“The Sermon on the Amount” or “When Hope and History Rhyme”
Delivered on March 22, 2015
At The First Parish in Bedford, MA
The Rev. John Gibbons
Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
“Genuinely inclusive/Rationally spiritual/Joyfully deep”
— self-description of the
First Unitarian Church in Dallas, Texas
Perhaps you have been looking for a church where:
Your doubts are not ridiculed.
Your guilts are lightened.
Your griefs are comforted.
Your joys are celebrated.
Your children are taught all religions.
Your talents are nurtured.
Your concerns are shared.
Your reason is honored.
Your friendships are deepened.
Your love of art and beauty is expanded.
Your need to serve others is fostered.
Your need to laugh is encouraged.
Your individual decision is treasured.
These are the aspirations of Unitarian Universalist churches.
If they are yours, we invite you to join and help us achieve them.
—Marjorie Achley (UUA)
Human beings suffer,
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
The innocent in gaols
Beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
Stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
Faints at the funeral home.
History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that further shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracle
And cures and healing wells.
Call miracle self-healing:
The utter, self-revealing
Double-take of feeling.
If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
The outcry and the birth-cry
Of new life at its term.
“The Cure at Troy,” by Seamus Heaney
Yes, this is my annual Sermon on the Amount (the amount being the amount of money you and I will pledge to First Parish in the fiscal year that starts June 1) but, more important than what you do I, I think, is what we do. Really, it’s all about what we do.
One thing which a lot of us have now done is to see the movie Selma together. Yesterday more than 150 of us saw that movie together, and more than a few said that they could not have seen that movie alone. “We” is the most important word in our vocabulary.
In a sermon a few weeks ago, I recounted the events of the 1965 voting rights campaign in Alabama that culminated in the police riot called Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and, ultimately, to the passage of the historic (and now much weakened) Voting Rights Act. The movie recounts the murder of the young activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, gunned down by a state trooper in a restaurant while he was trying to protect his grandfather.
And the movie dramatizes the murder of Unitarian Universalist minister Jim Reeb. And the movie also recalls the highway murder of Viola Liuzzo, another UU who came to Alabama from Detroit, saying, “It’s everybody’s fight.”
And so it was that two weeks ago I was in Birmingham with a few hundred UU’s for a conference called Marching in the Arc of Justice and it too was powerful and emotional. Humbled by their sacrifice and graciousness, we met with the Jackson, Reeb, and Liuzzo families who returned to Selma, some for the first time since 1965.
Jimmie Lee Jackson’s sister ended her remarks, saying, “You get yourselves home safe now, OK?” She didn’t say, “Now you stay home safe.”
There were a dozen Reeb’s there, a long way from their home in Casper, Wyoming. Children, grandchildren; I spoke with Marie, Jim’s widow, and John, their oldest son. They were the ones our minister Jack Mendelsohn stayed up with all night when they learned that their husband and father had been fatally attacked.
Viola Liuzzo’s two daughters were with us, proud UU’s who said whenever they visit other UU churches, someone always tells them they know about her mother, thus keeping her memory and passion alive. Viola Liuzzo was driving a march organizer to Montgomery when Klansmen pulled up next to her and shot her. I visited her memorial by the side of the desolate road. Like other memorials a tall fence surrounds it because still the memory of those martyrs is subject to desecration.
From the conference in Birmingham, three times I drove the back roads to Selma. There one night we honored the martyrs and the civil rights veterans, and heard not one, not two, but three sermons – each of them longer than this one will be. MLK’s daughter Bernice preached, as did Obama’s controversial former and nonetheless brilliant minister Jeremiah Wright, and the leader of the North Carolina Moral Monday movement, William Barber.
We sometimes think of the civil rights movement as having been led by Martin Luther King. The movie and the facts say otherwise; there were lots of leaders. That is even more true today, but do remember the name William Barber for his is an astonishing and prophetic voice and he is a leader of what is called a fusion movement, bringing together unlikely allies from the faith community, labor, health, education, LGBTQ and others to defend voting rights, oppose economic inequality, support healthcare and education and fairness in criminal justice.
