Anthem: Lift Every Voice and Sing
Sermon: Answering the Call of Love
“Stick to the paths of Love and Justice.
Your restless hearts will find me there.”
That sentiment from the Psalm is echoed in our anthem.
“Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.”
In my fifth and sixth grade classroom, in a Black school in Asheville, NC, we sang Lift Every Voice each week.
The lyrics were written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and recited first by the 500 students of a segregated school in Florida where Johnson was principal. The year was 1900, not a full generation since slavery, and the recitation was to honor and welcome their graduation speaker, Booker T. Washington. The music was composed by Johnson’s brother a few years later and in 1911, the infant NAACP, just two years old, christened it the Negro National Anthem.
“Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our god, true to our native land.”
It was a pledge of allegiance to the American dream, not the racial nightmare of Jim Crow. And that was hard for some of us to understand, sitting in a segregated classroom in a segregated city in a segregated America.
It was also an affirmation that the work of redeeming America and ending the racial nightmare was holy work. Walking that path of love and justice is where we would find God. “Your restless hearts will find me there.”
Lift Every Voice was…and is…a call to redeem both the American dream and religious faith…BOTH of which were…and are…corrupted by the culture of white supremacy. Both of which needed…and need…redemption.
Or to say it another way, working for justice is an act of both patriotism and of prayer.
Commitment to the Beloved Community is a religious commitment and acts of constructing that community are spiritual acts, even prayerful acts.
Is it hard for you to imagine protest marches as acts of prayer? Isn’t prayer quiet? Contemplative? Private?
Anyone who has seen images of dervishes in the Sufi tradition, whirling to music and hoping to loose themselves in connection to the holy will never see prayer as only quiet and contemplative. And those of us who have taken part in Friday prayer with our Muslim neighbors know that prayer can be both public and very embodied.
It was W.E.B. DuBois who said, “I prayed for 20 years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
His prayers, of course, were for freedom from slavery.
For those who are on the margins, claiming freedom is an affirmation of agency. Walking toward freedom, for duBois, was an embodied and answered prayer.
Acts of agency and affirmation can be prayerful.
Our theology is not to wait for love and justice, complaining of their absence, but to seek them and nurture love where we find it. We pray “with our feet” as well as on our knees.
How shall we move toward the Beloved Community? Yhis morning, I want to hold up at least one way.
When Robin DiAngelo shared the pulpit with me two weeks ago, we spoke briefly of Intersectionality.
As the two of us stood in this pulpit together…a tall African American male and a short White female…it was not just race that our presence brought to the table. Male privilege was present for me, just as white privilege was present for her. There is a privilege that comes with height as well.
But the Beloved Community, at least any image of Beloved Community worth pursuing, invites us to bring all of our selves, all of our identities to the table, to be known for who we fully are.
Intersectionality helps us not lose the truth of experience that is lived in multiple identities by focusing on just one.
Kimberle Crenshaw coined the phrase, intersectionality, and the example she first used dealt with race and gender. She is a lawyer and the example came from employment law.
Some time ago, a group of black female job applicants sued for employment discrimination. They had all applied at a plant in the Midwest, but none of them had been hired. The law was clear, even then, that discrimination based on race or on gender was illegal.
But the court, at least the first court, turned them down.
Let me give you the court’s rationale.
The court said that the plant did hire women…for office jobs, and all white women. But the plant did hire women.
And the plant did hire African Americans…for jobs on the factory floor, all African American men. But the plant did hire African Americans.
And so if the plant hired women and it hired African Americans, then Black women, in the eyes of the court, had no legal complaint…even though not one of them was hired.
It was not until you looked at the intersection of race and gender that any discrimination could be perceived…later…by an appellate court.
You literally could not see the discrimination if you looked only through the lens of race, or only through the lens of gender.
Intersectionality helps prevent the erasure of human experience that is lived in more than one identity…which is every human experience in this sanctuary. None of us are adequately described by only one of our identities…because
Not all queer folks are white
Not all people of color are straight
Not all homeless folks are mentally ill
Not all immigrants are uneducated
Am I being clear?
