A Universalist Sermon for the Fourth of July

A Universalist Sermon for the Fourth of July July 3, 2022

 

 

THE FIFTH OF JULY
What’s Wrong, and What Might be Right

James Ishmael Ford

What a time. What a time.

Truthfully, too much all at once.

Nine days ago, Donald Trump’s… Actually, in this regard Trump is Mitch McConnell’s cat’s paw. So, really, McConnell’s supreme court has declared Roe null and void. With that trigger laws have been triggered. And as of today, abortion is legal in only twenty states and the District of Columbia.

Along the way in these past few weeks McConnell’s supreme court has also made gun control increasingly difficult, has begun to dismantle the wall between church and state, and has hogtied the Environmental Protection Agency even as the world’s climate crisis has loomed into an existential threat for all of us.

At the same time the January 6th committee has been picking up a lot of rocks and seeing a lot of bugs scurrying around. Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, and refugees are flooding both internally and into Europe. The near East, Afghanistan, China, swaths of Africa. War and hunger. War and hunger. Racism. Homophobia. Refugees and immigrants. Lots of innocents becoming scapegoats. And all around the globe a lot of romancing of big men on white horses coming to put everything right. These are hard times.

Turning back Roe seems like some last straw. Lots of false piety and concern expressed for hypothetical babies. Butter wouldn’t melt in those mouths, even as they make the real world hellish for more and more people.

Honestly, I do not feel ready to give voice to our community’s anguish, nor to find a word of hope within this mess all around us.

And. I drew the short straw.

So, here I am. In this time of political crisis in our republic, in this time where we as the American people are about as close to polarized as can be without actually shooting at each other, and even that increasingly feels to be on the table; with all that, what can I say?

Anyone who tells you they know how all 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. With that there are a few things we can know. We are called to make choices. And every choice, including resting within one’s privileges and trying to sit it out, all will have consequences.

As we’re all aware, tomorrow, the 4th of July rolls around. Traditionally it’s a time for barbecues, for fireworks, and for celebrating something interesting. A dream if you will. Dreams are intriguing things, sometimes they contain treasures. There might even be hope lurking within one dream or another.

I find myself thinking again of that story about when Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. It lives in my heart. It tells me something. And I share it. 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.”

What is the dream? Dr King’s dream. 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? Our moment? If the 4th of July captures a communal dream, what is the dream for the 5th of July? What comes next? What dream will shape our actioins? What dream carries us forward?

I find myself thinking of one of the cradles of the dream. Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. It was the church that Dr King co-pastored until his assassination. It was the church Representative John Lewis, of blessed memory, belonged to. Also, as you almost certainly know its most recent paster, the Reverend Raphael Warnock, who led that community for fifteen years, is now the first African American Democrat ever elected to the senate from a former Confederate State.

I think about that church. Dreams birthing into this world. And the cradles of those dreams. I think about the places where dreams are nourished and brought to life.

With that I think about this church.

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. At least I hope he failed. While he has lumbered off to Mar-a-Lago, the hatreds he fanned continue to smolder and dominate the Republican party’s primary elections.

There are lots of dreams contending for our hearts.

I suggest we are at an inflection point. The question is which dreams will prevail on the 5th of July? What will our world shape into? What dreams will guide us as we put flesh on them?

Well. How about Martin’s dream? How about Raphael’s? 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? Episcopal Presiding 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. The Religious Left. What is the dream of that great cloud of witnesses? And how do we find ourselves, us, you, me, within that dream? And. And. How can that dream shape the 5th of July?

I think of these people of the religious left. They, we, come from many spiritual traditions. They include Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and followers of indigenous religions. Each coming together with something more than a vague feeling of good will, and some sense of tolerance.

There are a passing strange crowd. From one angle they can only seem fully incompatible. From another, we can see the dream. The dream, the thing that can bind us, that can guide us, that can, let me say it. The dream that can save this poor broken world. It is a golden thread binding together those who at first glance seem totally incompatible. It’s about something vastly more than tolerance.

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 sheltering the Religious Left. This 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 sang that dream right into our hearts. I love how our UU Hymnal captures his words and folded them into one of the more compelling paragraphs informing my life:

“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.”

Here 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.

Dreams. 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.

As Thich Nhat Hanh taught us, “Being peace.” Not precisely two. Not exactly one. Being and peace as an eternal dance. As they say justice is what love looks like in action. Being and doing, again, not exactly one, not precisely two. Love dreamed into the world.

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. 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. It isn’t static, it’s dynamic. 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.

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 Fundamentalists 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. Love.

As it happens, for good and for ill, we are the organized expression of universalism in our time and place. Okay, barely organized. Always at the edge of falling apart. 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 he 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. So he joins with that other interesting Christian theologian who knows us so well, John Cobb, who observed 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. Dreaming love into the world.

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.

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 it’s cradles. Like a mustard seed and the great bush, a nest for those birds of heaven.  Like the kingdom of Heaven. Like, well, like our congregation. This one.

Love.

Again, these are dangerous times. Dreams are birthing into the world. Which shall we midwife? The choice, dear ones, is in our hands.

Love.

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.

Love.

Let us manifest all the mysteries of love. Let us learn how to manifest justice. Let us help each other in the healing of this world.

Our dream. Our 5th of July dream.

Amen. And, amen.

 

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