Barber says we’re in a very hopeful era he calls the Third Reconstruction, a “21st century wave of popular revolt against regressive extremism and disinvestment in the common good.” All three of these preachers burned the house down.
Another day I went to Selma to hear Obama and I sat on a bench not 20 feet from the sidewalk where Jim Reeb was clubbed to death…and there I ate fried catfish and cheesy grits. The mood of the commemoration was determined – there’s so much still to do – but also celebratory. We couldn’t get anywhere close to the President but we did get into the sanctuary of a church (the only integrated church in Selma) where in the sanctuary a TV projected onto a big screen and we cheered and we wept and we took note when Obama actually said the word “Unitarian.” Will wonders never cease? Watch that speech if you haven’t. It may be the very best of his presidency.
And two Sundays ago with tens of thousands we ceremonially crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge (he, you know, was a Confederate general and a grand dragon in the KKK. There’s a movement to rename it, possibly for Jimmie Lee Jackson). I wore this Standing on the Side of Love sweatshirt, which I don’t wear very often, which is why I’m wearing it now. These are my marching clothes!
And in the crush of people, next to me, security guards pushed through, surrounding Jesse Jackson. I shouted “Jack Mendelsohn would be happy today!” and, as he grabbed and shook my hand, Jesse said, “Jack would be very happy.”
And when we crossed the bridge and the crowd thinned, I looked to the pavement and what should I seen strewn about but leaflets from the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, “Save our land, Join the Klan!”
One of the organizers of the Alabama conference was my colleague Gordon Gibson who was among those arrested and jailed in Selma in 1965 and who now leads annual civil rights tours for teenagers and adults – and that’s something else we should be sending people to.
Gordon has just published a book titled Southern Witness and it’s largely an oral history of Unitarians and Universalists in the civil rights era.
We’re getting to the sermon on the amount, by the way, but not yet.
Hstorically, there weren’t many UU churches in the South. We were a New England liberal educated urban thing. But after the war, the south began to change and our denomination had a growth strategy that was called the “fellowship movement.” Without a building, free thinking educated New Englanders (engineers, say, transferred to Oak Ridge or Huntsville or some university town) would meet in a room at a local hotel or library or community college and they’d bring in speakers and they’d put ads in the paper asking, “Are you a Unitarian without knowing it?” And, all across the south and in other parts of the country, too, there got to be a lot of these little, often lay-led, plucky, oases of free thought. In the Bible Belt, you know, Unitarian Universalists sorta stuck out like sore thumbs.
And then at the same time, along comes the civil rights movement. Not only did segregation still prevail but interracial meetings were illegal, de jure and de facto. These white UU’s knew that civil rights was to be the defining issue of the times but what would happen if their fellowship should invite a Black person to be a speaker or what would happen if a Black person should want to be a member?
Repeatedly, UU fellowships would lose their meeting place if they refused to affirm segregation. The Knoxville fellowship had a minister, Richard Henry, and he recalled, “We met in six different locations in seven weeks: the Andrew Johnson Hotel, the Seventh Day Adventist Church, a private school, a theatre. Each Monday following Sunday services, I would receive a phone call, “We’re terribly sorry, you’ll have to move. We’re received complaints,’ etc. I’ll never forget the manager of the Booth Theatre’s telling me: ‘Mr. Henry, I fought in Korea for our Bill of Rights and it makes me feel terrible to tell you this, but my owner called and told me, ‘Get those Unitarians out or resign,’ and Mr. Henry, I’ve got a wife and two little kids.’”
Then and to this day, our Knoxville church has a sign that says, “Everyone Welcome” and people of color came to that church to see if they really meant it. They did and, even more recently, in 2008 a gunman entered the Knoxville sanctuary during Sunday services and murdered two people and wounded seven others because he “hated liberals.”
