Election Sunday – November 6, 2016
First Parish of Watertown – Cody Urban with Mark Harris
Opening Words – from Rebecca Parker
In the midst of a world
marked by tragedy and beauty
there must be those
who bear witness
against unnecessary destruction
and who, with faith,
rise and lead
with grace and power.
There must be those who
and do not avoid seeing
what must be seen
of sorrow and outrage,
There must be those whose
grief troubles the water
while their voices sing
There must be those
rises with lovely energy
There must be those who
are restless for
respectful and loving
companionship among human beings,
whose presence invites people
to be themselves without fear.
There must be those
who gather with the congregation
of remembrance and compassion
draw water from
and walk the simple path
of love for neighbor.
There must be communities of people
who seek to do justice
love kindness and walk humbly with God,
who call on the strength of
and bless life.
There must be
“The True Unbelievers” by Christopher G. Raible
The true unbelievers of our time are not those who do not go to church – they are those who do not go to the polls.
To vote is to perform a religious act.
To vote is to pray, that is, to express hope for the future notwithstanding the uncertainties of our days.
To vote is to affirm that we have power as individuals to influence the state of society and the course of history.
To vote is to join with others across the continent in a common ritual expression – an exercise in liberty.
To vote is to trust that our collective judgment as a people is in the long run better than the dictates of any one of us.
To vote is to testify our faith that the good and the true are most likely to emerge and prevail in the free marketplace of diverse opinion.
To vote is to commit ourselves to be participants rather than spectators despite the deficiencies of the candidates, the distortions of the truth, and the inadequacies of our individual judgment.
To vote is to believe – not blindly or gullibly – that we live in a world which is ours; it is strengthened by our service, brightened by our sharing, bettered by our presence.
To vote is to act – to take a chance, to take heart, to take hold.
To vote takes time, takes trouble, takes trust – it may seem easier and safer not to bother and not to believe.
To vote is to have convictions, and to have courage. We only continue as a “land of the free” as we are also a “home of the brave.”
Election Sunday – Mark Harris
It is election Sunday. When this ancient parish was first gathered preachers typically gave election sermons. Those were addresses intended to convince their parishioners whom to vote for. With the separation of church and state, I cannot implicitly say who to vote for, as that would violate a basic principle of our country. BUT, it may be obvious whose values most clearly reflect those beliefs I hold most dear.
Many people have been disturbed by the level of discourse during this election season, and we fear the outcome like never before. There have been many vicious exchanges and outrageous statements, but they have not occurred without precedent. When Andrew Jackson faced off against John Quincy Adams in 1824, the candidates hurled out many a disparaging word. Harriet Martineau used to tell a story about a New England Sunday School teacher who after she had told her students about Cain and Abel, asked one pupil to tell her who killed Abel, and he answered “General Jackson.” This is a reminder of our current election, where the electorate is always ready to believe the worst not only of our candidates and leaders, but of each other. We have lost much in terms of civil behavior and respect for one another with angry accusations of deception and lies that often have no basis in fact other than the unfounded venom of the accusers. Our leaders should help shape respectful behavior among the electorate, but they have not.
In June my family visited Nashville, Tennessee, and as part of our trip we toured The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson. As I have implied, we can see parallels with Jackson and this 2016 election. He was a populist who ran against the establishment in Washington. He considered himself a man of the people who appealed to angry voters who feared that a political elite wanted to control them, and destroy their way of life. They wanted their freedom. Yet if Jackson was a man of the people, he only represented some of the people. He was a rich plantation owner, who held many slaves in bondage, whose dwellings places are now restored for tourists to visit. He is also remembered as the President who initiated the infamous Trail of Tears, where Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and herded to the West, with many dying along the way.
You may see parallels today in the incursions on sacred Native American lands in North Dakota where a proposed oil pipeline has been challenged by demonstrators who see it as an environmental and cultural threat. In this election confrontation some Americans have affirmed their absolute freedom, and that freedom has seen expression in the extreme and disturbing narcissism of one candidate. Other Americans affirm a vision of moral egalitarianism. They believe in welcoming the stranger, the hurt, the minority in a land where everyone is equal and deserves to be treated fairly. This belief implores us to extend a hand of kindness to all those who have historically been denigrated or denied rights. We have long been a nation that has tried to balance these sometimes conflicting beliefs in freedom and equality as each side claims their own interpretation of our civil religion. Today these divisions seem stronger than ever.
