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Morning Worship Sermon: What Are You Doing Here?

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General Assembly 2006 Event 3002

Speaker: The Rev. Joshua Pawelek, minister at Unitarian Universalist Society: East, in Manchester, CT.

Reading

First Kings 19: 11-14 (King James version)

[The angel of God said to Elijah,] Go forth, and stand upon the mountain before God, for God is about to pass by. Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

He answered, "I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

Sermon

I come back to this passage from the ancient Hebrew historian again and again: a still, small voice asking the prophet, "What are you doing here?"

It's a simple question, and difficult. If we answer it honestly it can help us examine our lives. It can help us search for truth and meaning. It can be a touchstone for our theologies. What are you doing here at General Assembly? What are you doing in a Unitarian Universalist congregation? What are you doing in your neighborhood? At work? At home? In the storm, the earthquake, the fire, at the silent entrance to the cave? What are we doing here? Elijah's answer is not one that flows readily off 21 st century liberal religious tongues: "I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away." Still, I come back to this passage. The question is critical. And Elijah's answer is haunting.

Our congregation participates in a faith-based community organization called the Greater Hartford Interfaith Coalition for Equity and Justice. Those of you familiar with faith-based community organizing know there are a number of national networks who provide assistance and training in how to build such organizations. A while back I attended the Gamaliel Foundation network's week-long training. Very early on in the training they asked the question, "What are you doing here?"

When I heard the question I began praying-frantically. What am I doing here? What am I going to say? What are other people saying? When it was my turn to respond I said, "I'm here because people in my community are suffering. I'm here for universal healthcare, for decent housing, jobs, education. I'm here because as a Unitarian Universalist I beli eve in the inherent worth and dignity of eve ry person and I commit to justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I work for a world community with peace, liberty and justice for all. Amen?

It wasn't the answer they were looking for. They said people of faith, especially liberals, predictably say such things. We speak passionately about justice in abstract terms. Such speech isn't enough to build a powerful organization that can win issues and make justice real. The answer to the question is not "justice." The answer is "power."

Hearing this, I continued in prayer. Power. I went home for the night. Power. I came back the next morning. Power. The question was put to me again: "Rev. Pawelek, what are you doing here?" I was ready. "I'm ambitious," I said. "I want my congregation to thrive. I want us to double in size in the next decade with a million dollar operating budget. I want us to be a force for liberal religious values and a center for spiritual education and liberal ministry in our state. I want our interfaith coalition to add 100 dues-paying member institutions so that no politician or corporate CEO in the state can ignore our call for justice. I want to be a national leader in the marriage equality movement, the anti-racism movement, the environmental justice movement. I want to write opinions for major newspapers, publish books, host a radio show. I want the media and politicians to come to me. I want to be Anne Coulter's and Rush Limbaugh's worst nightmare. I want to be powerful and I'm ready to work for it. That's what I'm doing here! Amen?

Incidentally, that was the right answer. I was fired up.

Except, God was not in the fire. I appreciated gaining clarity about power and its relationship to justice, but something was missing. Elijah was a justice warrior. His enemies were seeking his life to take it away. No one, as far as I know, is seeking my life, unless hate mail counts. But lives are being sought and taken away. Twenty young men and boys were shot in Hartford in a ten-day period in the beginning of June, four of them fatally. Power. What does it mean when I'm trying to amass power, and four boys die in urban violence less than five miles from my suburban home? It will take years to do what I want to do; these boys have no more years. What does my power have to do with these dead boys? There's a hollowness in my ambition, a disconnect. Something's missing.

Back to prayer: maybe no one is seeking my life because it's already been taken. Maybe I lost it when I began thinking about my own power without really taking those boys into account. Maybe I lost it when I settled in a town whose d eve lopment draws vital resources away from the city leaving economic and social vacuums now filled with gun violence. Maybe I lost it when my European ancestors gave up their ethnicity and culture to gain the privileges of white America . Maybe I lost it when I learned not to cry because, supposedly, boys don't cry. Maybe I lose it as I receive all the things that straight white men receive simply for being straight white men. Maybe I lose a piece of my life-maybe we all do- eve ry day as we reap the benefits of living in the richest, most powerful nation in the world at the expense of billions of people who barely manage to subsist on what is left after we've taken virtually eve rything. Maybe that's the source of the disconnect between me and those murdered boys. Maybe my life is a wraith, a shadow, an illusion-privilege hiding the truth of immense loss, disconnection and spiritual death. Dear God give me the strength to wrestle with this terrible possibility.

Six months ago I attended a meeting of a group of Hartford-area organizers who convene to bring an anti-racist lens to the local struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights. At one point in that meeting I volunteered that I must be the most privileged person in the room-the only straight white man, the only professional, the only Harvard degree. There was silence, and a still, small voice. "Rev. Pawelek," said a young man, "with all due respect, what are you doing here?" Why would you want to struggle against a society designed to benefit people like you?"

"I love my life as it is. I love my wife. I love my children. I love my congregation. I love Unitarian Universalism. I love Connecticut. I love the United States . But if all the forces that have made my life what it is also result in the shooting deaths of four urban boys in these sweet days of June, then the price is too high. These deaths are unacceptable. Our covenant is forsaken; altars are thrown down; prophets do lie slain. And so many of our lives have been taken. What am I doing here? I'm coming back from spiritual death. I'm seeking my life-a real life-to take it back. I am seeking an authentic, accountable, meaningful, fearless, anti-racist life-and not alone. This must be a collective search. I want the seeking to take place in the midst of an authentic, accountable, meaningful, fearless, anti-racist, multicultural community that thrives on spirit and song, resists violence and oppression, and gives praise and thanks-perhaps eve n zealous praise and thanks-to the sacred, the creator, the source of life, the God of hosts. Upon such life and upon such communities we shall establish the power that brings true justice.

Amen and Blessed Be.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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