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Sankofa – 12/30/2012

In the language of the Akan people of West Africa there is a word, ‘Sankofa’, which can be translated into English as ‘go back and get it’. It is a small word that evokes a large concept, of reconnecting with the past in order to continue into the future. One of the symbols for sankofa in Akan art is a bird with its feet facing forward and its neck craned to point backwards, sometimes reaching for an egg resting on its own back. It is a reminder that remembering what has gone before is a crucial part of going forward.

We come together every Sunday to do just that: to go back and get what is precious and important in what has gone before, to give us courage and solace in our going forward. But this Sunday, we are going to do it in a particular way. As the year is almost ended, we are going to return together to some of the themes and stories we have shared in our worship over the last twelve months. To remember a bit of what was as we turn towards what might be.


First Remembrance

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

Those words come from our ancestor, Henry David Thoreau.

Yet there are a thousand thousand reasons in life for why my expectation proves less than infinite, that lead me to fall into a moral sleep, and forget to hope. Because I was tired, because I was hungry, because I stubbed my toe. Because I was sick or in pain or because someone I love had died. Because I was worried about having enough money, or enough love. Because I was afraid of war, and the rumors of war. Because I was worn thin by the weight of the world; there is so much in it that is broken – and so much that is broken in me. Because the train was late, because the baby was crying, because I lost my favorite pair of socks.

And because of these reasons or some others beside, there were moments this year when you and I and all of us, forgot to expect the dawn. I forgot that the river of life flows out of long eons, touching trillions of hearts and minds, stretching on into the unknowable future, and that in order to get there it first must pass through me. You forgot about the fire that burns in every soul, that bursts forth anew in each generation’s hunger for freedom and for truth, and that that flame also flashes in you. We forgot, that this is no force upon this earth greater than love: no chain it cannot break, no pain it cannot salve, no wrong it cannot redress.

“We must learn to awaken and to keep ourselves awake by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”

It is hard to stay awake like that; the world will make you tired. I know it wears me out sometimes. So that is why we come together, this Sunday and every Sunday: to be woken up, and to remind each other to expect the dawn.

As Unitarian Universalists, our tradition counsels us to heed the products of reason and the results of science, and to trust in the practice of democracy. But if I were to point to a singular root of hope, at the center of our faith, it would be found in love. Love, to our understanding, is uniquely powerful and important. Our ancestors held a wide variety of opinions on a great many things, but they were united in their understanding that love was central to the meaning of our lives and our world.

Several months ago, one of you shared a story with me, and gave your permission to share it from the pulpit. Your story was about your Uncle Bernie. You and Uncle Bernie do not see the world in exactly the same way, you told me. Because you are an atheist, and he is a priest. Over the years you have talked about this and argued through all sorts of questions about theology many, many times. Those arguments were passionate and heartfelt, and always enjoyable. You disagreed with him, and he with you, but you never lost sight of the fact that you were family, and that you cared about each other. And then not so long ago, you went to pay your Uncle Bernie another visit.

He’s gotten pretty sick, and the medication he’s on takes its toll too. You started into the old debate and you could see Uncle Bernie had a point he was reaching for that he just couldn’t find or couldn’t get out. That was the moment that you lost your will to argue with him: it wasn’t a fair fight any more. There are other ways you and your Uncle can enjoy each others’ company now. You can still talk about this and that, and have a piece of pie together. You still love each other, and that’s what matters.

The existence of God is a point on which people of good will may disagree. It is the existence of love that matters, in a place called here and a time called now. Loving another person teaches the courage to protect them, and the appropriate fear of things that are harmful to life – theirs, or any other. Love teaches us to hope, even if just for a smile, or a kind word, or a touch. Love teaches us pain, at losing a person or a relationship; and love also teaches us how to live with that pain, and still continue to love. Love drives us to free ourselves and each other from systems of oppression: to break chains, confront tyrants, and throw open prison doors. And even the memory of love is a comfort in hard times.


Second Remembrance

Death is among the greatest, and the hardest constants of life. Something like 56 million of the people living on this planet die annually. This year held two memorial services for long time members of our congregation. Their eulogies have already been recited, and the stories of their lives continue as a part of those who knew them. But I want to remember just a little bit of each of them with you now.

Thelma Silsby was a member of First Parish for more than 50 years. At her service, her son Brad told a story about her which he gave me permission to share with others, and which I have been very happily retelling in the months since. Back even before they were married, Brad’s parents, Thelma and Roger, used to love to go boating. And one day they were out on the water with Thelma’s dad and they were making their way towards the Cape Cod canal. Roger was at the tiller, and when he tried to make a turn he realized that part of it had sheared off; he was no longer in full control of the boat. So he asked his father-in-law to come take his place and quietly explained the situation to him. “Make it look like you’re still steering, though,” he said. “We don’t want to upset Thelma.” And Roger went to the sails to try and tack to the nearest place where they could dock and get some help.

