“Am I a White Supremacist?” – Mark W. Harris
October 1, 2017 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Opening Words – “My People” by Langston Hughes
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Responsive Reading – adapted from “Dusk” by Langston Hughes
Wandering in the dusk,
You get lost in the dusk—
And sometimes not.
Beating your fists
Against the wall,
You break your bones
Against the wall—
But sometimes not.
Walls have been known
Dusk turn to dawn,
And chains be gone!
“Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes (excerpt)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
. . .
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
From The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed the collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents—or, anyway, mothers—know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing. One watched the lives they led. One could not be fooled about that; one watched the things they did and the excuses that they gave themselves, and If a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came. And one felt that if one had had that white man’s worldly advantages, one would never have become as bewildered and as joyless and as thoughtlessly cruel as he. The Negro came to the white man for a roof or for five dollars or for a letter to the judge; the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose, And the Negro knew this, too. When one knows this about a man, it is impossible for one to hate him, but unless he becomes a man – becomes equal – it is also impossible for one to love him.
Sermon – Am I a White Supremacist?” Mark W. Harris
Last spring the Unitarian Universalist Association headquarters exploded. I don’t mean literally, as it was not the subject of some terrorist attack. This metaphorical explosion was within the hierarchy of staff people. Heads rolled, as they say. The UUA is divided into administrative regions, and the lead executive position in the Southern region was open. As it turned out the person chosen for the job was a white, male minister. One of the people who was rejected for the job was a Hispanic non-ordained woman. A friend of hers was upset that once again a white, male minister had been chosen at the expense of a person of color, and she began an electronic media barrage of protest. It worked. The President of the UUA, even though he is Hispanic, soon resigned, in the midst of an escalating controversy over the UUA’s hiring practices and insensitive statements he made in response to charges that those policies reflect and perpetuate “white supremacy” in our liberal but mostly white religious movement. Soon thereafter the executive vice-president, who was my best friend in seminary, and the person in charge of all the regional leads also resigned. Both of these staff resignations were of white, male ministers. After that, some unkind words were hurled around on social media sites, three African American UUs were named as interim co-presidents, and some peace came to the movement at General Assembly, where a new president, who is a woman, was elected. There have since been at least two appointments to executive positions, both African-Americans.
The appointment of black leaders is meant to redress years and years of white administrative control. There were significant numbers of African Americans in Unitarian Universalist congregations until the late 1960s and early 1970s when what has become known as the Black Empowerment Controversy roiled our denomination. Here a coalition that desired a group with black majority leadership and funding was waylaid by two things. First, many liberals would only accept integrated organizations, blacks and whites working together, but in reality affirming continued white control of power and funding, and second the movement was in a financial crisis, and the funding was simply not sufficient to support these programs. It ended poorly, and many African-Americans left the UUA. Much of our Black UU History has been uncovered by my friend and colleague Mark Morrison-Reed. He has an article in the current UU World called “The Black Hole in the White UU Psyche.” Mark says that we once had black leaders that we have failed to remember, and thereby create a self-fulfilling prophecy that we do not appeal to African-Americans.
Not long ago an ESPN reporter called President Trump a white supremacist. He responded by saying she should be fired. While most of us would probably agree with the reporter on this, we would hardly think that the word should be applied to us. In fact, last spring the implication was being made that every white person is a white supremacist. My initial response was, hold the phone. I am one of the good guys. I believe in equality. I have worked for civil rights. I want to see more black leaders. Am I not the one who suggested that the Watertown Police Department was far too white in its make up, and we needed to have black role models. Yet the more I thought about it the more I understood what was meant by white supremacy. While I may not be a member of the Ku Klux Klan or advocate that white people are inherently better than others, I am implicitly involved and uphold a culture of white supremacy in my daily life. It is more than being a recipient of white privilege, which gives advantages of education, and housing, and no one stops my car because I am suspected of something nefarious. White supremacy means that whiteness determines opportunities for wealth and education and location. It determines who runs things and who controls our values of what is right and what is beautiful in our culture. It is why Puerto Rico gets a slower response to receiving help after a hurricane. It is the President saying to those owners of professional football teams, “get those slaves in order, or fire the SOBs.” I believe the players have every right to protest inequality in our country. It is not about the flag or the military. Don’t you know that a disproportionate number of African-American men died in Vietnam? It is about power and authority. Black lives must matter, because they have not mattered heretofore.
So much of white supremacy is how we remember and live out our history. I was an insatiable Civil War buff as a kid and college student. I once knew everything about the war, except what it meant. I purchased a Confederate flag because I thought it was a cool flag, and I hung it on my wall as a college freshman. Down the hall from me there was a freshman from New Jersey named Walter. One day Walter, who is black, came into my room, and was outraged that I had a Confederate flag hanging there. To him it meant that I must have been a Klan sympathizer. He told me how it signified a racist, violent past and all the elements of the oppression of black Americans. Mortified, I quickly took it down. More important I realized how this symbol hurt others. It was more than history. It was a past that continued to be lived in the minds and hearts of many. Here is another example closer to home. Last Saturday at Faire on the Square someone pointed out the brochure about the new town regulation barring the use of plastic bags in local stores. She said a church member who is Hispanic was upset by the graphic image which shows a white Puritan settler shaking hands with a Native American, while both have a bag with a recycling symbol slung over their shoulders, a slight variation on our town seal. The display of a confederate flag by a college student 50 years ago was one thing, but where was the problem here? Of course what the graphic does is portray a myth about the relationship between the white culture that was soon to destroy Native life. Should we change our town seal because it reflects a myth and denies the history of white supremacy?
Moms Mabley was a comedian who I used to see on the Ed Sullivan show. An older black woman, one of her stories begins with the era when they first integrated a lunch counter of the Woolworth’s in a Southern town. A black woman went in, sat down and ordered ham hocks. The waitress replied that they did not serve ham hocks. “All right,” the hungry customer said, “then I’ll have chitlins.” The reply came back that they didn’t serve those either. “well, I’ll be,” the woman said, “then I’ll just take some collard greens.” But unfortunately, there were no collard greens on the menu either. Finally, the woman, in a state of exasperation replied, “this place isn’t ready to be integrated.” They didn’t speak the same language. It reminds me of being with my father when we visited a state in the mid-West, where he tried to order a Frappe at a restaurant, and the waitress looked at him as if he was crazy. There was no such thing in her universe, and he kept insisting because it was what he knew and loved. It was ugly. Too often in the past when we have spoken about diversity or inclusion, or asked the question of why we don’t have more black members, the presumption has been that these new members would come and be like us. We have what’s right for us, and so we believe they can join us, as long as they eat what we eat. These are our standards to live by: We don’t clap in church. We don’t move our bodies, as our former intern Darrick Jackson reminds us in an article in UU World. The point is that if we truly want to grow our faith and practice greater inclusion then we would show some openness to perspectives that are different than our own. We might consider different decision making procedures, adjust our cultural standards, recognize that things are more complex than we think, and finally broaden access to things like jobs, money, voice and visibility. White supremacy is a term that describes the culture we are part of. It is a set of institutional assumptions and practices that often operate unconsciously, that tend to benefit white people and exclude people of color. One of our regional staff, Meck Groot, reminds us that it is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. And if we want to be a liberating faith, and not just a liberal one, we have to address this legacy and see how it is made manifest in our lives, our culture, and our habits.
