This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation in Brooklyn on January 25th, 2009. It reflects on the inauguration of our first African-American President of the United States.
Our country came to a corner this week. We’ve been walking for some distance, for a long time, where we’ve been able to see straight ahead, and off to the side. Sometimes leaning up against what was a very comfortable wall for some, and rather rough for most. This corner offers a new trajectory of movement; freedom of space. Now we can continue walking in the same direction of course; it’s just a corner after all. We don’t need to take the turn. But now we seem to think we can.
It’s a secular corner, definitely cultural, and largely spiritual too. The White House, built by slaves, is now home to our first black president. Poets have poignantly noted how we know not where our efforts will eventually lead, nor who will some day reside in the sanctuaries we build this day even in the midst of injustice and pain. We can see a little ahead, and off to the side, but can barely imagine the scope of changes to the landscape that will some day come about.
What can leadership look like? In the American mythology, the answers have always been “anyone.” Of course, “anyone” has always had very specific implications. At one point “anyone” meant land holding straight white men. That was honestly progressive for the time. With it, we successfully moved a bit away from aristocracy and nobility as the places of power. For a decade or two, the American mythology has said it includes people of all races. Although I still feel we have a ways to go in this respect, this week has indicated that our practice has finally met up with our cultural self-conception of what we can be. Racism is not cured, sexism continues to thrive, ageism on both ends of the spectrum is almost a given, and homophobia is often confused with high moral standards. And yet, this week, rekindles our hope that we as a people, can grow past ourselves enough to recognize leadership despite our biases and short-comings. As Martin Luther King Jr once dreamt, we have chosen our president based on the “content of his character, and not by the color of his skin.” Whatever your political affiliations are, this is a remarkable sign of transformation for our country.
Our readings this morning both talk about the transforming power of leadership. The first, an early Buddhist parable, richly names the spirit of our time. In the midst of the flaming pit of crisis, the Buddha as parrot recognizes his two great gifts; being alive and being able to fly. As the world burns around him he chooses not to panic and succumb to uselessness. He chooses not to use his second gift of flight to preserve his first gift of life. Rather, he employs all that he has to make some difference in easing the suffering of others. His colorful feathers grow black through his efforts to save lives. “What, after all, can a bird do in times like these… but fly? So fly I shall. And I won’t stop if there’s even a chance I can save a single life.”
In contrast, the godly beings are relaxed, bright, covered in white ivory and glittery gold. Well fed, they shimmer and shine and remain clean. All most can do is continue to eat and wax eloquent on the absurdity of the parrot’s efforts. “Trying to put out a raging fire with just a few sprinkles of water from his wings. Who ever heard of such a thing. Why, it’s absurd!”
Where in our lives are we the parrot with greasy black wings who is fed with a mission and destined to make a difference, and where are we the fully entitled god who shimmers and shines and is just well fed? When have you met the well intentioned god on golden wings descend to warn you to stop your efforts because it’s not worth the trouble? When have you been that nay-saying voice?
“I don’t need advice. I just need someone to pitch in and help!” cried the parrot. I know I’ve felt that before. Whether it’s combating homelessness, raising children, or struggling through school, it is tough to do it alone, and often times we seem to receive more advice than actual assistance. It would be easy, and a bit triumphant, to preach on how hidden beneath the grime and soot of our efforts are splendid multi-colored feathers that help us soar. But this Buddhist parable seems to indicate that it’s that very blackness, that greasy water that differentiates us from the splendidness of those distant gods. In fact, it’s that blackness that calls one of the gods down from his place of privilege, to do what he ought to have done from the start; use his power to affect change. “All at once, he no longer wanted to be a god or an eagle or anything else. He simply wanted to be like that brave little parrot, and to help.” All gratitude at the story’s end goes to the little parrot, “for this sudden, miraculous rain.” It may have been the god’s tears that put out the fires of this world, but they blossomed from the witness of the action of the parrot – the otherwise dis-empowered, the oppressed, the not-privileged.
That godly nay-saying has woven itself into the fabric of our daily expression. We are burdened down with a difficult economy, an enervating war, diminishing gay civil rights, and a collapsing environment. Many say they are choosing hope, and yet our collective shoulders seem to indicate spiritual exhaustion. President Obama on Tuesday spoke of our country’s “nagging sap to confidence.” He named that which many of us see, but is rarely spoken of in public. It’s the echo of impossibility when so many things seem raw and endless like a fire that sprung over night and is left by all the world to burn. But I believe there continue to be rivers of hope, and waters of abundance, that eagerly wait for us to dip our wings and dirty our feathers; because there is much work to be done and gratefully many of us here able to do it.
So which of the many here, able to make the world better, do we work with? I struggled with our President’s selection of Rick Warren to lead us in prayer on Tuesday. Pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California – he was a visible supporter of Proposition 8 in California which successfully revoked constitutional rights for gay men and women to marry in that state. It’s a conciliatory move for a presidency that claims to be bi-partisan in approach. I applaud the spirit in which the gesture was made, and yet I was stunned by his inclusion. Rick Warren’s prayer was religiously generous, including all people no matter how they name the divine. It remained apolitical. It was a prayer; and a good one if I had any capacity to judge.
