Posts Tagged America
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.
As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.
Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:”
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.””
What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.
The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population) we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.
I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.
I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”
If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.
Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?
I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.
Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.
It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.
So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.
What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?
And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.
This sermon was preached on 1/29/17 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It calls out the immoral actions of our government for banning refugees and Muslims.
I grew up in Central Jersey in the 70s and 80s. The family stories get told a little differently every time, as family stories often do, but each of my grand-parents were either the only sibling who was born in the States, or they were an immigrant themselves. Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, Sicily (yes, it wasn’t just Italy, it was specifically Sicily) and my other grandfather I never knew – but my one Grandmother remarried a Spanish-speaking man who sadly died before I was born. My mom grew up speaking a smattering of Italian, Spanish and English. That’s mostly gone now. Many Italian immigrants back then felt pressured to lose their cultural identity to survive or thrive in the States. On my Dad’s side, I come from Pennsylvania coal-miner stock.
Before I was 5, we were renting an apartment in a multi-family tenement on the outskirts of Perth Amboy, a mostly Latino city. Our downstairs neighbors were Egyptian. When I was turning 5, my parents bought a house in another part of Jersey, Woodbridge township. It was a working class black neighborhood made up of mostly multi-generational households. Across the street from our new home, was the lone Jewish family in our neighborhood – and I was the only white child in my neighborhood (The Jewish family across the street didn’t have kids.) Like everyone else around, I grew up with my grandmother and my uncle living with us. The schools drew from a wider area, so I was lucky to grow up knowing kids from every background. I remember one of my mom’s closer friends during my childhood; she was an African woman who was seeking citizenship in the States while her children were raised back home with her husband and mother. It would take her 20 years to legally bring her family over to the U.S. Twenty years to do it legally.
This is my America. German, Slovak, Italian, Egyptian, Latino, Black, Immigrant, African, Jewish, Catholic – and that was just my experience by maybe the age of 8. In grade school we learned about the Statue of Liberty – it was almost a religious sense of patriotism – about what was right and true in the world – what was our story and our birthright. The Lady in our NY harbor said, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
After this weekend, I’m not sure we deserve her any longer, but we can find our way back still. This past Friday, January 27, 2017, on the 75th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day, while failing to include Jewish people in his statement of remembrance, our sitting President signed an executive order banning all Syrian Refugees and citizens from several Muslim states. (We’ll surely learn soon that those nations will ban our people from visiting them in return.) On Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump banned refugees who are fleeing a genocidal government from seeking sanctuary on our shores. This sickens me. This is so far past partisan divides now. If you’re for this horror, you’re ignoring America’s heritage and story and the American Dream. We need to be better than this. Lady Liberty is weeping.
And this doesn’t stop neatly with who gets banned from our shores. There’s a fear that sets in when we begin down this road. One friend of mine, Farah said, “The trickle-down effect is that I and those who look like me will have to start carrying our papers everywhere. It means that I will be hassled at every border. It means that my family will be hassled when they come to visit me. It means that any of us could be detained, harassed and deprived of our rights as American citizens.” We know this to be true, because we see this in our Border states where Latinos – even US citizens – live in fear of harassment and need to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Now we begin this with our Muslim neighbors.
Jewish and Christian Scripture is very clear on how we’re to treat refugees, the stranger and our neighbor. When Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” He tells the story of the Good Samaritan in reply; he tells the story of a foreigner of another religion as his answer to who is my neighbor. We teach our children these values, and this ban wouldn’t stand up to a kindergartener’s test for simple fairness, or any biblical test of righteousness. But we know this story from our past too. One of our members and a public school teacher, (Theresa) reminded me of this yesterday, “A U.S. President did this before… On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana, Cuba with hundreds of Jewish refugees. FDR forced the ship to turn back. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died.”
We are past hyperbole, or partisanship here. This isn’t an election cycle or a political issue; faithful people from all political walks of life should oppose this. This is basic human decency. This is about our religious conviction that freedom of religion, that religious pluralism, is a spiritual value and a human need. We have refugees – green card holders – legal residents – legal residents – who were detained in JFK calling their lawyers and suing the US for unlawful detainment – while they waited to find out if they will be sent back to dangerous ports. The ACLU won a stay, which just means that no one is being sent back right now, but this Executive Order was haphazardly implemented and we still don’t know what will be next. This on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Will we remember?