Our collective memory of the past, and especially that of the Civil War has brought out painful issues. Controversies over the removal of statues of Confederate leaders, representatives of a rebel nation that advocated white supremacy, have surfaced. I had my eyes opened in June with the experience of visiting Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana. It is the only plantation you can visit where the story of the antebellum South is told from the slave’s perspective. Here we each met a child whose imagined likeness is carved into a statue in the Freedman’s Chapel. Your first task as visitor is to find your particular child. I met Mary Ann who never spent a day in school. Her sister was born right in the field of this sugar plantation. And her mother had to go back to work immediately after the birth. Being in New Orleans had already prepared me for this story, as I saw a city square that was once the largest slave market in the country. At the same time I was reading a book called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Its central thesis is one that belies the history I learned as a child. If you were like me you learned that slavery was not economically successful, but was a benign institution that would eventually have died out. That meant that the war was a needless one. But according to this book it turns out that slavery was enormously successful. It was the engine that empowered capitalism, and produced our economy today or what Langston Hughes calls dog eat dog, and mighty crush the weak.
If we all began to believe a myth about why the war was fought, and the role of slavery in that process, we also learned a myth about what was most important to uphold in the national myth. We learned that reconciliation of white brother to white brother was more important than racial justice. White supremacy conquered equality in the stories we learned. The soldierly virtue of devotion, whatever the cause, became paramount in celebration of what became Memorial Day. And the first major statue to be raised in Richmond after the war was that of Stonewall Jackson. They put up an enduring memory of the man who stood like a stone wall at Bull Run, and became a great Confederate hero. Yet the true history is that the first memorial day was a celebration of remembrance carried about by African-Americans in Charleston when they invoked the book of Leviticus and declared the year of Jubilee. Free at last! Many Southerners say their statues represent their history, but their history is a myth. The romanticized lost cause of the Confederacy represented by Lee, Jackson and Davis, most especially at Stone Mountain in Georgia is noble men who fought for noble principles. But the problem is they fought for white supremacy, they fought to uphold slavery. Put the statues in a museum, and never forget that slavery was the cause of the war, and emancipation was its most meaningful outcome. But further, remember that African–Americans played a vital role in that war, more than 180,000 fought in it, and that the abolitionists prefigured our civil rights workers of the 20th century, and were not as Robert E. Lee said, radicals who stirred up sectional hatred while white slave-holders were hurt more by slavery than blacks, who slave holders said were being elevated from barbarism.
It is the abolitionists, and the civil rights workers and our fellow protest marchers today who shout for equality still. I felt compelled to march in mid-August in protest of a neo-Nazi gathering masquerading as a free speech rally, but it turned into a march against the hate speech and actions we witnessed in Charlottesville. We are called to stand up for justice and equality. We hold up those football players who protest inequality and police brutality, alongside those in our history we have forgotten. As many of you know, I have been working on a second edition of my Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Almost two years ago Mark Morrison Reed wrote to me from Des Moines, telling me that he had a “must include” entry for my dictionary: Edna Griffin. She was an African-American civil rights pioneer, who is remembered as the “Rosa Parks of Iowa.” She was raised in the white world of New England, attending the Unitarian Church in Walpole, NH. She moved to Iowa with her husband, a doctor. Seven years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Edna Griffin also said no. It was July 7, 1948, and she was walking down the streets of Des Moines, when she met two young man, who were also members of the Progressive Party. She had recently had a baby girl. It was hot that day, and she and one of the men entered a Katz Drug Store in downtown Des Moines. They ordered ice cream Sundaes, but as the waitress approached the ice cream dispenser, a young man came up and whispered in her ear. She returned to the counter to say to Griffin and her companion that she was not allowed to serve them because of their race. They asked to see the manager. The manger informed them that the waitress was correct, “colored” people would not be served. This small protest resulted in a civil and criminal law suit against Mr. Katz for his discriminatory policies which were in violation of Iowa’s law. Although Katz had managed to uphold a policy of de facto discrimination for decades, Mrs. Griffin was able to construct an image of herself as a veteran and mother, which appealed to the patriotism of the jury. This was patriotic, she said, “to help establish the equal dignity and equal rights of my people.” The result: She won her case on appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.
Edna Griffin was a member of the First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, and later became the first black woman to serve on the UUA‘s Board of Trustees. Her life underscores how we have lost or forgotten black leadership in our liberal religious tradition. Regaining their stories is one way to begin to balance the heritage of white supremacy about what stories we tell. Yet Griffin felt burdened. White church members kept assailing her to inform them of the black experience. She was their teacher. Every question can become personal. In 1971 she began to teach a class at the church to inform whites what being black was all about. Sometimes she felt isolated and lonely, but she wanted the white culture she lived in to accept her blackness. She wrote: ‘If we can give dignity and meaning to blackness, these qualities can unify us, give us togetherness.” A student of mine at Harvard a couple of years ago said that white people tend to be visitors to the struggle for racial justice, who can come and go as they like. People of color reside in the struggle by virtue of their race. It is up to people of color to determine what they find helpful, and what is not.
James Baldwin once wrote, “the white man came to the Negro for love. But he was not often able to give what he came seeking. The price was too high; he had too much to lose.” The question with white supremacy is not whether it exists or not, or even if you and I are white supremacists, it is what do we do with this wall of history that we mythologized, denied or hid behind? Can we break down those walls and be an ally or a friend in a struggle to change an oppressive system that we have known and benefited by, while those we might long to love are shot, rejected and denied. The new minister at First Parish in Cambridge is a young African American man. I recently met him at a minister’s meeting, and he told me that reading my book on class issues convinced him to remain a Unitarian Universalist. We are going to have lunch so I can hear how that occurred. Although we have never achieved it, one vision that is mentioned in that book is of a liberal faith where we embody God’s love for all, as reflections of God’s desire to reunite with all of earth’s creatures who have made painful choices and become separated from one another. This means building a beloved community, despite our differences. Rosemary Bray McNatt, the President of Starr King School writes, “If we cannot bring justice into the small circle of our own individual lives, we cannot hope to bring justice to the world. And if we do not bring justice to the world, none of us is safe and none of us will survive. Nothing that Unitarian Universalists do is more important than making justice real- here, where we are. Hard as diversity is, it is our most important task.”
Closing Words – from Maya Angelou, excerpt from “The Pulse of Morning”
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
The Church Without Walls
The First Parish of Watertown
The Rev. Andrea Greenwood
September 24, 2017
Opening Words: adapted from Henry Beston, The Outermost House
“Nature is part our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery, we cease to be fully alive. …The Pleiades and the wind in the grass are a part of the human spirit, a part of our very flesh and bone, ..and part of what makes us at home in the universe.
Reading from The Home Place: Memoirs of a colored Man’s love affair with nature by J Drew Lanham
This book tells us the story of the life Drew Lanham shared with his grandmother – a woman one generation removed from slavery, who knew all about herbs and healing and lived with one foot planted in the South Carolina clay and the other in the spirit world. In his writing, trees in the forest are so entwined with family trees that it feels like he is describing the exact place where nature and human nature come together.
I hated Sundays then. I came to hate most Sundays because they caged my mind, body and soul into four walls. I couldn’t look beyond my physical discomfort to see that going to church was a kind of social glue. Black folks and church in the south are stuck fast together like cockleburs on a dog’s back. Church for black folks has always been an escape from a week of toil, a place of refuge where the community’s news can be shared. Sunday was one of the few days we could call our own. Back then, though, all I knew was that I hated going to church…. I was pulled from the roaming rhythm and natural worship that truly fulfilled me. A church Sunday meant that God was suddenly confined to something that seemed much less miraculous than the woods and fields where creation was so evident. Inside the church wall, the wind didn’t blow and the bobwhite quail didn’t call, the hawks didn’t soar and creeks didn’t gurgle.
