A sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
The First Parish, Unitarian Universalist, in Bedford, MA
8 November 2020
From the writings of Buddhist African-American collleague, Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams:
“Our anxiety comes from the desire to have things be different,” says Ms. Williams. “There’s going to be the day after the election. And the day after that. We need to be present to what is, regardless of the outcome you want.”
“My ancestors had to prepare themselves, over and over again, for moving toward a freedom that was nowhere in sight.,” she says, referring to Black Americans. “We prepare for life as it unfolds, not our ideal image of it. That is, literally, the only path forward.”
And from the writings of another colleague, Christian Schmidt, adapted:
“This is a call to worship for the joyful, the brokenhearted, the fearful, the hopeful, the exhausted.
For whatever you are feeling right now, may this be a place for you to find what you need. You are welcome here, in this gathering where we come to feed our souls, heal our hurts, and just be together.
For too long now, we have experienced the things that divide us: poverty and oppression, unjust laws and policies, violence and imprisonment.
We cannot fix these in a day, or even a year, but we can fix them and we must. Because we know that despite divisions, despite the triumphs or defeats of candidates and parties, our destinies, all of them, remain deeply intertwined.
Liberation must be for all people if it is truly liberation. As long as one soul suffers needlessly, we cannot rest. As long as our planet screams out in pain, so will all who live on her.
So for all the feelings, the emotions, the pains and hurts, the joy and celebration, you have in your heart and body and mind today, you are welcome here.
Here may you find rest and renewal, partners for the journey, time to contemplate and energy for action.
Let us worship.”
This is not the first time I’ve quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson who once said, “A sermon sometimes may be foolishly spoken but (it can still) be wisely heard.” This sermon has not readily come together for me – some things I say may be foolish – and so I entreat your wise hearing!
“You’ve also heard me say this before: A sermon ought to answer three questions. The first question is, “WHAT?” The second question is “SO WHAT?” And that leaves the third question, “NOW WHAT?”
Forgive me for cutting to the chase, but in this post-election pandemic perturbation, I believe that all of us are well aware of the WHAT? to which we refer and, knowing quite well how high the stakes indeed are, the question of SO WHAT? has also been answered, thoroughly, frequently and frighteningly. Which again leaves the matter of NOW WHAT? for our consideration at this time.
And to that question – NOW WHAT? – I have four things to say this morning, four things that – yesterday’s election results notwithstanding – still worrisomely bear down upon our present perturbed reality. The latest news notwithstanding, I believe our reality remains perturbed. The pandemic rages unabated. As for the presidency, while some rejoice and while there is cause for hope, I remain reminded of the gag headline in the satirical Onion in 2008: BLACK MAN GIVEN WORLD’S WORST JOB! No president is the messiah and the American presidency these days is no shining prize. Given the poisonous divisions in our country, the Biden/Harris election does not cause me to burst out singing, HAPPY DAYS ARE HERE AGAIN!
And so this morning there are four post-election persistent and problematic things I ask you to ponder. And because I’m not doing my job if I fail to preach some word of hope, with each of the four I will pair an alternate perspective that may indeed offer hope and solace.
SO…here are the FOUR THINGS (take out your pencils):
THING ONE: I have something to say about AMBIGUITY.
THING TWO: I have something to say about IMPUNITY.
THING THREE: I have something to say about IDOLATRY.
And THING FOUR, I have something to say about FEAR.
Now check your notes: Ambiguity, Impunity, Idolatry, and Fear.
THING ONE: Ambiguity.
It was ambiguity, wasn’t it, that robbed so many of us of our rest last Tuesday night? And even unto Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and this present moment many of us are afflicted with anxiety and collywobbles and nervousness and perturbation by the persistent uncertainty of things. Did many of us rejoice yesterday? Did we at last exhale and shed some element of dread? Of course. But are happy days are here again? I think not! America remains…and we remain…wracked by ambiguity.
