Posts Tagged Witness
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was preached on 8/24/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the religious discipline of pilgrimage and reflects on what that means to the contemporary UU. In light of the tragedy in Ferguson, MO, this sermon discusses the role of public witness in how it intersects with spiritual journey.
Pilgrimage isn’t a term that we often think about anymore in most of Western society. For many of us, traveling great distances just involves a commitment to buying a ticket online. We can span the globe in hours if we have the wealth to do so. The oracles at Expedia tell me that if I want to travel to California in the dead of winter, I can book it now for less than the price of one night in many hotels in NYC. What took Lewis and Clark a year and seven months, we can do in 6 hours (plus airport security), and they even had a head start, beginning in St. Louis.
For the modern Westerner, pilgrimages are not usually about time or distance. The quality of sacrifice that once defined such journeys, may only really be felt by those of us who may need to skimp to save the money to buy our tickets, unless we go out of our way to set limits and make the trip more difficult by taking a bike or a car or a bus. But even then, there’s not usually the risk of danger earlier generations of humanity experienced.
Yet there’s a spiritual value to the original manner of pilgrimages. The archetypal hero’s journey teaches us that as we go far and wide, we internalize the lessons when we finally return home. When Moses climbs the mountain to find God, he comes to learn that God has been with, and of, the people all along, they just couldn’t see it. What we’re searching for far and wide, is often right at our finger tips. Pilgrimages take us out of our comfort zone to reveal something about our lives that is always true. The new setting, mixed with the sacrifices along the way, help us to see what’s normally clouded. Familiarity hides what’s before us.
UU’s have a few historic sites of note that are certainly worth visiting and learning about, but we have a slim tradition of making pilgrimages to them – aside from maybe our partner churches in various places throughout the globe. Though even those are more about the relationship with a far away community, than a special value on a place. I have begun to feel our form of making pilgrimages is public social witness in the face of flagrant injustice.
We go somewhere where there’s obvious pain in the world, maybe take time off from work when we’d normally just vacation, and go someplace that’s in need, not someplace that’s fun or relaxing. We sacrifice convenience or comfort so that we can lend our hand, our eyes, or our hearts to easing the suffering of others. When I traveled to Phoenix some years ago to witness against the implementation of SB1070, which essentially turned local police into ICE (immigration agents), we were marching and dancing out in the desert. Singing to immigrants detained in prison camps in 110 degree heat for the crime of trying to become Americans without the right paperwork. (And I always remember that my white great grandparents didn’t need paperwork to enter this country.) Almost 5000 people sung to the prisoners who were immorally detained. It brought awareness to the newspapers, and showed solidarity with local ally groups – it told partner advocacy groups that others cared and were willing to make sacrifices to show up. Ultimately, some of the restrictions of SB1070 were shot down, although much more work must be done.
Many of us have made similar trips over the years for a host of causes. Some of you were in Selma, or it’s anniversary 50 years later. Some of our members have long standing commitments abroad, traveling to schools and conservation zones in Africa to help with illness, education and the environment. If you’re here next Sunday, you can learn in particular about all that we have done to build the library, put in water, and build schools in our partner community in Ethiopia.
Next month, world leaders are coming to New York City for a UN summit on the climate crisis determine what steps the international community will take to cease the current trajectory of climate destruction. The meeting begins Sept 23rd.
“On September 21st, we are expecting a million people to arrive in NYC for the People’s Climate March. UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales called on all UUs to join him on September 21 to march for climate justice beginning 11:30 am at Columbus Circle. Afterwards there will be a UU debrief at Community Church (3:30-5:30) and an interfaith worship service at Saint John the Divine (6pm).” I’ll be here preaching that Sunday, but if you’re called to this shorter more local pilgrimage, I very much welcome you to do so. You’ll be able to learn more about it soon online, (and I believe) in our newsletter as well.
