Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejoice and Resist: A Post-Inaugural Sermon

Rejoice and Resist

Sermon at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Jan. 22, 2017

Rev. Ron Robinson

So here we are. I started writing this sermon at noon on Friday as the inauguration was underway, but in some ways I have been writing it for the 42 years I have identified as a Unitarian Universalist, living all of that time in Oklahoma except for four years in Kansas. Now is the best time for our message of all having worth, all being welcome, all needed at the table, and all of us guests on this planet, and forour commitment to deeds of love and justice superseding creeds, creeds of all kinds, for relying on our capacities for kindness and goodness superseding the powers and principalities that try to act as if they are Ultimate in our lives and communities and even, if we let them, in our hearts.

Now is the right time for us to remember what my mentor the Rev. Carl Scovel said in his Berry Street lecture, the annual Unitarian Universalist lecture that dates back to 1820, the oldest continuous lecture series in the United States. Carl received the distinquished service award from our Association, its highest award, and as a child he was raised in a Chinese concentration camp during World War Two and in his lecture he said:
 “At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return. And this is the supreme reality of our lives. This goodness is ultimate—not fate nor freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. And with everything else we know in life, the strategies and schedules, the technology and tasks, with all we must know of freedom, fate and finitude, of energy and order and mystery, we must know this, first of all, the love from which we were born, which bears us now, and which will receive us at the end. Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness, to know it without reserve or hesitation….Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict—not even survival—is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.”
Which is often, right, So hard to find.

But then I finished writing this sermon after yesterday’s day of marches for women’s and human rights which filled the streets of big and small cities, with people showing up for their values, and for people who are afraid. Showing up to say: We are still here, we want you to still be here, and together we must turn this moment into a movement, one very local and very connected.

It is why this sermon is titled Rejoice and Resist. Rejoice first. Actually the title comes from the theme of our upcoming annual General Assembly which will be held this summer in New Orleans. It was a theme that was picked long before any election outcome. It was tied to the spirit and struggle and history in New Orleans—a place known for both much rejoicing, and the needs to struggle and resist great inequities of race, ethnicity, class, gender. But it is a theme that is universal as well, needed everywhere. It reminds us that one of the first tasks of mourning is to seek out, find, and share the joy that eventually cometh in the morning after the long night of loss. It is why the feast accompanies the funeral. We need spaces for our stories of loss and love.

People of liberation around the world have always shown us that oppressors sought first silence and isolation, and the first act of resistance has been to fight against that with rejoicing, with community solidarity--show up and dance and sing and conspire. And find ways to eat together. We know the power of the sacredness of the shared supper at times of loss and fear; for the appetite is often the first casualty, and the path back to health. And so finding ways to gather together, to sing and share stories and supper together, and to always invite, invite, invite to our gatherings those who so often receive no invitations.

Let me stress this: Our rejoicing, as well as our resisting, needs communal forms.

This is why, for example, in our missional community in north tulsa one of our four main focuses is simply Party. The other three are justice food and art. But for a people with few opportunities and means for paid entertainment or to get across town where the major free festivals are held, just to throw parties is to disrupt the status quo of lives that feel, rightly and unfortunately, that they must work or seek work everyday to just get by.

Rejoice and Resist is an interconnected spiritual practice. And We are bearers of the tradition that says there are many spiritual practices that can grow your soul and the soul of the world; just as there are many ways to engage politically and socially to make this world one that aligns more with the principles we affirm. Our communities are the places where those paths and practices can cross, enrich one another, learn from one another. I should say some of my best companions in the 42 years I have been a Unitarian Universalist have been those who, for example, were liberally religious but conservative politically, as well as those who shared different theological orientations than I do. What held us together was not only our commitment to a deep essence of love in life, and humor and humility, and a desire to see that love shape a more just world (though our means to that end differed), but most importantly of all it was also over time simply our shared community space, the rituals of life and death of friends and families. These acts of showing up for one another, and extending that into the world around us, create the real forms of our life, forms that hold us and mold us and change the world around us, even moreso than slogans and messages and memes.
To do this, create these forms, to be this kind of spiritual maker space, we need to develop our paths and practices, to learn from others and extend ours to others. I see Rejoice and Resist as two poles on the spectrum of such paths and practices. For example, If we find ourselves mostly living in the resistance end of things, taking to the barricades whether they be on the streets or timelines of facebook, living in the sharing of ideas and arguments and policy statements, in the meetings after meetings and rallies after rallies (and I am living proof of much of that end of the spectrum, and we need to honor this way of deepening our life and engaging with the world), but now is the time for those of us who gravitate to this response to look over at the other horizon and learn how to Rejoice, and savor the world we seek to save.

 I remind myself often of the words of the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, too, who said that we let our dreams of community too often kill actual community. We forget our sense of being finite creatures unable to single-handedly create the world we seek; we forget to forgive ourselves and one another when our communities, small and large, fail to live up to our expectations.  

