Sermon for Worship Service, Sunday January 3, 2016
Reading – “My Life as a Protest,” by Thomas Merton
“It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of, a protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world. By my life and vows, I am saying no to all the concentration camps, the aerial bombardments, the staged political trials, the judicial murders, the racial injustices, the economic tyrannies, and the whole socio-economic apparatus which seems geared for nothing but global destruction in spite of all its fair words in favor peace. I make silence a protest against the lies of politicians, propagandists and agitators, and when I speak it is to deny that my faith and my Church can ever seriously be aligned with these forces of injustice and destruction. My life, then, must be a protest against [those who invoke their faith in support of war, racial injustice and tyranny]. If I say no to all these secular forces, I also say yes to all that is good in the world and in humanity. I say yes to all that is beautiful in nature…I say yes to all the men and women who are my brothers and sisters in the world.”
Sermon“Beloved Community of Resistance”
Seven years ago, I wasn’t quite as attached to my iPhone as I am now, but it was still a stretch to imagine five days without it, or for that matter, any form of connection to the outside world. I was headed to a Jesuit monastery -which is not the same sort where Thomas Merton, whose words we have have just heard – spent nearly 30 years of his life –
he was a Trappist or Cistercian monk.
Jesuits value some meaningfully different practices than the Trappists – for example, silence. The Ignatius House in Atlanta Georgia, where I was headed, it turns out, has a regular practice of total, mandatory silence.
Not only would I not have my phone, or my television, or my streaming Netflix, but I would not have any other voices at all. I would instead only have my own voice in my own head, my own thoughts, my own self.
Basically, I imagine, it would be torture.
However, this torture was a requirement of the generous fellowship I had recently received, and so I packed, and headed off, to what the prophet Elijah and Paul Simon call “the sound of silence.” Which in my experience, is ironically, quite loud.
The silence doesn’t start right away, of course. They have to check you in, help you find your room, show you where the dining hall is, give you a tour of the grounds….until think, maybe the website was wrong, or overstated, they all seem pretty normal and chatty…..but then, they review the schedule, and there it is: 7:00 pm, silence, until 9 the next morning.
It was summer time, so it’s not like 7:00 as we all know it right now.
It was more like noon, with a still-high Atlanta sun glaring down, as if to say: deal with yourself once and for all.
I had a twin bed, no roommate. There would be no cheating. Dinner came and went, and 7:00 hit. I tried not to panic.
I took a walk around the campus. Rivers and green trees. Stones along the path that before the impact of weather and time had been stations of the cross. My body was hot, and uncomfortable, unaccustomed as it was to the humidity. I sat on a bench, and let the moment sink in, and all the moments leading up to that moment, the ones I hadn’t had time to take in, or space.
How did I get here? Not just here this bench, this silence, but more, here, this life, this body, this person.
Since starting seminary two years earlier, I was the parent to two children rather than just one.
I’d spent much of the past year terrified that my son would be returned to his birth mom, but the adoption was finalized, and we were fine. We were fine.
My partner and I had recently started talking seriously about what it would mean for me to be a minister, in a church, and she a minister’s wife….I was going to be a minister, in a church. I prayed Carri wouldn’t leave me.
So much had happened. So much had changed. I wasn’t the same person I had been even a year before.
There were frogs, flowing water, and the rustle of the leaves with the occasional life-saving breeze.
The rush from one minute to the next came to a glorious pause, and without the noise of schedules, or the distraction of entertainment,
in the terrible, terrifying, tremendous silence, I felt myself whole, ready, and alive.
I felt fully aware of who I was, who I was called to be, and for whom.
I enjoyed the subtle victory of knowing myself, queer, feminist, mom to two beautiful children, Unitarian Universalist minister to be, and former Catholic, all while sitting on a stone bench in Atlanta Georgia, observing monastic silence. I thought of Audre Lorde’s bittersweet acknowledgment of what it means to live outside of society’s expectations, “We were never meant to survive.”
In that quiet moment, I felt my life was, as much as any march I’d ever gone on, any letter I’d written, any sermon I’d preached – as much as any of these, my life right there and then, was a protest. Like Thomas Merton says, a rejection of all the forces which threaten to destroy the human race and the world. That my very existence was a statement of resistance of every injustice, and in turn, a powerful yes to all that is good in the world.
