one that wasn’t my call, when I got a phone call from Mountain Desert District Executive, the Rev. Nancy Bowen. She said, the church in Fort Collins is probably going to be hiring a second minister, and you should apply.

A few years before that, Nancy and I had talked about my specific sense of call. I told her, I feel like I am called to serve on the Front Range. These are my people. And, my experience and my joy tells me, I am supposed to be in a big church. How such a thing would happen? We had no idea. No possibilities existed at the time. But with all my heart, I felt it was right. She said she’d keep an eye out.

Which means, a few years later when told me about this position, I was cautiously enthusiastic. Might it be…? No way to know then – just had to let it play out.

I remember vividly the interview, a group of then strangers, now familiar friends – all gathered in the Sokoloski’s home. The search committee’s thoughtful questions clearly communicated their commitment to making the right choice for the congregation they so obviously loved. (Duty, based in reverence)

We reflected on our mutual desire for a long-term partnership. I confessed my overdeveloped sense of loyalty, and I said,based on Marc’s tenure, it seems that’s something we share. They laughed. We were arching, and relaxed. Taking it all in.

But then, at the end of the interview Marc said, I think you should know, I’m going to retire in two years. What do you think about that? he asked.

And you know what I said? I said: I’m not afraid. I said, I have a very strong theology of risk. Which was half way true – the theology part, that was very true. But…the other part….

Being with a church who is letting go of its beloved minister of 23 years?

Leading a community who is trying to grow up systems, structures, and finances to support its nearly 600 adult members, 200 friends, and 300 children and youth, not to mention reach out to impact the wider community with its vision of justice and love?

Helping a congregation warmly welcome and receive the leadership of a yet to be determined interim senior minister?

Being present and open to all these changes, this time of great transformation? Trying to find my place, yet remain unattached to outcomes?

And then on top of all this, the usual heartbreaks and unknown of ministry? Of parenthood? Of life?

Is it too late to revise my answer?

I’m afraid. (Do you see my door face?) Who wouldn’t be?

But from that very first interview, and every single day with you since, my sense of reverence – my deep sense of connection to something greater and the way I experience that with you all, in this place, in our work; and my sense of duty, my sense of call – these things tell me, I can do no other. I’m in the water, it’s up to here, and what’s amazing is that it is – fun, it is pleasure, it is joy.

In terms of the future, some wonder if I will apply to be the Senior Minister. My only faithful answer is, I don’t know. Who will we be a year from now? Who will this congregation be without Marc’s – and Vicki’s presence? Who will I be as a minister? How will I understand my call then? How will we together change as we take this great leap?

It’s not time to know.  The transformative power of courageous love is doing its work.  Time is doing its work. Let it.

Just, relax. Arch. Be present.  The sky is ready to hold us. It is so beautiful.

Life invites us into such holy work.   Life is always asking us to show it – how big our brave is.

And lucky for us, these next few years, will invite a little extra opportunity to respond. But in reality, this is always our charge. As Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams said, “church is the place where you get to practice what being human.”

Which is the third and final requirement for bravery: practice. Psychologists tell us that preparation breeds confidence in our capacities, builds muscle memory for saying or doing the right thing when the opportunity arrives. Before you jump out of the plane, you train. Right, Doug? A lot, I’d imagine.

That’s us, that’s this – we are your spring training, your two-a-days, your cross-fit….pick your sport or some other metaphor that works for you – we are the place that prepares you to take that step, for yourself, for us all, to bring us just a little closer to the promised land.

My friends, grounded in the holy, fulfilling our sense of our deepest duty, practicing together – may we grow big brave hearts here, so that we may answer life’s call, and step into that water together.

May it be so, and amen.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
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