Later, through studying with great people, and reading folks like Aldo Leopold, and EO Wilson – I came to see church as a place with a heart-filled plea to notice, to nurture, to care. Nature and god are the same thing. Evolution, gravity, change and the dynamic transformation of field into forest move me. A warbler migrating over hundreds of miles of ocean and land to sing in the same tree once again is as miraculous to me as any dividing sea.
There is righteousness in conserving things, staving off extinction, and simply admiring the song of a bird. In my moments of confession in front of strangers, talking about my love of something much greater than any one of us, I become a freer me. I am reborn.
I find myself defined these days more by what I cannot see than what I can. As I wander the predawn dark of an autumn wood, I feel the presence of things beyond flesh, bone, and blood. My being expands to fit the limitlessness of the wild world. My senses flush to full and my heartbeat quickens with the knowledge that I am not alone.
Sermon The Church Without Walls
Once, years and years ago now, a child of mine responded to a question on a diagnostic test with the mysterious phrase, “winged migration.” This answer, in its elegant evocation of both flight and return, worked its magic; for the examiner abandoned the test and turned to me, the mother responsible, with a quizzical eye. The child was being evaluated for language skills – clearly vocabulary acquisition was not the issue. But still, she needed some perspective. WHY did he say “winged migration”?
I explained that we had been to the Museum of Science a few weeks earlier, and seen an i-max movies about migrating birds. It was transporting. The entire curved screen and domed room was alive with floating, dipping, soaring birds. It felt as though we were flying with them. Also, although I did not tell this to the test lady, two years earlier, my children and I had witnessed the butterfly migration. On the pre-dawn beach in Maine early in the month of September, five days after my father’s sudden death, my sleepless boys and I had been tracking a deer, when suddenly the grey morning sky, which had just been starting to light up, turned dark, then flashed orange as the hidden Monarchs opened their wings, and set sail over the ocean. When he murmured “Winged Migration” was my son wishing for release; searching his mind for a time he felt free; escaping the only way he could?
I remembered all this when I read recently about an elementary school teacher, teaching his second grade classroom about Monarch migration, because he was preparing to go, with his parents, to the remote, forested mountains of Mexico; the origination and destination point for the butterflies. Dan’s father was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and his mother had recently been diagnosed with ALS, and they thought that the trip, which involves riding packhorses for hours up very narrow trails on a steep mountain deep in the Sierra Madres, might be inconvenient now, but impossible later. Hobby naturalists, his parents had spent decades growing milkweed instead of grass, trying to entice the butterflies to their yard, and for fifteen years had volunteered in the annual Monarch count. This trip was essential. And so they planned.
Part of Dan’s preparation was to watch the metamorphosis in his classroom. He found some tiny eggs in his parents’ milkweed, brought them to school, and observed with the children as the eggs transformed into caterpillars, and then, eventually, the class had two chrysalises; one of which was attached to a book in the corner of the room instead of on the leaf that had been thoughtfully provided. This book chrysalis had a slightly odd shape, and when the butterfly emerged he had a hole in his wing. According to Dan, this deformity endeared him to the children. He said, “I have a video of the kids on the day we released the monarchs. The butterflies were just out of reach, and they were chasing them and calling out “Holey! Holey!” It looked like a church service.”
Well. One of the first things I thought of, after being delighted and moved by this description, was, that does not look like any kind of church service I have ever been to or even heard about, although it does sound like a rapturous experience. Little bits of orange wing flitting about, having materialized out of nothing but some milkweed leaves and time; this seems miraculous enough, but to be recognizable! The children could tell the butterflies apart. They asked Dan – who was amazed that this butterfly could fly at all — to look for Holey when he arrived in Mexico; to keep an eye out for him all those thousands of miles away.
A couple of weeks ago, I traveled just about one thousand miles, to North Carolina, in order to attend a conference where Drew Lanham, the author of this morning’s reading, was speaking about stories in the land; about how our personal sense of meaning is tied to place. Lanham is a scientist; originally his training was in engineering. After three years, he realized that this was not how he wanted to spend his life. He needed to be outside, with the birds. This meant giving up everything – his scholarship money, his status, his standing in his father’s eyes. Following the birds did not sound like responsibility to the older generation. And yet, to some degree, that choice was what allowed Lanham to find security. Birding connected him to his home; even parts of it that had felt once stiff and confining. He was no longer locked away, cut off from anyone or anything arising from that land. Echoes of the apostle Paul can be felt in Lanham’s story – despite any losses, an eternal home, a house not made with hands, was provided for him, and it is a home right here on earth.
Lanham stayed a scientific kind of birder; performing counts and documenting flight patterns, checking off the date and place of each sighting, until after years of studying naturalists and nature writers, he wanted to develop as a writer himself. At our talk in North Carolina, he described himself as perhaps the only black man in South Carolina who would claim Aldo Leopold – an old dead white guy who was a Midwesterner and Lutheran to boot – as his god father, as his mentor. The fact that Leopold dared publicly to love this earth drew Lanham to him, and made him want to write about nature as Leopold did. So he went to a writing conference. On the first day, all the participants were instructed to sit in a circle and share, and Lanham wanted to bolt. He said, “Scientists don’t share. To us, sharing means criticizing; finding the flaws in someone’s work – where there is room for improvement; or places where there is data missing.” He spent the evening working on the assignment, and panicking about having to share the next day. And then when he read from his work, he just broke open. It was as if he was back on the land of his childhood, back home at the time of his father’s death, out in the field studying the birds, and in the room with the other students, all at the same time. His book, The Home Place, was born that day.
Once I read that knowing the wildflowers of an area – not just identifying and collecting them like so many trophies – but really and truly knowing them means that just seeing a well-loved plant can generate an uplift like that of singing an old familiar hymn. This makes me smile, and spurs me on; makes me want to learn more. But this kind of knowledge does not come naturally. It stretches my memory skills; and more than that, requires a willingness to look beyond the lovely aggregate landscape; to sacrifice it and basically disassemble the big, transporting picture in order to see the individual specimens that create such a scene. Yet detailed knowledge of a landscape can provide transport, too. – the Latin names reveal that the clover that seems to be right at home was introduced to us from Italy, so the patch of green out front takes on a Tuscan glow; or that the waxy green pincushion plants above the treeline on Katahdin are native to Lapland. Suddenly the place where reindeer roam is not so far away; not so very different from Maine’s exposed arctic tundra. What Thoreau once said of traveling much in Concord is true. Being immersed in the details of our spot on the planet can carry us around the globe.
Lately the spot I have been immersed in is a church in another town. Bedford is celebrating the 200th anniversary of their building, and I have been studying the architectural plan, the carpenters, and the timbers, hewn from trees blown down in the terrific winds of an 1815 hurricane. In a history of the congregation, the outreach efforts – which include renovations so that they may house undocumented immigrants in need of sanctuary – were described with the phrase, “the church has left the building.” It is a wonderful, and I think correct, image – no church can be contained if the congregation is fully engaged in its mission. Of course, it is also a little ironic, if I am to be discussing the very building they have so faithfully left! But don’t we all need containers to grow in; to be nurtured in, if we are to venture out into the wilds?
