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Why Black Lives Matter – 1/22/2017

The Fulani people, of Western and central Africa, tell a story about a man who had three sons, and a cow. This cow was his prized possession, and he valued it over everything else in his life – even, it seems, his own three sons. The proof of this came when the man asked his eldest son to care for his beloved cow for the day: to take it out into the field to graze on good grass, to lead it to the river to drink clean water, and to bathe it there, so that it would be clean and comfortable.

The eldest son did just as his father had instructed, treating the prized cow with the same attention and care that his father would have shown if he had done the chores himself. At the end of the day, when the son returned with the cow, the father asked the animal how it had been treated that day. “I have been badly mistreated,” lied the cow. “Your lazy, ungrateful son did not feed me or give me water or wash me, but left me tied up in the forest while he slept the day away.” The man’s son protested at the cow’s false accusation, but though his father could see as well as anyone else that the cow appeared healthy and clean, he took the word of his prized possession over the word of his eldest son, and banished the young man from his home.

The next day, the father entrusted his beloved cow to his middle son, instead, with the same instructions as before. The middle son did a job as good as or better than the one performed by the eldest, taking the animal out to graze, leading it to drink, and washing it carefully. Still, when the two returned to the man, the cow gave the same, dishonest report, “Your middle son is as lazy and false as his brother; again, I was left tied up in the forest while your child slept away the day.” The middle son shook his head, and opened his mouth to argue, but his father would hear none of it, though again the evidence of a clean and well-cared for cow was right before him. And so, he exiled his middle son, as well.

The third day went the same as the first two. The man’s only remaining son was just as obedient to his father and kind to his father’s cow as his brothers had been before him. And the cow was just as cruel and perfidious. As the cow lied once again to the man, his youngest son could see immediately what must have happened to his brothers on the two days before. When his father banished him, he was unsurprised.

On the fourth day, the man was alone with his cow, and so did the work of caring for the animal himself. He took the cow to graze, and then to drink, and washed it lovingly – not only his prized possession, now, but his only companion as well. At the end of the day, the man turned to the cow and asked if it had had a good day with him. But because a lie, too long and too easily believed, takes on a life of its own, the cow only scolded the man. “How dare you ask me such a question, when you went all day without feeding me, or giving me water, or bathing me, but tied me up in the forest, so that you could sleep?” At once, the man understood what had happened. In anger and in grief, he drove the cow away from his home, the last living thing in his life that he could banish. And so the man regretted the mistake he had made, in trusting the cow, and doubting his sons. But now, he was alone.[i]

Trayvon Martin was a black teenager in Florida, who was murdered a little less than four years ago. George Zimmerman, who was a stranger to Trayvon, shot him after following the young man under the pretense of protecting his neighborhood from a child who, it was later shown, was carrying only a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea. He expressed no remorse for this, and was ultimately acquitted by the court a year and a half later. It is out of the anguish and injustice of that story, that the slogan “Black Lives Matter” emerged, beginning as a hashtag on twitter created and fostered by three self-described queer Black women. From there it has become a slogan, a rallying cry, and a movement. It is almost impossible to imagine that you have not already encountered it somehow – arguments for and against the campaign are so much a part of our larger culture. I have preached on it here before, as some guest preachers as well. Since September our Social Action committee has been working to put racial justice at the forefront of our agenda as a congregation, which has necessarily entailed talking about this. Today, following the service, our membership will hold a special congregational meeting to discuss and to vote on the prospect of hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on the front of our spiritual home – a visible endorsement of the meaning behind those three words.

Today’s sermon is not intended to instruct you in how you ought to vote in that meeting – for those of you who will. We will have our discussion – which we have already been having – and we will make the decision together, as a congregation. I would not have this any other way, and I hope that you would not, either. No, this sermon’s intent is to address the statement itself, and the ‘why’ of why it is said, and the ‘why’ of why it is true.

And let me make this absolutely, unambiguously clear: it is true. Black lives matter. As a mixed multitude of individuals we can, and will often, disagree on matters of strategy and tactics, on the efficacy of this use of language or that one, or on whether or not to align oneself with a movement, which is much more complicated than three words totaling four syllables. But part of my job is to tell you the truth, especially when that truth is important, and most especially when an important truth is disputed and assailed in the larger world. So I will say it again: black lives matter.

As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people – human lives matter to us, without exception. Black people are people, ergo, black lives matter. The particular cosmic math underlying that understanding may vary between us – whether it is the theistic framework that all people are beloved children of God, or the understanding from science that we are all products of the same evolutionary process, born of the same earth, bound together by genetics and by the very atoms of our bodies which were forged in the stars together, long before the planet we now share even existed. However you arrive at the principle of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, I celebrate that you do and the wondrous variety of ways to do so, but the consequence for today remains the same. Cosmically speaking, in the realm of the ideal, in terms of religious meaning, black lives matter. And if the ideal were always true in practice, there would almost certainly be no slogan, and no movement under its heading. But this is not the case.

