This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the congregation I serve-- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist -- on Sunday, January 29, 2017. As always, you can listen if you've prefer.
After coming home from General Assembly this past summer, our Director of Faith Development, Leia Durland-Jones, told me that I should watch the Sunday morning service and, particularly, to listen to the sermon that had been given by the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd. Not that much after, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, told me that I needed to hear it – “You’ve really got to listen to this sermon!” she said. It’s really, really powerful.” That was in early July.
Well … a week or so ago, while I was home sick, I finally cued it up and watched. And they were right. Oh my goodness, they were right. I put a link to the video of the sermon in the order of service. (Or you can watch the whole service.) I strongly encourage you to watch it, because it isn’t just Nancy’s words, but her delivery – and not just her tempo, tone, and body language, but her presence as she delivered it – that makes it so powerful. (And please, please don't wait half a year to watch it!)
Her sermon called out a sermon from me. Two, actually. The first one I’d written a little earlier in the week, so it was all done and I was feeling pretty good about it last night when I decided to re-watch Nancy’s. Afterward, I realized that that first sermon was really only a little more than a book report, and that the real sermon hadn’t made its way to the surface yet.
Nancy begins by lifting up the importance of relationship in building up our communities into places where real change, real transformation, can come about. She quotes the anti-racist organizer Mickey ScottBey Jones – whom she calls “wonderful” and “deep-spirited” – as saying:
relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward. Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own - it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences. We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters.
Let me say that again – “We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those encounters.” You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.” The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has said, “The task of religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.” In other words, we exist to facilitate these kinds of deep, real, and, yes, raw-rubbing encounters.
“And yet,” and I’m quoting Nancy again here, “we know that there are so many ways to hide from the discomfort inherent in a holy abrasion. There are plenty of opportunities presented each and every day in the life of the church to back away from the hard work of continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world.”
The first she names is our misunderstanding that congregational life is going well when we’re happy. When we’re getting what we want out of it. She says:
One of the ways to block the holy abrasion that brings change is to imagine that both congregational life and religious liberalism itself are contests complete with winners and losers and if we don’t get our way – well – we are wanderers, worshippers – and lovers of leaving, are we not?
Ours is a religious movement that is part of the “free faith” tradition, and many of us interpret that to mean that we are free to come and go as we please. If things get unpleasant, or not to our liking, there’s nothing saying that we have to come, is there? Even if we did have a hell to threaten you with, most of us are such questioners of authority that we wouldn’t take it seriously anyway. For many of us, here and in our wider movement, we take full advantage of the escape clause we see in our “free faith,” and feel no compulsion to show up when we get busy or things here get hard.
Yet this work of “continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world,” that is our work takes showing up again and again, even when we don’t particularly want to. Even, truth be told, when we’d really rather not, because we know it’s going to be messy and we know it’s going to be hard, and we know we’re not going to get what we want.
Yet there’s an even more pernicious way we undercut the possibility of that sandpaper of relationship bringing about that holy abrasion that may rub us raw at times but which ultimately and inevitably smooths the way for change. In her sermon, Nancy put it this way.:
[T]he greatest impediment to the efficacy of the liberal church today is not the real fights and real failures we get into when we’re doing hard work – it is the fake fights we waste our time on while our own people and the people all around us struggle to survive.
I worry literally every day [she continued], that in this moment of utmost urgency - we, the very ones the world has been waiting for, are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights that distract us from the work at hand.
We go over and over again who’s a humanist and who’s a theist and who got their way in what bylaw discussion and what color we should paint the church bathroom - so protected by our busyness that the real fights, the honest conversations, and the transformative sandpaper of real relationship presented to us Sunday after Sunday, week after week, slip right past us and we remain thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.
“Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.” I will confess that as I listened to this prophet in our midst speaking truth to our movement I felt … depressed and discouraged. A cynicism overtook me, and I discovered a despair that we, as a movement, as a congregation, and as individuals, may well simply and forever remain stuck being “thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”
A couple of days later, I had a dream. I was an observer, not a participant, and what I observed is what I took to be a Jewish congregation about to begin its worship. The Rabbi – who undoubtedly not coincidentally looked exactly like Nancy McDonald Ladd – was feeling anxious about what she knew was going to happen. And just before she entered the sanctuary she had an idea, and called over a few of the congregation’s children. She gave each a small, flat piece of wax and asked them to bring it to her when she called on them.
