SHELTER FOR THE BIRDS OF HEAVEN
A Sermon for the Religious Left
James Ishmael Ford
What a wild ride it’s been!
To be frank, in the race for the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden was not my choice. Then the African American community decided to go for him and go big. And I thought, okay. I was content to support him when he won the nomination. But even then, I was really mostly thinking about ending the tenure of the monster. Kind of an obsession.
While Donald Trump and his enablers went past denial, the fact was Joe Biden was elected president of the United States.
Inauguration day was an emotional roller coaster. Until noon Eastern time, it felt like I was holding my breath. And then he was the president. And Kamala Harris our vice president. Since then, President Biden has been offering words of comfort and challenge. And following up with a slew of actions. No doubt he has decided to go big. As big as the African American community went for him.
Of course, there’s still the 74,000,000 people who voted for Trump. And in the Pacific Northwest there continues to be resistance to anything resembling the status quo, including
Democrats writ large, and President, that word does roll nicely, Biden.
We live in perilous times. Anyone who tells you they know how this is going to turn out, well, they’re lying. These are, as was said of another wildly open moment, times to try human hearts. We are called to make choices. And every choice, including sitting on one’s privileges and trying to sit it out, will have consequences.
With that going on all around us, I find myself thinking of a story about when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. After the police and FBI arrived, during all the confusion, people running around, agents trying to get a handle on what had happened, one agent informed his superior on a walkie-talkie how he just heard Coretta Scott King say that Martin’s dream would never die. There was, I gather, a pause. Then the agent’s superior instructed him to, “Find out what that dream was.”
I’ve thought about that anecdote. A lot. And today, especially, it seems important.
Dreams. A truth is that we’re all woven of dreams. Our own. Other peoples. They come together in various ways, weaving, mutating, shaping. And then, mysteriously these dreams coalesce and become things. Dreams become flesh. No doubt. So, Dr King and his dream. What is the thing out of that dream that fleshes into the world? And what can it mean at this moment?
Right now, I also find myself thinking of one of the cradles of the dream, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was the church that Dr King co-led until his assassination. It was the church Representative John Lewis, of blessed memory, belonged to. And like Dr King, it is the church from which he was buried. Also, as you almost certainly know its most recent paster, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, who led that community for the past fifteen years, has just become the first African American Democrat ever elected to the senate from a former Confederate State.
Dreams birthing into this world. And the cradles of those dreams. I think about the places where dreams are nourished and brought to life.
These days we stand in the wreck of a nation brought to its knees by a rightwing demagogue, holding an upside-down Bible in one hand, and a lit match in the other. After being swept away in an overwhelming rebuke, he even tried to sponsor a coup. He failed. And he has now lumbered off to Mar-a-Lago. But the hatreds he has fanned for the past four years smolder. And the threat of violence continues.
Still, with whatever threats hang in the air, we also stand in a moment of deliverance from policies designed to comfort the rich and punish the poor. After four years of blaming the troubles of this world on any minority you can imagine, at least that poison is no longer being tweeted out of America’s White House. But. 74,000,000 votes.
There are, after all, many dreams. Some twisted out of the saddest corners of our human hearts. And they all can take flesh. And do. We’ve witnessed some of that in these past four years. Donald Trump showed casual cruelty and was cheered on for it. And the twisted dream he helped dream into the world certainly continues. Those threats all around us right now speak volumes.
So. Dreams. Many dreams. Contending dreams. And this inflection point. Which dreams will prevail? What will our world shape into? What dreams will guide us as we put flesh on them?
Well. What about Martin’s dream? What about Raphael’s. I would add the Reverend William Barber, his dream. Sister Simone Campbell, her dream. Rabbi Laurie Coskey, her dream. Zen priest and social justice activist Alan Senauke, his dream. Bishop Michael Curry, his dream. Progressive Jewish leader Stosh Cotler, her dream. Sister Helen Prejean, her dream. Taken together they might be called the Religious Left. What is the dream of that great cloud of witnesses?
I think of these people of the religious left. They come from many spiritual traditions. They include Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists. And in smaller numbers many others, as well. Including, of course, Unitarian Universalists in all our diversity. Each coming together with something more than a vague feeling of good will, and some sense of tolerance. From one angle they can only seem fully incompatible. From another, we can see the dream, the thing that can bind us, that can guide us, that can, let me say it, that can save this poor broken world.
And I think of those places that nourish the dream. There are many spiritual communities, cradles of the dream, beacons of the dream. Like Ebenezer Baptist. I have had the privilege to be associated with some wonderful congregations over the years. But by good fortune, among them two are especially significant in this context. I now have the privilege of consulting with the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The other is the always church of my heart, The First Unitarian Church in Providence. Providence was once a fierce abolitionist pulpit and in the twentieth and now at the beginnings of the twenty-first century, like Los Angeles, has proclaimed human dignity and opposition to unjust wars, rejecting the persecution of the poor, upholding women and LGBTQ rights, and, well, well, the list is long. Let’s let those things begin it. These things, however, all of them, they are part of that dream finding flesh.