I believe that is self-evident for most of us, but just in case, I will elucidate. Or rather, I’ll turn the voice of a Black author to do so much better than I can. Here are two stanzas from Melvin B. Tolson’s masterwork, Dark Symphony:

The centuries-old pathos in our voices

Saddens the great white world,

And the wizardry of our dusky rhythms

Conjures up shadow-shapes of ante-bellum years:

Black slaves singing One More River to Cross

In the torture tombs of slave-ships,

Black slaves singing Steal Away to Jesus

In jungle swamps,

Black slaves singing The Crucifixion

In slave-pens at midnight,

Black slaves singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

In cabins of death,

Black slaves singing Go Down, Moses

In the canebrakes of the Southern Pharaohs.


They tell us to forget

The Golgotha we tread…

We who are scourged with hate,

A price upon our head.

They who have shackled us

require of us a song,

They who have wasted us

Bid us condone the wrong.

They tell us to forget

Democracy is spurned.

They tell us to forget

The Bill of Rights is burned.

Three hundred years we slaved,

We slave and suffer yet:

Thought flesh and bone rebel,

They tell us to forget!

Oh, how can we forget

Our human rights denied?

Oh, how can we forget

Our manhood crucified?

When Justice is profaned

And plea with curse is met,

When Freedom’s gates are barred,

Oh, how can we forget?

          The first people stolen from Africa and brought in chains to what is today the United States, to live and die as slaves, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The first enslaved Africans to arrive in Massachusetts came not much later, in 1638. Despite being on opposite sides in the Civil War and on the matter of slavery, there were some 140 years during which Virginia and Massachusetts saw eye-to-eye on this. And because this congregation began as the town church to which all people in Beverly belonged, whether they liked it or not, our church community, in its early days, included people held in bondage – as well as other people, who lived by the monstrous notion that you can own another person. Slavery did not end formally in the United States until 1865, in December. That was 246 years after 1619 – which is only the beginning in the current geography of the US – it has been less than 152 since. So, for Black people in America, history contains nearly 100 more years of slavery than of freedom. As Tolson describes, this hard truth “saddens the great white world.” It is uncomfortable for many of us to face the stone cold fact that the country we live in, and love, was built upon a grotesque system of degradation and exploitation.

If this alone were the problem we were contending with, if every racialized difference of means and opportunity had been ended perfectly and completely with the passage of the 13th Amendment, I believe there would still be a great deal of work to do to truly overcome that history. But, again, we know that this was not the case. That freed slaves gained their liberty but the overwhelming majority started out with less than nothing in the way of material resources for supporting themselves, reconstituting the families that had been systematically dismantled during slavery, and building the communities that had been denied them for 250 years. That former slave owners and former slave states quickly developed insidious but then-legal methods for ensuring white supremacy over Black, while in the North and West, ideals of liberty never translated into full equality. Since emancipation, much has changed, formally and legally, and in terms of the ideals practiced by individuals and proclaimed by institutions. But the Black activist, theorist, and educator bell hooks describes a simple method by which she helps students to dig beneath the pretense of a color-blind, post-racial society.

“In classroom settings I have often listened to groups of students tell me that racism really no longer shapes the contours of our lives, that there is no such thing as racial difference, that “we are all just people.” Then a few minutes later I give them an exercise. I ask if they were about to die and could choose to come back as a white male, a white female, a black female, or a black male, which identity would they choose. Each time I do this exercise, most individuals, irrespective of gender or race invariably choose whiteness, and most often male whiteness. Black females are the least chosen. When I ask students to explain their choice they proceed to do a sophisticated analysis of privilege based on race (with perspectives that take gender and class into consideration).”[ii]

If you are persuaded, at all, by the notion that racism is no longer an enormous factor in the lives we lead and the world we inhabit, I invite you ponder this same practice. If you were going to reenter the world as any combination of race and gender, which would you choose, and why? The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley, Alton Sterling and far, far too many more, and the failure by our legal system to hold the people responsible for those deaths accountable, sends a profound and painful message to Black people and all people in our society. It repeats the same, brutal, destructive, soul-destroying, hope-corrupting message which was explicit under slavery, Jim Crow, and the semi-official segregation of real estate redlining and racial covenants. With a merciless repetition, the racism that continues to infect our society reaffirms again and again that the art and ideas and efforts and lived experiences and bodies and lives of Black people are worth less than all others, or nothing at all. Less support during childhood, less access to opportunity, less pay during their lifetime, less protection under the law, less outrage upon their untimely death.

The status quo of our world works hard to diminish the self-love and self-value of Black people, and to foster racial bias against Black folks by others, especially white folks. For we who believe otherwise, who hold sacred the lives of Black people just as we hold sacred the lives of Arab, Latinx, South Asian, East Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, and white people, some response is required. And that response must be specific, not only woven into generalities or buried in list form – because the hateful, denigrating message contained in unequal prison-sentencing, voter ID laws, racially-biased gerrymandering and a host of other evils is very specific. It is the need to be specific and clear that birthed the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” in the first place. Not to be the only matter of concern for every activist or person of goodwill, not to be the only slogan on placards, t-shirts, and bumper-stickers, but so that it there among them: direct, and unambiguous. At yesterday’s Women’s March in Boston, where I was gladdened to run into a great many of you as I walked along with my kids, I saw the following sign – I saw several editions of it, actually. In different colored marker, it listed five complimentary rallying cries: Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human Being is Illegal, Love is Love, Water is Life, and Black Lives Matter.

