Sermons from Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris
Sunday, January 18, 2015:
Reading from Where Do We Go from Here? Chaos or Community by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Some years ago a famous novelist died. Among his papers was found a list of suggested plots for future stories, the most prominently underscored being this one: “A widely separated family inherits a house in which they have to live together.” This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together– black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu– a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. .
All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors. . . .
One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools.
This Great World House
In the visitor’s center at the King Center in Atlanta is a sculpture of marchers on the highway from Selma to Montgomery. Visitors are invited to join the marchers on the road, to imagine what it was like, or remember. I was standing on that highway, and heard quiet voice behind me ask “Is it OK for me to be here?” I turned and saw an African American girl, about 9 or 10 years old. I was brought up short – silent, looking at her. I finally mustered my voice back to audible and said – yes, it’s fine. Perhaps her question was the kind a child asks of an adult when the rules of the place are not clear, or seem to offer the chance to do something that’s “normally” not allowed . . . no matter. . . .her question reduced me to tears. Is it OK for me to be here? Do I belong? Do I have a place?
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? is the last book Dr. King wrote. It challenges us to answer the question that young girl ask me – do I have a place? - with a clear and simple yes. In every word, in every way, Dr. King was pointing us away from chaos and toward community. He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu – a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because, we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. . . All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.”
There are many differences among the folks in our great world house, including differences in faith – in Dr. King’s words “Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu.” For Dr. King, faith is not a barrier. It is a bridge. In his lifetime, Dr. King crossed that bridge many times.
While still a student for ministry, King learned of Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, and his philosophy of satyagraha, the love force, from mentor, the Rev. Howard Thurman, Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. Connecting this with his own understandings of Christianity, satyagraha would later provide Dr. King strategy and tactics for the civil rights movement. Boycotts. Marches. Accepting jail time. King said of Gandhi, he is “the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force.”
There was the Rabbi who shared King’s love of the Hebrew Prophets and with whom King formed a friendship. When the time came for the march from Selma to Montgomery, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel joined Dr. King on the front line, literally on the front line. In photos of the march, Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel are arm in arm. Heschel later wrote, “Our march was worship. I felt like my legs were praying.”
There was Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk whose friendship was an inspiration to Dr. King in one of his most controversial and courageous acts – publicly opposing the Viet Nam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King called him “a holy man” whose ideas for peace “would build a monument to ecumenism. . . “
In addition to writing about the many faiths in this great world house, Dr. King also wrote about its stability. It’s stability, he said, depends on a “revolution of values” in which our loyalties are to humankind as a whole. “This call for worldwide fellowship . . . lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation.” It is “a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all. . . This Hindu-Moslem-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality” is that love is the “supreme unifying principle of life.” It is this aspect of Dr. King’s life and belief that prompted Dr. Cornel West to refer to him as an extremist. . . . an extremist for love.
Eboo Patel, American Muslim, author, activist and founder of Interfaith writes that though not often recognized as such, Dr. King has as much to say to us about interfaith cooperation as on the matter of interracial harmony. Whether we turn to his personal spiritual journey, his prophetic leadership, his vision for this nation and the world, Dr. King viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, believing that we are better together living in this one great world house.
These days this great world house is in turmoil.
The winter 2014 issue of the UU World magazine includes a piece by the Rev. Meg Riley, Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, a UU congregation without walls. It’s called “Up to Our Necks.” She writes:
As a nation of diverse races striving to be one people, we are buried up to our necks in a history of violence and brutality against people of color. Where do we look for safety, for help, as we try to excavate ourselves from this sinkhole?
For a long time I have been one of the mostly silent, but increasingly alarmed, white folks struggling to discern how to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. But standing silently, trying to figure things out may be a life-threatening course of action when you and your neighbors are buried up to your neck.
Times of not knowing aren’t my favorite.
Times of not knowing. . . .like not knowing what it means to affirm both freedom of speech and respect for the worth and dignity of all? The first issue of Charlie Hebdo published following the brutal killing of staff and guests in their Paris office had on its cover a drawing of the Prophet Mohammed holding a sign “Je suis Charlie” with the words “tout est pardonne” (all is forgiven) over his head and a tear on his cheek.
This is what I find behind that cover.
My neighbor tells me over and over and over again that my speech, my depiction of their religion is disrespectful and offensive. They tell me this repeatedly as they also condemn acts of hatred and killing done in the name of their religion. I tell my neighbor over and over again that it is my right to express my views in word and picture even though they may find it offensive. I tell them I am being sarcastic, provocative; that I speak of many things this way including other faiths. Information has been shared. Each has told the other something of themselves. No communication has taken place.
Add to this information sharing these things: the history of French colonialism in Africa, isolation caused by poverty and difference and by fear. Add to the mix that this thing called freedom has some hard to understand boundaries. You can say whatever you want about my religion (one that you do not share). As a Muslim woman the law tells me I cannot wear a hijab to school. The law tells me that as a Jew I cannot wear a yarmulke to school. So the law tells me I must disrespect my religion. And you say the law allows you to say whatever you wish even if it disrespects my religion. . . This scenario repeats over and over and over. . . in European cities, in cities and towns all across this country.
