“Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti – January 15, 2017

 

OPENING “The Only Ones Who Ever Win” by Eileen B Karpeles

Out of our separate lives we come,

to walk this path together for an hour or a day,

for a week or a month or a series of months and years.

For this space of time we travel together,

making much or little or nothing at all of the fact

that another walks beside us.

 

We can keep our eyes cast down

protecting ourselves from the pain we risk

whenever we allow another human being to touch us,

living safe little lives inside our sterile wrappings.

 

Or we can reach out,

risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,

because we believe that loving and being loved

is the only game in town.

 

The choice is ours.

Those who risk much lose much.

But they are also the only ones who ever win.

 

READING from “Against Innocence: A Dispatch from the Political Wilderness,” by the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt.

 

I have come to the painful realization that we sometimes conflate our dreams of the Beloved Community with the difficult and grueling work that might lead to its achievement. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed that “one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually been contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” It isn’t hard to notice that power without love surrounds us in this country today. But think too of the extent to which we live our lives amid expressions of love without political power. Think of the countless acts of mercy with which each of us may have aligned ourselves: We work with Habitat for Humanity, we volunteer at shelters and mentor children, we testify before hostile legislators unwilling to extend human rights to the whole human family; we lobby for an end to punitive drug laws that target people of color; we do a thousand things in an effort to make our love visible. And yet, if we had power, real political power, would not the hungry already be fed, those children already joyful? Would not Habitat be out of business and our legislators obsessed with supporting human dignity rather than denying it? Would not captives of every variety already be freed? If we had real power, is it not possible that our work would already be done? . . .

This is the hardest essay I have written in some time, and it took some time for me to discern the reason. I wanted to be triumphant, filled with hope, or at least optimistic about our common lives and future. Being a cynic is frankly against my religion, and a betrayal of my religious heritage as an African American that includes knowledge of a God that “makes a way out of no way.” But this reflection is, in fact, a dispatch from the wilderness. Religious leaders loathe being called to the wilderness—despite the fact that it really does come with our territory. But the wilderness is precisely where we are. …

I believe that many Unitarian Universalists are serious about creating a world of justice and peace; that is, I think we think we mean it. What I believe we are less serious about is what it will take to create that world, particularly in a society filled with people and circumstances actively opposed to a whole and holy life.

Our troubled world is filled with difficult and dangerous people who will not always respond to kind, thoughtful words and good intentions. A time may be coming when the love we hold dear will require a more practical expression. It may no longer be enough simply to counsel peace in a world where there is no peace; as the life of this world grows more violent and dangerous, perhaps the time is coming when we must give up our culture of witness and pick up the heavier burden that the twentieth century Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called discipleship. It may not be long before we risk becoming aimless hypocrites if we are not willing to put our own bodies and lives on the line to protect those who stand in harm’s way. . .

We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.

None of us can ever really be innocent again, and frankly, innocence is overrated. But we can be givers and receivers of a more demanding love and a more focused power, starting with one another in the religious communities that shelter us and support our lives… We feel betrayed and doubtful and disappointed too much of the time. … We are failed and imperfect and not at all pure. But in the gathered religious community, we are given the gift and the opportunity to pledge ourselves, to offer our very lives, not simply as witnesses, not just as sacrificial symbols of love or power alone, but as true agents of Creation.

 

SERMON: “Risky Business” by Jolie Olivetti

 

Perhaps you’ve heard by now: I’m pregnant! I’m preaching about risk today. I’ve never been a parent before but I get the sense that there are some risks involved. I’ll get to that later. Actually maybe not till the very end. I just didn’t want you to be distracted the entire sermon wondering if I was going to bring it up.

Instead, I’m going to start in a very different place: my own adolescence. When I was a freshman in high school, I had a crush on one of my best friends. I kept it to myself for two whole years. I recall during our junior year, driving in his parents’ minivan, when the crush was finally loosening its hold on me, he was flabbergasted when I offhandedly mentioned that I had like liked him for our entire friendship thus far. He asked, “How was I supposed to know, if you never told me?” The thought just hadn’t occurred to me. What held me back? I wasn’t brave enough to disrupt things. I felt more comfortable with the status quo of our friendship. I couldn’t risk being that vulnerable and exposed.

