“The Anvil Sermon: Thoughts About Resistance, Persistence and Imperfection”

“The Anvil Sermon:
Thoughts About Resistance, Persistence and Imperfection”
A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
Delivered December 9, 2018
At The First Parish in Bedford


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“For all your days be prepared, and meet them ever alike
When you are the anvil, bear – when you are the hammer, strike.”
—Edwin Markham



I originally planned to deliver this Anvil Sermon earlier in the fall. It turns out that my perspective since has changed somewhat; actually quite a bit; and so I hope you bear with me as I will end up in a quite different place than where I begin.

These days I’m feeling quite hammered by politics, by the state of our country and our world. Charles Blow is a New York Times columnist I admire and recently he wrote that he believes we’re not reaching the end of a nightmare but rather we are entering one. “I expect Trump to admit nothing,” he writes… “I also don’t think that Trump would ever voluntarily leave office as Nixon did…I’m not even sure that he would willingly leave if he were impeached and convicted.” Think about that!

(There’s a very scary article in the current Atlantic about “What the President could do if he declares a state of emergency.” Be afraid, be very afraid.)

Blow goes on to say, “I don’t think any of this gets better. I don’t believe that Trump’s supporters would reverse. I don’t believe that the facts Mueller presents will be considered unassailable.”

“This will not get easier, but harder.”

“The country is about to enter the crucible,” Blow concludes. “This test of our republic is without a true comparison. And we do not have a clear picture of how the test will resolve. But, I believe damage is certain.”

As I say, I feel hammered.

And that’s why, when I first read them earlier in the fall, I resonated with the words and deeds of the Catholic Bishop of Münster in the Rhineland during Nazism. The Nazis made plans to euthanize all mentally and physically challenged children and adults throughout Germany and occupied territories.

Bishop Clemens August Von Galen urged his people to take all such children and adults out of church-sponsored schools and institutions and to bring them into their homes or hide them in their barns, to give them sanctuary.

In a famous sermon on July 20, 1941, Von Galen urged Catholics to resistance:

“At this moment we are the anvil rather than the hammer,” he said. “Other men, strangers, renegades, are hammering us…Ask the blacksmith and hear what he says. The object which is forged on the anvil receives its form not alone from the hammer but also from the anvil. The anvil cannot and need not strike back: it must only be firm, only be hard! However hard the hammer strikes, the anvil stands firmly and silently in place and will long continue to shape the objects forged upon it. If it is sufficiently tough and firm and hard, the anvil will last longer than the hammer. The anvil represents those who are unjustly imprisoned, those who are driven out and banished for no fault of their own.” In these hammered days, we too are called to be as solid as the anvil, that the world not change us.

You know, there’s a UU church in Chicago that in the 19th century was founded by a man named Robert Collyer. He was a prominent social activist and reformer, a colleague of Jane Addams. But before becoming a minister he was a blacksmith. In 1871 there was the Great Chicago Fire which killed hundreds, burned 3½ square miles, and left 100,000 people homeless. The fire destroyed Collyer’s church and his home. But his anvil survived! After the fire, he offered to take no salary but to earn his living “at my anvil.” So to this day, Collyer’s anvil sits prominently on the church chancel and their newsletter is called The Anvil.

The anvil is a metaphor for resistance and what we are called to be and do in these bleak times.

But then I did a bit of research about Bishop Von Galen. It turns out that, although he resisted the rounding up of the disabled, he cared much less about the rounding up of Jews. For him, it was OK to round up Jews and send them to the concentration camps.

This fall, at one of our Jericho Walk protests at ICE headquarters in Burlington, I read that excerpt from Von Galen’s “anvil sermon,” and then happened to march alongside a rabbi. I told him of Von Galen’s anti-Semitism, to which he shrugged and allowed that looking for saints is probably a fool’s errand.

Another of the saints of the Nazi resistance was the Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller. You recall it was he who famously confessed:

First they came for the communist, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Popular as those words are today, Niemoller – it turns out – gave wholehearted support for Hitler during his climb to power. Niemoller voted for the Nazis in 1924 and again in 1933. It wasn’t until much later that he became disillusioned by the Nazis and was arrested and sent to concentration camps; but even after the war he continued to express anti-Semitic opinions. It was not until the 1950’s that he composed his famous confession.

While it is disappointing to learn of Von Galen’s and Niemoller’s inconsistencies, my rabbi friend is correct that it is usually discouraging to worship saints. And yet, in Niemoller’s case, we can celebrate the hopeful fact that – despite all our ingrained prejudices – it remains possible for us – even us – to sometimes or eventually change our minds.

We ought not be deterred by our inconsistencies and our imperfections. Would that we give ourselves and one another permission to be human.