Alicia Garza, one of the women responsible for bringing Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, and one of the current leaders of BLM, as a movement, said this about how Black liberation is in the self-interest of everyone:

“The reality is that race in the United States operates on a spectrum from black to white. Doesn’t mean that people who are in between don’t experience racism, but it means that the closer you are to white on that spectrum, the better off you are. And the closer to black that you are on that spectrum the worse off you are. When we think about how we address problems in this country, we often start from a place of trickle-down justice. So using white folks as the control we say, well, if we make things better for white folks then everybody else is going to get free. But actually it doesn’t work that way. We have to address problems at the root, and when you deal with what’s happening in black communities, it creates an effervescence, right? So a bubble up rather than a trickle down.”[iii]

That a phrase as true and as necessary as Black Lives Matter has become so controversial, so much in dispute is very sad, and – I am inclined to think – a further symptom of the deep, abiding racism in the world we share. It means that just saying aloud that, “Black Lives Matter,” one has to anticipate the potential for being misunderstood. But the great Black lesbian womanist activist, thinker, and poet, Audre Lorde has some counsel on taking the risk of misinterpretation, both honest and intentional.

“I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.”[iv]

At the end of the story we began with, the man has no children left, and no cow. He spends long years alone, until one day he goes into town, on market day, and collapses. Three different merchants rush to come to the aid of a poor, tired old man, and in that moment realize the connection they share. Sent away, each of his sons went out into the world to make a way for themselves, but here, in his later years, their chance reunion with their father allows him the opportunity to apologize for the past mistake of valuing his cow over his own children. The method and means by which we decide to approach the work of racial justice as a community is up to us, together. But however we decide to do it, I submit that we are enjoined to tell the truth of it, to answer hateful falsehoods stridently and unambiguously, and to act without the fear of being misunderstood hold us back.


[i] The version of the story presented here is based on a fuller version of the story to be found here: which itself is drawn from a version in the collection “Tales by Moonlight,” published by the Nigerian Television Authority.

[ii] bell hooks, “Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope”

[iii] Alicia Garza, in an interview with Mia Birdsong, transcribed here:

[iv] Audre Lorde, from her essay, “Transforming Silence into Language and Action,” in her collection, “Sister Outsider.”

The Light of Human Conscience – 1/15/2017

In his song, “Shed a Little Light,” American singer-songwriting James Taylor began with some words which, though not written for this weekend’s holiday specifically, summarize some of the laudable sentiment usually expressed in its observation. Here is some of what he sang:

Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King

and recognize that there are ties between us,

all men and women living on the Earth.

Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood,

That we are bound together

in our desire to see the world become

a place in which our children can grow free and strong.

We are bound together

by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead.

We are bound and we are bound.

Tomorrow, our nation will mark its annual observation of Martin Luther King Day, and so this weekend, in churches, synagogues, and mosques across the country, his memory is being invoked and his words are being intoned. To join with that practice, I want to begin with a long passage from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, which is, in my opinion, the most insightful and eternally relevant of all his well-known writings. Before I begin reading, let me remind you of the context of the text. In Alabama, and in fact throughout much of this country, in 1963 racial discrimination by means of segregation was not only legal but the law. In order to confront an unacceptable status quo, a coalition of local leaders and organizers from across the South led a month-long campaign of protest and non-violent resistance in Birmingham, Alabama, then one of the most segregated cities in America. Dr. King was the leading face of the campaign, and was among those arrested for it on April 12th – the Friday before Easter. While he was in jail, a friend smuggled in a newspaper to him which included a letter published by white faith leaders in Alabama – 4 ministers, 3 priests, and 1 rabbi – denouncing the campaign. They called it ‘unwise and untimely,’ claimed that it was inciting ‘hatred and violence,’ and dismissed it as the work of outsiders. Dr. King penned his response while still in jail, beginning in the margins of the newspaper itself until his lawyers were eventually allowed to bring him a writing pad. I want to share with you three paragraphs from that letter, this morning. Here is the first:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

The traditional commemoration of his birthday emphasizes Dr. King’s message of commonality across division, and the necessity and promise of a world defined by equal freedom and mutual understanding – built by all, to the benefit of all. Now, that is not just made up out of whole cloth – it is, legitimately, an ideal which Dr. King espoused, which he preached about, and which, by every possible measure, he believed. But it is, too often, the only message from his life and work lifted up on his holiday. Hopefully these words from his letter are a reminder that he had more to speak to than just the grandiosity of peace and love. If the man and his message are to be considered seriously, on this day, then we must pay attention to his indictment not only of those most actively seeking to establish and enforce injustice, but also of those standing too idly by. I will admit, friends, that I have rarely, in my lifetime, been accused of being a moderate. But here Dr. King lays out a definition for that term that convicts me, and, I suspect, a few of y’all as well.

