Sermon: Showing Up, Staying Put (audio and text)

We are living in trying times. I have heard and said this countless times over the past few years. It seems that each week, sometimes each DAY, there is another frightening story on the news. We try to work to change the world, and it pushes back and back and back on us, and it is frightening and demoralizing. And the ways we talk about how we make it through begin to seem inadequate. I find it more and more difficult to find the hope in the world around us. Most days I’m not even sure where to begin, it feels so daunting.

Now is a time for digging deep and trusting the seeds we have planted in the past.

But what do we tell the children?

We tell them that we will do our best to protect them, but that everything is not OK. We tell them we are sorry that we didn’t fix this sooner. We tell them that we don’t know what is going to happen, but that we will hold hands and fight together.

And we need to tell ourselves these things, too:

But when it comes down to it, it matters less what we tell them, but what we show them and how we teach them to resist.

Because that’s where we are today. We must resist. The people in power are giving us lots of information about who they are and what they are going to do – here in NC, we have already seen unprecedented legislation passed limiting the powers of the incoming governor. North Carolina is an example of what will likely happen on a national level, and since we have already been part of the resistance for the past three years, we have knowledge, strategies, and support to share.

There is work to be done, as there always is.

My work has fundamentally changed in the past eight weeks. I still spend most of my time working on daily tasks related to running programs in the church. I meet with you when you have pastoral needs, and go to my regular meetings for social justice. And at the same time, I am now constantly gathering information and making connections related to the Resistance. There is no time to wait and see what is going to happen. It is already happening. Harassment and bullying are up. Legislative retaliation has happened. And all the news on the incoming administration is showing us exactly what to expect. And so we must resist NOW.

What does resistance look like? On a fundamental level it means refusing to accept ablesim, attacks on democracy, racism, bullying, anti-Semitism, voter suppression, environmental harm, mistreatment of immigrants, corporate personhood, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, pseudoscience, authoritarianism, and the patriarchy. That list came from a graphic made by a UU for social media – it says that our UU values call us to resist these things.

These are all things that we have been against, as a congregation, for a long time. And so the first important thing we can do to resist is to keep doing what we have been doing. We have relationships within this community that we can cultivate and build upon.

We will continue to provide practical training for how to resist – like the Active Bystander training that Joy McConnell so ably led last week. In the new year, as part of our Earth & Social Justice Ministry, I will begin leading Resiliency Circles, which are small groups that provide connection, support, and spiritual reflection to people doing activist work. In addition, ESJM is launching Action Wednesdays beginning January 18, a monthly opportunity for social justice working groups to come together and focus on tasks and planning. You will have more ideas, I am sure, and we want to hear them so that we can support you in making them happen.

There is still personal work to be done. We have to own the ways we have participate in the oppressive system – not in a self-flagellating way, but in a way that allows us to move out of paralysis and fear to action.

Because there are some of us in this room who have felt for most of our lives that we are able to trust the system. And we need to own that as we are beginning to see that it is not, in fact, trustworthy. It is becoming clearer and clearer that if we ever could trust it, by now it is irrevocably broken. We need to own our unintentional ignorance and understand that there are also people in this room who have never been able to trust the system. We can look at what happened at the NC statehouse on Friday as an example of the system failing in a profound way. And we can listen to what our siblings of color have been telling us for decades. We feel voiceless, powerless, at a loss for what to do, and we are not used to that – we believed in the system, and we trusted it to keep us safe.

And the field is burning.

Joy spoke of “rough blessings.” The story of the blessings of fire is not about easy optimism. It is not about finding the silver lining. It is about a deep and tenacious hope. Knowing that even when everything has burned to the ground, new life is still possible. Rough blessings.

And in the midst of these rough blessings, the most important thing we can do is be true to who we are as a people. We are a religious community. A congregation. A community that gathers to support one another. We here to provide tools for making meaning in our lives, to deepen our spiritual engagement, and to care for one another.

We believe in making justice in the world around us. Our values call us to resist oppression and bigotry. It may be frightening to think about taking such a strong stand – isn’t Unitarian Universalism supposed to be about accepting every belief and every idea?

Nope. That’s not exactly it. We believe that all beings have worth and dignity. But all ideas do not fit within our values. Our values call us to resist ablesim, attacks on democracy, racism, bullying, anti-Semitism, voter suppression, environmental harm, mistreatment of immigrants, corporate personhood, homophobia, islamophobia, transphobia, pseudoscience, authoritarianism, and the patriarchy. And so, ideas and beliefs, and most importantly, actions, that perpetuate or normalize any of these things are against Unitarian Universalist values.

