This Thanksgiving sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shootings in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and the protests in Chicago.
Last Sunday, I was in our large church in Dallas, Texas, celebrating the ordination of a colleague into our Unitarian Universalist ministry. We knew each other from our campus ministry days, and from a few years where she was a student minister at my former church in Brooklyn. It was a privilege and a joy to be there.
It was a whirlwind trip, Saturday through Monday, so I didn’t get to see much of Dallas at all. But the church itself isn’t too far from what’s known as the gay neighborhood, which led to a few conversations about recent local news. There’s been a spate of hate crimes targeting gay people in that area. The Dallas UU church is centered between two larger sections that are quite conservative – so it stands out.
I’m finding the news of the world often very demoralizing of late. I imagine I’m not alone. And hearing first hand about some of these local attacks, was dispiriting. But then we celebrated the ordination of a young, married, Lesbian woman to this 1200+ member church in the heart of conservative Dallas, (and me – a gay male minister is offering the pastoral prayer and laying on of hands) and I began to think – we have come such a long way. Maybe it’s not all that hopeless after all.
The Dallas church has a large quilted art piece hanging from its central wall in their sanctuary. It’s a large square that is made up of four sections – each comprised of smaller squares. They take it down from time to time, and I was told, can rearrange it in various ways. Each square on its own, looks just like a few splashes of paint that begin and end with no sense. But put together, to me, they resembled an artistic rendering of fish-like swirls that was quite compelling. It all depends on where you look, and how they put it together that season.
Our video screen presentation this week has an image of a heart made of up many other images in each tiny quilt-like square. It reminds me of that kind of quilted image in the Dallas church. Looking casually, it’s a heart, but looking more closely, we see the pattern through the particulars. It all depends on where you look.
Amidst the sea of pain in the news, I’m trying to look for the stories of hope, the stories of the helpers, the places of change and healing. But not so much that I fail to see the places where I need to be the story of hope; where I need to take on the role of helper. Many of us can swing too far in either direction. We can lose hope or purpose before the crush of the challenge of it all, or sometimes we can hide behind the ease of just finding the stories of good and forget about the hardship. The spiritual challenge is to not lose sight of the bigger picture, while at the same time, striving to gain strength from the patterns etched by those of good faith and good action.
All of this month, we have reflected on what it would mean to be a people of ancestors. What patterns do we find in our history, that informs the pictures we see today? I’m guessing that many of us may have had Thanksgiving meals with family members who interpret a very different pattern than you might. Why do we often see such different images?
The stories that speak to us, the ancestors that we shy away from or that we are drawn toward, impact the quilted patterns we come to understand today. Take our reading from earlier. The poet is trying to convey that what is good in the world, is in some way eternal. Good intents, or actions – prayers of those who act with good faith, and for good purpose, never quite leave us. It’s language that we often draw from for our memorial services. Like a pebble in a pool, our actions have rippling effects, often beyond where we can see in our own lifetimes. We may no longer be here, but our impact is lasting.
The poem references how we are free to absorb that which is good, not the rules but the spirit, of what came before, and transmit that through our world. Our faith, at its best, strives to do that good work. What did our religious forbears strive for on their better days? Can we carry that on, and learn from their mistakes and their low points?
But that question only works, simply at least, if we are coming from a place where we are not too heavily scarred from a religious past. We can all too easily draw to mind historical atrocities, and current atrocities, done in the name of religion. They ripple on through the world as well, often just as strongly. The poem I read earlier, can we heard as a balm in a difficult time for some, and rose-colored at best for others. It depends on where we view it from; how our life, and our heritage, have arranged the quilted piece.
So maybe it’s both. Places of spirit never lose their power, for good or evil, so long as we choose to carry on their torch – for blessing or curse. And we all make that choice – intentionally or otherwise. We carry and multiply the impact of the work of our ancestors into the world today.
But we must be conscious of that history to understand how we knit our world together; imagine it and reimagine it. As we finish our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we exercise our annual complicated retelling of one of the worst times in our nation’s history. And we often forget the really positive aspects of it, while we try to forget the atrocities done to the Native Americans.
We began as a people who were religious refugees from Europe trying to start a new life, free from religious persecution. We brought war and genocide, so we try to tell the story in a new light. That doesn’t go away, no matter how hard we try to tell a white-washed version of it to our children. We can’t change that history, but we can make new decisions based upon the lessons of the past – if we allow ourselves to remember those lessons.
As we learn of the plight of Syrian refugees, we would do well as a people to remember our nation began with refugees. Slave and immigrants would make up most of the rest of us, but religious refugees were the first. It’s a twisted form of xenophobia to demonize religious refugees seeking sanctuary, considering where we came from.
But it depends on how you look at it. Not all who oppose offering our safer shores to families fleeing terrorists are white or Christian, but it’s safe to say a good many people who are responding with fear and xenophobia are – certainly who we are seeing saying so in the news. …Recently, white Christians ceased being the majority in 19 of our states. White Christians have become a minority in states like Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and Georgia to name the places that might be more surprising to us. I can’t help but wonder what impact this has on our national fears and anxieties? As some of our traditions change, or who we see on the streets change, or how normative our own cultural practices are any longer change – do we become more fearful of difference?