He describes the moderate, in part, as someone “who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.”” Though I have, for the whole of my life, followed a religion which demands the full freedom and dignity of all people, and which requires of me that I work to see that demand fulfilled, I must confess to you that there remains something in me which gets itchy when the status quo gets upset. Which begins to get worried when voices get loud, and fearful when an argument comes to blows, no matter who might be doing the swinging. I recognize that I have said before to the most outspoken and indignant of the marginalized and oppressed, if only in my heart, something like those damning words, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action.” If you have ever accepted the absence of tension in substitute for the presence of justice, perhaps those words ring as loudly in your ears as they do in mine. Dr. King continues to indict the moderate with the fierce truth in his letter’s next paragraph:

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

It is so easy and so common-place to place all, most, or even just some of the blame for the disorder and disruption caused by acts of protest at the feet of the protestors. And indeed, in every struggle for freedom and justice there are always debates and disputes about tactics – conversations that need to be had. But Dr. King reminds us, reminds me, that the righteousness of a cause is to be measured by the depth of the injustice it seeks to overturn. Where there truly is something wrong with the world – painfully, harmfully, gravely wrong – the only moral answer is to fight it. We may take issue the strategies employed in that fight, but only once we have come off of the sidelines and made it plain that we are enemies of what is wrong and advocates for what is right. If a newly-revealed tension, that makes my mind worry and my stomach rumble, is the price of taking that position, I must be ready to pay it.

Dr. King’s words about exposing injustice to the light of human conscience seem to me to have a particularly urgent meaning for us today, less than a week away from the inauguration of our nation’s next president. In an age in which, more and more, we choose our facts to fit our opinions, and lies are allowed to stand side-by-side with the truth and crow angry demands for equal attention, simply to affirm what is true has never mattered more. It has been demoralizing to many of us – myself included – to see how far empty-bravado, disingenuous doublespeak, and professionalized ignorance can take a person in the public life of our country. Falsehood has won a great deal, and I cannot promise you it will not win a great deal more. But it cannot possibly lose, until and unless it is answered even more loudly with the truth. Fierce, unadulterated truth, resilient in the face of tension and even of violence, may not be a panacea, but it is the only cure we have for what ails our society and our world.

In the third paragraph of Dr. King’s letter which I want to share with you, he turns again to address his critics directly, beginning by underlining the injustice and unreason of criticizing the victims of oppression for seeking to do something about their circumstances:

“In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock? Isn’t this like condemning Jesus because his unique God consciousness and never ceasing devotion to God’s will precipitated the evil act of crucifixion? We must come to see that, as the federal courts have consistently affirmed, it is wrong to urge an individual to cease his efforts to gain his basic constitutional rights because the quest may precipitate violence. Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber. I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.”

Our Unitarian ancestor, the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker, coined this idea which Martin Luther King rephrased somewhat and popularized enormously, that: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” It should be clear to us, however, as it was clear both to Parker and to King, that this bending does not happen entirely of its own accord. “Time itself is neutral,” as Dr. King said. It is up to all of us, who live together in the present, to lend our efforts to bending that arc. To use time even more effectively than have those folks driven by hatred or ignorance. Four long years’ worth of time stretch out in front of us, now. The task that stands before us, and the road that lies ahead is not well-marked nor neatly paved, but it can only be traversed by setting out onto it. The alternative is to stand quietly, along the side of that road, and simply watch the grim parade go by. We are bound together by our common humanity and, I believe, our shared will to see the world become a finer place than it is now. And so, too, we are bound towards that finer place, creeping forward, bit by bit, no matter how difficult the journey.

Better Than To Curse The Darkness – 1/8/2017

There is an old fairy tale which begins with a poor man, walking down the road, searching for a potential godfather for his newborn son. The fellow has to go scouring the countryside like this because he already has twelve older children, and has used up all his friends and acquaintances on them. The travelling father first encounters God, whom he dismisses as a potential godfather, reasoning that God is not of sound moral character, for permitting poverty and famine and such. Next he meets the devil, whom he similarly eliminates from contention for being such an infamous liar. Finally, he meets a third prospect: Death. This fellow seems like an especially honest and fair-minded sort to the father, for Death comes eventually to all people, the rich and the poor alike. Death is honored to be asked to serve as godfather to the man’s child, and agrees.

When Death’s godson comes of age, he benefits quite handsomely from having a godfather who is the embodiment of a fundamental truth of existence, for Death gives him the means to make a great living as a physician. Death explains to him that whenever he is treating a seriously-ill, bed-ridden patient, Death will make himself visible only to him. If he appears at the head of the patient’s bed if they will recover, and at the foot if they are destined to die. In this way, his godson will always be able to predict accurately whether he can cure a person’s ailment or not. With this unique resource, the physician makes a name for himself, and a good deal of money.