For today, to help focus us, let’s consider Dr King’s dream. It articulates something that transcends sectarianism, those various divisions of Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism to begin the list of the communities bound together as the Religious Left. But at the same time is a dream rooted in the spiritual, in the religious. It is the life of our human hearts. If we notice it, this dream can be our north star in very dangerous times. Like these times.
So. What is that dream? Dr King sings that dream.
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted. Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. We must evolve for all human conflict a method, which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. Before it is too late, we must narrow the gaping chasm between our proclamations of peace and our lowly deeds which precipitate and perpetuate war. One day we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. We shall hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
In Dr King’s “I Have a Dream” speech we find the dream, the deep dream, dreamed into our lives across cultures and throughout time from the deepest places of our hearts, from the most profound knowing of our beings. Love. This is the truth. We are all caught up together more intimately than words can ever convey. True love. It is not trapped by the idea of one. It is not trapped by the idea of many. It is a hand giving bread to another.
I find myself thinking of that most mysterious of terms, love. Love that ranges from friendship to desire, to simply being another name for God. Love, like all dreams, does not exist without flesh. It is always your love. It is always my love. It is always some specific love. Like the taste of bread. With that love becomes flesh. It becomes a hand reaching out to another.
And it really is a universal dream. No religion owns love, although all partake of it to one degree or another. And, honestly, some articulate it better. Although what is better in the specific is often a bit different for each of us. Of course, there is something important in these different expressions, of different religions, of our own individual hearts. Like some great puzzle where each piece matters in some larger way we can only perceive in part. From our part.
Actually, puzzle doesn’t quite work. There are dynamics within our unity. It is not a static thing. And so, in some ways Dr King’s expression of it being like a network can be more helpful. And then, sometimes we do find it more like a garment, the sense of our connection, our feeling quality of it, sometimes put on, sometimes dropped off.
And then there’s how we see it within our radical congregations. Like this one.
Now, I have an interest in the work of contemporary Christian theologians Brian McLaren and Rob Bell, as well as some others who are condemned by Fundamentalist Christians as, heaven help us, “universalists.” I admit anyone accused of universalism is going to be interesting to me – because universalism is another way to speak of that great dream of our intimacy.
And we are the organized expression of universalism in our time and place. Okay, barely organized. But here we are.
Reverend McLaren was asked what about the Unitarian Universalists? In his response he was for the most part generous with us. He saw how we’ve walked away from the problematic assertions of the orthodox Christian church out of which we come, but also noted “a religious community (which) deconstructs without reconstructing will put it at a disadvantage.” That said, he also sees things going on, he sees us in the act of reconstructing, of finding our expression of the deeper truths, and joins with that other interesting Christian theologian who knows us so well, John Cobb, observing how “the best contributions of (the) Unitarians are in their future, and what they can be has not yet been fully manifested.”
I suggest it is as Universalists that the dream is manifesting. It is Universalism that is sowing seeds of hope and possibility. Dreams of hope. Dreams of possibility.
And this is important. I find myself thinking of something former General and then Secretary of State Colin Powell once noted. “A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.” I would say we’re further along in that reconstruction than some of our friends think. We are beginning to articulate the deep dream in very interesting and, I believe with all my heart, useful and compelling ways. Cradled in sanctuaries of the Universalist dream like this congregation.
Here I think of Unitarian Universalism’s First and Seventh Principles. One calling for the worth of each individual and the other to notice the interdependent web of existence. While I think each assertion problematic by itself, taken together we in fact have our way fully expressed. And with that our future, our unique and valuable expression of the ancient dream.
You, and you, and you, and me, each and every one of us are born precious and unique, a gift. Each of us as we leap into the world, beautiful and passing. The political engagement of our tradition as part of the Religious Left is a critical part of what we’re doing. But, by no means all of it. This is about our individual lives as much as our communal lives. This is a calling to intimacy within and without. It is a path of healing.
We have found the secret of who we really are, or rather some part of us saw it, spoke it, and sang it. But because they did, we now can hear it, and we can from that hearing, live it. This is a way of life we are being called into. Our progressive and dynamic spiritual way is a healing message, and a map for us to follow. It is the Universalist way. It is the Intimate Way.
So. Remember. There are many dreams manifesting. These are most dangerous times. But also, possibilities are wide open. We need to be careful. And we need to be attentive. And, I suggest, we need to attend to the cradles of possibility.
As one of the great teachers of the intimate way sang to us,
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
The great dream. And its cradles. Like a mustard see and the great bush, a nest for those birds of heaven.. Like the kingdom of Heaven. Like, well, like our congregation. This one.
Again, these are dangerous times. Dreams are birthing into the world. Which shall we midwife? The choice, dear ones, is in our hands.
So, an invitation. Let us join together in the great work. Let us find within ourselves and within each other the great mystery of the intimate way. Let this be the dream that prevails. Let this be the dream that becomes the flesh of the world.
Let us manifest all the mysteries of love. Let us help each other in the healing of this world.
Amen. And, amen.