“The Cost of Discipleship” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – October 23, 2011
Call to Worship – from M. K. Gandhi
I claim to be a disciple of truth from my childhood. It was the most natural thing to me. My prayerful search gave me the revealing maxim “Truth is God” instead of the usual one, “God is Truth.” That maxim enables me to see God face to face as it were. I feel God pervade every fiber of my being. . . For we are all tarred with the same brush, and are children of one and the same Creator, and as such the divine powers within us are infinite. To slight a single human being is to slight those divine powers, and thus to harm not only that being, but with him [or her] , the whole world.
Reading – from The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Sermon – “The Cost of Discipleship”
Gandhi, as you heard in the call to worship, claimed to be a disciple of truth since childhood. Actually he used the word votary of truth, but I didn’t know what the word votary meant until I looked it up. In fact it describes a nun or a monk who makes vows of dedication to religious service, or is any person who is a dedicated follower of someone or some thing. Perhaps a more pertinent question for us might be what each one of us is a votary of. The rock group the Kinks once had a hit single called “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” Dave Davies wrote that this particular fashion maven wore clothes that were loud, but never square. He bought the best at London boutiques. I began to wonder when he said the devotee liked to be looked at, but when he mentioned the frilly, nylon panties that he wears up tight, I knew I was out of my league. This naïve country boy, yes, one of the hicks Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren described recently, was not going to go there. I was a dedicated follower of fashion, NOT. After all, ministers are suppose to look dumpy, and not invite people’s stares, right? Yet despite my inability to recognize fashion or be fashionable, I once found an Yves St. Laurent suit on sale. I wore it often when I was a young minister. I liked the buttons with the Y St L embossed on them, but more importantly I felt good when I wore that suit. Of course, fashion is not a typical topic in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Some of us might relate fashion to consumerism and sexism, while advocating the simple and natural look. But sometimes it is nice to dress up, look cool, be outrageous. Who can forget the line from the movie, Nacho Libre, the story of the Mexican wrestler who says, “When you are a man, sometimes you wear stretchy pants in your room, just for fun.”
Even a professional wrestler would likely be a votary of another wrestler who he trained under or wanted to emulate. Years ago the Red Sox had a hitting coach named Walt Hriniak, and his particular mantra was for the top hand in your batting grip to let go of the bat as the player made contact with the ball. Watching the game on TV you would see all his disciples, like Dwight Evans, emulating this approach, the Walt Hriniak Way, believing this would bring success. To me it looked like they were hitting with one hand. Different or unorthodox approaches work for some, but not others. We each find styles, or methods or beliefs that seem to work for us. Young artists often paint the masters to learn style and technique. They learn from each other. In a review of the new Degas exhibit in Boston, the New Yorker magazine says, “human nature makes us want to like people whom we regard as great and to fancy that they would like us.” That didn’t work so well for Degas, but many of us, while not partial to hero worship, discover that we are adherents or advocates of someone or something. I am an advocate of the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne for instance, because I like how he balances human aspiration and hope with a realization of pain and the darker side of human nature.
But it’s hard when we discover distasteful things about the people we admire, or they don’t fulfill our expectations. President Obama was someone I had great excitement about in the wake of his election, “man love,” as my wife said. But if I was a disciple, my devotion has been greatly reduced. I had an opportunity to tour the Johnson Wax administration building in Racine, WI last weekend. It is sometimes called one of the great American buildings of the 20th century. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the famed architect who was also a Unitarian. Yet when I mention Wright, I always feel obligated to add, BUT, he was not a very nice person. Sometimes geniuses aren’t.
Another genius kept appear on my computer this past week. I would turn on my Macintosh, and there was the face of Steve Jobs, who died recently. While he may not have had disciples, he certainly had advocates and devotees who loved what he did with the computer company that I have always sworn by. He has sometimes been criticized over the years for his perfectionism, but this perfectionism also meant that he required control over every part of the experience, thus assuring quality and integrity. In recent years, we have seen Jobs give up some of that control to make his products more workable with others, and that ability to open his products to many more users reflects that truth becomes broader and fuller when we are willing to give up control, and discover a deeper power of collaboration and trust with and for others.