In all of these instances, UU’s may not see ourselves as pilgrims. We tend to find the Holy in and amongst people, even if we may personally believe the earth is a sacred thing – which I personally do. Going to a place, without the relationships tied to it, may not be the focus of our pilgrim goal. But pilgrimages aren’t always just that. The Haj in Islam, ties it’s followers into a community of people that’s spanned the centuries. They travel to a place that is not only sacred, but enter into a stream of people that have done just the same. It’s the journey as much as the place. Their path is a process of integration and witness. Being part of something greater and bearing witness to a sense of reverence along the way.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to see it in one of two ways. Either to speak to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community. Or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. There’s another angle to this we find in some Eastern religious circles that relates here. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
I think in UU circles, we combine all three of these ideas in our religious pilgrimages of social justice. It’s important to witness the pain and suffering in the world while lending our strength and compassion. Where we may have privilege, there is also a responsibility to use that privilege for the common good. If I have a leg up because of the color of my skin, or the scope of my education, I can leverage that for others. But I have to see the problem to know there’s something to be done. And I can’t always see the problem from my couch, however much I might prefer to be sitting there.
That second aspect of Witness, speaking of how our faith, or the Beloved Community, has changed our lives matters here as well. People need to know there’s another way than whatever injustice is going on before us. There are a lot of problems in the world, and sometimes we’re quiet in saying how we’ve seen other ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean imposing your way, or my way of doing things on another community, but it does mean giving voice to more compassionate pathways. Sometimes it means using whatever form of privilege or voice you have in sharing a better way with the oppressors in a situation. Remembering that at different times, we’re all the oppressors, so we ought to use our power with compassion and humility. Doing this work here in the States, with our fellow citizens, should be possible.
The third aspect, Darsan, of being seen; that might be the most crucial. All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence. When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living room doesn’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
I’m thinking of my clergy colleagues, both within our denomination, and those from other traditions, who have traveled this week to Ferguson, MO. Their pilgrimages to a place in pain right now is a sacred duty. One that we may all be called to do in our lives, again and again – as some of us have already, for so many issues. Politics and media spin aside, another black teen was shot dead in the street, six times, from behind when he had his hands up and held no weapon…. By another white cop. The teen is dead, and the cop is on leave of absence with pay. I’ll add that while we’ve seen two black men killed a week by police in this country, “the Economist (a conservative/centrist news magazine) reported last week, in an article on armed U.S. police, that “last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times.” Three times in the past year. Michael Brown, was shot 6 times, while standing unarmed with his hands over his head. We can say that most cops are great. That many precincts have policies that would have prevented this. We have research that shows improved training can correct racial bias in split-second decisions. We can say all those positive things while also lifting up the cultural or systemic differences between our nation and our closes Western culture – Britain. Something’s different here, and it’s not right.
But it didn’t stop there. Then another officer who threatened to kill a demonstrator was removed and suspended after pointing a semi-automatic rifle at a protestor. As of 5am on Friday – about two weeks from the shooting, there still was no police report – as if we can pretend nothing happened. The Wall Street Journal would later cover the release of the heavily redacted police report that finally was released later that Friday, saying it “shed little light on Ferguson shooting.” But lifted up that the St. Louis County detective took 90 minutes to show up on the scene of the crime to investigate the shooting. Mainstream news reporters getting arrested. Police in military gear. Local precincts being relieved of duty and State Troopers taking over. Amnesty International deployed a team to Ferguson, being the first time in its history that it’s sent a team in the US, as the national guard was deployed. The conservative Washington Post even did an article about how foreign newspapers were reporting on Ferguson, and how different it was than our own media. Interestingly, they almost exclusively covered Right-leaning Centrist, to Right Wing papers, and all talked about how bad our race situation has gotten, and that local and state police responses were highly problematic to say it lightly. I admit, I had not expected this from the Washington Post.
But all of this is coming to us second and third hand. I think of my colleagues, and other civically and religiously minded people who have traveled to Ferguson to bear witness, and share the load. To leverage their privilege to ease another’s pain. To hear the people affected, learn from them, and bring their lessons back home, so that the people are still speaking – on that street, in this town, and on and on to the next place and the next place. Bearing witness allows us to help make changes. It also teaches us, and keeps other voices alive for the next problem down the road.
