The Promise of the Unknown

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 9/25/16. It explores the painful sense of our national “new normal” of violence and unrest.

We are coming to a close this month reflecting on what it means to be a people of covenant. One of the more precious forms covenant is the one we share with one another person; our marital vows. Some of us have never been married, some never plan to, others have been there and moved onto other roads, and the rest of us are walking that path right now. The marital covenant is in some ways personal, and in some ways universal. And if you have a family through it, it turns out not to be just about those who got married. A whole other set of obligations and expectations arise. But I’ll begin with my experience.

My husband and I have been together for almost 6 years, but we’ve only been married for just under a year and a half. So in some ways the relationship feels in the early years, and some ways it feels like a well known road we’re traveling together. It begins though, grounded in a sense of the familiar. Most of us enter marriage – for those who do enter marriage – into a covenant with someone who we know well. We think we know what to expect, and we think we know how they’ll handle the hurdles on the road ahead of us. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong; but we’re making that commitment based on a history that has told us something about our relationship.

There’s a way in which we can throw all of that out once we’re married. Things do change. The new extended family acts differently; sometimes it’s more confrontational, sometimes you’re welcomed with open arms to new cries of “brother!” I’ve married close to 90 couples and I don’t think I’ve every recalled a time when siblings didn’t say something to that effect – often for the first time. Something changes because of the ritual and the commitment. I’ve even seen this for couples that took a long time to get married – like 7 or more years before settling down. Even in those extended dating relationships, siblings started to act differently once the relationship turned formal.

Marriage can offer a promise in the unknown. Whatever comes our way, we’ll deal with together. That’s the ideal, and recent divorce rates prove that not to be fully accurate about half the time. But there’s still a reason to have hope in it. When we are entering into that relationship, we’re often doing it knowing a history, and there’s good reason to let history teach us what we might accomplish together on our better days; especially if all those involved have a similar sense of how to honor the covenant they’ve made with one another. I know that’s too often a big “if” but it’s still worth mentioning since it still works half the time – even today. But when it does work, it works because of a shared history that has meaning, value and purpose. The road ahead is a little bit less unknown because we know what’s come before – it should be less of a surprise. In these cases covenant can help us keep on track.

But what about those times when the track record isn’t so good. I’m looking right now at the broader world. I’ve tried to keep the tone of the sermons this month lighter than what the world news might indicate. And there’s a certain impossibility to that, particular with our In-Gathering service falling on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. But I know how world-weary so many of us are in light of world events, and national politics. But the last 8 days have seemed to be particularly maddening, even for our “new normal” in world affairs. I know I need to work from there, and we’ll find our way to what the planned sermon topic “the promise of the unknown” may teach us.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were supposed to be going to a friend of his’ birthday party in Manhattan on 23rd and 8th – a block from where the bomb went off – around the same time the bomb went off. Earlier on I decided I needed to cancel. I wasn’t fully ready for Sunday’s worship service, and I’m usually in my pajamas anyway by 8pm on a Saturday night. Sunday’s a big day here every week. Around 5pm, Brian decided that his head cold was turning into too much, and cancelled also. I think about the Chinese folk tale I told earlier this service, where we never know what good or bad may come from the next thing that changes our course, and it’s sometimes better not to place judgement on it till we get further down the road. We can get real depressed over any disappointment, and not always see the bigger picture.

I know for us, we were a little bummed to be missing the birthday celebration, but when the news came along around 8:30pm that an explosion occurred, we seriously began to wonder would we have been on that street at that time. There would have been a very good chance of it.  …And we still have to live our lives without being mired down in the what if’s of the world. But a broader perspective, can sometimes help us through.  The Late Night TV circuit would joke that New Yorkers were largely more upset that they couldn’t get their rental cars back in time, or the subway was running slower than usual, or even more notably being woken up at 7am to a screen alert on their phones about a suspect for the bombings. …Sometimes cynicism is part of the broader perspective.

The suspect was ultimately identified by other New Yorkers who found another pressure cooker bomb when they were busy stealing the suitcase that was in it. (Classic New York.) But despite it all, this is now a new normal in our sense of world affairs. The alleged bomber managed to set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police, before finally being taken alive into custody.

We also heard this week about two more unarmed black civilians – who apparently were also not in any way being confrontational (one was a disabled man reading a book in his car waiting for his kid) – were shot and killed by police officers. I saw photos Tuesday night of Charlotte, North Carolina with police in riot gear and reading updates from a clergy colleague of mine who was talking about the peaceful protests of the executions and the riot gear response. She spoke of the first time being targeted with teargas as a peaceful clergy witness. We’ll undoubtably learn more over the coming days, but this too is the new normal for our sense of world affairs. As an informative aside, this morning I woke to the news that in Knoxville, Tennessee there were riots with people burning furniture – apparently Tennessee came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat Florida 38-28 on Saturday in Knoxville. Police were onsite but not attempting to stop the public destruction.)