Last spring, I was sitting on the floor of the lobby in the Mayor’s wing of Boston City Hall. I was following the lead of a group of young people who were calling Marty Walsh out because he was going back on his promises to fully fund youth jobs programs. It was a sit-in. We were singing and chanting and taking up space until Marty agreed to meet with the young organizers. Youth of color from Boston’s working class neighborhoods led this protest. They know these jobs can help their families out financially, build skills and resumes, and are part of breaking the cycles of intergenerational poverty and institutional racism that feed interpersonal youth violence.

Once security arrived, I got nervous. I caught myself inching away from the center, as if I was unwilling to be identified as one of the protestors. I wanted to shrink to the side, maybe sit in one of the chairs along the wall, as if I was an orderly adult who just happened to be in that lobby at the same time as these protestors. I took a deep breath and re-committed to being there. I kept chanting. I moved back into the crowd. Why did I almost let myself back off of this very moderate form of civil disobedience? It’s hard to be brave enough to disrupt things. It’s easier to be comfortable with the status quo. For me, the status quo as a white middle class adult is comfortable. It’s hard to risk being vulnerable and exposed.

When I was a teenager, George W. Bush was elected president. Some of my classmates slept on the steps of the Supreme Court when they were reaching their decision about the vote recount, but I didn’t even risk asking my parents if I could join them. I have some friends now who as young people were very politically active: protesting the Iraq war, and participating in the anti-globalization movement, which included the powerful disruption of the 1999 World Trade Organization talks in Seattle. Unlike those friends of mine, and unlike the youth chanting in the lobby of the Mayor’s office, my teen risk-taking was pretty limited and my political engagement was mostly nil. My status quo was comfortable, like I said. I don’t think I yet understood how my own worth and dignity is wrapped up in the worth and dignity of others. I thought the UU principle about the interdependent web was just about the environment, I didn’t realize it also includes the whole human family.

Perhaps it’s a bit strange to have shared a story about a high school crush in a sermon that will shift to focusing on considerably higher-stakes risks. But there is a connection there:

The same reluctance to speak my personal truths to the people I care about for fear of disrupting things can also be a barrier to speaking truth to power, because it’s scary to disrupt things.

Friday is Inauguration Day. I am afraid of all the bad things that will be made worse under this administration. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. MLK’s rhetoric, his lived example, the legacies of all the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement, and the ongoing brilliance of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other freedom struggles strengthen me to action, call me to take risks, to defy and deny the hate that the coming administration intends to turn into policy.

Martin Niemöller was a Lutheran pastor in Germany in the early 20th century. While he began as a nationalist who supported Hitler, he underwent a conversion and became part of the anti-Nazi German Confessing Church, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who came up in the reading. Niemöller and Bonhoeffer were both imprisoned in the concentration camps for their role in this movement. Unlike Bonhoeffer, Niemöller survived those years,  and he later lamented not doing enough to resist the Nazis. After that, he became a lifelong anti-war activist. He preached the words that have been altered and adapted to create this familiar refrain:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

In his situation, it was dangerous to speak out against persecution of the Jews, the Communists, and so many other groups targeted by the Nazis. What about in our time? What about the dangers of speaking out against the persecution of Muslims? What about the dangers of speaking out against the oppression of Black people, the devaluing of Black lives? Against the demonization and deportation of immigrants? Is it risky to speak up against homophobia and transphobia? To insist upon reproductive justice, and refuse to be silent in the face of violence done to women’s bodies? Isn’t it worth the risk?

It can be daunting to speak up, let alone to know how to do it so that anyone will heed our words. Rosemary Bray McNatt challenges us to consider speaking out in such a way that goes beyond acts of mercy and witness, and that truly disrupts the forces of evil. To throw a wrench into the machine of hate. The political wilderness she addressed 15 years ago is the same political wilderness we face today. The brambles alternately clear and thicken over the years, the beasts that stalk these forests are beaten back and then return, but we remain in the wilderness, and a new wilderness is imminent.

McNatt writes, “We are unfit for this wilderness; we could have used more time to get ready, more time to think of the perfect strategy and learn the right words to change the world. But like it or not, the wilderness is where we are.”

She calls upon us to recognize our situation, however difficult, and suggests that “the love we hold dear” may “require a more practical expression” She invokes Bonhoeffer and ventures that it may be time to pick up the “heavier burden… [of] discipleship” It’s a brief mention, but Bonhoeffer’s reference calls to mind the incredible risks that Jesus’ disciples took, as did the early Christians, persecuted by the Roman Empire. It’s time for us to take some risks.