Back in North Carolina, Drew Lanham was talking about his area of the planet, and mentioned in passing an area that the Cherokee called the Blue Wall. Never having heard of this before, I looked it up and learned The Blue Wall is the spot where the Blue Ridge Mountains come to an abrupt end; where the elevation drops drastically. It is a half-mile drama of cliffs and gorges and the largest concentration of waterfalls in the eastern half of the United States, many of them hundreds of feet high. Can you imagine this sensory experience? In addition to the visual spectacle, there is the noise of the rushing and falling water; the scents carried on the moving air…. And it turns out that area around this wall; a relatively small geological area, contains more species of trees than in all of Europe, and is the habitat for more than 400 rare plants. Until the English settlers migrated south, forming villages along the native’s ancient trails, this wall formed the eastern edge of the Cherokee’s home. Each new day arrived by rising up over the Blue Wall. In 1776, hoping that the colonists would by distracted by fighting the British, the Cherokee tried to rebel, and reclaim their sacred land. Instead, they were crushed; those who survived were forced west, into Spanish territory, and the land was ceded to South Carolina. The forests were cleared and waterways diverted. Mills, schools, and farms popped up; the wildlife was hunted until it disappeared, and when the natural resources became scarce, the settler’s population boom ended; until slaves were driven into the area, because the cotton gin changed what could be extracted from the land.
This is where Drew Lanham has his roots; this land where so much blood has been spilled. It is a history that might make a person turn away from the place. But it is not really the land that gave birth to this story. It was people, and policies. The land itself nurtured and sustained everybody, even those who suffered there. When I was reading about the Blue Wall, thinking about the Cherokee removal and the history of slavery, I started to feel with Lanham, just cracking apart trying to write about the place that was his home. It is just so much. Everything is there – the devastation and the horror and the injustice, and also everything he ever loved, and lost, too.
In an interview elsewhere, Lanham said that he first noticed birds because they could fly; that he was jealous. This makes it sound as though he wanted to escape, and yet that seems to be the very opposite of what he ended up choosing. He migrated back home. Migration has always been a central part of our collective story – being ejected from Eden, stolen from Africa, blown across the sea because of starvation or persecution, moving west, moving on. But now there is talk that we live in a post-natural world; that human activity has changed the planet so much that we have altered the course of nature, so the exodus we are experiencing is very different. As we have been seeing, some of it is dramatic, with huge groups displaced and moving across international borders; while other experiences are quieter, with smaller numbers moving slowly, edging towards new horizons. But there is no victory for one group at the expense of another anymore. Instead more and more people are forced out of their habitats by disasters – hurricanes, floods, droughts, earthquakes, changes in climate – that are neither natural, nor within human control, even if they are of our own making.
What does this all mean if you are someone whose religious sensibility relies on the natural world? If nature is what grants you a sense of mystery and peace and reverence, what does it mean to be in a post natural world? This week the newspapers report that the Secretary of the Interior is recommending scaling back many national monuments; introducing mining, grazing and logging in areas that were designated as conservation land. We can no longer preserve a wild world that is free from human intrusion; that stands apart from the effects of people. To think about this seemed overwhelming to me; especially because so much of what we hear sounds apocalyptic, and the message I get is to worry more; to repent somehow – or make others do so – that it is up to me to fix this broken world. I end up feeling trapped and powerless, responsible for something far too big, and longing to escape; to fly with the birds; to feel awe and mystery along with my fear.
Yet I also think we do have to think about these changes; to learn as much as we can; to study the particulars – not just because we are responsible for this earth, but because we love it. Drew Lanham wrote, “church is a place with a heart-filled plea to notice, to nurture, to care,” and it seems to me we can’t understand his story without taking note of what we have considered natural, and address that. Nature cannot be an excuse for inequality. It is not natural for some people to be considered inferior, or to categorize some kinds of love as unnatural, or for the devastation of places where poor people live to be seen as an inevitable part of nature. Inequality is a human product; the result of human manipulation. So nurturing the planet means nurturing life for everyone; nurturing more equally and fairly. We need to understand more and fear less, — both about this place we inhabit, and the other creatures who are here with us – because that is the only way forward. Nature as it once was is no more; there is no return to a mythic past. We are all here together.
In Mexico, the schoolteacher Dan did see a Monarch with a hole in its wing. He didn’t quite believe it was Holey, but the possibility was there, so he took a picture for his students. Even if was not their butterfly, though, doesn’t this say something about the amazing strength of even ragged wings? And won’t those students be encouraged; knowing that the creature they nurtured and loved made it all the way across the ocean, and found a home; a house not made with hands where someone cared enough to be looking out for him; to make sure he was safe?
The internal compass that guides the butterflies can also guide us. May it be so.
Closing Words From Janisse Ray
Something happens to you in an old-growth forest….. There’s this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk…- and it is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and are part of all that is ancestral and enduring.
“Truth is Victorious” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – September 17, 2017
Sound Recording of Sermon – copy link into browser
Opening Words (responsive) (Upanishads, adapted)
We gather as a community of memory and hope,
On a journey that carries us from untruth to truth
From ignorance to wisdom,
From animosity to love,
From bondage to freedom.
We rededicate ourselves before this community to affirm and practice truth, wisdom, love and freedom today and in the days to come.
Reading from The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
The other night Andrea and I attended an event at Harvard Divinity School celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Many of us revere Thoreau for the inspiration he provided to today’s environmental movement. We love him for being someone who could at once see both the sacredness in nature, and record its scientific changes. We admire him for following the sounds of his own drummer, living without heed for the conventions of society. One of the speakers at the Harvard event quoted Thoreau’s approach to writing: “The one great rule of composition. . . is, to speak the truth, this first, this second, this third: pebbles in your mouth or not.” His eye was on truth not on the ornaments; reveal your own genius, he said. We hear echoes of: Speak your own truth, live your own truth, and don’t give in to the pressures of an acquisitive society or selfish people who would have you be or become someone you are not. But what is truth? I usually feel like the pebbles that are in my mouth get in the way of expressing or living any definitive truth, especially as a Unitarian Universalist for fear of offending someone else’s truth, or believing there are as many truths as there are people on the planet.
This is exactly the problem in our culture today. We are all pretty confused about truth, and where it is and what it means. One writer feels we have reaped what we have sowed, and tells that story in his book Fantasylands. Kurt Andersen says that America over the centuries has “nurtured a promiscuous devotion to the untrue.” He says we act as though fake news, alternative facts or post-truth are something new, but it has been going on all along, and President Trump is the predictable result of this history. Andersen traces the story back to the Pilgrims and Puritans. He says they developed a sense of self that was infused with entitlement and exceptionalism. Reality was theirs to be custom made. He cites Anne Hutchinson who rebelled from the Puritans as a perfect example of self-appointed prophet. She understood truth better than anybody, or so she thought, and there was no room for self-doubt. Fake news Andersen says, started with the myths about George Washington. He was mythologized as a Greek God like hero who could not lie about the cherry tree, and saved all his boys by praying at Valley Forge. History mostly tells us he lost a lot, and was darn lucky.
There are other aspects to this confusion about truth. We have the birth of conspiracy theorists. We often considered this fringe thinking by nut cases, but after the Kennedy assassination, those who employed reason became the oddballs. But it predates Kennedy. There are those who believe that Roosevelt conspired to arrange the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My biggest shock was when I was walking around a UUA General Assembly display area a few years back, and came upon a big presentation with pictures and video of the conspiracy to blow up the World Trade Center. Did you know our government had planned this? This became a permanent feature of our mental landscape. And the problem is we never denounce these crazy kinds of pronouncements because we always say freedom of speech or people have the right to believe what they want to. Yet deeper than that are the national myths we convey about our history. Perhaps it began with Pilgrims purportedly playing nice with Native Americans, and enjoying a fresh turkey dinner, but it became especially pernicious with the reasons we affirmed for the cause of the Civil War. Somehow slavery became secondary to state’s rights, and white Americans begin to venerate the lost cause of the Confederacy leading to many of our problems with racism today, and the adoration of the flag displaying the Stars and Bars as mere history.