As a child, we wondered how everyday citizens in Germany could let the horrors perpetrated against the Jews, Gypsys, gays and dissidents occur. How could any people allow the systematic dehumanization to occur to the point where lives were treated as chattel. We now understand that it happened piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit. What was once outrageous became acceptable – pushing further and further back the line of what was considered normal. Denying refugees the safety of our shores is not normal; it does not fit the American Dream, and it’s in direct opposition to our religious faith. This needs to be the next line we draw as a nation and as a religious community.
Religious institutions, at our best, are bedrocks for prophetic witness. And as an institution, we need all hands on deck for what’s happening in our name. We need to call out injustice where it weakens the spirit and the hearts of our people. When worldly greed, fear and hate, take root in our government, we need to make clear the road back to righteousness. Righteousness. In Jewish Scripture, the word we translate in English to righteousness, has lost some of it clarity over the generations. We often conflate it with self-righteous and have a reluctance to embrace it because of that shadow side. In the original meaning of the word, it’s much more positive, and a word that holds us accountable to something beyond just our lone egos. A contemporary translation would be closer to, “behavior that’s in solidarity with the community.” Righteousness means to act in accordance with the needs of those around you – and to do so knowing that your neighbor is your own and you’re your neighbors’ as well. Righteousness. Bans on refugees fleeing genocide is not righteous. Bans on citizens from Muslim countries – except of course their Christian citizens – is not righteousness. That’s base religious bigotry – and base religious bigotry does not get to easily parade itself as a partisan issue – it’s a moral issue, it’s a biblical issue. And those are our issues; that is our call as a religious people.
Our Fellowship has made numerous commitments to the immigrant, to the refugee, to peace. Over 15 years ago we led the move to start the interfaith collaboration that we now call HIHI where migrant men are offered shelter in religious homes throughout Huntington, 7 days a week, during the cold weather months. We do this for many reasons, but it began in the tragedy of a man freezing to death over-night. Politics being what they are, are not always a viable solution for some of our people to survive. That’s why we need religious institutions like ours, to shine a light on what needs to be seen.
As low pay farm-workers out on eastern long island are struggling to make a living, with limited other options, large farming corporations have used loop-holes in the law to take advantage of lower than minimum-wage work. As they continue to protest and advocate for their own rights, last year we used our space to house protest marchers overnight as they walked from Eastern Long Island all the way to Albany. We’ve hosted their art in our art gallery, we’ve educated about their plight from our pulpit, and some of our members continue to work in solidarity – to work with righteousness – for their needs knowing that their needs are our needs. Sometimes, religious institutions become a sounding bell to ensure we all hear what needs to be heard.
Sometimes we make space, or hold space, for others to be heard. Non-partisan, issue-based groups that align with our religious values, are using our building more and more to organize locally. NOW (the National Organization for Women), LITAC (Long Island Transgender Action Coalition) as well as a newly forming LI based Latinx Transgender rights group are just a few who know that our community is a safe-haven in these troubling times. Institutions matter – and when we’re living our values, when we’re responding to our call as a religious community – our institutional values matter. We will continue to adapt to address the needs of each generation – generation after generation.
Together, we make this religious institution possible. Living in accordance with the needs of those around us, knowing our neighbor is ourselves, and we are our neighbor – is the sense of righteousness we are seeking for ourselves, and what we’re raising another generation to value. Before Friday’s ban on refugees and Muslims – this service was planned to be a straightforward kick-off to our annual pledge drive where we talk about our financial commitments to living out our values. Today the tone is different. We’re funding our grassroots spiritual home that commits to making sure our neighbor lives another day. We know that politics and movements come and go – but there are eternal human values, moral values, that we need to ensure are not forgotten in the wider public. We need each other to be faithful to our highest ideals, and strive toward that lofty goal of the beloved community, step by step. And we need to ensure that we’re strong as a community to do that hard work – day by day – generation after generation – together. This is what stewardship means for us; for our generation and the generations to come.