A few years ago I preached a sermon titled, “In Praise of Ambiguity,” and in it I suggested that Unitarian Universalists, of all people, ought cultivate comfort in ambiguity. We are the people who believe in “one God – at most” – and actually I’m not so sure about that (for all I know there well could be none or 10,000 gods or more). We UU’s know that reality is multi-dimensional, always subject to changing perspective. We do not look to any savior, spiritual or political, for our salvation.
Like perennial presidential candidate and socialist Eugene Debs once cautioned, “I will not lead you into the Promised Land, for if I lead you in, someone else can just as easily lead you out!” Donald Trump led the American people – and the American people allowed Donald Trump – to take us into some exceptionally dark places, but let us not be deceived: Joe Biden will not take us to the Promised Land for, as always, if the people lead, the leaders will follow and, therefore, our work – yet again – is just beginning.
And so today I preach not so much in praise of ambiguity but in praise of truth. It is cold comfort, perhaps, but we are followers of truth and truth was in ample evidence Tuesday night in red states and blue. With hardly a single percentage point of shifted balance, we know the work that lies ahead.
Truth is cold comfort, and I recall the words of poet Phyllis McGinley,
“Ah, snug lie those that slumber beneath conviction’s roof.
Their floors are sturdy lumber, their windows weatherproof.
But I sleep cold forever, and cold sleep all my kind,
For I was born to shiver in the draft from an open mind….”
This morning I preach not so much in praise of ambiguity, for if we acclimate to ambiguity, well, what difference does it make what we do or do not do? Ours is not a faith of the wringing hand but of the hand that helps and heals and holds, and fights for truth.
Ours, truth be told, is a nation – yea, a world – deeply divided, wracked by racism, by misogyny, by xenophobia, by crimes against our planet and by unwarranted nationalism and the hubris of homo sapien exceptionalism.
What would have happened had our candidate lost? We would keep fighting for the rights of all people and our planet. And if our candidate won? We would keep fighting for the rights of all people and our planet. Therefore, let us not be collywobbled by uncertainty or ambiguity. Twas ever thus. Let us be witnesses, allies, and accomplices – wheresoever it may lead – of the truth.
THING TWO: Impunity.
I’ve been wanting to preach about this for a long time and, in fact this could be a full-length stemwinder of as sermon. I’ll give you the shortest version. Several years ago, I led the UU Service Committee Board on a human rights mission to Guatemala where we met with those who had survived the genocide of indigenous people by the dictator Rios Montt. We observed efforts to identify skeletons. We heard horrific memories. And, in Spanish, over and over I heard one word repeated: impunidad. The perpetrators of genocide had acted with impunidad, with impunity. To this day, my ears perk up whenever I hear the word impunity…and if you listen for it, you will hear it more often than you might expect.
An editorial in the NYT in October is titled “The Root of Impunity,” and it reviews the ways in which our police often act without accountability and with impunity. Impunity has indeed been codified such that police officers – Black or white – “can’t be fired for abusive behavior or racist misconduct if other officers have committed similar offenses in the past and gotten away with them.” I don’t have time to go into the details of all this. Also in October, Pope Francis issued an encyclical that decries tribalism, xenophobia, and the danger of our social media age, saying, “Things that until a few years ago could not be said by anyone without risking the loss of universal respect can now be said with impunity, and in the crudest of terms….”
When the rights of women can be violated without consequence, we live in an age of impunity. When multi-lateral treaties are abrogated, we live in an age of impunity. When the earth is raped and no one is accountable, we live in an age of impunity. When lies are unchallenged, we live in an age of impunity.
Impunity was on the ballot last Tuesday, but a Biden victory does not assure accountability.
I’ve been trying to think of the antonym to impunity, the corrective, the antidote. If impunity means being untethered to consequences, the antidote is something like Annie spoke of last Sunday: being tethered to the timeless truths and values of our ancestors. The antonym to impunity is something like accountability, like liability, like responsibility.