Another American tendency to manipulate truth has been seen in the propping up of magical thinking with scientific truth. While all of Europe gave up the idea of heaven and angels decades ago, the majority of Americans still maintain its validity. We also continue to see stretched claims in concerted efforts to prove that vaccines cause autism. These myths have had to be debunked, and more confusion was created when President Trump put his imprint on the validity of this falsified connection. Even some aspects of playing with truth are evident in our own Unitarian Universalist history. While it is generally not true for us today, heaven and angels were once a belief that predominated among UUs. Many Universalists and some Unitarians backed this in the mid-nineteenth century while embracing spiritualism. They attended séances and spoke to deceased spirits through mediums. When this occurred at such a gathering the table rappings and the like that they heard were affirmed as scientific evidence of truth. Unfortunately, (or not) most of the rappings around the table were hoaxes.
And in our tradition no one stretched the truth more than the circus impresario P. T. Barnum, who was a devout Universalist, who simply loved to fool people, and likewise knew that people seemingly loved to be fooled. This was verified by many of his exhibits at the Barnum museum, none more outrageous than that of the 161-year old nursing “mammy” of the infant George Washington. Joice Heth, was an elderly former slave who told stories about “little George” and sang a hymn, and apparently earned Barnun $1,500 a week, an incredible amount in 1835. His career as a showman took off after this, despite the fact that some doubts were raised about a person purportedly born in 1674. Many outrageous claims and stories followed, including that of a real mermaid. While Barnum probably never said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he more than likely said, “People love to be humbugged.”
You would not think that UUs like to be hoodwinked. Truth has always been claimed as a central declaration of ours. When I served the church in Milton, we recited a late nineteenth century covenant that once was the most commonly used affirmation in the entire association. It said: In devotion to truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God, and the service of all. A variation of this begins: In the love of truth. Our own affirmation says that we will seek the truth in love. Unitarians and seekers once wandered into the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn to find, that while no creed was posted on the walls, a verse from the book of John, chapter 8 was: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Even our principles and purposes have “the free and responsible search for truth.” But what do we mean by truth? The truth in the Bible is that Jesus Christ will make you free. Universalists are sometimes reputed to have followed a truth that you can find on the outdoor chapel at Ferry Beach: God is love. Is that the truth we seek? Is it God or Jesus?
One of the first sermons I ever gave was called “The Blinding Search for the Whole Elephant.” It was based on the Indian story about the blind men who are asked to touch part of an elephant, but then are asked to describe the whole elephant based on the part that they come to know and feel. Of course each is only able to explain their response to that particular part. The one who touches the leg says that elephants are like pillars, and the one who touches the tusk says that elephants are like tree branches. They had experiences of the snake like trunk, and the rope like tail, and the huge leathery body. The idea is that knowing the whole is a mystery, and we can only know part of the larger truth about life. This is a typical response that Unitarian Universalists make to the question about truth. Each blind man represents one religious tradition, and we respect each of their perspectives because none can know the whole truth, and each develops answers dependent upon time and place and culture. There are many truths.
Yet many of these truths found in different faiths are presented as THE one and only truth by others, but Unitarian Universalists refuse to accept any claim to absolutism. We question dogmas because while we believe that you can never know the whole truth, and there are many perspectives on truth, we also know that we are always learning new truths. We typically say in this context, that revelation is not sealed, or as our founder Francis David in Transylvania said, “The reformation continues.” So as life evolves, so too does our understanding of God or the divine and moral truths or understanding. I may believe differently tomorrow from where I stand today. And that is exactly what happened to me. As a young minister I strongly identified as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, but later found in my own searching that I adopted this identification because it was based on the comfortable and comforting traditions of my childhood, but did not correspond with my more humanistic and pluralistic understanding of the world now. So if truth and our understanding of it grows, then it is never static. We might change again. We might say that there are many truths within this room, and even more in the world that are constantly changing. How do we even begin to find some basis for agreement when we espouse so many truths?
I think some of the general anxiety we find in the world is based on the loss of the sense of an agreed upon truth about life. Some years ago Stephen Colbert spoke about “truthiness.” At the time he said, “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist.” Our current political culture has given us a highly emotional and personal quality to truth. Something is true if I want it to be true, or feel it is true. Think of how we characterize President Trump. He invents the truth that satisfies his own sense of what he feels is the truth. He had the largest crowds of all time at his inaugural. Rational facts said that is not true. But his emotional fact to satisfy the needs of his large ego, and to prove himself right, is that he did have the largest crowd. He doubts scientific truths like global warming, but not the self. He also invents fake news, whether it is literally true or not to further his own goal, which is to prove the truth and worthiness of himself, and destroy someone else. Hilary Clinton is deathly ill. Obama was not born in the USA. Of course the ultimate danger in perpetrating fake news is that it will incite others to believe it and then act in response to the hoax. Wild claims of illegal voting lead to investigations that cost the taxpayers even if there is no evidence of wrong doing. So we may accept the irrational claims of someone who manipulates the truth, and we become totally confused as to where the truth lies. Where has truth gone?
We could attack the President all day as an easy target for the manipulation of truth, but the deeper issue is that we need a government we can trust, and not one that creates its own truth. I see a dangerous parallel here to what we sometimes promote as the Unitarian Universalist approach to truth. We usually see ourselves as the ultimate authorities when it comes to verifying what is truth for us. We doubt dogma but not the self, and embrace the truth that satisfies us. No authority but the self sounds like Trump. We often say that we want to be true to ourselves. Ministers who define their calling to this profession often feel they are doing what they are supposed to be doing. My truth is in serving others, or perhaps your meaning in life may be found in traditional success in business, as was true of my oldest son, who opted for burritos and tacos instead. The reading today from Elizabeth Strout’s novel The Burgess Boys is an excerpt about the character Pam, who is the ex-wife of Bob Burgess. Pam thinks about her feeling that she is living the wrong life, having given up the scientific research she enjoyed doing. She has remarried, has kids, and lives in Manhattan, not rural Maine. We hear her ask,” Am I living the wrong life?” Some of us are afraid to ask the question, and others of us reconcile ourselves to the choices we make, or best of all may affirm that we have made happy choices with the truth of profession or relationships we have.
Yet there is a danger of self-satisfaction in what we perceive as the truth we are living by. We may check off the boxes that say I am not making too many excess purchases and thus contributing to wastefulness, and causing environmental harm to the planet, I am volunteering to serve others, I live within my means, and I am trying to be a kinder person to others. I am living a good life, and that truth has set me free. Yet who is making that judgment? You cannot see the world as it is as an objective observer, you can only see the world as you are. For example, I have white skin. When I have interactions with people I do not have to think about the color of my skin. You don’t see the world as it is, you see it as you are, a white person of education and privilege, who lives in a predominately white upper middle class suburb. Your truth is your truth, but it is not the truth.
The truth that will set you free is going to be one that begins to deeply explore others truths in the context of community and relationship. If truth is a product of perceptions and experiences then you need more interactions with others to even begin to catch a glimpse of a broader understanding of truth. But the truth we construct is usually out of our experiences of events. There is a Zen Buddhist story about a wandering monk who passed by the courtyard of a monastery where he heard two groups of monks arguing about the temple flag fluttering in the breeze. “It is the flag that moves,” one group argued. “No, it is the wind that moves,” argued the other group. Back and forth they argued, responding to the logic of the other side, coming up with a new rationale for their respective positions. But it just came down to, “It is the wind that moves, it is the flag that moves.” After listening for a while, the itinerant monk interrupted them and said, “If you look more closely you will see that it is neither the flag nor the wind that moves — what moves is your mind.” One of the keys of Buddhism is to detach ourselves from our truth, so that the way to discover a larger truth is step back from how right you are.