This is not the only way to understand what is happening. That this is so is even more reason to persist in finding answers to the question Meg put so bluntly: how do we “excavate ourselves from this sinkhole?”
The question the little girl asked me as we stood together on the sculpture of the road from Selma to Montgomery – Is it OK for me to be here? – is the flip side of the statement Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter is a claim that refutes the assumption, that protests all actions that have us live as if some lives matter more than others, and some matter not at all.
Is it OK for me to be here? Do I belong? Do I have a place?
Given the turmoil in this great world house we best be very specific – lest our assumptions and how we live them make liars of us. Black Lives matter. Muslim lives matter. The list goes on. Jewish lives. Women’s lives. Nigerian lives. Children’s lives. Gay lives. Lesbian lives. Transgender lives. . . In this great world house the list must go on . . .
May Dr. King be proven right. May faith be a bridge – built of courage: the courage to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant, to face the challenges of change, and built of compassion for all who share this great world house.
“The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide (community, a beloved community). We must learn to live together or together we will perish as fools.”
*BENEDICTION from Time to Break the Silence MLK April 4, 1967 Riverside Church
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late . . . Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.
First Church in Jamaica Plain, UU
Rev. Terry Burke
May 25, 2014
Who knows but what we most fear
May be our greatest good?”
How odd that with my imminent retirement this is my last full sermon, though I will deliver some short homilies for services on the 8th and 15th. Endings evoke memories of beginnings, and I just read a poem by Dan Berrigan, who blessed me at a workshop some 30 years ago. Still going strong in his 90’s, Dan was arrested during Occupy New York.
Berrigan, like Pope Francis, is part of the Jesuit religious order. In the early 1980’s I studied spiritual direction with the Jesuits, whose Ignatian spirituality focuses on finding God in the power of the imagination. At our April church retreat, I led the group in an exercise that I had learned from the Jesuits years before. Imagine that you are at a special party for yourself; perhaps it is your birthday. Bending time and space, all the people you love, living and dead, are present. During the course of the evening, they tell you how much you have meant to them. Now, one by one, they’ve departed, leaving behind a wrapped present on the table. You see that it’s addressed to you from God. You open it.
Years ago, when I did that exercise, I thought, ‘O, this is so silly, why am I doing this?’ And I opened my present and found… one of those yellow smiley faces. Clearly God has a sense of humor. When I did the exercise this spring, I opened the box to find… my illness. Flannery O’Connor wrote that, “sickness before death…is one of God’s mercies.”
When I received my cancer diagnosis in September, it took a while to “wrap my head around it.” The first book I read afterwards was one that had been given to me by the late Suzy Saul when she had cancer, Jerome Groopman’s The Anatomy of Hope. Groopman writes of the need for realistic hope even facing catastrophic illness; patients often have better results when they have a framework to understand and visualize their illnesses.
Drawing upon Groopman’s idea, I understand my illness as the “Rainbow Camino.” As you probably know, several years ago I walked the Camino pilgrimage in Spain with one of my daughters in wintertime. Numerous times I’ve quoted Camino spiritual leader Jesus Hato’s famous line, in English, “In life, you are either a tourist or a pilgrim.” My illness has become a pilgrimage, a time of spiritual deepening, that I walk with the support of my family and many wonderful people. I am grateful for the incredible “rainbow” of persons from different faith traditions, Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Pagan, agnostic, who pray and send healing energy for me. It is truly humbling.
I want to speak of another famous pilgrim, but first a question. If a poll were done today, who do you think Americans would say was the most admired American, living or dead. Not who YOU would say, but who the millions polled would say? Gallop says Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton for living men and women. In some polls which include the dead, many people list their parents.
The person living or dead who consistently tops that list for most admired Canadian is athlete Terry Fox, who died of cancer at the age of 22 in 1981.
A college athlete at Simon Fraser University, he lost a leg to bone cancer. While in rehab, he was struck how, due to ongoing medical research, the potential survival rate for his illness had jumped in recent years from 15% to 50%. After running a marathon on his primitive prosthesis, he decided to run what he called a “Marathon for Hope” over 5,000 miles across Canada to raise cancer awareness and money for research.
Initially, he hoped to raise a million dollars. Starting his run in Newfoundland, at first he was ignored. Eventually, Fox became something quintessentially Canadian, a celebrity who didn’t want to be a celebrity. He’d run long distances out of his way to attend local fundraisers, but became angry when tabloids would report that he’d gone out on a date.
Fox ran the equivalent of a marathon, 26 miles a day, for four months. Huge crowds cheered him on. In Thunder Bay Ontario, by the northern shores of Lake Superior, he started coughing uncontrollably. With the support of the crowd, he was able to run a few more miles, but then collapsed at mile 3,339, the equivalent of having run across the continental United States.