On Tuesday, we will exercise the most sacred rite of our democratic civil religion when election day occurs. Voting is an act that reflects our basic belief that we have a voice in how our nation should be governed, and it also reflects hope that we can have a positive impact on our society. We try to keep hope alive with our ballots and with our bodies, as there are other ways to exercise our duty as citizens of the nation besides voting. Among these is free speech, and the right to advocate for a cause, or demonstrate against actions and laws that we perceive as unjust. One of the oldest Hebrew religious directives is to do justice. Citizens are still challenged to question political institutions, parties and candidates because we expect to create a society with enduring moral standards to live by, and thus the political nearly always has religious implications when we take seriously the simple instruction to love our neighbors as ourselves. When human rights are violated on the streets of our cities, or our environment is threatened with desecration, then many see it as their religious duty to speak out against threats to people and to the planet, so that we together would help build a safe, peaceful and just world for all.
Cody Urban is a young man who is deeply concerned about what kind of planet his generation will inherit. He is the son of Guy Urban and Charlyn Bethell. He grew up in our church, and is a graduate of our Coming of Age program. He is a member of the Portland (Oregon) Rising Tide Climate Justice Action Collective. He is often engaged in civil disobedience and direct action to bring about social change. He almost failed to be here because he was arrested as a result of a recent action, and it seemed likely he would have to make a court appearance in the state of Washington. He is just back from a six week trip to Palestine, and he also made a trip to the Philippines last summer. Both of these trips were related to his commitment to protest violence that is inflicted upon minority populations by governments. For work, Cody has been a special education teacher. Today we will hear how he acts on his religious principles as a Unitarian Universalist, resulting in a commitment to social change which inspires him to help create a just society.
“The Future Says,” by Nick Drake
I know you are busy with your colorful lives;
I have no wish to waste the little time that remains
On arguments and heated debates;
But before I can appear
Please, close your eyes, sit still
And listen carefully to what I am about to say;
I haven’t happened yet, but I will.
I can’t pretend it’s going to be
Business as usual.
Things are going to change.
I’m going to be unrecognizable.
Please, don’t open your eyes, not yet.
I’m not trying to frighten you.
All I ask is that you think of me
Not as a wish or a nightmare, but as a story you have to tell yourselves –
Not with an ending in which everyone lives happily ever after,
Or a B-movie apocalypse,
But maybe starting with the line
‘To be continued…’
And see what happens next.
Remember this; I am not
Written in stone
But in time –
So please don’t shrug and say
What can we do?
It’s too late, etc, etc, etc.
You are such strange creatures
With your greed and your kindness,
And your hearts like broken toys;
You carry fear with you everywhere
Like a tiny god
In its box of shadows.
You love festivals and music
And good food.
You lie to yourselves
Because you’re afraid of the dark.
But the truth is: you are in my hands
And I am in yours.
We are in this together,
Face to face and eye to eye;
We’re made for each other.
Now those of you who are still here;
Open your eyes and tell me what you see.”
Sermon “Principles for a Planet in Crisis.” Cody Urban
There is a message calling out to us from across the northern plains of the United States. It is a message so simple in its form yet so significant in its delivery. This message at once affirms the truth of what we take for granted while challenging us to absorb the true depths of the emergency it emanates from.
Water is life.
This message flows from the epicenter of one of the greatest and most desperate fights for people and planet of my generation – the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. As I speak, thousands of courageous individuals are placing their bodies in front of construction equipment and military weapons to stop construction of what indigenous peoples across this country have named “The Black Snake”, oil pipelines and fossil fuel infrastructure, taking the form in this case of the monstrous Dakota Access Pipeline. Hundreds have been arrested. Countless have been injured. All have endured the loss of their comfort, their safety, their very human dignity.
And yet, they remain. They remain because water is life.
For these brave water protectors, this message drives them to protect the Missouri River from an inherently volatile pipeline. Yet, this message transcends spatial and circumstantial narratives. As it calls out to us, how do we respond?