Because our attachment to rightness damages so many of our relationships, we cast blame on others, refuse to accept our own responsibility, and generally end up not being very kind or understanding towards others. The poet David Herbert Lawrence writes:
Search for nothing any more, nothing
Be very still, and try and get at the truth.
And the first question to ask yourself is:
How great a liar am I?
As Unitarian Universalists we teach a faith that does not teach a truth, but rather teaches us to seek truth, to let go of our assuredness not only about dogma, but about other life truths we espouse. We speak freely of using reason, but all heart felt truths are based in emotion, and we humans express deep seated truths in how we cling to family, home and community. These are important loyalties, but they also inhibit us from fully encountering the truths of others. Our task is to see that our minds and hearts are moving, and to be more open to greater loving kindness we must do all we can to keep them moving. A true life is not about our feelings, it is about gathering the feelings of many and building a humane society and a more integrated self. Jan Hus, the Czech priest, who was martyred by the Catholic church in the 15th century for preaching that the cup of salvation should be offered to all, has a memorial in Prague. On it, it says, “Love one another. Always tell the truth.”
Closing Words – from Alice Blair Wesley
Be gathered into communities of love. Find, together, whoat is more meaningful, more loving, more worthy of your attention, and be empowered in devotion to these things. “Seek and ye shall find. Knock and it shall be opened to you. The truth will make you free.”
“Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti – May 28, 2017
From the preface to Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks… devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Excerpts from “The Great Silence” by Ted Chiang
The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe.
But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they interested in listening to our voices?
We’re a non-human species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?
The universe is so vast that intelligent life must surely have arisen many times. The universe is also so old that even one technological species would have had time to expand and fill the galaxy. Yet there is no sign of life anywhere except on Earth. Humans call this the Fermi paradox.
One proposed solution to the Fermi paradox is that intelligent species actively try to conceal their presence, to avoid being targeted by hostile invaders.
Speaking as a member of a species that has been driven nearly to extinction by humans, I can attest that this is a wise strategy.
It makes sense to remain quiet and avoid attracting attention.
The Fermi paradox is sometimes known as the Great Silence. The universe ought to be a cacophony of voices, but instead it’s disconcertingly quiet.
Some humans theorize that intelligent species go extinct before they can expand into outer space. If they’re correct, then the hush of the night sky is the silence of a graveyard.
Hundreds of years ago, my kind was so plentiful that the Rio Abajo forest resounded with our voices. Now we’re almost gone. Soon this rainforest may be as silent as the rest of the universe.
There was an African Grey Parrot named Alex. He was famous for his cognitive abilities. Famous among humans, that is.
A human researcher named Irene Pepperberg spent thirty years studying Alex. She found that not only did Alex know the words for shapes and colors, he actually understood the concepts of shape and color.
Many scientists were skeptical that a bird could grasp abstract concepts. Humans like to think they’re unique. But eventually Pepperberg convinced them that Alex wasn’t just repeating words, that he understood what he was saying.
Out of all my cousins, Alex was the one who came closest to being taken seriously as a communication partner by humans.
Alex died suddenly, when he was still relatively young. The evening before he died, Alex said to Pepperberg, “You be good. I love you.”
If humans are looking for a connection with a non-human intelligence, what more can they ask for than that?
Human activity has brought my kind to the brink of extinction, but I don’t blame them for it. They didn’t do it maliciously. They just weren’t paying attention.
And humans create such beautiful myths; what imaginations they have. Perhaps that’s why their aspirations are so immense. Look at Arecibo. Any species who can build such a thing must have greatness within it.
My species probably won’t be here for much longer; it’s likely that we’ll die before our time and join the Great Silence. But before we go, we are sending a message to humanity. We just hope the telescope at Arecibo will enable them to hear it.
The message is this:
You be good. I love you.
SERMON “Talking to Birds” by Jolie Olivetti
My dad and I like to go bird-watching in the area at least once a year. He goes more often than that, I just don’t always get it together to join him. My eyes and ears scan the treetops, I soak in my surroundings, I try to distinguish one birdcall from another and note the slightest movement.
I’m not particularly good at spotting and identifying birds, but I do completely lose myself in this activity. Though I have no idea what this kid will be like, or perhaps this kid will just think anything that mom is into is dopey; all the same, I hope to instill in my child the same love of nature that my parents instilled in me. It’s also what I learned growing up as a Unitarian Universalist – our seventh principle to respect the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.
I came across an article in UU World that describes the genesis of our seventh principle. At the 1984 General Assembly in Ohio, UU’s gathered to adopt our statement of principles. According to the author of this article, James Ford, the discussion was winding to a close and they were coming to a vote.
Ford describes the events that followed with great drama:
Then the Rev. Paul L’Herrou made his way to the microphones. People who remember the scene say he was lanky and bearded and that he stood at the microphone with the ease of an experienced pulpit minister. He looked around, briefly stroked his beard, and then addressed the proposed Seventh Principle, which was a call for “respect for the Earth and the interdependence of its living systems.” In my mind’s eye, as Paul stood there, the hall fell to a hushed silence. … Out of the silence Paul pointed out how that wording fell far short of what it could be.
Paul proposed new wording for the Seventh Principle: a call to respect “the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” I’m pretty sure, although I have to admit there’s no hard record of it, that with those words the roof blew off the convention center and a host of angels, devas, and other celestial beings from all the world’s religions—past, present, and future—descended from the heavens, some playing instruments of astonishing beauty, while others sang a Gloria that reached out to the farthest corners of the universe.
Why all the spiritual hyperbole here? Because this is a revelation. We are called not just to respect the Earth, but also to understand ourselves as one of its creatures. We are called not just to marvel at the cosmos, but also to find our place in the cosmos.
I’d like to tell you a story, one that I have already told you. I’m hoping it’s ok, because you might not remember it, considering I told it during the first sermon I preached here, in October 2015.
So anyway maybe it’s fitting to come full circle and end with the same story I started with.
I was in Ecuador, studying tropical ecology, and our professor told study abroad class that the only hope for species conservation was to fence people off of the land, creating different sizes of habitat preserves. I raised my hand to ask, is that the only option, we’re just choosing between creating corridors of lots of little human-free zones, or fewer large human-free zones? Isn’t there some model that acknowledges that us humans are also part of the landscape? He said no, we’d long since passed that point, the only influence people have on ecosystems is a destructive one. However realistic that perspective may have been, it bummed me out and seemed to doom conservation ecology to an antisocial corner of the sciences, forever pitting “nature” against “humans.” It also seemed to violate our seventh principle we are a part of the interdependent web.
We had to conduct different experiments in different habitats during that semester in Ecuador. For one of my experiments when we were living in the rainforest, I sat on a rickety old dock for hours at a time, watching russet-backed oropendolas weave their amazing hanging nests – which look like enormous macramé teardrops. I do not remember what my scientific question was – maybe I was asking, aren’t these nests cool? Or maybe it was, can you believe the sound these birds make? My best description is “electronic water droplet.”