In the 50’s and 60’s churches and fellowships had to weigh the risk that – if they refused to segregate – their buildings could be bombed, their insurance cancelled, their members harassed or fired from their jobs. There was dissension among those UU’s but often, very often, they showed the courage of their liberal convictions. Typically, UU’s – and sometimes the Jewish community or Mennonites and nobody else – provided the only interracial meeting places.
The Chattanooga church was partially burned and its sanctuary bombed. They’ve got a Steinway piano that was wrecked and was just recently restored and rededicated, its civil rights battle scars are now preserved under Plexiglas.
UU churches started interracial nursery schools, code-named Open Door, and they sponsored Head Start programs which were often seen as a northern federal assault on the southern way of life. To these UU’s, these pre-school programs were seen as an essential gateway to the new reality of integrated public schools.
After the four little Sunday school girls were murdered in 1964 in Birmingham, Ed Harris, then a student for the ministry, vowed for the remainder of his career to have an annual September 15 service of remembrance. At one of those services, his wife Sandra was asked if she had been at the first service in ’64. “No,” she said, “I was at home in case the church was blown up or Edward was killed, so there would be someone to raise our children.”
There was a lot of joy in the movement too. Attempting to integrate a movie theatre in Tennessee, a UU college student recalled:
“Before we went up to the window, we would arrange ourselves in order of skin tone. We would start with the completely White Anglo-Saxon types like myself, and then we’d pick some of us who were maybe just a little swarthy or dark-skinned, maybe somebody of Mediterranean extraction, and then some people of mixed white and black ancestry who had a kind of tan coloration…and so on to the completely black, purely African people….It would be impossible for the ticket sellers to determine just where the line was between white and black, which was, of course, entirely our point – that there is no sharp distinction. People are people.”
OK, now about that sermon on the amount. I’m getting there and you’ll know it when I’m there but listen to this from Gordon Gibson’s book:
“The events in Selma had a major impact on the Unitarian Church of Birmingham. After James Reeb was attacked…he was put in an ambulance to be taken to Birmingham. Phone calls to the church alerted people that the ambulance was en route. Dr. Joseph Volker, vice president for health affairs of the medical and dental colleges, and other Unitarian Universalists on the staff of University Hospital quickly prepared to give the best possible care. In his sermon “Sixteen Days of Crisis…,” (the Birmingham minister) Larry McGinty later described in rich detail the stressors that landed one after another on the church. For two and a half weeks, the congregation dealt with the care of Jim Reeb and those around him; his death; preparation of a public statement by the board about his death; local services memorializing him; the UUA Board and many others coming through Birmingham en route to his Selma memorial service; a ten-minute board meeting that agreed to house, feed, and arrange transportation for an unknown number of Unitarian Universalists coming to join in the final day of the Selma-to-Montgomery march; and handling the arrival, feeding, housing, and dispatch of about 225 people. Church life continued in the midst of this activity. McGinty, accustomed to a carefully prepared manuscript for his sermon, had to settle for outlining it between midnight and 2:00 a.m. on March 14, knowing that the UUA Board and president would be in the congregation to hear it. March 21 was scheduled to include an after-service reception for twenty-five new members who had joined since the first of the year ad an evening fellowship dinner at a restaurant to kick off the pledge drive. (I told you we were getting there!) Police arriving to search the church for bombs shortened the after-service reception and persuaded leaders to move child-care during the dinner from the church building to someone’s home. But it did not keep people away from the fellowship dinner nor keep them from pledging. Pledges went up 45 percent over the previous year’s drive.”
Ding-ding-ding!!! The sermon on the amount!! We’re there!!!
And this year we in Bedford are only looking for 7% more!
But when our espoused values align with our lived values, when we walk our talk, when hope and history rhyme, well, I bet our pledges could go up 45% too.
