Monday, March 07, 2016

Liberating Yourself; Liberating Others

This is the sermon I offered to the congregation I serve on March 6, 2016.  As always you can listen if you prefer.

Reading:  Our deepest fear ..." by Marianne Williamson

I want you to look with me in your mind’s eye at a pastel drawing.  There is a figure, sitting on a bench.  The drawing is simple; there are no details; the face is an oval and the body a barely disguised rectangle.  But the edges are soft, and the colors are a swirl of indigo, red, and orange.  The grey bench on which the figure is sitting is in a cage, a cell, and on the floor there are what appear to be open arm and leg shackles.  The door of the cell is open, too.  And the whole thing is encircled by rough curves of blacks and deep blues and purples.
So there’s a figure, sitting in a cage, but the door is open and there are shackles that have been removed.  There’s a sadness, a loneliness to the image.  Can you see it?
Beneath the drawing there’s a scriptural reference:  Isaiah 43: 1-2.  In this passage from the Hebrew Scriptures the figure of God is speaking to the prophet Isaiah (and really, of course, to the nation of Israel as a whole),
But now, this is what the LORD says—[the one] who created you, Jacob, [the one] who formed you, Israel: "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.”
I drew that picture several years ago, and I chose that text.  Or, rather, it was the other way around.  I was on retreat, and we’d been sent to our rooms to meditate on a piece of scripture.  We were given a couple of pages of options to choose from – there were passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, the Christian New Testament, as well as some pieces of secular poetry.  That passage from Isaiah was the one that called out to me.
I sat with it for about half an hour … maybe forty-five minutes.  And as I let the words seep into and through me, the image I’ve described came to me unbidden:  a person sadly sitting in a jail cell even though the door was open and the chains were removed.  He – I – was imprisoned not because of any externally imposed judgement, but rather because of a sentence I had given myself.
I remembered all of this as I was thinking this week about the theme for this month – “What does it mean to be a people of liberation?”  What does it mean to say that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to be about the work of liberation (in the world and in our own lives)? 
Maybe you can relate to some of the feelings that led me to meditate on that passage and to draw that picture of the person and the jail cell.  Maybe you can relate to feeling trapped, imprisoned even, in a job you don’t like but need in order to pay the bills.  Or the worry that even with this job you don’t know how you’ll make it through the month.  Or the blinding fear that if you don’t find a job soon you have no idea what you’ll do.
Or maybe you’re locked in a relationship that isn’t really a relationship anymore because the other person has withdrawn – from the marriage, or the family.  Maybe it’s in that absence that you find yourself imprisoned.  Locked out can be as bad as being locked in.  Either way you’ve got the feeling that you’re stuck over here, while everything else is happening over here, and no matter how hard you try you just can’t get out of where you are to get into where you want to be.
For me it was a spiritual isolation, a spiritual imprisonment, that I was dealing with on that retreat.  And as I meditated on that passage from the book of Isaiah I was struck by its beginning, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.”  Later the point is made even more clearly, “Your ransom has been paid.”  What struck me, from that frame of reference, was that it wasn’t God who’d condemned me, judged me and found me guilty; it was me.  My ransom had been paid; I’d been redeemed; the door was open and the chains were on the floor.  But there I was nonetheless – imprisoned and in need of liberation … from myself.
Hold that thought for a minute.  I want to take this in a slightly different direction now, because there’s another kind of imprisonment I’d wager that all of us know.  A moment ago Arthur read a passage by New Age guru Marianne Williamson, a passage you’ll still sometimes see erroneously attributed to one or the other of Nelson Mandela’s 1994 Inaugural Addresses.  In it she asks, on our behalf, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?”  (That’s how I first knew it wasn’t really by Mandela.  I couldn’t imagine that he’d have thrown around words like, “gorgeous” or “fabulous.”)
Who am I to be … ?  What?  What is it that you don’t think you have the right to be?  Happy?  Content with your life?  Creative?  Assertive?  Generous?  Brave?  Emotionally available?  A leader?
Maybe you secretly love music but were told you couldn’t carry a tune.  (Or, as I’ve said about my father, “couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket if it were stapled to his forehead.”)  Or you’ve wanted to paint, or write, or dance but hold yourself back because you ask yourself, over and over again, whenever you’re on the verge of giving it a go, “Who am I to be …?” whatever it is you’re wanting to be.
Or maybe it’s more serious.  Maybe society has been telling you who and what you can and can’t be.  Maybe you’ve heard it so often that you find yourself at some level believing it and, so, asking yourself:  Who am I to be happily out as gay, lesbian, or bisexual?  Who am I to be free to express my gender as I know myself and not how I might look to others?  Who am I to be …?
Now … here’s where things come together.  At least, here’s where things come together for me.  I hope they do for you, too.  One of the things it means to say that we Unitarian Universalists are a people of liberation is that we Unitarian Universalists keep doing what we’ve been doing, and keep trying to do, here – to create a community where “whoever you are, whomever you love, and however you express your identity” you are welcome and have a place.   We don’t always live up to that vision, but we do try.  We do try.
I don’t want to at all deny the very real dangers there are for some of us to truly, and publicly, claim and be who we know ourselves to be.  There can be real consequences, serious consequences, even life and death consequences to being our full selves in places where that kind of self isn’t welcomed.  But part of what it means for us to claim to be a people of liberation is recognizing that our people, all those heretical Unitarians and Universalists who came before us, have paid our ransom, opened the doors and taken off the shackles others have put on us (or that we’ve put on ourselves).   It means that we are compelled –  by our faith, by our identity as Unitarian Universalists, as a people of liberation – to create communities in which it is safe to come out into the freedom to be who we are, liberated from the images to which others would have us conform.
And that brings us to the Marianne Williamson quote again, and the full title of the sermon, because she says, at the end, “[A]s we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”  Liberating ourselves; liberating others.  It’s one of the things being a people of liberation means, and it’s one of the things that happens here in this beloved community.
Each year at our Coming of Age service at least one of our young people says, in one way or another, that this has been a place – and sometimes the only place – where they could really be themselves.  The only place they felt free, the only place they felt safe, to be who they really are without feeling caged, imprisoned, in society’s judgments of who they should be.  This place, and sometimes only this place.
And this happens in Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country.  There are so many testimonies to this:  Unitarian Universalism, our liberating faith, not only touches lives … not only changes lives … it saves lives.  With no hyperbole I can say that there are people alive today because a Unitarian Universalist congregation provided for them a community that was liberating.
Our pledge drive is under way, and this really isn’t a commercial for it, yet I can’t help but mention it in the context of this sermon because when being asked what this community means to you, to me, to any of us we most often think about what it has done for us.  Maybe it’s provided some intellectual stimulation over the years, or developed and nurtured some good friendships, or given us a place to hear some awesome music.  What we don’t often think about is what it has done for others, and what it can do for others if it’s supported not just enough to survive from year to year but to grow and thrive.
We Unitarian Universalists are a people of liberation, and this congregation, this community, can be a place of liberation – for ourselves, for one another, and for those who may yet be inspired and encouraged by our examples. 

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