A few years ago, the New Yorker magazine reprinted a notice they found from a small newpaper in Virginia.
“IMPORTANT NOTICE,” it read in bold, capital letters. “If you are one of the hundreds of parachuting enthusiasts who bought our Easy Sky Diving book, please make the following correction. On page 8, line 7, the words ‘state zip code’ should have read ‘pull rip cord.’
Just imagine all those sky divers streaking across the sky, shouting their zip codes at the top of their voices.
I hope that all of them were grounded enough to temper their following of instructions with good common sense and that they gave the rip cords of their parachutes a hearty tug.
That little story captured my imagination as I began wrestling with this sermon and finding a way to preach to you about the role of this community in our divided and divisive world. The question of how we stay grounded and centered through this period has been much on my mind.
How do we avoid the twin traps of retreating into a comfortable cocoon of like minded folks or promoting a kind of progressive fundamentalism that would deny the humanity of, and be ready only to do battle with those with whom we disagree?
What instructions does religion offer? What instructions does our Unitarian Universalist faith provide? How are we required to show up as liberal religious people? What values and virtues shape our reponse when we confront hate and fear and violence?
Think of the story of David and Goliath. The Philistine and Israeli armies confront one another. They decide that single combat should determine the victor. The Philistines send out Goliah, this giant of a man, 6’9” according to the Bible, which back then truly made him a giant. He is armoured head to toe and armed with sword and javelin and spear.
None of the Israeli soldiers volunteered to fight him.
But David, a shephard boy with only a sling and 5 stones did volunteer.
It is a complete mismatch. If you were a betting person, a person who paid attention to probabilities…Goliath is your man… that’s where you would place your bet.
But we all know the story. David slings a stone that hits Goliath between the eyes, Goliah falls to the ground and David kills him with his own sword.
Malcolm Gladwell, some of you may know, has written a whole book based on this story. He argues that David had more going for him…mobility and vision…and that his sling was much more of a weapon than we might imagine. Shepherd boys could hit a moving target at great distance. They had to in order to protect their animals.
Still, the smart money would have been all over Goliath.
Religion, however, is much less about probabilities and much more about possibilities.
The word religion itself, means to bind together. And we know that we stand much in need of reconciliation.
But religion’s promise is not grounded in scientific prediction. That is why we call faith a leap.
Religion affirms that it is possible to find hope in the face of fear. That it is possible to find empathy in the face of isolation. That it is possible to know self-worth even though we have been demeaned…even though we experience self-doubt.
Ok, I can hear you say. We get it. Religion asks us to look beyond the predictable, to claim a broader and deeper hope than the predictable can ever provide. We get it. You probably even agree that we need something more than the thrust and parry, the attack and counter attack of our current politics.
You get it. And I get it. The call to look beyond the probable and the predictable toward the possible is why I was called to the ministry. And I know that it is why many of you commit yourself to this church. If we were willing to settle for the world as it is, I am not sure we would need this congregation.
We get it.
But what, exactly is it we get? What instructions, what direction are we being offered?
If religion points to the possible rather than the predictable, what, specifically, does liberal religion have to say about all this?
You’ve heard me…over and over…proclaim our inherent worth and dignity, promise that we are all lovable and already loved, that love can save us and will save us if we only open our hearts to its power.
As religious people we are off the charts when it comes to affirmation and even optimism.
But I know I am not the only one here who watches the ways of the world. There is terrorism and its threats, yes. Economic inequality and its many associated struggles. Of course. Sadly, we still very much need that Black Lives Matter banner hanging on our building.
But this week, I’ve been almost stopped in my tracks by those who would demean and abuse women, and justify their behavior with a “boys will be boys” attitude and “its just locker room talk” excuses.
Woman after woman has come forward, perhaps empowered to resistance…at least to tell her story. Perhaps some tipping point is being reached where we will collectively reject not only the words but the reality of the assaults…once and for all. I hope so.
But we know that there are many of our fellow citizens and even our neighbors, women as well as men, who accept not only the language but the behavior. And, even if we are reaching a tipping point, I wonder why the assaults on disabled folks and immigrants, Mexicans, People of Color and even our President… why all of that did not get us to a tipping point before.
As liberal religious folks, how can we sustain our optimistic view of human nature? Does our optimism create blinders for us… strip us of the ability to look human violence in the eye and resist it.
How can we keep talking about the power of love?
To say it plain: We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Does that include the haters? The racists? The zenophobes?
Does it include the abusers?
This is no academic question. This has become for me, and perhaps for you, a real test of faith.
Rev. Bill Schulz is former President of the UUA and just retired from the UUSC. He also served as President of Amnesty International. In his role with Amnesty, he spent a lot of time dealing with the human capacity for violence, working to reduce torture, talking with both torturers and victims. He reflected on his experience in a piece entitled “What Torture Taught Me”:
“Who are the torturers? Are they madmen? Deviants? Hardened criminals? Sexual predators? Almost never. In fact, most police and military units weed out the psychological misfits because they know such people have trouble taking orders. The horrible truth is that the vast majority of torturers are average Joes and, on rare occasions, Janes.”
Liberal religious theology has a hard time making a place for that capacity for violence in our understanding of human nature, our thinking about who we are as human beings.
Let me warn you, that it is hard to talk about these things without using some language that you don’t hear much from this pulpit.