Folks, I feel a great alignment coming on all over this church. And it gets expressed in so many ways. Last Sunday at the candle stand, Anita Raj told how when her mother was dying in Michigan her 17-year old daughter Kyra sang at her grandmother’s bedside in the last hour of her life…and Anita thanked Janet and our music program for inspiring Kyra. That’s an alignment.
Next Saturday, we’re hosting the annual meeting of the Funeral Consumers Alliance (I’m a member, Tom Einstein is a board member) and we’ll have extra police protection here because the keynote speaker will be Peter Stefan, the Worcester funeral director who cared for the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and who continues to get death threats because he treated Tsarnaev as a human being. That’s an alignment with our values.
Welcome back to Holly Hosmer and Ann Schmalz, just returning from visiting the Unitarian school we sponsor in the Khasi Hills of India. That’s an alignment.
Every time I see someone touch those new handrails on our chancel, my heart skips a beat because that’s an alignment between our espoused value of accessibility and putting up an actual handrail.
Last week I delivered to our Town Manager First Parish’s annual modest PILOT payment – payment in lieu of taxes. That too is an alignment, and I challenge you to find another tax-exempt church that, in recognition of its indebtedness to municipal services, makes a PILOT payment.
There’s even a growing alignment between our having a lot of white faces and our commitment to diversity, because significantly more people of all shades of color call this place their home. And across boundaries of race and class and every other illusion that can be used to separate and divide, we still can and must do better!
In worship, in social justice, in our “green sanctuary” efforts, in religious education, and strategic planning, and sexuality education (you know, that’s the other thing that got those southern fellowships in trouble. Back in the day, they had book discussions of juicy things like the Kinsey Report and, if a few Black faces didn’t convince their neighbors they were communists and degenerates, talking about sex would!).
Of course we’ve got a long way to go, but in everything we do there is a growing intentionality to align our espoused and lived values, to walk our talk, to rhyme hope and history.
On many progressive matters, I even am beginning to see a growing alignment of diverse constituencies across the nation to come together for the common good.
One of the defining issues of our era, for example, is climate justice and I see a growing alignment of scientists and activists and people of faith coming together on this now-or-never emergency where in the past our talk has far exceeded our walk.
Our Social Responsibility Council has endorsed and modestly stipended Evan Seitz, not an outside agitator but an inside agitator who grew up in this church to be our coach and drum major for climate justice. And for the next 3 minutes, please lend Evan your ears.
(Evan Seitz described the work he will be doing with us and invited people to come to an after-church meeting to coordinate Climate Justice activities.)
About a month ago, I visited the First Unitarian Church in Dallas and, on the front of their order of service, they put their self-description (and today it’s at the top of our order of service too): “Genuinely inclusive/Rationally spiritual/Joyfully deep”
I like that. That’s what I imagine First Parish to be and what I believe we usually are. But what I found especially interesting is that in the course of the service in Dallas their ministers referred to it and pretty much dared people to test it out, to see if those affirmations were really true.
I said this sermon is not so much about what you pledge. It’s more about what we do.
William Barber says, “‘We’ Is the Most Important Word in the Social Justice Vocabulary. The issue is not what we can’t do, but what we CAN do when we stand together…. We must STAND together now like never before.”
And so I pledge to you that, not only in matters of social justice but in all that we stand for together, I will do everything that I can possibly do so that this church aligns our espoused and lived values, walks our talk, and rhymes hope and history. This will be challenging for me and for all of us. I dare us to test our values and I dare us to live up to them! This may get me and us in some trouble, and it should. Our work is dangerous and daunting. I’m pretty sure we can still have a good time.
I speak on behalf of our staff, our leadership, our Stewardship Committee and every steward among us.
If we align our espoused and our lived values, if we walk our talk, if we rededicate ourselves such that hope and history rhyme, we won’t have to worry about the amount. The money will be there. I dare us to be generous, not in our pledging (you’ll do the generous thing, I just know it), but I dare us to be generous in our imagining, in our doing, and in our faith.