After many years, his reputation has spread far enough that Death’s godson is summoned to the bedside of the king himself, to heal him. But when he gets there, he sees his godfather standing at the foot of the king’s bed – the man is destined to die. Thinking quickly – and also thinking of the great riches the king will bestow on him if he saves his life, the physician turn’s the king’s bed fully around, so that now Death is standing beside his head, instead. The trick works, and the king recovers, but Death is not pleased to have been cheated in this way. He warns his godson never to do so again.

Yet there eventually comes a time when the physician cannot resist attempting the same thing. The king’s daughter falls deathly ill, and the now very rich and famous physician wished to heal her; not just for the prestige, but because he has begun to hope that he will marry her. Again he looks for Death beside the bed, and again sees him at the foot of the bed. The physician turns the bed around once more, and the princess makes a full recovery, but Death is sorely displeased. He comes to his godson and leads him down into a cavern in the earth. There, an uncountable number of candles burn.

Death explains to his godson that each of the candles represents the span of time allotted to someone currently living on earth. He shows the physician his own candle, and the man can see that it is burnt to the base, its flame guttering, just on the brink of going out. He pleads with Death for more time, that he might light another candle for him, or exchange his with another. But Death was chosen for his godfather because he is resolutely honest, and fair. No person, rich or poor, famous or anonymous, can escape Death’s reach forever. And here, in the earliest versions, is where the story ends.

This sermon is the fifth in an on-going series about the purpose and meaning of the elements of the services we share in as a religious community. Today, the topic for consideration is the practice we share – not quite every Sunday, but most – of lighting candles of joy and sorrow. Because of this, I wanted to begin with that image of a limitless cave, filled with the flickering light of innumerable candles. The number we light each Sunday is much fewer than that, of course. Sometimes only a few, with an uppermost limit of twenty-five or so; whatever fits in the basin of sand we use to hold them. But each of the candles in the story represents the profundity of an entire human life, and while our own candles lack this magic, each one of them does act as a symbol of something precious and real. As I said earlier, in introducing the ritual: whatever is foremost in your heart.

So why do we do this together? You may, or may not know, that this practice is common throughout Unitarian Universalism. It is not universally done – not all congregations do it, and those who do don’t always do it every time they meet, and no two congregations do it in exactly the same way. But I would call it universally considered: even among the congregations who do not share this practice, all or almost all of them have conducted or entertained it at some point. It’s one of the most common elements in our worship as a movement, but it’s far and away the most controversial. Arguments within congregations, and between ministers, about whether or not a community ought to ‘do candles,’ so to speak, can get quite heated, and sometimes very personal. And this makes sense, at least a bit, because the practice has such a deeply personal element to it: when it is undertaken meaningfully, people share from their deepest selves, and expose some of what might otherwise be hidden to the friends and strangers that make up their spiritual community. You can’t get much more personal than that.

I’ll try to outline the argument here, if you’re not already familiar with it, with a little story from seminary. One of my professors gave a lecture in one of my classes – clearly it made an impression on me, because many of you have heard me repeat it before – about the method of worship in the very early Anglo-Protestant congregations of New England. The pilgrim and puritan settler congregations from whom many of our earliest congregations descend, including this one. A Sunday service focused on the reading of the Christian bible, and attempts to explain, interpret, and apply the content of the readings to the situation of the community and the people in it. And while there was always a worship leader who provided that reading and got the first word on interpretation, the whole of the congregation was also invited to join in.

In those days, the congregation was the town; everyone had to come to church, and there was only that one church to go to. Even prisoners in the local jail would be brought in, sometimes under guard and in irons, because attendance at worship was not optional for anyone. And once the preacher had had their say, everyone else got a chance, too. People who were marginal or outside the cliquish circle of the town’s social hierarchy still had a right to speak. So did women, at a time and in a place where they otherwise had very little social standing and almost no rights. The prisoners, too, were allowed to give their own account of the Gospel, as they understood it. And all of these people could and did use that unique opportunity for an unrestrained platform before the entire community to make a case for change. Those who felt ill-used by the wealthy and the powerful could challenge them far more freely than they could in court. Women could, and did, plead their cases against abusive partners and seek redress against family members who took advantage of their lack of full property rights. Even those in prison would rise to make the case for their early release, all of these arguments tied in some way or another to the biblical readings for the morning.

This was the practice in the beginning. It did not last. Because the wealthy and the powerful, the men in general, and all those who were not in prison, decided that they did not want to give so free a voice to the folks on the margins. Eventually, the responsibility of the congregation to discuss meaning and explore truth together was discarded in favor of a service where the preacher did all the talking, and the congregation only listened, and sometimes sang or recited rote prayers.

After my professor outlined this history for us, a discussion followed about open-participation practices in our own congregations – of which candles of joy and sorrow is by far the most common modern example. Many concerns and complaints, based on very real, negative experiences, were raised. Too many folks abuse the privilege of an open microphone: they mumble, they take too long, sometimes they break down in front of the congregation and it’s all very awkward. Some folks don’t know the difference between a joy or sorrow and an announcement, or they get up to make some strident political statement with no place in a worship service. One of my classmates exclaimed, “We’ve gotten rid of the whole thing entirely, at my church. Too many people harassing the congregation to sign this petition or that one, crowing about dead pets, or trying to sell their cars. The whole service runs much smoother now that we don’t let just anyone up to the microphone.”