And I have to admit, I am still afraid of taking risks. I absolutely still harbor the same reluctance to be vulnerable and exposed, the same instinct to hold back, to not make waves. The first sermon I preached here, I told you about my personal journey away from cynicism and towards faith in humanity. I have gained much of this hope in our ability to take good care of each other from community organizing. I have received an education in solidarity from people dependent on public transit fighting fare increases, from tenants fighting no-fault evictions, from youth of color subjected to stop-and-frisk searches demanding an end to racist policing, and especially from all the ways that these different groups with their seemingly different issues support one another, come together to fight.

I am learning there is a difference between safety and comfort. Safety is not a guarantee for anyone, but my access to the comforts of class and race privilege makes me disproportionately comfortable, safe from harm. So I can risk a little discomfort for the sake of justice.

These 10 or so years of this work have released me from lonely and hopeless individualism, and dared me to believe that I am part of a community, really many intersecting communities. I am called to believe that all of our destinies are shared, that none of us is free until all of us are free. Even after a decade supporting and participating in these struggles, in my more cynical moments, I ask myself, what good can it do to go against the grain, especially when the grain is so ingrained in our political order? It can feel futile at best, and frightening at worst.

Even though “it’s against my religion to be cynical,” as McNatt said, it is very hard not to be cynical. But I am fortified by the strength of my convictions. I’m not here to claim I am an awesome risk-taker – far from it! It can still be intimidating to take a public stand, or potentially endanger myself. I sometimes catch myself wondering, “What will my father say if I end up in the paper?” Who will judge me or reject me if I speak a controversial truth? Will I get harmed if I try to put my own self on the line for the cause of justice and peace?

We may all be asking ourselves such questions. What if we feel too tired, too sick to march in the streets? How do we take risks when it’s hard enough to just get through the day?

Risk is relative. We are all of us needed, to offer whatever gifts we have, in the best way we can. We need to begin with that that very recognition: that all of us are needed. We all have something we can share, something we can risk giving of ourselves.

As our opening words noted,

“we travel together,

making much or little or nothing at all of the fact

that another walks beside us.”

We can tell ourselves we’re safe in our own personal bubbles,

“Or we can reach out,

risking a little or a lot or every coin we have,

because we believe that loving and being loved

is the only game in town.”

This what Unitarian Universalism calls us to believe: “Loving and being loved is the only game in town.” It has been said that love is a verb. That’s what can help with the shift from sentimentality to powerful love that King was concerned with, if we live love as a verb. Mark declared that UUism is “deeds, not creeds” in his sermon last week. To me this means, we can best discern our faith through action, through engagement with the world. Mark said – can I quote him? – “your faith journey is a process of living into the truth, and not a wordy definition of the truth.” And I believe what we are striving to live into is the Beloved Community that Martin Luther King so often preached about.

I have been afraid to bring a child into the world. I still am. (See, I promised to come back to this at the end.) Because precariousness is inherent to our existence. I can scarcely fathom that I will be responsible for introducing a new being into such turmoil as is this life. I know there will be nothing I can do to fully protect this child from the world. But it’s worth the risk. Perhaps parenthood will be heartbreak in the sense that, for me and Adam, this child will break our hearts wide open.

I have this idea that parenthood will bring a truth into sharper relief: the truth that we are all in this together. That especially as we continue to face the wildernesses of vested interests that calculate war to be more profitable than peace, a warming planet, the shape-shifter white supremacy’s voracious appetite for domination, especially as we face all this, we need to find ourselves in the inescapable network of mutuality that King so often preached about. It’s true regardless of if we are parents: We are in this together. And we must risk connection with one another in order to face this wilderness. We can’t do it alone. And our inherent interconnectedness calls us to take risks for one another. Parenthood in precarious times, all human connection in the face of cynical, inhumane drives to power, requires love. Defiant love, risky, difficult, powerful love. We are facing the political wilderness, a retrenchment of wilderness. Let’s take some risks for each other.

CLOSING WORDS by Anne Braden

In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed. Perhaps no one living today will see a major change. But it will come. And living in that world that is working to make it happen lets us know that our lives are worthwhile.