Not all white women are able bodied
Not all African Americans are Christian
That is why it is critical that as we think about the culture of white supremacy, we understand that culture to be not just about race…
The culture of white supremacy is about race, clearly, but it is also about patriarchy, and heterosexism, it is about ability and education, it is about all of the unspoken assumptions about who is truly and fully seen as human…and therefore who is truly and fully welcome to take part in the American dream.
Intersectionality calls on us to expand our vision, to stop erasing human experience because it does not fit our preconceptions or our analysis.
Using intersectional lenses helps us see more clearly the human experience that we want to welcome in the community we claim as beloved.
At the UUA, Standing on the Side of Love, the song and those yellow shirts, became synonymous with our commitment to justice as a faith. It is why we came to be called the “love people” by our interfaith partners.
The phrase, and the song, Standing on the Side of Love, came out of our faith’s commitment to Marriage Equality, though it rapidly was expanded to include all of our justice work. Several people, myself among them, claim to have coined the phrase.
I am not going to litigate the authorship of that phrase this morning.
But I know for certain how the song came to be. Jason Shelton, one of our fine UU musicians, was sitting in my office on Beacon Hill in 2004. We were preparing for a meeting of some kind. It was during the very aggressively contested legislative response to the Massachusetts court decision to legalize same-sex marriage. A reporter from a major news outlet called and I told Jason just to sit while I took the call.
The reporter asked how UUism would respond to the marriage controversy and I answered that UUism would “stand on the side of love.”
Jason stood up, signaled that he would be back in a few moments. When he returned, the interview now over, he had the melody and the first verse of Standing on the Side of Love written on a sheet of notebook paper.
The phrase, the song, and those yellow shirts have served us well. But before too long, members of the UU disability community began asking why we had to “stand,” or only “stand” when many of them rolled.
That word “stand” made them feel invisible…just as the race and gender discrimination laws had made the black women who applied at that plant invisible.
And so, finally, Jason decided to change the lyric…and the name of the song…just last year…from Standing on the Side of Love to Answering the Call of Love.
The reactions to that change…here in this sanctuary…may well be divided.
Why do we have to give up a phrase that we have come to love, a phrase that has become an important part of our identity? Can’t we just interpret that word “stand” as a metaphor? Or hear it as “take a position,” not literally stand on legs and feet? Why can’t those disability advocates allow us to keep using a phrase that has become part of our vocabulary?
Opinions will be divided…among differently abled folks as well as among the temporarily able bodied.
Here is what I know. When the suffrage movement decided not to include the vote for black women in their advocacy…they left so much work for us to do.
And when Marriage Equality was presented as salvation for every queer individual, it left transgender folks with a different battle to fight.
What I know is that a partial promise will always remain only part of a promise. Half a loaf may be better than none, but it always remains half a loaf and somebody is going to go hungry.
And I also know that “Answering the Call of Love” is great religious language that I am happy to claim. Because we are called as liberal religious people, called by love, and called to answer by praying with our lives.
May there truly be more love
With no labels
And no binary
And no preface
And no qualification
And no arithmetic
And no limit.
May there be more love to liberate us all, and may we keep on, today and every day, until we find it, and share it, inch by precious inch, with one another and the world.
So may it be.
Will you pray with me now.
Spirit of Life and of Love. Presence that welcomes all that we are. God of honesty and of truth.
May our prayers be for wholeness
For ourselves and for our world
May our prayers be for justice
For each of us and for all of us
May our prayers
Open our hearts to healing
And help us see the healing
That we can do.
May our prayers, whether they are
Spoken quietly in our hearts
Or proclaimed loudly through our witness
In the world…
May our prayers always be answers to
What love is calling us to do.
Even when we are weary,
And the ways of the world have worn us down,
May we discover that we can still hold each other
And still hold hope
And may we come to know that every day is a good day to answer the call of love.
So may it be. Amen