I’m not in a place this week where I can stomach too close an examination of every detail and sort out who was at fault and who wasn’t in Tusla and in Charlotte. I hope our judicial system will rise to the occasion this time. But I do want to reflect on the road that’s led to here and wonder what it promises for our unknown future ahead. We know of one story (the Chelsea and Seaside bombings) where an alleged bomber can set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police and still be taken into custody. Whereas a disabled dad waiting for his kid, reading a book in his car, can be shot dead as a threat. There’s a disparity there that is hard to miss and even harder to white-wash. Even if we learn tomorrow that there was more to the stories in Tulsa and Charlotte, we still have to wonder how can a suspected terrorist get into a shootout and still be taken alive, when these other black men are shot on sight? What’s the difference.

That disparity, that tragic tension, is where I challenge us to go when folks argue that everything is working as it should; that things are just; that everything is a simple right and wrong, and those in authority or always right. Don’t walk away from that tragic tension too soon, or we will continue to be faced with new tragedies.

There’s clearly a sense that our new reality is faced with daily turmoil and heightened moments of rage and violence. Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a poll “that showed that 63% of people say that the Civil Rights movement pushes too fast; that 58% said they were violent; 58% said they hurt their own cause.” You would think I was talking about today and the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m not. I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement of 1964. Some of you were alive and very actively engaged in that movement. Were you violent? Were you hurting your own cause? Were you pushing too fast? Do those words echo what gets repeated over and over in today’s news and over the broader family dinner table?

We never fully know where our next steps will take us. And all too often we rewrite history once it’s past us. The same folks that may have critiqued Martin Luther King Jr. for moving too fast, or hurting his own cause, or being too violent (as if he were ever violent in the pursuit of civil rights), may be the same people who look back at that movement and extol its virtues of pacifism and justice now – as the quintessential application of our freedom of speech. Will we recreate that same short-sighted error again in this generation?

Two Sundays ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Next month I’ll get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 1st stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth.” Revelation is not sealed – the promise of the unknown. How can that be true in the face of the weekly tragedies we continue to be plagued with?

Some of that is mediated by the question posed by comedian, Stephen Colbert, (paraphrased) “How can these things continue to happen when we continue to do nothing different?” Our theology states that Revelation is not sealed; it doesn’t say that if we continue to act as if nothing can change, or nothing new can come about, that newness and healing will spring forth on it’s own. That sometimes happens – we call it Grace or a miracle or just good dumb luck. But systems of oppression or systems of disparity, don’t change through dumb luck; they change through intention and attention.

And there are cases where our actions are different and it changes the world. The NY times reports “The number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion — that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments!” The UN is meeting this week discussing their plan “to eliminate – (yes eliminate) – extreme poverty by 2030, and experts believe it is possible to get quite close.” The history of the world says neither of these things are possible, but revelation is not sealed and there are new ways and news truths forever in our grasp if we treat it so.

If we were to live as though we believed that revelation was not sealed, we would commit to a spiritual discipline of openness; with especial care to was the weakest or the most abused among us have to say. In the Christian tradition, that was what Jesus was most known for – caring for the least among us. The meek shall inherit the earth. As we move further and further into cycles of struggle and power and suffering, we denounce our birthright in this one, precious life. How do we return? To some openness can come across as weakness. I find that it takes a lot of strength to listen to what we may not agree with, and decide for ourselves a new path.

Sometimes what has come before teaches us how horrible what may some day come. Sometimes what came before teaches us how beautiful the possibilities can be. Depending on where we’ve come from, we’re going to imagine a different future. But if we believe our theology that says revelation is not sealed, each new page offers another possibility. Will we act for the world we aspire to, or will we accept the dominion of the past?

I see these five stones as precepts of our faith that offer concurrent demands upon our actions if we’re going to live ethically as engaged Unitarian Universalists. The matched demand to this first stone is the question: “Does this action or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit?” If we continue to accept the new normal as fact and immutable, do we leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Our faith demands that we don’t accept the new normal. Our faith challenges us to continuously experience life in new ways as we make room for the continuing evolution of the human spirit. It’s not a cold creed or set of belief; it’s a call to action to make this truth so. Stay informed; stay engaged; lovingly call your neighbors to face the hardships of a world divided by power and privilege – and do so so that another soul may live and grow to their fullest potential.

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