And my professor gave the gentle, knowing smile of the exceptionally wise woman that she was – and still is – and said, “Yes, I imagine it does. Everything goes a lot easier for the folks in charge, when the poor, and the women, and prisoners don’t get to talk in church anymore.” The practice of offering an open platform to anyone and everyone to share with us whatever they need to share – for solace or celebration, to ask for the support of our thoughts, our prayers, or our actions – is neither simple, nor easy. In can often get quite messy; it makes it impossible to know how long the service will run, exactly. Sometimes the line backs up at the altar badly and Robert has to cover for it all on the organ. Sometimes people really do share things from the microphone that make me think that they and I have very different ideas about what this ritual is meant for, or even what sort of words are and are not ‘church-appropriate’. But it is a discipline we hold to because we seek to live out the belief that we matter to each other – we all matter, even the strangers among us, even folks on the outermost margins of the world we share. Here, in this place, if you need to speak it, we need to listen.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German Lutheran theologian and martyr of the Nazi concentration camp in Flossenburg, spoke eloquently about the listening role of a congregation. I want to share his words with you here at some length. His counsel was from a Christian to other Christians, and it is composed in the language of his tradition. I believe, however, that it applies with equal potency to our own mixed multitude as Unitarian Universalists. I ask that you join me in bringing to his words an open and curious heart.

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.

So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”[i]

In paraphrase of Bonhoeffer, it is the very work of God to listen to each other. That doesn’t mean to listen without disagreement. It doesn’t mean to a pure free-for-all in which the loudest voice always wins, and no space is made for the meek or the voiceless. But, in an idea from a confessing Lutheran that resonates profoundly with our own tradition as Unitarian Universalists, when we are open to each other, we are open to the source of all truth and all being which some people call God. And when we close ourselves off from each other and fail to listen to one another, we cut ourselves off from that same source.

So there, is my explanation, and perhaps, my defense, of why despite all problems and imperfections and a general trend in our movement away from the practice, we are still lighting candles of joy and sorrow and speaking the meaning behind them allowed almost every Sunday. To summarize, I’m going to turn to the words of the poet, Sally Atkins.

Tell me, she said:

What is the story you are telling?

What wild song is singing itself through you?



In the silence between there is music;

In the spaces between there is story.


It is the song you are living now,

It is the story of the place where you are.

It contains the shapes of these old mountains,

The green of the rhododendron leaves.


It is happening right now in your breath,

In your heart beat still

Drumming the deeper rhythm

Beneath your cracking words.


It matters what you did this morning

And last Saturday night

And last year,

Not because you are important

But because you are in it

And it is still moving.

We are all in this story together.



In the silence between there is music;

In the spaces between there is story.


Pay attention:

We are listening each other into being.

[i] Taken from Bonhoeffer’s book, Life Together

Sankofa III – 1/1/2017

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 one year has now ended, and a new one begun, 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.

And what a year to look back upon. This may not have been the worst year, objectively speaking, in the history of human record. The economist Max Roser recently pointed out in the Washington Post that Americans have a tradition of deriding the old year as they ring in the new, and that, particularly at the turning point from one year to the next, surveys tend to show a bleak outlook on behalf of the population – and have for decades now. Still, for a great many of us it does feel like 2016 was making a serious, intentional bid to be the most frustrating, heart-breaking, agonizing year of our respective lives. One of the chief factors here was a flurry of high-profile celebrity deaths. A great many talented musicians and actors ended their lives this past year, including Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fischer, and three iconic performers who were also inspirations for an unknowable number of people in living out with their gender and sexual identities: David Bowie, Prince, and George Micheal. For some of us here in this sanctuary, I happen to know that the last twelve months also held some very personal losses – deaths that don’t make the news, or get turned into grief memes on Facebook, but which cut a thousand times more deeply, because the people you lost were family or friends – folks you truly loved, and always will.

Without really realizing how important a commentary on grief and loss was going to be this year, I touched on this subject back in June, at our annual Flower Communion service. Here’s the flashback:

Hosea Ballou, 19th-century America’s most famous advocate for Universalism, served briefly as minister of the First Universalist Society of Salem, one of the two historic congregations from which our present worshiping community is descended. He was renowned for fashioning intricate and insightful theological metaphors from mundane and familiar objects and experiences. In one of my favorite of his little parables, Ballou compares God to an orange. Here are his words:

“I know it is frequently contended that we ought to love God for what God [he] is, and not for what we receive from God [him]; that we ought to love holiness for holiness’ sake, and not for any advantage such a principle is to us.  This is what I have often been told, but what I never could see any reason for, or propriety in.  I am asked if I love an orange; I answer I never tasted of one; but I am told I must love the orange for what it is!  Now I ask, is it possible for me either to like or dislike the orange, in reality, until I taste it?  Well, I taste of it, and like it.  Do you like it? says my friend.  Yes, I reply, its flavor is exquisitely agreeable.  But that will not do, says my friend; you must not like it because its taste is agreeable, you must like it because it is an orange.  If there be any propriety in what my friend says, it is out of my sight.”