They made their way like this for a little while and it seemed like everything was going to be alright, when Roger’s grandfather noticed that he hadn’t seen Thelma in a while, and wondered where she was. Where she was, was below deck. The break in the rudder wasn’t the only problem, you see. They were also taking on water. So Thelma was down there running the pump, trying to bail them all out and keep the boat from going down.

Sometimes in life we make the mistake of assuming that we’re the only ones who have problems. We even try to hide the challenges we’re facing from the people who care about us, because we don’t want them to be worried or upset. But this story about Thelma Silsby reminds me that we’ve all got troubles. And in fact, even when I’m working on my worries and you’re wrestling with your concerns, the truth is that all of our struggles are woven together. We are all in the same boat.

This year also saw the passing of Sylvan Menezes, another long-time member of our congregation. His long battle with ALS was deeply felt by many of us, in this congregation which also includes members of his family and close circle of friends. Whenever someone’s life is remembered after having closed with such a harsh and terrible illness, there is always the temptation to valorize their courage and strength in the face of it. I did know Sylvan to be strong, and to have been supported by some amazingly dedicated and compassionate caregivers, but I don’t think he was particularly interested in being held up as an inspiration for how to go through a debilitating illness. He was always a lot more interested in living than in dying.

Sylvan came of age during the tumult and upheaval of the late 1960s, and graduated from high school at the top of his class. He was named valedictorian – a testament to his talents and to the hard work that he would be known for throughout his life. That same quality in Sylvan that drove him to academic success also demanded of him that he stand up for what he felt was right. So at just as he was completing his high school education he was taking his own position against the war in Vietnam, and he was not shy about where and when he would advocate for an end to the conflict. So it was that though he was named valedictorian, he was not given an opportunity to speak at his graduation, as the school’s administrators felt they could not take the risk of giving him a live mic and an open forum.

So for those of us who remember Thelma and Sylvan, and those of us who don’t, let us take from this year a deep awareness that all of our problems and trials are ultimately interconnected, and let us carry a determination to act with the courage of our convictions behind us.


Third Remembrance

A gracious welcome says much about the people who offer it; and the opposite is also true.

Mulla Nasruddin is a witty and clever folk character in Islamic culture. In one of his many stories he was invited to a great feast with many distinguished guests. During the month of Ramadan it is the practice in Islam to fast during the day, and to break the fast in the evening with a celebratory meal, so this was the sort of party that Nasruddin was set to attend. When the sun set that day, Nasruddin was still out working in his field, and he realized that he did not have enough time to go home and change without being late. So he dusted himself off and went to the party as he was.

When he got there, he saw that everyone else was dressed in their finest garments. And as he made his way through the house, he found that no one seemed to want to talk to him or even acknowledge that he was there. So the mulla went home, changed into his very fanciest set of clothing, and returned to the feast. The response could not have been more different: everyone wanted to talk to the fascinating and famous Mulla Nasruddin. In fact the host made sure to seat him at his right hand.

As the plates were passed, the people sitting beside Nasruddin began to notice that he was doing something rather odd. He was taking food, like everyone else, but he was not eating it or setting it in front of him. Instead, he took a few dates and stuffed them into his coat sleeve. He picked up a stuffed grape leaf and tucked it into his pocket. He gratefully accepted a piece of bread and slid it into the folds of his turban.

After watching him in confusion for a few moments, his host asked, “Nasruddin what are you doing?”

The mulla replied, “From the two receptions I received, it is quite obvious to me that it is my clothes who were invited here to break the fast, and not me. So I am simply feeding my turban and my coat.”[i]

And In the Parable of the Sower, one of the stories attributed to the teacher Jesus, the seeds the sower cast on the ground fell in four different places. Some by the way, where they were eaten by birds. Some on stone, where it sprouted but withered away for the lack of roots. Some among thorn bushes, which choked the seedlings before they could bear fruit, and some on fertile ground, where the seeds could grow and flourish. Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists teaches us that in every human life there is a seed of possibility and potential. Every moment is like one of those four patches of soil, and while we never control everything about the present in which we find ourselves, we always have some choice to make, and those choices shape who we are, and how the seed within us grows or does not.

On the cusp of a new year, we are like the hosts of a dinner party where both the old year and the new are guests. It would not be right to treat one with respect, and ignore the other. Both require our attention. Today is the soil in which the seed of our heart is planted. So too is tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. For each of us, there are, no doubt, things we need to let go of. But let us not lose sight of the past in our speed to reach the future. Rather, let the year to come set its roots into what has gone before.

[i] Different forms of this story can be found in many Muslim countries; this version descends directly from the one collected in Ayat Jamilah by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane (Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).


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