“Good News! Chariot’s a comin’ … and I don’t want it to leave me behind.”
That Gospel hymn calls up memories from my childhood. Chariot’s a Comin, Swinging Low so we can all get on board. We sang of Good News, that final hope.
In the Baptist Church in small town North Carolina where I spent part of my youth, the rhythms were a bit more soulful, more the Mahalia Jackson version…but still.
The sense of support and acceptance that I knew in that community could not have been more complete. It justified the hope expressed in those hymns. At least it tried.
The food that was often served after the long services on summer Sundays didn’t hurt either.
Chariot’s a Comin! The theology that gave that chariot its power…well, that never spoke to me. Neither the focus on human sinfulness nor the promise of “pie in the sky bye an’ bye” made sense to me even as a very young man. I saw too much good in my own family and in our community to focus on personal sinfulness. I also had too high an opinion of my self to believe that personal shortcomings and mistakes needed much attention. At least not for me.
I was, you see, well on the way to becoming a good Unitarian. You may have heard the joke that the Universalists, who believed in a God of Love, thought that God was too good to damn them, but the Unitarians believed they were too good to be damned by God.
That was me then.
I’ve developed a more balanced view of myself over time…at least I hope I have.
Back then, I did not miss the oppression and the violence in the world. But it seemed to me that we ought to fix the things that pressed us down, pressed all of us down…not wait for that chariot. Because all of us are worthy, each and every one, here and now. None of us should be left behind.
I was, though I did not know it at the time, becoming a Unitarian Universalist.
I am so glad to be back in this pulpit. So glad to be here to help honor Ellie Hodder’s contributions to our ministry. So glad to be back looking out at faces I know and love.
For our visitors this morning, we are so happy that you decided to join us. You will find me in this pulpit most Sundays. But last spring I was called away to our denominational headquarters in Boston, where I had served as President before coming to this church.
The person who succeeded me as President had resigned amidst allegations of racism in hiring. How could that be? In our liberal religious community? With our commitments to justice? Other leaders had resigned as well and the institution was floundering.
I was asked to be part of a three person team of Co-Presidents, all persons of color, to serve until a new President could be elected.
Our Board of Trustees agreed that I should go. Our staff here stepped up to make it possible.
So I have been away, mostly, since mid-April, being pastor to our larger family of faith. There was much to do and it required real focus that my experience as past-President and as a person of color made me well suited for.
But, amidst the intensity of that work and the search for truth and a way forward for Unitarian Universalism…
Amidst the complexity and questionable wisdom of asking three African American religious leaders to minister to and calm mostly white Unitarian Universalists…
Despite the tension of providing both painful truth telling and reassurance…
Confronting again the challenges that persons of color so routinely face in our faith,
I found myself having to search, once again, for the promise of this faith, needing to affirm for myself, once again, that we do have Good News to offer.
As sometimes happens, help came from an unexpected direction.
It is not uncommon, at denominational headquarters in Boston, for reporters, especially from religious publications, to ask for interviews. And the reality that our progressive faith was being challenged to inspect the culture of white supremacy within our own institutions was news. Other faith communities were watching us…again…aware that we so often chart the course on social issues that others struggle with later.
So, requests for interviews are normal.
It is not a common event however to get a request for an interview from Alhurra TV, an Arabic language news station that broadcasts to the Middle East, North Africa and, increasingly, to southern Europe.
The interviewer was Algerian by birth.
They had heard about the UUA’s support for Muslim communities here in the US and wanted to tell that story.
Alhurra is affiliated with the Voice of America, the US government supported effort to present a positive picture of American democracy around the world. I did not want to be part of a right wing “fake news” effort to present the US as unbigoted.
So, we, first, assured ourselves that this was not going to be a propaganda piece. We checked the track record of the interviewer (he had done some fine reporting) and finally said “yes.”
The interview began with questions about how Unitarian Universalism supports our Muslim neighbors. I told the story of being in Washington on 9/11 and going to the American Muslim Council the following morning to offer support. Like First Unitarian here in Portland, UU congregations across the country have stood with local Muslim communities and raised our voices against religious fear and hate and violence.
I told the reporter of our work this year to oppose the Muslim travel ban.
I told him that our faith values the wisdom from all the great faith traditions, including Islam; how we quote the Sufi poet Rumi more often than we quote St. Paul. And I showed him books on Islam published by our Beacon Press: a biography of Mohammed, children’s stories from Islam that we use in our religious education.
The interviewer was fascinated. He probed:
“But what do you believe? What do Unitarian Universalists believe that calls you to such a positive relationship with Islam?”
There was that question again. What do we believe? Many even long time UU’s have a hard time answering it.
How do you explain a faith without a creed? Without a dogma? How do you describe the power we find in our theological pluralism…theists and atheists; Christians, Buddhists and Muslims; humanists and those who resist any one label for their spiritual path…many of us spiritual but not religious…all coming together in hope, not in hate.
I answered first from our history.
I spoke of our inheritance from the privileged, white, Harvard educated Unitarians of New England, who asserted that there was only one God. Those Unitarians who valued human reason and preached the power of human possibility to overcome injustice. I spoke of how that side of our tradition has led us to embrace many names for what is holy and to welcome wisdom from many sources to support us on our journey.