Now, whether or not you call life’s transcendent meaning by the name God, as Hosea did, I submit that the only means we have of experiencing that awesome mystery which he compared to an orange is by living in this world. It is only by being alive, relating to each other and the rest of the universe around us, and paying attention, that we can gain any sense of the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. We taste the fruit of the world by living in it; but the truth of the matter is, it is not always sweet. It can be like a fresh orange at times; and it can also be as bitter as a mouthful of dirt.

If you’ve ever had a mouthful of dirt – as I have – you know the way that the tongue rejects it, the mouth dries out and flecks of it cling to your gums and the insides of your cheeks no matter how you work to spit it all out again. The taste lingers long after the moment has past, and its flavor deadens the pleasure found in anything else you might try to eat or drink. This is the way that the experience of life is sometimes: harsh, and gross, and seemingly unwilling to let you feel anything else besides pain or grief.

There are many ancient arguments about why this is so, that there is some cosmic need for balance, or that we could not appreciate the good without the experience of the bad, or that it is simply a mystery we are meant to ponder but never solve. I confess I find none of these compelling. There is too much wrong in the world to be excused away by some cheap theological justification. Terrible things happen. Pain and suffering are all-too real. The earth we share ought to be a better place than it is; that is why it is up to us to make it so.

But if we only love the world when it is sweet to us, we will spend most of our days sad, angry, or afraid, and what’s more we will set a terrible precedent. For I know that I yearn to be loved not only when I am perfect, but also in the overwhelming majority of the time when I am profoundly imperfect. We need each other’s hearts to be generous enough to love this life, even after we have seen how heart-breaking it can be. In fact, our continued ability to love despite suffering and loss is the very sweetest thing about the orange. As the farmer-poet Wendell Berry says, “Having come the bitter way to better prayer, we have the sweetness of ripening.” There can be no cosmic reason or justification for the bitterness of life. But by honestly facing it, and lovingly responding to it, we may yet make the world more sweet.

I only quoted one line of Berry’s poem there, but I want to share the whole of it with you this morning:

The longer we are together

the larger death grows around us.

How many we know by now

who are dead! We, who were young,

now count the cost of having been.

And yet as we know the dead

we grow familiar with the world.

We, who were young and loved each other

ignorantly, now come to know

each other in love, married

by what we have done, as much

as by what we intend. Our hair

turns white with our ripening

as though to fly away in some

coming wind, bearing the seed

of what we know. It was bitter to learn

that we come to death as we come

to love, bitter to face

the just and solving welcome

that death prepares. But that is bitter

only to the ignorant, who pray

it will not happen. Having come

the bitter way to better prayer, we have

the sweetness of ripening. How sweet

to know you by the signs of this world!

Months later, we were exploring what it means to be called – both literally, and spiritually, and I shared a review of the calling stories of the foundational prophets of the three great branches of the Abrahamic traditions:

Each of the great prophets has some first transcendent moment, signifying the beginning of their intimate relationship with the Divine, and the start of their particular work trying to reorder the world according to what is right and just. Moses, you probably remember, has his encounter with the burning bush, wreathed in flame but never consumed by it. The voice from the bush gives Moses his mission – to liberate his people from slavery – but its first instruction is much more immediate. Moses is told by the bush to take off his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. Even the beginning has a beginning, the preparation that comes before he even takes on the mantle of prophecy.

It’s a little less iconic these days, but the teacher Jesus has a moment like this as well. In the Gospels According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the story is told that Jesus went to the Jordan river, to be anointed with water by John the Baptist, a prophet who lived in the wilderness and called on the people of the cities and villages to repent from their unjust ways. At the moment of his baptism, the three stories describe a dove descending from the sky, and a voice from on high announcing its pleasure with Jesus. The Christian Bible doesn’t really present any direct account of Jesus’ internal life, nor does it offer stories in which he argues with God – something of a major theme for other leading biblical figures like Abraham and Moses. This is what allows for the common orthodox interpretation of Jesus – incapable of being surprised or uncertain, because he is a being who exists beyond time. But I find the more human interpretation of the teacher far more compelling, in which he would be shocked by the sudden appearance of the dove and the voice, right along with John and the other spectators, just as awe-struck and disoriented as Moses had been by the burning bush.