Fox’s cancer had spread throughout his lungs, and while he didn’t want anyone else to finish his run for him, he wanted to finish it himself, he died nine months later at the age of 22. The British Houses of Parliament have a statue of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth Oliver Cromwell facing them. The Canadian Houses of Parliament have a statue of Terry Fox. As a memorial, to date, fundraising for cancer research in Terry Fox’s name has raised over 600 million dollars.
Endings and beginnings. At the beginning of my ministry, in the 1980’s, I travelled to El Salvador. The people I met, the photographs of massacre victims I saw, the refugee camps I visited, have remained part of my ministry. Hearing the wonderful rendition of “The Rose” in our worship service reminded me of Jean Donovan, who along with her companions Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel, were murdered by a government sponsored death squad in El Salvador. Shortly before her death, Jean Donovan wrote to her parents, ‘this is such an amazing country, roses bloom in December.’ Today’s reading by Marxist intellectual Eduardo Galeano tells of the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. As a revolutionary, one time he escapes death because the Salvadoran government falls. Another time, an earthquake breaks the walls of his prison and he escapes, only to be killed by a dissident faction of his comrades. Galeano writes of the many ways we can encounter our deaths, and that he always thought Roque would meet death laughing. Along with his poetry, such humor and courage is a form of memorial.
“Let us now praise famous men (and women I might add) writes Sirach in a famous passage from Ecclesiasticus. Though some are without memorial, they are still part of the community. As a friend said to participants at the end of a year-long workshop, “When I remember God, I will remember all of you.” Or as my Russian friends say upon hearing of a death, “Memory Eternal.”
On this Memorial Day, we especially honor our veterans. When I am in Washington D.C., I find myself drawn to the Viet Nam Memorial Wall, a truly holy place amidst all the grandiosity. At the wall we grieve those who died in the war, and all wars, as well as so many other deaths and losses, spoken and unspoken.
Even final sermons have to come to an end. What has been the memorial of our time here, ministering together in this neighborhood? An old building passed on to another generation? When I was very young, I read Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidic Masters and Ellie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire, books about obscure rebbes in backwater villages in Poland and Ukraine who tried to spiritually set the world on fire. When I came to what was our tiny congregation here in 1983, Jamaica Plain was a backwater, a neighborhood marked by the scar where I-95 had been going to go through.
I wanted us to set the world on fire.
We didn’t. We didn’t set the world on fire.
But in our time and place, we imperfectly tended the flames of love, caring, and justice.
We have tended those flames though our decades together on our Camino, on our shared pilgrimage, running a marathon of hope. Now I will be dropping off and stopping, but your pilgrimage in Jamaica Plain will continue, with our memorial of faithful community.
Closing words: ‘Christ moon/ Buddha moon/ Who knows but what we most fear/May be our greatest good?” “Don’t fear the reaper!” Amen.
Eduardo Galeano, from Days and Nights of Love and War
…I start to talk about Roque Dalton. Roque was a living absurdity who never stopped. Even now, in my memory, he’s running. How did death manage to catch him?
They were gong to shoot him, but four days before the execution the government fell. Another time they were about to execute him and an earthquake split the prison walls and he escaped. The dictatorships of El Salvador, the little country which was his land and which he carried tattooed all over his body, could never handle him. Death took its revenge on this fellow who had so often mocked it. in the end, it slayed him through treason: it delivered the bullets from the precise place he least expected them. For months no one really knew what had happened. Was it, wasn’t it? The teletypes did not vibrate to tell the world about the assassination of this poet who was born in neither Paris nor New York…
He was the most joyful of us all…Roque’s poetry was like him: loving, mocking, combative. He had courage to spare, so he didn’t need to mention it…
We all meet death in a way that resembles us. Some of us, in silence, walking on tiptoe; others, shrinking away; others, asking forgiveness or permission. There are those who meet it arguing or demanding explanations, and there are those who make their way slugging and cursing. There are those who embrace death. Those who close their eyes; those who cry. I always thought that Roque would meet death with laughter.
In Memoriam, J.F.K.,
Jorge Luis Borges
This bullet is an old one.
“In 1897, it was fired at the president of Uruguay by a young man from Montevideo, Avelino Arredondo, who had spent long weeks without seeing anyone so that the world might know that he acted alone. Thirty years earlier, Lincoln had been murdered by that same ball, by the criminal or magical hand of an actor transformed by the words of Shakespeare into Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s murderer. In the mid-seventeenth century, vengeance had employed it for the assassination of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus in the midst of the public hecatomb of battle.
“In earlier times, the bullet had been other things, because Pythagorean metempsychosis is not reserved for humankind alone. It was the silken cord given to viziers in the East, the rifles and bayonets that cut down the defenders of the Alamo, the triangular blade that slit a queen’s throat, the wood of the Cross and the dark nails that pierced the flesh of the Redeemer, the poison kept by the Carthaginian chief in an iron ring on his finger, the serene goblet that Socrates drank down one evening.
“In the dawn of time it was the stone that Cain hurled at Abel, and in the future it shall be many things that we cannot even imagine today, but that will be able to put an end to men and their wondrous, fragile life.”