A Meditation for an Antifa Sunday
James Ishmael Ford
First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles
21 November 2021
I began an earlier draft for today’s message with a litany listing the many wrongs with this world on display just this past week. It began with Kyle Rittenhouse and ran for about three hundred words. There was a second draft with an even longer list. It’s easy to compile these things pretty much any week. I noticed how some black commentators expressed surprise that so many white progressives were shocked at the outcome of the trial. Mainly they were being ironic. There’s a boatload of ill in this world to notice, a lot to be shocked by, outraged with. Saddened. Depressed.
Now, originally, I was going to talk about Thanksgiving. It is, after all, coming up this Thursday. And in some ways, it can be a good subject for reflection. In part just because of the unfortunate story our American celebration of thanksgiving is attached to. But, also, because we need times to noticing the blessings of life, as well as the horrors. Life isn’t all one thing.
However, the bitter sweetness of life acknowledged, I find myself pulled in another direction for today. And it is inspired by the hurts of our time and our place. With that large “however” attached. But instead of with a turn into thanksgiving, a turn toward something a bit different.
Nadia Bolz-Weber a heavily tatted Lutheran minister who was pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, you may have heard of her; the other day posted on social media, that “Pope Pius XI established Christ the King Sunday in 1925 to counter what he regarded as the destructive forces of fascism and the totalitarian claims of Nazi ideologies…” She concluded, so, “Happy Antifa Sunday, everyone!” I looked it up, and yes. That year Mussolini seized power as dictator of Italy. Hitler published Mein Kampf. And, it was also the year Stalin consolidated his power, stripping away the last vestiges of Russia’s communist state that in any way actually was concerned with the people. It was an age birthing totalitarianisms around the world.
And here we are almost exactly a hundred years later. With our own rising fascisms, our own very real and emerging dictators. So, I’m really taken that one church set an actual Sunday aside to honor an alternative to the rising tide of fascisms. Totalitarianisms in its several different names. Each of them created and sustained through hatred of selected others. Throwing dust in people’s eyes, appealing to their fears about the stranger, the other, while ultimately actually about putting and sustaining a small group at the apex of a steep economic and political pyramid.
However. And. But. There is an alternative. And it is celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King. And that holy day is today. Today.
So, what is the alternative? Pius’s expression of it doesn’t really work for me. At least in a literal understanding. But I think we can respect that while seeing the deeper possibilities inherent in his call. A call, after all, to the sovereignty of the sacred. Which, if you plum to its depths, is the assertion that we are all of us bound together in a mysterious truth that stands against all claims of oppressors, in fact and in potential.
Today is a feast in honor of the dream of the peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven. Another juicy phrase from the received tradition of the West, names it the “Commonwealth of heaven.” That’s a term first seen in the mishmash of materials gathered as Paul’s epistles to the Philippians.
I’m not terribly interested in the immediate context, which suggests that that “commonwealth” is not found in this world, but rather in another place, a sweet by and bye. But I love the usage of commonwealth as opposed to kingdom. And, looking it up, I see it is a reasonable translation from the Greek.
In fact lots of different phrases fit for this alternative to communities based in hatred and supporting oppressions and oppressors. In Buddhism, I think of the holy gathering that is sangha. Sangha is a word that means “together.” In the West there’s a similar sense in the word church, which can mean a building, or a community, or even all the members of the faith.
There is a place that is part dream and part just as real as can be. One foot in the heavens and one foot right here on the dirt of this world.
Last week Ignacio called us to the importance of community, of people coming together. And that makes me think about a specific kind of coming together: church. About spiritual communities. And what they really are within the mess of life. With that memories cascade across my heart. After I completed seminary at the turn into the 1990s, I was called to serve an exurban church north of Milwaukee.
It was an exhilarating experience. And I was stretched beyond anything I had imagined I was capable of. While it was bumpy, and often painful, I was and continue to be grateful for those years. So, when it came time to leave that church, I felt deeply grateful, and I really wanted to do something of use for them. What I settled on as my gift was being truthful about their building.
It was a lovely bit of architecture, patterned on a dozen or more octagonal barns that had been built along the western shore of Lake Michigan in the previous century. The interior for the sanctuary was startling in that way the functional can be beautiful. At the time I thought of it as a humanist cathedral. Today, I’d say the perfect meeting house for inheritors of the most radical edge of the radical reformation. Also, I was very aware it would make a really great Zen temple of a Western sort.
But it did not meet the needs of the congregation. The sanctuary was large, waiting on a congregation two, maybe three times its size. While the space dedicated to religious education was, frankly, a disaster. It was open and there was no way to really separate out age-appropriate groups. The noise from that bedlam meant visiting families came once, then moved on to the downtown Milwaukee church with its many advantages, most of all its well-ordered classrooms. The downtown church was a place a family could grow spiritually together. Ours, was not.
In a letter to the congregation, I said the church is not the building. And I said they should consider whether it wouldn’t be wise to consider selling the building and purchasing something better configured to who the church really was.
In about a heartbeat I moved from being an okay minister, someone they mostly liked, to someone who never quite got it, and who they were glad to see the back of. A while ago I went to look at their website. I notice I’m not mentioned in their brief history. And I see they’ve shrunk a bit since my time. That said they are holding on. And the building? Ah, that humanist cathedral – it stands tall, now more weather beaten, and if anything, ever more lovely.
We humans take our sacred spaces seriously.
Over the course of my parish ministry, I would end up serving two more congregations with significant buildings. One a perfect gothic chapel designed by the foremost neo-gothic church architect at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the other a magnificent example of the old New England Meeting House, if the builders were the upper crust of an affluent town. Which the builders of that building in 1820 Providence, very much were.