It is important to start here, in the silence, for this sermon on resistance, our theme for January, because too often we go immediately to the most politically charged and publicly visible examples of witness or activism when we think about this word, “resistance.” We think of the solo heroes who capture the news with their public acts – Malala Youfsazi or Bree Newsome; Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., or Joan of Arc.
Starting in the silence reminds us, that sometimes, the most critical protest begins at home, with a resistance to our usual patterns, to the rush, to the noise.
It begins with sitting down with our own selves, looking into our own hearts, re-membering who we are, collecting ourselves, who we hope to be and for whom, taking stock, giving thanks, believing we are already enough, and having eyes to see the miracle of life already unfolding.
As Unitarian Universalist blogger Meck Groot says it, “social change is an inside job.”
Let me step back for a moment to clarify this term, resistance. Robin Meyers, in his book, Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance, which you might correctly surmise informed my sermon title,
defines “resistance” as “a form of direct or indirect action
opposing anything in the dominant culture that brings death and indignity to any member of the human family, or to creation itself.”
Critical to that definition is the word action. Resistance for our purposes is not ideological, analytical, or theoretical. It’s embodied in action that either directly or indirectly opposes those things that bring death or indignity.
Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker advocates for UU congregations to act primarily as “communities of resistance,” what she describes as “countercultural habitations in which people learn ways to survive and thrive that can resist and sometimes even transform an unjust dominant culture.”
She envisions everything we do – from worship to religious education to service – as tools and practices for resisting injustice.
She calls it a “counter-education system,” a phrase that calls to mind texts like Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States, or Ronald Takaki’s History of Multicutural America – these also-true-versions of our history that have been left out of the approved text books that most of us were raised on.
“Counter-education” in congregational life teaches us new practices and habits, for example, to affirm the inherent worth of every person, in counter-education to all those things in our culture which tell us our worth comes from our looks, our homes, our jobs, incomes, possessions….you get the idea. Counter-education teaches us new ways to celebrate our inherent worth. But it cannot stop there.
Parker asserts that our communal life “must also train our members to use their imagination, compassion, creativity, intelligence, conscience, and senses to unmask that which harms life, [to resist these forces]
….cultivating the rituals and spiritual disciplines that disrupt demonic powers so as to liberate ourselves and others from harmful ways of life.”
Now I want to pause here to underscore that the sort of resistance we’re after focuses on things or forces, rather than on people.
People are usually the movers and enablers of those forces we may need to resist, but our theology reminds us to resist drawing our lines of
what we are for vs what we are against – between people – to refuse to put some people on the good guys side and others on the bad, as Rich spoke about last Sunday – and instead to recognize that we all, at any time,
contain the potential to further the cause of those things that may bring indignity, injustice, destruction, or death.
I drove my car that requires fossil fuels to church this morning. Drank a cup of coffee from a k-cup. And I’m live in a house that most people in the world would consider appropriate to house three or even four times the number of people in my family. It has central air, which I use.
I could go on – any of us could, I’d imagine – go on identifying those ways where we intentionally or unintentionally further the causes of injustice or indignity to life or our planet.
But resisting me, or any of us, as a person – insisting on that kind of ideological purity in order to imagine transformation – is not the helpful path – instead – as William Ury’s great book on conflict transformation Getting to Yes has said, “focus on the problem, not the people.”
We need to focus on resisting the systems, structures, habits, policies and practices that bring death or indignity to any member of the human family or to creation itself, rather than focus our resistance on the people.
Although, I confess, I am finding this differentiation especially difficult in this year’s presidential race. Maybe you know what I mean.
More intimately, this difficult discernment also plays itself out in our neighborhoods, workplaces, holiday dinner tables, even our gyms. The other day my daughter came home from our new gym, telling a story of homophobic teasing from one of her peers. It was hard to figure out how to help her stop this bullying without demonizing the kid who did the bullying, but that is the task.
Our overarching commitment is to humanize rather than demonize,
and to remember that forces of injustice and evil equally threaten us all,
even if we are the ones who seem to be enabling those same forces.