But back to the anvil: what is our hard hammer-resisting anvil? Were this a more orthodox church, you can bet the anvil would be God, or Jesus, or scripture; and, thanks to the internet, in recent days I’ve actually listened to a few such anvil-thumping sermons. I have forged no new faith in orthodoxy.

So, I ask, what might be our Unitarian Universalist anvil? I used to think that our seven UU Purposes were sort of blah blah soft, mundane and ordinary. Let’s read them together; they’re about four pages into our hymnal.

“We covenant to affirm and promote”…

• The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
• Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
• Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
• A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
• The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
• The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
• Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

I used to wonder who could possibly disagree with any of that. Now I know that there are a great many people, some of them in very high places, who not only don’t believe a word of them, but actually mock and trample and work to thwart and disempower each and every one.

Those words are not blah-blah soft, mundane, or ordinary. They are more like a powerful anvil. They will outlast many hammers, and on that radical foundation, a new world yet may be forged.

But now here comes the part where you’ll need to bear with me. I believe every word I’ve said so far BUT I’m kind of tired of all this blacksmithing: hammering, being hammered, forging, stoking that white hot iron-bending hammer-and-tong-resisting fiery furnace. I want to step away from the anvil. I need to mop my brow and take a break.

Michelle Alexander is the author of the very important book, The New Jim Crow which documents the persistence of racism in our nation and slavery-by-another name. Elsewhere in her writing, she also makes the case that “Donald Trump is the real resistance. We are not.”

She proposes a different metaphor, and quotes black scholar Vincent Harding who said that the freedom struggle is “like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters, all too often streaked and running with blood.”

Alexander then says, “Trump’s election represents a surge of resistance to this rapidly swelling river, an effort to build not just a wall but a dam. A new nation is struggling to be born, a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters.”

Yes, of course, she says (I’m paraphrasing her), we must resist the horrors we witness. But resistance is not all that we’re about. Marchers in the freedom struggle sang, “We Shall Overcome;” they did not chant “We Shall Resist.” Their goal was to overcome a racial caste system, to end it, and to create a new nation, a Beloved Community. Those who opposed slavery were not resisters; they were abolitionists.

And this is Michelle Alexander’s conclusion:

“Today, many of us in the movements to end mass deportation and mass incarceration do not want to simply resist those systems. We aim to end them and reimagine the meaning of justice in America. By the same token, many of those who are battling climate change and building movements for economic justice understand that merely tinkering with our political and economic systems will not end poverty or avert climate disaster, nor will mere resistance to the status quo. As the saying goes, ‘What you resist persists.’ Another world is possible, but we can’t achieve it through resistance alone.”

So, as I bring this sermon in for a landing, this is where you’ll really have to bear with me. Yes, let’s hold to our Purposes as to an anvil, but for a while at least, let’s step away from the anvil and take off our smithy apron, give up on the veneration of saints, give permission to be human, accept our imperfections, and not solely define ourselves by resistance. Then to what may we aspire?

I return once again to the Beloved Community. I return once again to this liberating flame, and to those four candles of hope, love, joy, and peace.

You didn’t think you were going to get a holiday sermon, did you? But you are.

I suggest that over the next weeks – and beyond – that we renew our hopes and aspirations and practice of being a Beloved Community. Within these walls – and beyond, with our families, our friends, and certainly, importantly, with strangers.

There’s a Celtic mystic named John O’Donohue whose writing I like. He says he “can’t believe in any of this stuff about creating community. I think the whole project of trying to build community is misplaced. I think community is. It is ontologically there. “So,” says O’Donohue, “the project is more about awakening.”

When you talk about building community, you see, pretty soon you’re swinging hammers on anvils, getting hot and working up a sweat.

For O’Donohue, community is something that is remembered, or revealed, or awakened in us because we are already, he says, “dangerously involved with each other in an incredibly intimate but unseen way.” That’s what it means to be human. Community just is. We are each connected to every other thing.

Community, for O’Donohue, is about love awakening in our lives. “In the night of your heart, it is like the dawn breaking within you. Where before there was anonymity, now there is intimacy; where before there was fear, now there is courage.”

These holidays are an invitation for us to remember and to feel our connection to one another and to all that is. This is a time not to fear nightmares but to dream dreams. Hope, love, joy, and peace are ours if we awaken to them, if we remember. Be intimate. Have courage.

May we each remember that we are inherently born into the Beloved Community. We need only remember. A new world is struggling to be born.

We’ll hammer and get hammered back at our anvil soon enough.


Closing Words:

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.

Take Heaven.
No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant.

Take Peace.
The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy.

Take Joy.
(Fra Giovanni)