The pilgrim’s journey, like the hero’s journey, isn’t always just about the destination. Our theme for the month, anticipation, speaks to this from both directions. What we anticipate another person’s intentions or actions are, will certainly influence our response. We’ll see things that may not be happening. It would be easy to say the officer, who we know killed Michael Brown, is just a bad person. But we don’t really know that. Split second decisions based on limited information. I think it’s far more likely that our police forces would benefit from more targeted training, like some precincts undergo, that teaches not to anticipate an increased sense of danger from certain races, but to rely on the actual facts that are happening in any particular situation. We’re all guilty of this in our lives from time to time – much like how I spoke about this in my last sermon. We read into the motives of another and create a fantasy world that may be our own nightmare. But in cases like Ferguson, guns and authority are added to the mix. None of this removes the responsibility for this officer’s actions – they are his own – and he and the community must live with the tragic consequences of his decision – whatever the courts may decide. However, we can’t ignore the larger picture either. We can’t ignore the fact that we have an epidemic of these cases. Remember, two black men are fatally shot every week in the US. Michael Brown isn’t the only black man to die last week, or the week before, or the week before.
The other side of anticipation is the expectation of how different the destination will be than our starting point. It’s about bringing the lessons we learn, when we’re away, back home. And in so many of these journeys, like Moses going to the mountain to bring God down, only to find God was there all along – in the people. When we make these trips, maybe to help bear witness to others’ pain, and to affect change, when we bring those lessons home we too realize they are real; they are alive; and those problems are here as well. But changing our scene, going down the road that’s not only less traveled, but may also be a very scary road to walk, gives us a new vantage to see what’s right before us – here. Ferguson isn’t only a place in Missouri. We have work to do at home as well.
 From UUA Announcement
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause before the start of a new year together,
conscious of the high hopes for the way forward,
expectations that will be met,
and those that surely will fall short.
May our hearts bend toward kindness in the face of new things,
may our words bear witness to our values,
and our hands remain open to welcoming what comes ahead.
May we not forget the years that brought us to this new ministry.
The people around us that have built up a community of caring;
and those that are now missing from our midst – for many reasons,
and so too the newcomer that only knows the fellowship from fresh eyes.
May we honor the generations that came before us,
appreciate the work that keeps our roof staying over our heads,
and our floor solid under our feet.
And may we also keep room for our mission – close to our heart,
Continue to teach us to create peace and justice,
To nurture compassion, and sustain beauty in this precious world.
Source of Hope, breathe your life into our lives.
Some of us celebrate a Summer of wonder and rest,
of seeing grandparents or grandchildren who live far away,
or enjoying beaches that are finally restored.
Others are tired from work that never seems to end,
or morning the loss of a dear friend, or the love of their life.
May we ever remember that in each of us are moments of joy and sorrow,
and teach us to care for the other, as best we can, in this light.
Spirit of Memory, God of Many Names,
We commemorate this hour the lives that have been torn by war,
The soldiers who have served,
the veterans long since at rest,
the families still waiting at home for good news,
amidst our nation’s longest period of war.
May we always honor the individual sacrifices,
A burden few of us share;
While ever seeking a path to a world without such need,
A world without war,
without the reflex of violence.
Help us to believe in an abundance,
May we cease to confuse our desire for more,
With the illusion of scant resources.
We ask for forgiveness,
Where we are too silent,
Wars that bare witness to widespread loss of civilian life.
May we learn to care for our veterans when they return home,
And come to find new ways,
To learn from their experiences,
Knowing that although they may be in great need,
They have a depth of experience, stories that must be shared.
Open our hearts to the pain, the service, and the hope.
Teach us to weave new stories,
That honor the peacemakers as well as the defenders,
That lift up dialogue as virtue, not as timidity.
This morning we pray,
grant us your Peace,
where it is so hard to find.
We continue to hold this hour the neighborhoods in our city, and our region, that are still ravaged by the aftermath of the Hurricane.
For JC who still needs help in repairing her home in the Rockaways,
For our Sister congregation in Staten Island, and their minister Rev. Susan Karlson, who are working diligently as a staging ground for their community,
For the Red Hook Initiative, that many of our members are directly involved with, helping to restore normalcy to a community still without infrastructure.
For the AliForneyCenter, whose intake shelter for LGBT youth was destroyed.
May we find immediate acts of kindness to alleviate the immediacy of the need,
And may we strive for acts of sacrifice that transform our communities for the generations to come.