James Luther Adams was the premier Unitarian theologian and ethicist of the 20th century. Adams challenged us to a more fulsome understanding of human nature and its capacity for violence and for…evil. He even resurrected the notion of sin, yes SIN, in a liberal religious context.,
Listen to Adams: “Whether the liberal uses the word “sin” or not, [we] cannot correct our too [optimisitic] view of life until [we] recognize that there is in human nature a deep-seated and universal tendency…to ignore the demands of mutuality and thus to waste freedom or abuse it by devotion to the ideals of the tribe. …It cannot be denied that religious liberalism has neglected these aspects of human nature in its zeal to proclaim the spark of divinity in [human kind.]
I agree with Adams that whether we call these tendencies sin or not, they are there in all of us in different degrees. Lives of privilege can make the triggers harder to reach and the behaviors less likely. That is true. But that does not mean that we are free of them.
This is where it gets truly challenging…theologically…for religious liberals. For us.
What does it mean to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person…each and every one… when we know that there is the potential for violence and even savagery in all of us…when we see some of our neighbors here and some of our fellow humans abroad living lives of violence and abuse right now…today?
What is the meaning of “inherent worth and dignity” if that is so?
I am inviting you to think about a fundamental theological question. Because all theologies wrestle not only with the question of the transcendent, whether it be called God or Buddha nature or human power and possibility…they all wrestle with the nature of that which transcends our individual lives. Theology is the study of the transcendent…literally, the study of God.
But we also all wrestle with the question of who we are and how we understand ourselves in the world.
In the world of religious studies, these questions are called “anthropology.” And they are just as important, and deeply related, to how we think about God or the transcendent. In fact, there is a whole field of study, called systematic theology, that tries to place our ideas about the transcendent and our ideas about who we are in a system of thought that make sense…together. But that is 201 level work. I want to stay with the more basic questions for today.
Both the Unitarian and the Universalist sides of our religious family were born framing a new answer to that question of who we are. The dominant theology in the early US was Calvinism. Calvinism proclaimed that some few of us were elect and predestined for heaven, while most of us were destined for hell. Central to that theological position was the notion of depravity… god-given depravity, if you will…in all of us.
The violence that we do to one another today, the demeaning of categories of people, and even the abuse…would have made perfect sense to the Calvinists. Still does.
But our religious ancestors said no. They said it in slightly different ways, but they both said no. A loving God would not condemn most people to the fires. Why would she? Well, ok, they didn’t say “she.”
But that central affirmation that God, whoever you imagine God to be, is a God of love…that affirmation has sustained liberal religious faith for a long time. And it is being tested again…by the divisiveness and the violence both present and potential that is being unleashed in this season.
Inherent worth and dignity. It cannot mean that we are inherently “good.” We humans do far too much harm to support such a claim.
Nor, for most of us, are we comfortable believing that some higher power created us with that worth and dignity baked in…as it were. Most of us don’t believe in a creator who could or would do that.
Schulz writes: “I suspect that we base our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of human beings on some [vague] notion that aliveness is good and that because human beings represent [a kind of] pinnacle of aliveness, we inherently possess some kind of merit. … I don’t buy that anymore.”
And neither do I. And neither do you.
We would start talking about the value of the lives of animals and even plants. We would question whether our lives matter more than their lives. Many of us, most perhaps, would argue that our lives are just as valuable…in some ultimate sense…no more and no less…than any other lives. Or, to put it another way, our worth and dignity as human beings is no less inherent than that of our pets or any other life in this interconnected web.
Here is what I am coming to believe.
Whatever “inherent” worth and dignity we have is created.
Worth and dignity is constructed and supported and encouraged. And it is fragile…more fragile than we are willing to know, on most days.
The worth and dignity of each one of us has to be known and recognized for it to have meaning. Known and recognized by us, of course and first, but also by our community.
That is why the demeaning of people is so offensive. To belittle another is to deny the possibility that is inherent in that person … it is to strip away our best hope because it is the possibility that each life represents that is somehow grace-filled and holy.
Aren’t we talking about something grace-filled and holy when we discover that simply to educate girls is the very best predictor of elimination of poverty and the reduction of violence in the world. Just offer girls education.
We need to collectively condemn these assaults on women, by word or deed. They are not just “locker room jokes” to be excused. They represent a public health risk that we cannot afford to take.
And that brings me back to the church and to this church in particular, because life is lived in particular, in specific.
The church is a community in which the inherent worth and dignity of each of us can be created and sustained and where the assaults and threats to our value can be resisted.
And our anthropology is a belief in empowerment. We believe that the Beloved Community and our own place in it is in our power to create.
That is our leap of faith.
And in the face of those who would belittle and demean us, any of us, we sustain here a space where our worth and dignity are real and where we remind ourselves to help our neighbors, as many of them as we can imagine, know that their worth and dignity is real as well.
This church stands for the possible…not the predictable. In fact, it is our calling to help make the possible predictable…for everyone. We name that aspiration the Beloved Community. It is an audacious claim to live by.
“…ours is a story of faith and hope and love. I say it is our need for one another that binds us together, that brings us limping and laughing into relationships and keeps us at it when we otherwise might despair at the fix we are in. “
And I say “that one place we can find [what we need] is here.”
And that we need this church now, more than ever.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life and of Love. Great Mystery at the Heart of Things. Dear God.
As we live through these troubling times
And either listen to the attacks and the anger
Or try to shut them out
Help us remember the fundamental religious truth
That we are called to love not hate
And if we can hold on to nothing else
Help us hold on to this:
That there is possibility in our living
And that, all probabilities and predictions aside,
we can choose to create a Beloved Community where our worth and dignity is real
We can choose to build that community up and not to tear it down.