Sermon: In the Midst of It All (audio & text)


Some years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a youth group to plan their annual worship service. They had a great theme in mind, all about voices – they as youth felt like they had no voice, but were learning how to speak up. They talked about people who were silenced, and people who spoke out anyway. They saw celebrities who used their platform to speak out against injustice and to make change, and others who had a platform but used it for more superficial things. It was going to be great! During one of our long planning sessions, someone piped up, “Wait! I have an idea! Let’s hand everyone a blank order of service. It will be symbolic, calling attention to the ways people are silenced and the ways people can speak. The absence of words will be really dramatic.”

Inside my head, I thought, “There is no universe in which that is going to be allowed to happen.” But the conversation that followed gave me one of the most important lessons of my ministerial formation, and a strategy I use to this day. Instead of saying, “Yeeeaah, that’s not going to work,” and shutting them down, I said, “Hmm, that’s a really interesting idea.” The first thing I asked was, “What are you trying to accomplish? What is the goal of the blank order of service?” They then articulated a great set of goals, grounded in their theme and their lived experience. So I said, “Wonderful! Now, will this action accomplish the goal you have articulated?” A longer conversation ensued, in which the youth decided that, among other things, the blank order of service would be so confusing and anxiety provoking to the recipients that it would be a distraction and would not reinforce their symbolic intent.

There are a few great learnings from this process. The first is that imposing my own assumptions on their idea would have been bossy and unhelpful. I could easily have claimed my authority as their leader and shut it down. Instead, by engaging them in the conversation, I gave them an opportunity to articulate more clearly their own vision and goals.

I ask these questions constantly in my ministry – some of you may be familiar with them, in fact! What are we trying to accomplish? And will our proposed action meet our stated goals?

Early Friday morning, I joined a group of protestors at the Vance monument. I was asked to be a part of a peaceful clergy presence at a vigil being held in solidarity with those who believe that monuments to Confederate figures ought to come down. If you’ve seen the local news reports, four people were arrested for attempting to remove the plaque from the Robert E. Lee memorial next to Vance. It was a direct action

The statement from the group that organized the event leads with the words, “Four arrested at Robert E Lee Monument during symbolic action against White Supremacy.” The organizers go on to say, “We understand that the removal of this monument would be symbolic of removing white supremacy from the very center of our city. We know that this must be connected to the deep work of ending systemic racism and white supremacy culture here…”

On Thursday when I received the call to participate, I wasn’t immediately sure if I would go. It’s been a busy week, and Friday morning is my writing time. I also take the kids to daycare in the morning and needed to grocery shop in preparation for our eclipse guests. Further, there is so much going on these days, so many conflicting asks and needs, so many different tactics and movements. I am prepared to take my body to the streets, but I want to know why I’m doing it – I care that the things I participate in are effective and meaningful.

I agree that confederate monuments are not useful in our communities. I do not agree that removing them is the most important focus. And yet, I participated in this action. Why is that? Because I know my goal. And in this case, my personal goal was more important than the goal of the action itself.

My highest value in the context of my work to dismantle white supremacy culture is to support and amplify the marginalized voices in my communities. And that made my decision about the Friday action quite simple. I was asked by the women of color who organized the event to attend as a peaceful clergy presence. And so I did.

When I was helping the youth group plan their service, it was my role to shepherd them through their process. I was specifically charged to engage in the conversation with them. In the case of the vigil and action on Friday, my role was different. I had a lot of questions. A lot of theory and experience in my own mind. I’ve planned actions, remember. As a white woman, a professional clergy person, I have authority in the system. I could easily have marched into the slightly chaotic 7am scene and gotten bossy. Instead, I found the people who had called us all together and asked them how I might be most supportive. They answered, and so I set to work singing, holding space, and being a peaceful presence.

In another situation, I might have different goals. My highest value might be different. And that’s an important distinction to make as well. If I know my highest value in a given situation, I will make decisions differently. Sometimes my highest value is efficiency. Sometimes it is collaboration, or relationship-building, or something else entirely. In the context of my ministry among you, I base my assessment of values on your mission statement and the vision that the Board puts forward.

It is important, then, to answer the question, why does the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville exist, why are we here? What, specifically, are we here to accomplish? Compassion, Inspiration, Community, and Justice are the values that guide who we are and what we do. And the next step of our internal process is to further clarify how those values inform the work we do within these walls and out in the community.

Goals and values exist on multiple levels, from the most abstract “meta” level to the smallest of mundane details. And that is why it is important for each congregation to do their own visioning work – We exist as a Unitarian Universalist congregation with a set of overarching values. But each congregation interprets those values differently, and chooses different places to focus. And so does each individual. We are the ones. We must figure it out for ourselves, together. All of your voices and experiences are an essential part of this community, and an essential part of the resistance. It’s worth knowing what your own goals are, and how they fit into the work of this community.

Tomorrow, they say, a dragon will devour the sun. Or a frog. Or sky wolves. It depends who you ask. Long ago, before astronomers gave us scientific explanations, a blackout of the sun was a terrifying prospect, especially since there was no way to know that it was coming. An eclipse was seen as an omen, a sign of God’s disfavor or a sign of disease. Here in Asheville in 2017, we have known about the eclipse for weeks, and have been planning for it – because we’re so close to the path of totality, the population of this area is predicted to triple this weekend. Imagine, on the other hand, what it would be like if you didn’t know about the eclipse. Imagine that you were going about your life one day, and suddenly everything was plunged into darkness.

It is hard to imagine this, in a modern world with computers and science lessons and commercially made eclipse glasses. But the mystery was real and it was frightening. And even today, we can imagine the fault lines that underlie our own reality. We see rifts in our families and our communities, our country and across the world. Charlottesville is just the latest in a series of events that plunge us into fear and confusion.

My colleague Kristin Schmidt says, “… one of the most powerful things religious community can do is help one another in letting our love and commitment grow bigger and stronger than our fear.” In a way, this is what A. Powell Davies says as well, “In this world of blood and sorrow it is scarcely important, hardly worth mentioning, unless in addition we are the beginning of something, unless our religion is new.”

Today, we understand what will be happening when it gets dark tomorrow afternoon, and we know that the light will return in but a few moments. But we can’t be as certain about the outcome of the rapidly shifting and changing political reality in which we live. It is my greatest hope that the violence and despair we see is the last gasp of a harmful system. It is my most fervent prayer that the animosity and vitriol we see around and within our communities is simply the wound uncovered and lanced, ready to begin to heal. But I cannot be certain. I do not know if or when the sun will return. I can’t be sure that the dragon of hate and fear and assimilation will not devour us all.

And so I turn again to my own faith. I turn to my experience of this community coming together again and again and again to show one another that love and commitment can overpower fear. I turn to the photos and reports coming in from around the country:

100 white supremacists and 20-40,000 peaceful counter protesters in Boston

The row of clergy with linked arms in Charlottesville

The courage of Heather Heyer’s mother, who refuses to let her daughter’s untimely death be anything less than a call to action

The fact that I witnessed substantially more honks and waves than middle fingers and shouts of “do you have a job?” on Friday morning

I turn to the faith of the people who came before me, and the strength of those who walk beside me and show me the way.

What is our goal? And are our actions accomplishing that goal?

Love and compassion are the ground underneath us, and even when the fault lines cause that ground to shift, we return again and again to the fierce and tenacious spirit of the Love that will not let us go – the indelible shape of justice which calls us again and again into the work of building, the risk of reaching out, and the promise of a faith grounded in history calling us forth to a new vanguard.

May it be so.

Amen, and Blessed Be.