In the story of Muhammad’s call as a prophet, he was alone, just like Moses. He had gone up into a cave in the mountainside above his city in order to pray and reflect. And then, the story goes that the angel Jabreel – Gabriel – appeared to him and showed him a few lines of text written in the sky out of flame. “Read” Jabreel commanded. Muhammad wanted to comply, but he literally could not; like most people in his place and time, he was illiterate. The angel shook him and commanded him again and again, Jabreel could not make Muhammad read what he could not read. So eventually, instead, the angel spoke words and Muhammad recited dutifully the first lines of the message entrusted to him: “Bismilllah al-Rahman, al-Rahim…”

Muhammad’s story includes an element that those of Moses and Jesus and most of the other big names leave out: the immediate aftermath of a prophet’s call. Muhammad comes down from the mountain shaken and disturbed by what he has experienced. It was profound, but also frightening, and when he sees his wife, Khadija, he tells her all that has happened and confesses his fear to her. He cannot imagine why a relatively unimportant man, such as him, should be chosen by God for a prophet and so he worries that his senses are false, or that some evil force is trying to deceive him. Khadija, however, listens to her husband’s story and believes him, and she offers reassurance, reminding him that he is a good and respected neighbor who deals justly in business and upholds his responsibilities to family. He seems a very wise choice for a prophet to her. It is for this reason that Khadija is credited as the first Muslim; she fully believed in and embraced the revelation that came to Muhammad, even before he did.

Even out of the darkness – or, perhaps, especially out of the dark – the voice of something unknown and unknowable calls to us. Amidst anguish and doubt and despair, in a moment, or in a year, there emerges some movement we are called to make or to join. Not because we know exactly where it will lead us, or because we are certain of success, but because it is what the time demands of us, and we feel no alternative but to answer it.

Now, it may be that the results of this year’s Presidential election did not catch you off-guard at all. But I have already confessed to you that they did so for me. And on the Sunday after that Tuesday, we reflected together on what this new administration in Washington and the new era in our political and social life as a nation that it seemed to hale was going to mean for us as a spiritual community. Here is just a little of what I said to you, then:

I cannot yet call what lies ahead for us good, but it is profound. We are going to need to speak out every time the rights of one of us or one of our neighbors in infringed. We are going to have to offer sanctuary to anyone and everyone who needs it. We are going to be called upon to answer every hateful word or deed stridently, with a love that knows there are some things love cannot abide.

We Unitarian Universalists have long been concerned less with the mysteries beyond death than with the way humans create paradise or perdition here on earth. It’s been a hell of a week [I might add here, for some of us, a hell of a year]. So, sprinkled with tears as necessary, let’s get back out into the world, and help to heal it.

On the doorstep 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.


The Law Is Not In Heaven

There is a story in the Mishnah – the earliest work of Rabbinic literature and legal rulings, and a much-venerated text in the Jewish tradition – about collective decision-making, and what it really means in practice. In the story – the Sanhedrin, the council of legal authorities – were debating a small point of law and one of them, Rabbi Eliezer, found himself at odds with the others. Outvoted by his fellow sages, Eliezer declared, “If it is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.” The tree immediately uprooted itself, flying through the air and out of the garden where it had been planted. But the other teachers were not impressed; “No proof can be brought from a carob tree,” they replied.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, “If it is as I say, let this stream of water prove it,” and the stream began to flow backwards. His fellow rabbis remained adamant: no proof could be brought from a stream, either.

“If it is as I say, let the walls of this meetinghouse prove it,” he declared, and the building around them began to quake. Another sage leapt up to rebuke the walls, saying, “When scholars engage in legal dispute, what is your relevance?” The trembling stopped, but the argument continued.

Finally, Rabbi Eliezer proclaimed, “If it is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven.” And there came a great voice from on high crying out, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer? All matters the law are just as he says!” But Rabbi Joshua responded, “The law is not in Heaven.” The responsibility of that legal ruling fell to the judges in that room, and to no one and nothing else. Not even the voice of the Holy One had standing to contradict the determination of the court.

In any democratic process, there often comes the temptation to appeal to some higher authority: the wish that one’s preferred position would just automatically win the day, without any of the messy work of having to frame arguments and convince opponents. But any honestly democratic decision must be made by the whole of the group itself, and not by any outside figure or force. In our congregation, we decide the most important matters together, by meeting and discussing and voting as one body. This month, following the service on Sunday, January 22nd, we will hold a special meeting to do just this. We’ll be considering whether or not our congregation should place a “Black Lives Matter” banner on the front of our building. Much more information on this can be found in this is issue, and more will follow, with a town hall meeting to give an initial hearing to this idea on January 8th (again, after the service).

Making this decision together will require us to talk and to listen, to study and to consider, to debate and reflect together. Many, if not all, of us already have strong convictions on this subject. What I hope we can keep clearly before us is that our process of choosing together, and the terms by which we form our community, means that this decision is fully ours to make. That’s a weighty responsibility. It asks us to bring our best selves to the work of it, and to extend to each other a maximum of patience and understanding. At the same time, this is a question that cuts incredibly deep for some of us – literally, because of both the language involved and the crisis at play in our larger world, this is framed as a debate over whether certain human lives matter or not.

The General Assembly of our Association of Congregations – the body of representatives from throughout our movement which meets each June to deliberate and vote on matters of importance to all of us – issued a statement calling on Unitarian Universalists to support the Black Lives Matter movement in 2015. That statement can be found here. In your research on this issue, I encourage you to read it, with the understanding that its language should rightly be afforded moral weight, but that the decision itself remains entirely up to us to make, together. I look forward to sharing in this important process with each of you.

In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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