Developing practices of prayer and meditation, of dance and of staying in touch with our bodily selves, of learning to risk vulnerability and raise our voices in song--not to have perfect pitch but to be fully human, to learn to sit in nature and listen to soothing stories the earth has to tell about all it has seen, to feel the network of life moving through us and upholding us the same as that splendid life lessons of the moss and lichens on the ancient boulders that continue to grow, season after season, slowly soaking up all that life offers so they will share their beauty and comfort for the generations to come. Doing all this is a way to live against the grain of much of the culture that seeks to shape us and our world into being lives of reaction, of angst, of despair, and most of all to be lives lived in isolation so that we can be more easily manipulated for market purposes.  

Conversely, if our paths and practice have kept us perpetually in retreat—even in a good sense—and kept us in our echo chambers too long; if we have moved through our lives trying to keep ourselves shored up especially while those whose lives are not so easily protected have been increasingly marginalized and suffering, with fewer and fewer resources for themselves and their families, then we too need to risk moving along the spectrum toward engaging with others in justice work to grow more resilience and resistance in our communities.

I will say that since the election in November didn’t go the way I so wanted it to go, I have been nurtured not only by more deepening of prayer life but also by an explosion of community organizing being done. New organizing being done. New relationships forming. Some people are worried because there are so many new groups forming, but I see them as connecting and multiplying in ways no single group could do. We are becoming a network like that fungi that connects the trees in a forest, a living network helping one another to breathe and grow. And that is often unseen.

In one such group, we stood on a recent freezing night, hundreds of us, and held signs of welcome outside a cathedral for our Hispanic community after its youth had been bullied. In another group, we shared stories of the effects of state cuts on mental health in our families, to the damage of rising student loan debt, to how wild stray animals in our low income neighborhoods were keeping children from playing outside and keeping others from being able to walk and exercise, and we formed action teams to begin responding to these stories. In another group we have been advocating for our community policing and better training for law enforcement officers. In another group we have been working on our own systemic racial biases and privileges. In another group we have begun six task forces that each address a key part of the social determinants of health that have caused our side of town to have such a high disproportionate mortality rate. In another we had the highest turnout for a community meeting in a few years as people sought ways to create a neighborhood watch and protect themselves and their property. In another group we pledged to turn our city from an example of poor health to one of greater health access and education. In another group we are working to plant free food forests around the city. In another group both planning meetings and candidate forums have been held to keep before us the problem of too low education outcomes for our poor and especially minority students. And in an on-going group, the struggle continues to work on voting disparities, reform, and apathy.

I am seeing people get more involved as mentors, reading tutors, and we hope soon as community gardeners too; we have more people volunteering with us to help us keep growing our community food store, which does unfortunately keep growing in numbers of those in need, but we are working on ways to turn those numbers of hungry folks into advocates for policies and budgets that don’t rely on survival of the fittest, the wealthiest.  

There are so many ways that a spirit of resistance to the status quo is emerging that it in itself is a cause of rejoicing. And the refusal to stay under the covers---oh I sooo know that desire---is perhaps the most subversive and simple act of all. To actually smile and live “as if” this world were still on its way to the freedomland, as the old gospel in our hymnal says, and know it is still full of more people who want to build bridges than walls, to be able to say confidently there are enough resources in this world that we can share them with those without, enough ordinary love and extraordinary goodwill that we don’t have to fear, to do all this is the way movements of justice pass from one generation to the next.

Finally, I am reminded of the long arc of the movements against oppressive powers, and how losses of leaders are often followed by new leaders picking up mantles. Today in churches around the world people are hearing the story from the Gospel of Matthew of when Jesus finds out that John the Baptizer, who was leading a popular opposition based on prophetic action has been arrested by the government. It motivates Jesus into public ministry and mission, and for him to draw also from the ancient prophets like Isaiah whose words guide him immediately to a region of Galilee where, as scripture says, the people had sat in darkness. To them and throughout the region, it says, Jesus carried the message that God’s world was actually near, was here; he lived “as if” it were so; even with all of Caeser’s world’s proof to the contrary, and with the great mourning of the loss of John the Baptist, Jesus begins by inviting others to the party, the moveable feast, to that worldview of resisting and rejoicing. The story says he simply also began healing people as he went among them, healing all their sicknesses, turning none away, and as he did so those who had sat in darkness saw a great light.
I know this: You too are a great light, and there are many great lights of justice in the community beyond. That good news is worth rejoicing. That is worth sharing. We are breathing again. Like the prairie earth after a fire we are sending up a million green shoots of new life. And Those who are afraid may be a little less fearful today. Those who are disheartened may be a little more encouraged today. Those who despair may find a few more companions today ready to not give in to hate but to keep working toward hope.

In our neck of the struggling world, we say everything matters, no matter how small the act; so we are called to keep acting. In love. For all. Always.