And, also to remember my favorite piece of wisdom from Richard Rohr,
“pain that is not transformed is transmitted.”
My current spiritual discipline in fact, is to hear the words so frequently reported from the campaign trail and say to myself, “What a lot of pain he’s in.” A lot of pain.
It’s an important time for our congregation, as we look ahead to the new ministry we’ll begin later this year, and as we discover and work to articulate our new identity, most explicitly through our work on our mission statement. The Board is hosting forums starting next Sunday and then each Sunday for the rest of the month. It’ll be a chance to share and listen and wonder about why this congregation is here, what we’re needed for, and what we’re about – today, in this time and place.
A mission statement articulates a positive vision – those things that we want to clearly say we are for. And yet as Parker Palmer offers in his recent article titled, New Year’s Revolutions – “if we’re serious about what we’re for, we need to name what we’re willing to stand openly against. It’s not enough to say ‘Yes!’ to things like love, truth, and justice without saying a loud, clear ‘No!’ to their ruthless enemies, risking reprisals as we do.”
Palmer’s right to highlight the risk of saying “no.” “No” is a much riskier than yes. “Yes” feels friendlier, more open, less potentially offensive. “No” highlights our intent to disrupt the status quo, upset what is currently in the way of our “yes,” undo those things that might seem comfortable, traditional, right. Easier to say that we are for peace than to name what we see as the enemy of peace, and to actively work to resist and change those things.
Most of us, and especially those of us raised as women, are culturally encouraged to say “yes,” discouraged from a “no.” However, without the “no,” a “yes” doesn’t actually mean much. It’s a yes without limits, or boundaries – anything might be imagined as possible in a “yes” that lacks a complementary “no.” And if anything is possible by your yes, then what does your yes actually mean?
The inverse also applies of course – a “no” without a complementary “yes” shuts off growth, relationship, creativity and vision. Natural resistance to change means “no” may actually be our default. This has been a challenge for us as a religious movement – to move from our “no” and get clear instead on our “yes.” Many of us arrive knowing the religion we don’t want, what things or ideas we don’t believe in – all the stuff we left behind, or seek refuge from, whatever we rejected or have been injured by. There is no shortage of religious injury.
However, if we are clear about our “no,” our work must then become articulating the positive vision and positive theology at the heart of our community, and our faith. Though it can be temporarily energizing to be against a common enemy, if we are to be a living tradition, we must be creators rather than simply detractors, builders of new ways, rather than only tearing down the old.
Similarly, we can too often ground our work for justice in what we are against – against fracking, against racism, against poverty. Rebecca Parker reminds us that resisting these or other forces must be grounded in more than our outrage or grief in order to be sustainable or sustaining. Instead she encourages our resistance to be grounded in a “deep affirmation of life’s goodness, in celebration of life’s beauty, and in receptivity to grace.”
Holding this positive vision as our foundation “sustains our activism through refreshing experiences of beauty and joy.”
It is the time of year when many of us are prone to setting new goals,
or intentions, maybe even resolutions. Our congregation too – as I said,
is on the cusp of setting important new goals, vision, mission. In each of these official efforts, as well as in the ongoing informal ways we clarify and affirm our identity and our dreams, let us remember not only to articulate what we are for – our great and positive visions of joy, celebration, compassion, kindness and love. But also to claim clearly what we are against – to consider our lives, and this congregation, as a protest,
a living breathing act of resistance against all of those things which stand in the way of our vision, those forces in our own hearts which would cause us to stumble, those habits in our own lives which keep us from who we are meant to be, and those dehumanizing forces in the world which work against the Beloved Community. Let us imagine not just that our lives will do no harm, that our community will be place of sanctuary, but also that we will be active agents in undoing the harm that has already been done.
So that as we invite someone into membership in our church, and as we each feel moved by this faith, we might imagine we are being recruited into a great counter-cultural resistance of love, a joyful effort that seeks in small and big ways to offer our lives as witness to and keepers of the great story of human connection, goodness, beauty, equality and love.
So that we might say to each person, as they arrive among us: welcome to this Beloved Community, this Beloved Community of Resistance.