We stand on the stage of a planet in crisis. What the water protectors of Standing Rock face is emblematic of what we all must stare down: climate change, driven by pillages for profit; racism, a lie told to maintain white supremacy; and militarism, a condition that should only be described as collective psychopathy. As these Black Snakes and parasitic ideologies continue to colonize our humanity, our very empathy, what guidance still exists for us amongst the ravaged landscape of time?
Back in May, as my comrades and I hastily constructed an encampment on rail tracks to block oil trains from entering the Shell and Tesoro oil terminals in Anacortes, Washington, I was struck by what a woman in her seventies said to me – “I’ve spent decades organizing rallies, signing petitions, attending hearings, and lobbying politicians while seeing hardly enough change happen. I’m left with this – getting in trouble by standing in the way. It’s the only way to save my grandchildren from our inaction.” Two mornings later, 52 of us were arrested.
Our transgressions? Direct action. Civil disobedience. In the fight for climate justice, a goal seeking both an end to climate change and the full implementation of social justice, Unitarian Universalism presents a very strong case for disobeying unjust laws.
The transcendentalist and once-Unitarian writer Henry David Thoreau wrote extensively on this philosophy of righteous transgression. After spending a night in jail for refusing to pay poll taxes that would inevitably support slavery and the Mexican-American War, he wrote, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go: perchance it will wear smooth -certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn.”
Herein lies the essence of direct action – it acts as an emergency shutoff valve to the workings of a corrupt system. It demands a halt to business as usual. Thoreau came to realize that even if he spoke against the injustices of his time and convinced others to do the same, he would eventually have to place the ball in the government’s court, merely hoping that his teachings would lead the government to make a different move. But a power structure set on its own course need not yield to any teaching it stands illiterate to understand.
Eventually, Thoreau realized that the machine could not be convinced to stop on its own. Machines must be physically shut off. Withholding tax money withheld the necessary fuel for the ravaging acts of injustice enacted by Thoreau’s government. This is the same realization that the water protectors of Standing Rock have made. When politicians and bankrollers refused to hear their pleas, they chose to use their bodies to intentionally halt construction of the Black Snake. When I realized my cries would not be heeded in any government or corporate office, I decided to use my own body as a barrier to the reckless machine of destruction I saw in the fossil fuel industry. In the words of anti-imperialist activist and writer Arundhati Roy, “Colorful demonstrations and weekend marches are vital but alone are not powerful enough to stop wars. Wars will be stopped only when soldiers refuse to fight, when workers refuse to load weapons onto ships and aircraft, when people boycott the economic outposts of Empire that are strung across the globe. ”
Yet, direct action is about even more than stopping the machine. While leading one of the greatest and most famous civil disobedience campaigns in history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a movement when he proclaimed that, “noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.” By boycotting segregated busses, civil rights activists not only directly impacted a racist system, they expressed their moral and spiritual character with their actions. They chose to live their principles.
As Unitarian Universalists, we are presented with seven principles to guide us on our moral understandings. In each of these principles, I hear the call to use direct action to fight against the forces of climate change and global oppression.
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person – As worth and dignity are torn from the bodies of humans and all living beings in the endless extraction and destruction of ecological and communal systems the world over, we must not allow any action, or inaction, to enable this devastation.
- Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations – Justice means that all have life, safety, and respect. Equity means that each person’s needs are met. Compassion means that we act out our empathy in our relationships. It is not enough that we show these virtues to others – we must actively work to dismantle the human systems that prevent their presence in others’ lives.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations – By accepting one another, we affirm each other’s right to live in their own lands without disruption, a right constantly violated towards those living in precarious frontline communities – indigenous folk, rural dwellers, those from low-lying and island nations. If we are to encourage spiritual growth in ourselves, how can we do this as we stand by and allow our fellow people to fight their struggle on their own? What kind of spiritual fulfillment is that?
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning – True freedom is never realized without responsibility, and any personal meaning achieved at the expense of others’ justice is a shallow and false truth. In acting upon our principles, we must see our own freedom and meaning as incomplete unless utilized in solidarity with those struggling against all odds for theirs.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large – To act collectively in defense of our communities and our future generations is perhaps the most democratizing act one can commit. While the democratic process of government may at times seem efficient, it does not always make it a system of conscience. To consciously engage in the democratic process is to occupy spaces reserved for a powerful few and thrust open their gates for silenced voices to become amplified.