Beyond that, we must engage in daily acts of resistance.

It reminds me of the book The Order of the Phoenix. In this scene, Harry Potter is angry, in Professor Dumbledore’s office, throwing things and yelling.

“I DON’T CARE” [He] yelled at them, snatching up a lunascope and throwing it into the fireplace. “I’VE HAD ENOUGH, I’VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!” “You do care,” said Dumbledore. He had not flinched or made a single move to stop Harry demolishing his office. His expression was calm, almost detached. “You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.”

Pretty much every day now, I feel like Harry. I’m done. I can’t take it anymore. I want out.  And yet, I care so much that it hurts.

The truth is that here is no “out.” This is the world we live in. The world that we have helped create, for better and for worse. And so we must figure out how to live in it. Our lives are a gift. A complicated, frustrating, challenging, dangerous, and exquisite gift.

Here is a beautiful prayer by Jessica York, a UUA Faith Development Director in Alabama, and a woman of color. It’s called Gird Thyself

 This is not a prayer that you may find hope 
For hope is a luxury that some cannot find and others cannot afford
This is not a prayer that you find more love in the world
Though I hope you continue to feel love and send love to those near and far
I pray instead that you may find tools
A hammer lying half-hidden in the grass
A roll of duct tape, curled up and forgotten on a high shelf in the back of the closet
A wrench poking out of the back pocket of a stranger
Take these tools and gird thyself
A hammer for justice
Duct tape to hold together your broken heart
A wrench to “grip and provide advantage in applying torque to turn objects” – or turn the world
Take these tools and others you may find in places expected and unexpected
Take these tools and gird thyself
For weeping may last through the night
But the work begins in the morning.

The work that begins in the morning is going to look different for each of us.

Some of us are simply in survival mode, putting one foot in front of the other. Some will need to leave. And that is as it should be. But those of us who have a choice must stand and fight. We must show up, as we have always done, and we must stay. We must stay put, stay engaged, stay awake. We must resist together.

Here is what my resistance looks like right now:

 I am in conversation with other clergy who are organizing. These conversations include topics like establishing secure communications for texting about actions, and building infrastructure for helping people who are most at risk leave the country. We are discussing legal strategies for combating unconstitutional actions by legislators. And I am spending as much time as I can listening to my siblings and colleagues of color, and those who are trans, who are less surprised by these new developments in our political culture, and more prepared to handle them. These folks were not shocked by the results of the election. They have been living in scorched earth their whole lives, and know already that there is no “I’m done, I’m out, no more,” because the only choice is to keep living.

It’s a strange place for me to be, honestly. I kind of thought I already was a social justice warrior. But the stakes are so much higher now, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. The further we go down the road toward authoritarianism, the more difficult it gets. Because I’m also reflecting daily about how I will use my body in this fight, the risks and challenges that face me, and how my responsibilities to my family, my vocation, and to all of you impact the choices I make.

I started writing this sermon certain that I had no good news to give you. I felt as if I was sitting in that tree watching the fire burn. But again and again, I return to the power of community.

I can’t count the number of you who quietly came up to me after the election and said “I will fight for your family.” I don’t know if we will all make it through, but I do know that we will fight together.

And that is what we tell the children: We will fight. We will hold onto each other through the despair and we will lean on each other when we lose the battle. And love, fierce as a mother bear protecting her cubs, will never die.

The role of preacher is a strange one – are we pastors, or are we prophets? And the answer is yes. We are both. I am a pastor, a part of my calling I take very seriously. And at the same time, I have a prophetic voice and a call to speak truth.

I want so much to stand here and tell you that it will be OK, that we will make it through. But I can’t promise you that. We know that much of the incoming administration’s proposed policy has predictable consequences: more deportations, less health care access, limits on civil rights of all kinds, the list goes on and on. We all want to come to church to feel comforted, especially when life around us is so frightening. But empty comfort would be a lie.

I can promise you that I will never lie to you. And I am here to tell you today that the field is on fire. And I know deep in my heart that the connections between us will be what save us as a people.

Are you sitting in the tree watching? Know that you must be the one to tell the story when it is all over.

Did you put up extra food from your garden so you could share when your neighbor’s crops don’t yield? Know that you must reach out and share with those who may not be your neighbor.

Is your face parched from heat as you dip the burlap in water over and over, trying in vain to beat back the flames? Know that as long as you are part of this community, you will not fight alone.

May it be so.