In all these cases the building always was in danger of overtaking the ministry of the churches I served. In the later two cases, the congregations managed to keep the balance between being custodians of something magnificent, genuine cultural treasures, while recalling the truth of that line: the church is not the building.
And it’s in fact always a bit more complicated than the bare words can convey.
So, here we are. I think about us here, in the wonderful old First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. I think specifically of the building part of the church as a sort of Velveteen Rabbit. The stuffing coming out of torn stitching and one eye is missing, spots here and there rubbed bare. But through some magical transformation, no doubt, we are a real church. And I mean the building. Over its years the Los Angeles church, the building, has become sacred space.
What about that? How does this fit into the kingdom, the realm, the commonwealth that is our actual calling? Today I want to reflect a little on two things. Sacred space. Something I didn’t fully appreciate in the youth of my ministry. And that phrase “the church is not the building.” Which is true. Both noticed in the context of today, the feast of a sacred alternative to a rising tide of totalitarianisms, a festival of a kingdom, a realm, a commonwealth of God. A dream. A possibility. A reality.
We notice it at the corner of the eye. We see it in food distribution as well as in our classes and fun and learning and just being together. Here I believe reality and dream meet. And the very physicality of what it is and can be, challenges. In the tensions between dream and reality something powerful and true presents.
As the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell reminds us, our “sacred space is where (we) find ourselves over and over.” In antiquity this might be a grove, or a spot overlooking a vista. It can be a spot marked by a few stones piled one on the other. With the birth of history every culture creates such things in hopefully more permanent ways. Temples devoted to many gods. The gods may change, but often the spots remain. New communities put their temples on top of the ruins of the previous community. Sometimes the original building is repurposed. Sometimes this is an act of spite. But I suggest deeper currents are at play, as well. The hallowing of place by our presence. And the lingering sense from generations of use, of that particular gathering, different over time, and yet something persisting.
So, spaces can be sacred. Beautiful and homely. Spaces can be holy. Like this one.
And sometimes things exist for a time and then pass away. Like a Tibetan sand mandala. Love and attention. A moment. And then it is all swept up and like the Tibetan people themselves, migrations, and camps, and eventually deepening into new homes. Maybe like our Zoom gatherings for church and temple and Zen practice.
Frankly, I believe, it is good to also be reminded the church is not the building. The sacred roosts for a time in a space. And that sacred gathering hallows a place. But. Something else is happening in our sacred gatherings that’s even more important, for which the space is a cradle.
I believe this more important thing can best be described in two lines from the New Testament. In the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 18, verse 22 Jesus is said to say, “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.” And the other is in the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 17, verse 21, where Jesus is again quoted. In the King James version, we are told the Kingdom is within us. In more recent translations the verse usually is rendered that the kingdom is among us.
Kingdom, realm, commonwealth. Within. Among.
I dug into this a bit and it appears the critical word is literally “within,” but contextually can legitimately mean “among.” Adding to this, I love that the third logia of the gospel according to Thomas, that mysterious text which shares the same antiquity at least with the Gospel of John, the only so-called apocryphal text we have that is that old, has something to say on the subject. Without the slippery word. The saying records Jesus as saying:
“If those who lead you say, ‘the kingdom is in the sky,’ then birds will go before you. If they say, ‘the kingdom is in the sea,’ then fish will precede you. In truth the kingdom is within you and among you. When you know yourselves you become the children of God. If you do not, you exist in poverty; you are poverty.”
Okay. Neither Unitarian Universalists nor Zen Buddhists are big on biblical exegesis, the critical examination of Western sacred texts. But I believe there is a universalist or perhaps we can say perennial wisdom in those passages, significant for people of any spiritual orientation. Part of the sacred thread of human spirituality. Wisdom for the ages.
And we’re touching on something important. We’re looking at an alternative to a world where the strongest win, even if the long term cost is the planet itself. We need that alternative. So, let’s look a bit closer.
The first passage is very important. It speaks of the church, our spiritual gatherings, as occurring when two or three come together. Not unlike the original meaning of Buddhist sangha, which was defined by a gathering, in their case of four monastics. And in our times by those who are present to each other. So, a gathering of bodies. With a specific intent.
The gathering itself is the most important thing. The Buddha told us the whole of the spiritual life is found in friendship. A friendship based in a noticing about who and what we are in this world. The kingdom of God. Realm. Commonwealth.
I suspect that’s the bottom line of this. The buildings are important. Our physical gatherings are important. And, more important is what pulls us together. And that is friendship, a recognition of something in and among us that carries with it some obligations.
Even over Zoom and Facebook and YouTube, we can catch that spark. And we can remember. Re-member. We can come back together. Into the kingdom, the realm, the commonwealth. To that place within and among. That place where each individual is precious. To that place where we know from the depths of our bones that each of us within our precious moment, we are created, we are woven, out of each other.
This place within and among.
And from this sacred space we can find the inner resources to live lives worth living. To meet the tyrants great and petty, to respond to the evils of our times and to help in building that more perfect union. You know. The kingdom. The realm. The commonwealth of our spirit’s longing.
Out of the mere act of our coming together, finding a moment of presence, we can be changed, and we can change. It’s like magic. The alchemies of our hearts.
This, I believe, is the message of this Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, our Antifa Sunday.
Out of the turning of our hearts into this place that is both within and among, whatever comes down the road, we will meet it.
Reminders of a kingdom, a realm, a commonwealth found whenever two or three gather with open hearts.
Oh, my. Maybe this is a Thanksgiving sermon.
Thankful for the possibility that lies in our hearts.
Thankful for our hands that can bring that heart knowing into this world.
Thankful for each other.