And I spoke of many contributions of the more working class, unlettered Universalists, also from New England, who knew God as an embracing Love, there for each and every one of us, without question or qualification or requirement. For Universalists, no one can be left behind. For Universalists, the chariot that’s comin’ is for us all.
I also talked of our faith as a work in process, needing to learn as we continue building the Beloved Community…able, at our best, to see how we fall short of our aspirations so that we can try to change, try to move closer to that vision of the Beloved Community.
That need to learn and change was critical in shaping my own leadership for our denomination in these difficult times.
I don’t use the word sin very often. But I have become much more aware of human shortcomings…my own and our own and painfully aware of the shortcomings of this society we have created…
In Charlottesville, VA yesterday there was violence at a white supremacist demonstration, protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Some of the demonstrators were in KKK garb, some with Nazi signs chanting “Blood and Soil” and “White Lives Matter.” They came wearing helmets, carrying clubs and guns.
But there were resisters as well, including many clergy. One of the white nationalists drove directly into the crowd of resisters, killing one and wounding many.
These white nationalists have been empowered by our national politics. David Duke, of the KKK, who was present, urged our President to look in the mirror and remember that it was white Americans who put him in office.
Our President, when he spoke, could not even condemn white nationalism for the terrorism that it is. We have not had such an inadequate response from a US President since the days of lynchings.
As liberal religious people, as Unitarian Universalists we are called to resistance. That is certain.
But our faith cannot end at the barricades or the protests in the streets.
Hosea Ballou, an early Universalist, began his ministry as a circuit riding preacher in Vermont and New Hampshire.
One day, so the story goes, he encountered a Baptist preacher on the road who asked him about Universalism.
Ballou spoke of the God of Love that he experienced and proclaimed his belief that that God would condemn no person to hell. “No Hellers” the radical Universalists were sometimes called.
The Baptist was amazed. “If I were a Universalist, then I could steal your horse and all your possessions and not worry about eternal punishment when I die?”
“That’s right,” responded Ballou, “but if you were a Universalist that thought would never cross your mind.”
Universalism called for a change of heart.
UU minister Gretchen Haley, for a time, served as Chaplain at the Denver Women’s Prison, where worship meant the imprisoned women gathering on Friday nights around a CD player blasting what some call “Jesus-is-my-boyfriend” music.
The inmates would sing with all their hearts, raise their hands in the air, swaying together…while Gretchen stood near the wall watching, arms crossed, disapproving.
Over time, though, she came to know the women, the harshness of their lives and the need for love that they did not try to deny. The need for love and acceptance that Gretchen knew in her own life.
She writes, “So often, we resist with our rational brains the experiences our hearts most crave. We talk ourselves out of the love that stands so close, [right beside us]… To receive love like that requires an on-going willingness to be vulnerable, an on-going journey of transformation, of breaking open and changing, being born and reborn again.”
One Friday, the song “Change my heart, oh God, make it ever true. Change my heart” was playing and the women were singing and swaying. And Gretchen realized that she needed to stop standing in judgment. What she needed to do was to uncross her arms and join that circle…as uncomfortable as it was for her.
Because she too had experienced hurt and shame. Not the same hurt and shame as the women she was serving. But hurt and shame all the same. Because these are human things we all know.
Unitarianism promises us that we all have power, and the ability to help shape our lives and even help that arc of the universe bend toward justice.
It is understandable that that message of empowerment came so readily to those privileged Unitarians.
The Universalist promise is that we are all loved. Not only lovable if we change and improve…but already lovable and already loved.
While the Unitarian promise speaks to our power, the Universalist promise speaks to our need.
We all know disappointment and we all know joy. And if we can find connections at that level, that human level, then changes of heart can happen…for those with whom we disagree and for us.
It is a way of being in the world that requires both courage and faith. Being a Unitarian Universalist is not for the faint of heart.
“What do you believe?” that Arabic interviewer asked me.
We think of belief as a set of intellectual propositions that explain the world and our place in it.
In the west and especially in much of the Protestant tradition out of which our faith grew, the word “believe” is central.
But that word, believe, was used to translate a Latin word…credo.
And credo was not about intellectual belief. Credo is a verb, first. And it means “to set my heart upon.” It was about commitment and about love.
It shares the same root as the German word belieben…to belove.
The most important question for us is not what we believe, but what we belove.
What do we set our hearts upon?
Every week in this church we strive to nurture the individual spirit and together build the Beloved Community.
“When we pause to remember who we are:
Companions on this grand experiment called life,
When we take a moment to shed the ways we have been carefully taught:
To lead from fear…to believe that we are separate…
When we take a moment to … hear and see each other into existence, into community…
when we answer the call of Love,
then we are…building the world we dream about.”
Then we can uncross our arms and live into hope.
That would be Good News, indeed.
Will you pray with me now?
Spirit of Life. Great mystery beyond our naming. Dear God.
In these warm summer days, may we find the renewal we need.
There is so much greed and violence and hate that we must continue to resist.
There is so much love of power that we must seek to replace with the power of love.
We have only begun to imagine justice and mercy.
Help us hold fast to our vision of what can be.
May we remember the hope that is in our history,
And find the courage and the stamina
To work for that constant rebirth
Of freedom and justice
That we set our hearts upon,
That is our only creed
And our most urgent dream.