Our second reading today touches on this question; who do we work with? In the Christian lectionary, Jonah 3:1-10 is one of the readings for the week. The portion of scripture we focused on is the Prophet Jonah’s commission to the city of Ninevah. He successfully petitions them to repent their sins and to place God back in their hearts and lives. On the surface, it’s a simple story of mission, sackcloth and redemption. And yet, it’s far more complex than that. Jonah has just finished fleeing as far afield of Ninevah as possible to avoid preaching there. He’s survived the ocean, the belly of a great fish, and the voice of God just to avoid going to this place. Ninevah is a city of Assyria, a long-standing enemy of his own people, and the empire that will in biblical times destroy the the state of Israel.
God has called Jonah to preach to his people’s enemy so that his enemy may not be destroyed. “’Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” And the people of Ninevah believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Ninevah, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”
Jonah has crossed the political aisle to help redeem his enemy, in what he likely sees as a call to justice and righteousness before his God. In a sense, he has put first what we might call right living, or right relationship before his own opinions and inclinations – in fact, despite them. The sacred, the holy, and the transcendent come first in this story; before nationality, before politics and most importantly before preference.
The pastor Rick Warren has done a little of this himself. Largely seen as a conservative Christian, before all the world he has prayed for all our people to God in whatever way or ways we name God. In a simplistic reading of faith, one unfortunately we typically hear frequently on our televisions, Pastor Warren has broken with the traditional line to extend a hand to other faiths in solidarity before his God. His prayer called for “civility when differing,” and a reminder to be “so grateful to live in this land.”
“Civility” could just as easily be a reminder to liberals and moderates as it is to conservatives alike. In the case of gay marriage that I spoke of when I first mentioned Pastor Warren, differ we certainly will. The question remains how we will be judged by the “content of our character” that Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned some decades ago. Can we remain civil and citizens with one another, or will we succumb to bitterness in our differences. Can pro-civil rights activists be civil in their acceptance of Pastor Warren as the president’s choice to lead our nation in prayer? Will we allow the dialogue with those whom we differ? What will leadership look like, and who will we allow to share in that leadership?
Likewise, he reminds those of us of liberal persuasion to recognize how fortunate we are to live in this country. A close conservative friend of mine the other day noted how despite the apparent 180 degree changes in governance on Tuesday, the United States of America enjoyed another peaceful transition of power. Despite our many failings, we have achieved something on this soil that many people will never see in their lifetime and we often take it for granted. Our democratic voice can be realized without bloodshed, without violence, and in the midst of significant and substantial disagreements. We must stand in awe of how fortunate we truly are. Pastor Warren’s prayer captured that.
If I might offer the same gift to Pastor Warren as he has to us this past week; I would remind him of who else he shared the podium with that day. We witnessed an unlikely connection to a prominent fore-runner and founder of the gay civil rights movement. California Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who convened the gathering on Tuesday, took office as Mayor of San Francisco in November 1978 following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. Harvey Milk was our country’s first elected openly gay man. Although the story is complex, as most stories are, he risked much in a time when Proposition 6 threatened to hunt gay teachers in California. He successfully opposed the baleful legislature. He served as a role-model for gay men and women; suggesting to us that significant leadership opportunities were possible.
I am reminded again of the loss of life as we have seen in the past assassination of Harvey Milk, on-going high rates of suicide amongst gay teens, and physical brutality perpetuated against gay and lesbians to this day. Lives are lost as we stumble toward a more expansive and realized society rooted in civil rights. I caution conservative religious movements that vilify the queer community. If compassion is not truly at the heart of your actions, take a very hard look at the effects of your words and your deeds. Pray on scripture, and search diligently for what words Jesus Christ spoke of on this topic. I have yet to find one sentence by Jesus that speaks ill of homosexuality, and I assure you I have looked hard and long for them. Consider spending the fortunes you use to fight against these civil rights on the missions Jesus called us to. Use them solely to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked and care for those in prison. You do all these latter things already and you do them well, I only ask you to better support the ministries Jesus specifically named, rather than what I see as your cultural sensibilities.
President Obama on Tuesday directed us once more to “a unity of purpose over discord” and to “begin again the work of remaking America.” There is much work to be done. We asked you earlier in the service to write down one thing you would be willing to put effort into to affect change. Those cards that were given as an offertory today are sanctified by our collective commitment to action. As poet Alice Walker has written, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Seek to be renewed by a generosity of spirit. This congregation has birthed many a social justice movement and effort in its long 175 years. We stand in awe of that history. I pray that it prop us up in our times of exhaustion and bolster us in our times of exuberance. Let us continue that tradition as we have reached this epic corner in our national and spiritual journey.
Taking a broader look, in some way, we all ought to cover ourselves in ash, wear sackcloth, or dip our wings in greasy water to redeem our situation, our condition and our lives. Meditate and pray now for a moment on how we have fallen short. What can we craft our sackcloth out of, what personal conviction would it take for us to don it long enough to make a difference? How can we seek forgiveness from God, from that which we hold as Ultimate, and from our society so that we can change our hearts and thereby begin to quench the fires all around us? As ever, since the dawn of humanity, we are in need of leadership. It must be humble, it must take flight. And it needs to be found in all of us.