We sensationalize everything into a war of civilizations. We can’t seem to make it through one December without someone crying there is another “war on Christmas.” It’s a tired thing to say. I know folks are responding anxiously to what they imagine is being lost, but frankly, that’s not what war looks like, and we’re not losing Christmas because some silly coffee cup is only red and white, rather than red and white with snowflakes and sleds. We’re not losing Christmas because someone wished you Happy Holidays. It’s not an attack, and it’s probably not about you. And before the Outrage Machine was birthed on Fox News, in my childhood I recall hearing Happy Holidays and no one felt attacked for it. But nowadays, we can make anything into an attack, and make anything into something about us. The casual public outrage even gets rewarded with media attention, viral YouTube posts, or shares and likes via blogs and Facebook. Outrage becomes a sort of false ideal we worship. Maybe outrage is the real war on Christmas – but I’m not going to call it a war, because it’s still not that.
I see it with my own social media usage. You may have noticed that I’ve largely taken a break from blogging for the Huffington Post. I was finding that the more moderate, sensible, middle of the road stances I would take would get close to zero attention. In order to be well read, I would have to make sure to use media buzzwords and current lingo. Bonus points if I could flip some dominant narrative that was pervasive in a sensational way. In some ways, it’s how we’re wired. But I think it has more to do simply with just what sells better. If it’s not provocative enough, why would I bother spending time reading it? Maybe apathy and hyperbole are the real war on Christmas. But I won’t use the word war, because it’s definitely not war.
How we look at it, where we come from, which ancestors most influence our better angels, and who we identify with more, greatly determine how we see that quilt. This past week has been full of so many stories of grief and loss. There were 5 peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors shot in Minneapolis by White Supremacists; one of my colleague’s adult child was standing in between two of the shooting victims when they were shot. It goes from a story on the news, to a story that involves friends and their safety. That affects how I see the pattern on the quilt.
There was a massive Black Friday protest in Chicago by the Black Lives Matters movement in response to a very horrific video that the City was required by a judge to release to the public. And in Colorado Springs, a white domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic. Three people were killed, including Officer Garrett Swasey who was there protecting civilians. Four more civilians and five more police officers would be injured as well. Even though the gunman was overheard spouting “no more baby parts”, the media would be reticent to say anything more than “his motives were unclear.” (deep sigh.) What stops us from calling a spade a spade when atrocities are committed by white Christian men with guns on our own soil? How does that affect the pattern we see?
Depending on where one comes from, people are describing all these stories in very, very different ways. Are they about social justice? Police brutality? Lone gunman with mental illness? Reproductive freedom? Domestic Terror? Protecting children? Gun rights? Supporting our Police? We as a people need to get better at separating out all the competing political interests. We as a religious community, are called to discernment and action. Ethically, I don’t believe we can wash our hands of it all and pretend it’s happening far away, or that we don’t have a responsibility in changing our nation’s ways and laws. There is a pernicious and deeply disturbing trend where we scrutinize and villianize every action and motive of people who are not white Christians, but we forgive or ignore the most egregious of excesses of those who are white Christians. And when we finally and rarely acknowledge their wrong-doing, they are effectively absolved of being white Christians – as if it didn’t count that time. Why does the white Christian gunman’s life matter more than the lives of their victims?
We all know the story of the Thanksgiving meal with family we haven’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. We see parodies of it on Saturday Night Live almost every year. At the mythic – but real – table is seated every walk of life, every good or bad social position. (For the purposes of this story, you can fill in the good or bad social positions however you like.) Part of our national challenge is recognizing that we all are hearing the same stories; we are looking at the same image, but we are putting the patterns together differently dependent on so many factors. For some, Thanksgiving is bracketed by a fundamental change in cultural practices, a perceived attack on social norms, and a very real loss in power and privilege and dominance.
Thanksgiving for the rest of us, may reflect a growing awareness of how hard we can make life for too many people. Or maybe, we’ve always lived in the reality that things were just not quite equal for us. But like the quilted image of the heart in our service, the image we see is still made up of many, many other snippets of images or stories that craft the whole. When we cover up part of those stories to make sure our impression of the image remains unchanged, we’re just lying to ourselves. When we white wash what happened in Colorado Springs, or we pretend the gunman was a lone actor when he’s Christian, but any single Muslim terrorist is an indictment against a whole people, we are just lying to ourselves. If we need to lie to ourselves over silly coffee cups and a war on Christmas, it’s one thing. But doing it when people are fleeing our enemies and just trying to find a home for themselves, their children or their friends; that goes far beyond lying.
The road our country is walking has been a long one, and many of us are tired; some our comfortable in their lying to themselves; and some are weary from abuse. But our road is not yet over, and we have much more work to do – together. As we close our service this morning, I’ll bring us back to the beginning and the story we heard about the white raven becoming black – their feathers scorched by their sacrifice to save the Sun for all humanity. Beneath the crush of all the world weary stories we hear, we can come to feel hopeless. I recognize that, and I feel that myself from time to time. I’m going to say something unpleasant, but I think true: sometimes feeling hopeless is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have people who need us – and some of those people in need are in fact us. We have refugees in dire need – who factually have zero ties to terrorism beyond the simple truth that they too are victims of terror. Time and time again, we have black civilian youth who have toys in their pockets, and sometimes knives in their pockets, who are gunned down with impunity, while we watch white christian men with guns who shoot civilians and who shoot cops, who are taking into custody to stand trial – sometimes we even protect them with kevlar armor. That clearly is not the same treatment. We have people who need us. We have clinics across this nation – who offer life saving health care to women – literally under fire because demagogues on the right fabricate videos that imagine human baby parts are being collected and sold on some fantastical science-black market. We have people who need us. We may be weary on this long road, but being hopeless is a luxury we can not afford.
On this very difficult Thanksgiving, may we find gratitude for the strength we can draw from one another, and a common purpose in building the world we dream about. Take heart. Be rooted in love, and continue to show this torn world that there is another way. The world needs you to.