I suppose one could say that the discipleship we feel for a fashion designer, or an artist or architect, or a politician pales beside those to whom we normally associate this word. For many of us the word disciple connotes those twelve followers of Jesus; fishermen and women who became fishers of men; dedicated followers who wandered around from Judea to Jerusalem to help spread Jesus’ message of loving your neighbor, by coming to know your neighbor, and eating with them. Yet for many of us the discipleship of Christianity became more an embrace of what Gandhi called God as Truth, rather than actually living the Truth that is God. So this God that is truth became the belief system an individual is converted to or follows rather than the way one acts towards others; beliefs that often confirmed a racial or cultural superiority of one nation or group over another. This reached its nadir in the practice of taking other humans into slavery. In a couple of weeks, the World in Watertown is going to show the movie, Traces of the Trade at the library. This tells the story of the involvement of one slave trading family in New England, the DeWolfes from Rhode Island, and how they confronted their past. One of the most starling scenes for me in the film occurs in castles by the sea on the coast of Africa, where the slaves are taken after their capture. The castle is built with its own church, and the church is strategically placed directly above the dungeon where the slaves are held. The first thing that occurs after the people are taken into slavery is that they are brought up into the church, baptized, and given a Christian name. So their freedom and their identities are taken away, the very essence of who they are and what they will do with their lives, This baptism theoretically assures that damnation of the slaves souls will not occur because they are now part of the saved Christian fold, but this is meaningless to them and horrifying to us. Perhaps it lets their captors remain clueless as to what they are doing to their own souls.
Even from its Christian beginnings Unitarianism was a faith that refused to separate lived truth from professed truth. But the evil perpetrated in the name of Chirstianity has made its difficult for many liberals to remain disciples. This past summer I acted on a different kind of discipleship. I waited with gleeful anticipation the release of the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. Harry Potter has been a large cultural phenomenon, and its unfolding tale of witches and magic has timely overtones of Halloween excitement. But the Potter tales are much more than costume and broom rides, quidditch and weird animals. J.K. Rowling the author, once worked for Amnesty International, and she says that much of her writing has been informed by this experience. Here one is exposed to the terrible evils that human being do to one another through the use of torture and murder in the context of inhumane laws and repressive regimes. We are reminded of Nazi Germany in Deathly Hallows when the ministry of magic perpetrates a pure race ideology, especially in the trial of mudbloods, or inferior people, or people pretending to be one of the elite; wizards, who come from non-wizard families. The ministry can hurt these people or worse, make them disappear. We can draw lots of parallels to immigration policies today. What does a person who lives the truth do in response?
I suppose you could say that Harry Potter, is a simple battle of good (Harry) vs. evil (Lord Voldemort), but I think it also asks us what is our own discipleship going to look like? In one scene Harry is talking to Hermione about the way things seem to unfold in their lives. He says, “Hermione, when have any of our plans actually worked? We plan, we get there, and all hell breaks loose.” It seems like they are forever dealing with one impending disaster after another. For some Harry is seen as a Christ figure, but another theme is the struggle for power, and Voldemort’s use of coercive power to destroy the weak versus Harry’s willingness to forego power and sacrifice himself. It is Dobby, the slave like elf, who sacrifices himself to save Harry, and this spurs Harry on to destroy the horcruxes. Living our faith demands some personal sacrifices, the story tells us, making us wonder what those sacrifices are going to be. Giving up a life to save a friend? Do we save the children like Mrs Weasley in defense of her own? Risking arrest to make a statement for truth? Daring to do or speak what is right when others around you are silent. Knowing that freedom comes only through acting in the world.
I was surprised last week when I heard this quotation from Mayor Menino on the news: “Civil disobedience will not be tolerated,” This was in response to the Occupy Boston movement that is calling attention to some of the economic injustices in our country. Today in our children’s story we heard about Civil disobedience as truth telling with the famous Salt March led by Gandhi. One of Gandhi’s disciples was a woman named Sarojini Naidu, a poet and politician. She led 2,500 volunteers on a march to the government’s Dharasana Salt works when Gandhi was in prison. They marched in silence, and then were brutally attacked by native police. One wave of protesters after another was beaten down, only to see another march forward without fear in non-violent witness. Naidu was arrested and sent to prison, remaining a faithful disciple to Gandhi’s method of revealing truth. How can we become faithful disciples to truth?
Last weekend I was in Racine, WI for the ordination of our former member Morgan McLean. It was inspiring to me to see a young person commit herself to a life in service to others. It gave me hope that a young person, surrounded by friends could dream that the world could be transformed by her witness to love and compassion, community building and justice seeking. One of the speakers on the rostrum with me was Bill Schulz, the former President of the UUA, and the current CEO of the UU Service Committee. In between he served as President of Amnesty International, which has a mission of protecting political prisoners and other kinds of innocents and refugees all over the world who are often being tortured and killed. Bill spoke of how personally traumatic it was for him to be in charge of this organization where every day there was some horrific story of people being murdered or tortured for no apparent reason. He said every single night he worked there, he lost his faith. And then somehow the next day he was able to regain it. He regained it because he was joined by others who would raise their voices in protest, who would go to these places of torture and bear witness to the larger truths of justice and equality.