Or there was the project when a classmate and I went on walks at twilight, following the paths that lead out from the research station, to look at spider webs. Again, what exactly were we trying to determine? I have no clue. But the webs we saw were utterly breathtaking. Intricate and perfect, stretching across multiple plants, with the sentinel spiders awaiting their prey, the jungle all around us raucous with the sounds of frogs and bugs and howler monkeys who sound like dinosaurs or monsters when they roar. I’m still not sure how we were not eaten by a jaguar while we were staring at spiderwebs. One final experiment I’ll describe to you folks is when we were living on the coast, and I sat high on a cliff along the Pacific Ocean for hours at dawn and at dusk, watching pelicans eat fish. This time I do remember my question: are young pelicans good at catching fish? The answer is, nope, they’re still learning. Not a terribly significant scientific discovery. But the birds and spiders of and all the proliferous life of Ecuador had a very important message for me: it called me to pay attention, to soak in all this beauty, to feel small but still held by this big and wild world. I felt immersed in this abundant life, baptized by it. I felt part of it.
Writer Annie Dillard agrees that listening and noticing are good for the human soul and for the soul of creation. She wrote:
We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.
There’s a difference between thinking our seventh principle is a good idea in theory, and truly experiencing it. Western culture has drawn a bright line between humans and nature, so it can be difficult to take this notion seriously, that we are part of an interdependent web of all existence. When we still our minds and open ourselves to the wonder all around us, the truth of our place in this web can be revealed to us. We don’t have to go to Ecuador and listen to electronic water droplet birds to fall in love with sitting quietly and letting nature flood our senses. We can do it in the park right down the street.
Have you ever gone very quiet down on the banks of the Charles? Have you felt the indescribable wonderment of being entirely surrounded by teeming and pulsing life? In such moments it bowls me over, the bewildering fact that we are here at all. The parrot applauds the radio observatory at Arecibo because it demonstrates our grand aspirations, the incredible lengths we will go to, to get a sense of our place in the universe. The parrot points out that, thanks to Arecibo, we have glimpsed the connection that is the very fabric of universe: the voice of creation that calls to us. Astrophysicists have dubbed the leftover hum from the Big Bang the “cosmic microwave background.” This energy from the Big Bang is always buzzing through the entire cosmos, a phenomenon elegantly reminiscent of “the reverberations of that original “Om” that created the universe according to Hindu understandings. But the parrot challenges us not just to listen across the universe to the sounds of the Big Bang, but to listen to and notice what’s right around us as well.
When we don’t pay attention, when we fail to heed the possibility of communicating with parrots, we miss out on key messages, like that we are just as much of the Earth as all the other beings on it. There is sadness in the story we heard – our narrator parrot contemplates the extinction of its species, that they will soon join the Great Silence, not because of humans’ maliciousness but because we haven’t been paying attention. We’ve forgotten our place in the interdependent web.
My memories of the Ecuadorian rainforest are bittersweet. Being the realist that he was, our ecology professor explained to us that the Amazon we were visiting was less pristine than the one that any previous group of students had visited, and that any subsequent students would be visiting an even further diminished Amazon. One night we stood up in the 200-foot tower above the tree canopy and saw a flame way in the distance – burning off excess gas from the oil extraction operation dozens of miles away. Chevron has been drilling for oil in this region of Ecuador for over 50 years. The Waorani, Kichwa, Secoya, Siona, and Cofán people of the Ecuadorian Amazon sued Chevron for poisoning their water supply, and won – Chevron was ordered to pay millions in damages and clean up the pollution their operation has caused. Predictably enough, Chevron countersued, and the suit has been tied up in court for years. The people continue fighting for clean water. Our narrator parrot explains that humans, perhaps not out of maliciousness but rather out of carelessness, and I would add greed and ambition, pillage these tropical – and indeed all – landscapes. So really, I would not argue against habitat preserves, rather, it appears we need them and we need to reintegrate ourselves with the Earth. We need to follow the lead of indigenous water protectors like the ones in Ecuador, at Standing Rock, and all over the world. We need to heed our seventh principle, because we need to drink water, and eat food, and live on this planet like the creatures that we are.
These are the lessons I take from this parrot: though we may not always remember it, we are indeed part of this Earth and we would do well to walk more gently on its soils. Since this is my final sermon, I’ll take the liberty to draw one last lesson from this story: we ought to say a good goodbye, like Alex the famous parrot’s last words to his researcher. Mark loaned me a book to use in a small group ministry I led here, and it includes a section on “blessings.” Here is what the authors of this book have to say about goodbye:
The most common blessing which we all participate in (often unknowingly) is the English “good-bye,” which is a contraction of “God be with you,” a reminder that we are held in mystery throughout our lives… There is something so especially fraught about partings that our language-molding forebears felt the need to give blessings, and we feel a need to keep saying them, even if we are usually unconscious of their full meaning.
So, just as we may be unconscious of our part in the interdependent web of all existence, we don’t usually think of “good bye” as the miniature prayer that it is. Indeed, it is the blessing of being part of the interdependent web, the blessing of our connections, that beg us to relish our time together, and say a good goodbye when we must. Let us mean it as a blessing when we say goodbye. I for one really like that parrot’s last words: “You be good, I love you.”
CLOSING WORDS “Morning Poem” by Mary Oliver
Under the orange
sticks of the sun
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again
and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands
of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails
for hours, your imagination
And if your spirit
carries within it
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.
“Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front” by Jolie Olivetti, May 21, 2017
“To Savor the World or to Save It” by Richard Gilbert
I rise in the morning torn between the desire
To save the world or to savor it—to serve life or to enjoy it;
To savor the sweet taste of my own joy
Or to share the bitter cup of my neighbor;
To celebrate life with exuberant step
Or to struggle for the life of the heavy laden.
What am I to do when the guilt at my bounty
Clouds the sky of my vision;
When the glow which lights my every day
Illumines the hurting world around me?
To savor the world or save it?
God of justice, if such there be,
Take from me the burden of my question.
Let me praise my plenitude without limit;
Let me cast from my eyes all troubled folk!
No, you will not let me be. You will not stop my ears
To the cries of the hurt and the hungry;
You will not close my eyes to the sight of the afflicted.
What is that you say?
To save, one must serve?
To savor, one must save?
The one will not stand without the other?
Forgive me—in my preoccupation with myself,
In my concern for my own life
I had forgotten.
Forgive me, God of justice,
Forgive me, and make me whole.
by Dr Yolanda Pierce
Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.
Let us not rush to offer a band-aid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.
Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.
Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.
Let us not rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child… someone’s beloved son.
Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.
Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.
Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.
Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground.
Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.
From “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” by Audre Lorde
“My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also.
Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; Anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation.
My anger is a response to racist attitudes and to the actions and presumptions that arise out of those attitudes. If your dealings with other women reflect those attitudes, then my anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth. But for corrective surgery, not guilt. Guilt and defensiveness are bricks in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures.
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
SERMON “Let Go of Guilt, Put Love Out Front”
Last Sunday, I was on the bus getting shuttled from City Hall back to Fields Corner where the Mothers’ Day Walk for Peace had begun. I recognized the woman who I invited to sit beside me from previous years’ walks, but I had never really met her. She introduced herself and asked if I had lost someone – meaning, had I lost a loved one to homicide, was that why I was there at the walk? I told her I was there as a supporter. She said nothing. I asked her if she was honoring anyone at the walk, and she showed me the two buttons she wore – two of her sons were murdered. Also, three of her nephews – her sister’s sons. The bus rolled off City Hall Plaza and eventually we made our way onto the expressway. We passed billboards and navigated traffic in the rain and wind. I asked, tell me about your sons, what were they like? Her eyes lit up: “They were wonderful. They were amazing.” She showed me pictures on her phone. Pictures from a different peace walk, one that she organized in Upham’s Corner for 11 years. Pictures of her at a breast cancer walk, since she has also lost family members to breast cancer. She showed me pictures of newspaper clippings about her peace work. She told me about a place where she feels great peace, where she embraces forgiveness – at the four different prisons where she regularly works with people who are incarcerated for murder.