I don’t remember anything about the beginning of the service, but during the sermon portion, the Rabbi held up a small, think, black-bound book that was clearly one of their sacred texts. She called it “the Tishuba,” and she began a litany saying, “the Tishuba calls us to <this>, and the Tishuba calls us to <that>.” I don’t remember all of the this-es and that-s, but I do recall her saying that the Tishuba called them to welcome people from the transgender community, and to work with undocumented immigrants and refugees. And after she named each of these callings, she asked one of the children to come up and melt their wax onto the cover of the book, so that in not too long the face of it was complete obscured with blobs of differently colored wax. When it was, she held it up and said that this was no longer a generic Tishuba, it was now their Tishuba, they had made it their own, so that now, instead of saying, “the Tishuba calls us to …”, she would say, “our Tishuba call us …”
I woke from this dream with tears pouring down my face. And that day I got to wondering what our “Tishuba” might be. We don’t have a sacred book to point to, we share no holy writ. We don’t even share all that many rituals and traditions throughout our movement. And then I thought about the flaming chalice.
As we prepare to light the chalice at the beginning of the service I often say that it is “a sign and symbol of our faith.” During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee was in Europe, among other things helping Jews and other persecuted people to find safety. Other organizations there had a logo, something to put on business cards and letter heads, but also something to signify who they were. The Service Committee commissioned a man named Hans Desutsch, a German cartoonist who’d fled German, to create for them a symbol, and he created the first flaming chalice.
This symbol, this flaming chalice is more than just, as someone once disparaged it, “a candle in a martini glass.” And it’s more than just a light to illuminate and affirm the views and positions we already hold, or to provide warmth for us to bask in in our self-satisfied complacency. No. It is a beacon, a beacon that should be leading us forward, out of our sanctuaries, out of our congregational buildings, out, even, of our devotion to our false fights, and out into the world that so desperately needs its light. It is our Tishuba.
And our Tishuba calls us to leave behind the false fight of who has the authority to make what decision to have, instead, the real conversation about what the right decision is;
Our Tishuba calls on us to leave behind the false fight of whether Joys and Sorrows and spoken, or written, or eliminate completely to have, instead, the real conversation about whether we are really listening to one another – not just for those things we agree on but where we truly differ;
Our Tishuba calls on us to leave behind the false fight of Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter to have, instead, the real conversation about the system of White Supremacy that saturates our society and in which we are all complicit, and what we can do to dismantle it and build a new way in the world;
It calls on us to leave behind the false fight of whether to use God language, or not use God language, and to have, instead, the real conversation about what is holy, and what is sacred, and what the holy and sacred call us to do;
Our Tishuba calls us to leave behind the false fight of who’s right and who’s wrong, so that we might have, instead, the real conversation of who we are and how we can be together and how can model this for the world.
When I woke from my dream I thought that the word “tishuba” sounded familiar, so I looked it up. Google told me that Gora Tish Uba is a city in western Kazakhstan. But the similar sounding word “teshuvah,” is a Hebrew word which means “repentance,” or, “returning.” The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sometimes called The Days of Teshuvah, and it is said that an observant Jew will do teshva each and every day, searching for the ways they have fallen short, committing to not make the same mistakes again, and making amends when amends are appropriate. (Those are the three aspects of teshuvah.)
I find it meaningful that that which was calling that congregation – and which is calling ours – is the idea of repentance, or returning to our true selves, of emptying ourselves of our hubris so that we might humbly engage with that holy abrasion we experience in real relationship. To paraphrase the Reverend McDonald Ladd, this holy abrasion of the spirit is only born in deep relational encounters across differences, and we, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters.
The stakes are high, my friends – higher than many of us have had any idea – and there simply isn’t time to waste on our fake fights – no matter how important they may seem – and our instance on having things the way we want them to be. We must leave these behind – must leave these behind – so that we can do the oh so necessary work the world calls us to.
I’m going to give Nancy the last words:
[T]he world does not need another place for like-minded liberal leaning people to hang out together and fight about who’s in charge. The world does not need a place where you or I or any single one of us is going to get what we want.
What the world needs is a movement like ours to step more fully into our higher calling - to serve as an instrument for encounter - with one another, with the holy and with the world. So that we might love more fully, and speak more truly and serve with greater efficacy, in such a time as this.