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all – As long as oppressive forces wreak havoc across the planet and our natural environment warms ever hotter, our world community will always be at risk. True solidarity across the world necessitates that our liberty is either achieved in common, or lost on all of us. Without solidarity, there can be no liberty. Without liberty, there can be no justice. Without justice, there can be no peace.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part – interdependency means that our actions towards others must reflect the actions we wish taken towards us. The struggle for climate justice means that if another community is under direct ecological or political threat, we defend them as we would defend ourselves. After all, we are never spared, we are simply further down the line. To protect the worth and dignity of others is to secure it for ourselves.
Our Unitarian Universalist principles don’t merely suggest that we take part in this struggle. Our Unitarian Universalist principles DEMAND that we put ourselves on the front lines of climate justice. If we plan to stand in front of a world of many oppressors and countless oppressed and claim any semblance of moral integrity, then it is BEYOND TIME that we put our principles to action, to our highest ability and capacity, and deliberately disrupt any unjust action that protects profit over planet and people. We are not only fighting for our ability to survive on this planet. We are fighting for our right to survive here. If we were to magically abolish all excess carbon levels, reforest our wilds, and purify our oceans tomorrow, without eliminating poverty and racism, decolonizing indigenous lands, and breaking the global military machine, then we would not have proven our right to inherit a healed planet for our sick and broken society.
Yet therein lies not only the necessity of direct action, but the transcendental possibility of finding our genuine spiritual selves. By acting out our principles, we affirm them unconditionally to the world, and we invite others to join us. Only collective action can challenge oppression and bring us back from the brink. We not only need to dismantle an unjust system, we need to build a just system in its place. What if putting our moral principles to action and directly challenging the oppression of climate change is our only chance to build a better world? What if this struggle presents us with the greatest chance to unite at long last as a global and ecological community? Is that not worth getting in trouble for? Is that not worth being vulnerable for? Is it not worth giving up who we are now to become our greatest inspiration?
Here, at the crossroads of tomorrow, listen to the words of our spiritual role models:
Water is life.
Spoken Meditation – Mark Harris
Voice of all our voices, spirit of compassion, spirit of hope for building up the community, we pause today for a time of reflection. Many of us are worn with care and stress over the outcome of this electoral process. Some of us have misgivings about our candidates, one or both, some of us feel fear, and thus we worry about tomorrow, about escalating inequality, about environmental devastation, about repression of rights. Some of us will be happy about the results of the election, and others devastated. Our country is divided now as it may never have been before, and yet no matter who wins or loses, we know there are no miracle cures for all our ills. There will still be chaos amidst our search for peace, and there will be grief and loss even as we celebrate life’s beauty and joy.
We will still gather in community to fashion a faith which will bring inspiration and meaning to sustain us through the difficult daily challenges we all face. We are grateful for the support we receive from one another, the affirmation to believe in ourselves, and the encouragement to value our own worth and exert individual power to put our voices and talents to use in the world. Here we celebrate the deeper meaning of life, no matter who occupies the White House or controls the Congress. Here we search for values and the qualities of life that make it worth living, the building of them into our daily lives, and the passing of those values on to those who follow us. Voting is a sign that we have hope that tomorrow might be better if it is served by more honest and compassionate government implemented by politicians with integrity and courage. But that better tomorrow finds its building block in the future we create with our lives here and now, how do we treat our neighbors, how much time and energy we give to our children, how much care we show for our community and immediate surroundings and sometimes to speak out publicly in advocacy of values and issues we stand for or in protest of injustices we witness.. We want to elect good people to office, and we have sometimes searched in vain to find that goodness, but most important is our own dedication to exercise our own power to be good. May we live that dedication out each and every day. Amen.
Closing words – from Robert Kaufman
“We have come together to share our deepest concerns, speaking and singing words of inspiration and hope. We have committed ourselves to do what we can to ease the burdens of those who suffer, to stand for decency and compassion. We have pledged to work for a more wholesome environment for us and for all the generations that will follow.
But these are just words. The hymns we sing are just songs. All our reflections are just idle thoughts. When we convert them all into loving and responsible action throughout the week, then and only then will this morning become what we want it to be—a time of true worship. “
Worship points beyond itself to a life in the world – how can our life be changed by worship, and how can that in turn change the world. So we close by invoking the words often heard in religious communities throughout this land: Our worship is over, let the service begin. Amen