But, folks, this is a sermon and so I’m going to give you some alternate and explicitly religious terminology: I suggest that the antidote that we must nurture in contrast to impunity is…drum-roll please…faithfulness. We are called to be faithful to those values that lift up and do not denigrate the human spirit. You heard me right: if we are to overcome the age of impunity, we are called to be faithful to the highest values of human worth and dignity, the interconnectedness of all life, keep faith with the fallen, and work for a world of peace and justice for all people.
Meanwhile, I ask you to listen for that word, impunidad, impunity; and I ask you to take note of words and actions that are untethered to truth, and faithless. Faith development is indeed the antidote to impunity.
THING THREE: Idolatry. (Faith? Idolatry? You might get the idea that I actually went to divinity school!)
Remember in the Bible the people had a tendency to worship graven images or statues or idols instead of God, things that were substitutes for that which was most holy. This is a metaphor for what happens today in the worship of success, money, accomplishment, stuff, conspicuous consumption, gold, Trump Tower…you get the idea.
But let me risk my popularity here somewhat and say that lately I’ve heard that “we should count every vote” (and, of course I agree) and that “the vote is sacred.” This is an opportunity for me to again tell the story of the elementary classroom where, for show-and-tell someone brought a duck to school. A live duck. After admiring the duck, one child got curious and asked, “Is this a boy duck or a girl duck?” This not being immediately evident, a Unitarian Universalist child raised her hand and said, “I know how to decide if it’s a boy duck or a girl duck! Let’s vote!” she exclaimed.
My point is that there are limitations to the sanctity of voting. Of course, we cherish the right to vote. But we cannot dispute that money has despoiled the sanctity of voting. We cannot dispute that corporate interests and Citizens United have despoiled this sanctity. This last election was not a contest between Tweedledum and Tweedledee – and we are right to celebrate the women of color and all others who persevered to eke out and salvage some hope for our future – but let us admit that there are many ways in which fundamental change was not on the ballot.
Moreover, much as I love the hurly-burly of politics, we are – come on, people, are we not? – people of faith. We are people who aspire to the realm of the beloved community which is inherently and inevitably above and beyond the politics of what’s merely possible. This First Parish in Bedford is not a subsidiary of the Democratic Party. When we keep our eyes on the prize, we’re keeping our eyes way way beyond the 49.3% vs. 49.4% that currently separates Trump and Biden in Georgia. Folks, we have work to do. And our work will never be finished.
Idolatry is tempting but small; we as people of faith are called to the far-off glimpses and beckonings of the beloved community.
And finally and lastly and then I’m done: THING FOUR: Fear.
On Thursday it was reported in the New York Times. “At a polling station in the New Church of Faith, just outside Orlando, Florida, a woman named Veronica, 35, said she had voted for Mr. Trump because she feared for her freedoms. Moments later, a woman named Dorothy, 45, emerged to say she had voted for Mr. Biden because she feared for her freedoms.
On Election Day in a pandemic, at a time when the national divide seemed more a chasm than a fracture, two voters exiting a church were united at least in the operative emotion: fear.”
So far I’ve had some things to say to you about ambiguity, impunity, and idolatry, and, in their place, I have held up a vision of truth and faith and a reality-transcending beloved community.
Still we feel fear and understandably so. Personally, nationally, globally: our fears are all too real. And there is but one antidote.
“We Must Be Saved,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime;
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense
in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous,
can be accomplished alone;
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite as virtuous
from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love
which is forgiveness.
I ask that you say with me these words aloud:
We are saved by hope.
We are saved by faith.
We are saved by love.
We are saved by the final form of love
which is forgiveness.
We have gathered in pursuit of truth, tethered by faith, beckoned by the beloved community, and always infused by the spirit of love.
Now may we agree in love, for if we agree in love there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; and if we do not agree in love, there is no other agreement that can do us any good.
Amen. Ashe. Blessed be. And may it be so.