During his talk he told a painful story about an incident during the genocide in Rwanda. Many people know the Rwandan story best from the movie Hotel Rwanda. The Rwandan conflict actually goes back before colonial times.. It is the story of two peoples who failed to create a framework for power sharing. Whoever was in power wanted to take it all. And this is where they created the genocide. Each side was killing the other because they wanted to eliminate them. In his address Bill told the story of a school for girls in Rwanda that was attacked one night by troops. All the girls were rounded up and brought into the cafeteria. The captain of the troops told the girls to separate themselves into Tutsi and Hutu. “Quickly,” he said. A minute or two passed, and nothing happened. Again, he told them to separate themselves into the two tribal groups, this time with more anger and impatience in his voice. Finally, a little girl stepped forward, and said, “Captain. We are not Tutsi. We are not Hutu. We are all just little Rwandan school girls.” The optimist in us wants the story to end happily. We hope the soldier could see beyond separating into tribes. That he could see that we are all one, one people, one red blood flows in our veins, and it unites as a people. But the story did not end happily.
I just finished reading the book In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson. We see in this story how difficult it was to comprehend that those in political power could be utterly irrational, even mad. William Dodd, the American Ambassador to Germany in 1933, thinks the Nazis ought to be reasonable and comprehend how badly they are treating others. But they had a God as Truth, and that God was the supremacy of the Aryan race. How are we going to stand up to the truths that to us seem irrational or incomprehensible? In the novel The Poisonwood Bible, which tells of imperialism in its religious and political guises, one of the daughters, Leah, speaks in our reading of how she has been rocked in the cradle of rewarded evils and murdered goodness. Whether it be the truth of history in Germany or Rwanda, or the truth of fiction in Harry Potter or Poisonwood Bible, how do we maintain a discipleship of compassionate walking on the earth with integrity in our own lives, and a vision for a better life? Leah gives us some clues to simple discipleship in shaping a good society. She tells how Anatole wants to say “home,” where goods are distributed fairly, and without greed, the dream of a child to feel safe and secure and cared for at home. And Leah wants to be able to leave her house unmarked. The Rwandan girls tell us there are no differences between us, and we will never stand up and say there are. Don’t let anyone stigmatize you, or find yourself doing it to others. There are no mudbloods, or Hutu or Tutsi. There are no male or female, gay or straight. When we separate and mark we do not live the truth, and the God in us is destroyed..
The Biblical lectionary reading for last week was the famous passage where Jesus says, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that belong to God. That has sometimes been used to support state coercion, or separate religion from politics, but it is really a formula for the good society that we can be disciples to. Render unto to Caesar is a reminder that you need to pay your taxes, that together we must create the community where we look out for one another’s interests. That is where the vision of oneness must be enshrined in law and practice. The things that are Gods are those things that begin with the individual. They make for personal integrity and worth, the desire to be with others, and the thirst for knowledge, and especially freedom, that human right we UUs are ardent disciples of. In that personal growth and freedom we come to love things in life that we become disciples of – some belief, some ideology– -what we would fight to preserve. But ultimate value is only known in relationship with others. When we embrace the stranger then we create the divine because we learn by that experience where truth lies. When you are sure you’re right, you may be a disciple of some truth you learned about, but you might just be wrong. Don’t defend your truth to the exclusion of another’s freedom, but discover with an open heart what common truth you share with another in the discipline of dialogue with another. And so true discipleship is found on the boundary between self and others. A traumatic event in my childhood that I once shared with you here, was when I beat up a little Armenian boy who had just moved to my rural, hick town. He was the other. I saw the terror in his eyes, and felt the shame in my own. How could I do this to him? The discipleship I work on is to look into another’s eyes, looking back at me, and try to live compassionately with you my fellow travelers.
Closing Words – from Barbara Brown Taylor
Wisdom is not gained by knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right, and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not have to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know. If you are not sure what to think about washing feet, for instance, then the best way to find out is to practice washing a pair or two. If you are not sure what to believe about your neighbor’s faith, then the best way to find out is to practice eating supper together. Reason can only work with the experience available to it. Wisdom atrophies if it is not walked on a regular basis.