As I listened to her story, did I feel guilty that I’ve led a life with so much less loss than this woman? Yes. This word privilege is so loaded and so inadequate. As I sat next to her, I felt like my relative affluence and my whiteness glared like a neon sign, since I am so protected from the effects of a system that I ultimately benefit from, the very same system that means she as a working class immigrant woman of color is subjected to so much loss and violence. I felt guilty that my family, my circles of friends are shot through with vastly fewer holes than hers.
Did I feel guilty that I wasn’t sure what to say as she spoke about her unimaginable losses? Yes. People usually don’t want you to tell them you think they’re strong or brave, because they don’t want to be strong or brave, they would rather have their loved one back, or not have cancer. So I didn’t say much, just listened and asked questions and expressed my sorrow. And I sat with these guilty feelings that bubbled up in me, and then let them go, and made room for love instead. I made room to witness her story and be humbled by it, to feel grateful for what she was teaching me.
When I first started working at ReVision Urban Farm and homeless shelter in Dorchester almost 10 years ago, it was much harder for me to get past the guilty feelings. I didn’t even always realize I was feeling guilty when I’d act defensive or pretend to be someone I am not, trying to hide or downplay my relative privilege when I was talking to shelter residents or my coworkers. I would trip all over myself to say I had bought my clothes at the thrift store or to seem like I was a “good” middle class white person. I soon learned that everyone read me for exactly who I am and no one was judging me unless I was pretending. All my embarrassment and need to apologize threw up a wall between us. I realized that the point was not to feel guilty for being who I am, but instead to just be grounded in myself so we could all enjoy one another’s company while we ran a shelter and grew vegetables together. Guilt is a barrier to relationships; guilt gets in the way of the possibility that we can work together to break all these patterns that benefit some at the expense of others. If I’m too busy feeling guilty, I miss out on the fact that my humanity is wrapped up in everyone’s humanity. Guilt robs me of the knowledge that my own liberation is at stake too. We don’t work for change for other people, but for all of us.
I wanted to preach about guilt this morning because this is a common response to bringing up the topic of racism and white supremacy, in any setting, including at church. And I talk about this stuff a lot, in a lot of different settings, so I am wary of giving off the impression that I enjoy making all of us white folks feel bad about ourselves. I don’t. I recognize that it’s sometimes a byproduct, for myself as much as for anyone else. But it’s never the point to make anyone feel guilty. Also, this topic is timely because there is a lot of upheaval in the leadership of our Unitarian Universalist Association right now, in the wake of people calling out a persistent pattern of institutional racism, and as a result almost 700 UU congregations all over the US have agreed to devote their morning worship to learning about white supremacy and racism in the past month.
It’s often said that UU’s don’t “do” guilt. Don’t we, though? The paradox of our faith tradition is that while we reject original sin and we insist on the inherent worth and dignity of every person, we also sometimes leave our church buildings feeling worse than when we came in. We hear about an issue during the service, or during social hour, an issue like climate change or poverty or violence, and we are guilt-stricken, wondering whether we are doing enough, despairing that we can never do enough. Unlike, for example, Catholicism with its rituals for admission and absolution of sin and guilt, us UU’s recoil from words such as “sin” or “guilt,” but still we find ourselves steeped in culpability and disappointment at our inevitable human failings.
When I was an intern at the Peace Institute I learned an activity to talk about feelings. The activity is called “Feelings as Messengers,” and the basic premise is that it’s really important to feel our feelings because they often have crucial messages for us. If we are feeling angry, it might be because someone has crossed the line, has stepped over a boundary with us, and so we need to reestablish that boundary. If we are feeling sad, it often means we need some time to grieve and let go of something, to nurse a loss.
What about guilt? What message might it send?
According to Audre Lorde, in the piece I read from earlier, guilt can be a wake-up call, an uncomfortable but sometimes necessary starting point to transformation. Lorde writes, “Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.” To me, this passage means we have to face the great wrongs of our society and the anger of those who have been wronged, even if it makes us feel terrible at first. Instead of avoiding or ignoring these wrongs, let us be unflinching as we learn about them. We learn about oppression not because anyone benefits from our guilty feelings and our urge to apologize, but rather because knowledge is power. Ignorance is bliss only for those of us who have the luxury of choosing ignorance.
Perhaps something that can help us heed the messages that guilt is trying to send us is to not harbor the illusion that we are innocent. I sometimes catch myself feeling surprised that I’m not pure and exceptional. “But I’m one of the good ones!” I want to protest when I learn how racism is not just interpersonal but instead a widespread system of dominance and oppression that I am unwillingly complicit in as a white person. If I can let go of the idea of my innocence, then it’s easier to wrestle with the guilty feelings rather than be afraid of them and get stuck in them.
James Cone, the great Black theologian, speaks of the “myth of American innocence.” It’s true, we imagine we’re the good guys. The version of American history I was taught in school holds that the American experiment perhaps made some mistakes in the past but good progress is inevitable because we are the protagonists, this nation is ultimately noble and pure at its core. Trump winning the election threw into stark relief that we are not free from white supremacy. The litany that the group read to us earlier put it this way: we still “sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.” Not only is there now tacit permission to express outright bigotry the likes of which many of us have not witnessed in generations, but also we are reminded that this country was built on a particular narrative about whose lives matter and whose do not, and still, 400 years later, we have not yet replaced that story with a truer, more human one.
Victoria Safford, a UU author and minister, wrote an essay on Universalists that addresses the contradictions in Universalism – how can we all be good and yet still cause each other such harm? Safford wrote, “the early Universalists did believe that every person is redeemable, salvageable, possessed of worth and even dignity no matter what.” Safford qualifies that this is not because humans are faultless but rather because God is infinitely forgiving. She goes on to explain, “They held that we are punished not for our sins but by them, every day; that in the soul something shrivels, disintegrates, and starts to die when we collaborate with evil. Our wholeness, our holiness, is torn; our spirit becomes sick.”
If that’s the case, if we are punished not for our sins but by them, if something dies in us when we collaborate with evil, however unwillingly or unwittingly, then our souls call us to go right towards our failings rather than recoiling from them. We prayed the litany this morning not in order to make ourselves feel bad, but because we need spaces for lament in our worship, we need to cry out in anger and in anguish, we need to name what is wrong even if it hurts. Facing this evil together, lamenting it together is a tool in our spiritual quest for dealing with guilt and seeking wholeness.
As I come to the end of this sermon, and to the end of my internship, I want to say that we do good work, holy work at this church.
We take care of one another, because we care about one another. We do social justice work because we care about our community.
It can be hard to take a look at ourselves and say, yes we have beautiful intentions and yes we do good work, but to still ask, how can we truly honor our banner that says, Black Lives Matter? How can we truly honor that rainbow flag that flies on Church Street? How can we live into our affirmation that love is the spirit of this church, and service is its law?
This is what it means to put Love Out Front, the other half of my sermon title and the name of the Social Action Committee’s initiative to talk about anti-racism as a church.
It means that we are not afraid to ask hard questions and listen to the messages that guilt sends us. It means we are not afraid of guilt because the benefits of understanding the roots of oppression far outweigh the cost of discomfort. Putting Love Out Front means we believe we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality that calls us to face all the harshness of reality, to witness others’ pain, and to keep on a spiritual quest for wholeness.
It is my prayer that the First Parish of Watertown continues this work, taking it on and making it your own, as though all our lives depend on it, because they do.
From “A Brave And Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines
When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every [person]
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear
When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.
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