Our social justice, social action, social witness wing of our denomination – the UU Service Committee – was originally begun as an organization devoted to helping get survivors out and away from the Nazis during the occupation of Europe. It’s in our very DNA. Yesterday, the UUA and the UUSC issued a joint call to action in the face of the growing barbarism coming out from our capital. The statement reads, “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence. We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.
As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us. We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.
The time is now.
I have signed onto that pledge. We’ll have a link to it our Fellowship Facebook page shortly, and if you don’t use Facebook, the link will be in this sermon online as well. (I’ve begun speaking with our Board President, Michael A., asking for our Board to consider having our Fellowship sign onto the pledge as well.) This statement is our roadmap – it’s our mirror to look into as we decide who we want to be – how we live into the deeper call to righteousness. And it’s all hands on deck. I charge our committee leaders to review it seriously and see where their team’s work coincides with the religious precepts articulated in the ethical pledge. As individuals, I charge each of us to (as the Jewish proverb goes) to write those words on the tablets of our hearts. It’s a moral compass we can strive to live up to. Righteousness in the face of injustice is an act of communal solidarity – that’s both individual and institutional.
Maybe you’ve felt like you were in a sort of fog or haze over the last few weeks. So much of what we don’t agree with is happening so fast. Others are feeling the barrage very viscerally; some of us are less safe. It’s got a dispiriting effect. I’ve heard from many of us that there’s a way in which we’re feeling alone, or isolated. Maybe that’s a reason you’ve come through our doors today. In my own house, we’ve been trying to set time aside for doing things that are a bit more frivolous to keep our spirits up to do the work the world needs us all to do. My husband and I are largely focused personally and professionally on causes that feel under attack of late, and there comes a time when one needs a break.
Earlier this week, with popcorn in hand we sat down to re-watch the Harry Potter movies – another movie from the series most nights. He knows he missed one, but wasn’t sure which one he missed. On Wednesday night, we got to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For those unfamiliar with the series that started out as a children’s book but turned into a manifesto for the millennial generation – it’s a series about a magical kid who’s only alive because of his mother’s love. Harry Potter is pitted against a fictional character – Voldemort – who signifies fascism, anger, and bigotry. The heroes of the story are studying in school, and come from School “Houses” that signify courage, steadfastness, friendship, intellect and dedication. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this covers it well enough.
Well at the mid-way point of this book in the series (or movie), Harry is feeling very low. He’s not trusted by the wider magical world. The villain of the story, Voldemort, is still thought to have been defeated years back and gone from the land. Harry is one of the lone voices calling out of the impending dangers with Voldemort’s imminent return. He turns to his close friend, Hermione, and tells her that he feels all alone – that the world has turned on him, that he’s exhausted for not being trusted. Hermione turns to him and she says, “Voldemort, only wants you to think you’re alone Harry.”
We were watching this movie on Wednesday evening, only a few days after the historic international Women’s March, which drew millions of people in the US and countless more across the globe. I’m proud to know that 45 of our Fellowshippers were together at the March in NYC, and I haven’t heard what the formal count for those who made it to DC war. 45 in NYC!
‘In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes,’ we hear the calm, intelligent, caring voice, in that loudly loving Women’s March respond, ‘fascism, anger, and bigotry only want you to think you’re alone.’
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.
If you’re so moved to take further action on our imminent refugee crisis and immoral ban on religious groups – Muslims – Theresa K. had pulled together language at each table for you to make phone calls to your local representatives here on Long Island. There’s a copy at each table, and more will be back in the Social Hall on at the social justice table. The table in the social hall also has other local actions that our team has reviewed for you to further consider.
 Thanks to Rev. Rachel Morse for lifting this up in social media
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The video of the sermon can be watched here.
One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.
We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.
But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.
Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.
When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off. That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there. Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain. This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death. It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …
And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.
From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.
The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.
Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.
Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.
Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.
This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.
Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.
We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.
Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.
We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.
God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.