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Sermons: “With Faith and Fortitude

At the last swim meet I attended, I found myself tearing up during the national anthem. It surprised me. I am rarely a sentimental patriot. Ever since I visited Nicaragua, in 1989, as part of a delegation for “Witness for Peace”, I have understood that blind patriotism—uninformed affirmation of our way of life—can produce consequences that we, in our privilege, do not choose to see. I guess it started even further back, when I worked in Morrocco on a multi-million dollar movie, including crews from Europe as well as America, shooting scenes in the midst of abject poverty. I was reminded daily of the hubris, the sense of entitlement, that comes from having more than we need and somehow thinking, by the chance of our birth, or a certain competence, that we deserve it.

And I’ve never been one to aspire toward “number one” status of the United States. The language of supremacy, with adjectives like “greatest” and “best” and “leader of the world” saddens me, because it separates us and sets up false comparisons that invite us to claim ourselves better than “them”. And I know that that language has been used by our president-elect, that it is an assumed requirement to talk in such superlatives in order to catch the attention of citizens trained by a competitive society to value power over others.

Why not aspire to be “best amongst the best” or “the greatest we can be” or “a beacon of hope” or “a model of excellence”? The world could then become both more expansive and familiar, ours to engage in and learn from, ours to share and co-create.

This is not to say that I have forgotten how fortunate I am to have been born in North America and a citizen of this great endeavor of a democratic republic. Nor is it to say that this nation has been easily won. Many sacrifices, hard work, courageous advocacy and heroic perseverance are a part of our nation and our being in it. The very fact that we exist is due to the lives and labors of countless people who have come before us.

So I was standing there at this high school meet, with my hand over my heart focusing on the flag, wondering why I was welling up. Was it hope? Was it the pulling of my idealism, long ago unraveled by the witness of hypocrisy, arrogance, complacency and imperialism? Was it a sense of possibility and a cautious confidence, that the principles of democracy, the vision that so many have died for, can, indeed, thrive in a healthy way? Was it, too, a little bit of a reprimand, a guilt, perhaps, a touch of shame, that I thought myself more sophisticated than the extraordinary principles and vision of our founding forebears? Was it a sense of my arrogance to have begun to give up? Could it be that the system actually works, that its resilience will eventually bring us to a greater way of being with one another?

As the anthem ended the only thing that I was sure of was that a soft spot within had been awakened and in that willingness to be vulnerable to hope, there is much that we can do together.

On Tuesday, the 20th of January, at noon, Senator Barack Obama will take the oath of office as President of the United States. It is amazing that a bi-racial candidate of African and American descent, with a Semitic name, can be democratically elected in this country and hailed by a majority to step into this position of leadership. What’s more, he barely defeated a woman in the primaries and ran against a mixed gender ticket in the general election.

This office of presidency, conceived in the liberty of white male land owners, many of them slave holders – none of them women – will be established in a wider fullness and more resonant potential this Tuesday than it was first conceived.

What we are about to witness hadn’t even crossed our forebear’s minds. Well, perhaps Abigail Adams (and probably John Adams, being married to Abigail) could have envisioned a female president, but a black bi-racial man (because in all probability we have had Presidents with mixed race genealogies…just not readily discernable)…a black bi-racial man with an African American First Lady? Not likely. And yet, here we are, in that place: more hopeful as a nation than we have been in years, according to countless opinion polls….Hoo-ah!

The system has surpassed itself. Why? Because the principles from which it was born came from the hearts of men. The principles of democracy speak to the inner knowing of inherent worth, and the sacred knowledge of common good that only freedom and responsibility can make manifest. We must find ourselves worthy, hold all life as sacred and be humble to that majesty in order for it to work.

This sudden expansion in the meaning of “all men are created equal” did not happen overnight. There is a line in a film “Field of Dreams” that speaks of all the cosmic tumblers falling into place creating an opening for anything to happen. Barack Obama, clearly an extraordinary leader and community organizer, is in the right place at the right time, and countless influences of mind, body and spirit tumbling into place for decades has made this seemingly sudden shift possible. That president-elect Obama is willing to step into this role fraught with danger and astounding obstacles is a remarkable gift of service. That he is willing to walk into the challenges with courageous trust in our willingness to support him is a leap of faith in our ability to step up.

This is not a time for hero worship or demonizing. It is a time to get to work.

We all are part of the cosmic tumblers that have momentarily come into place. We are all responsible for what comes next. That’s what is so exciting about the atmosphere in this nation and in pockets around the world. A lot of us get it. A lot of us understand that no one person can be in charge of this transformation, that, indeed, it takes our awakening to the wisdom we have within: our heart’s longing for peace and justice, for equity and love of one another, for awe of and care for the earth to take this next step that we have created for ourselves. Similarly, it is not the fault of one person or administration that got us to the desperate enough place to welcome such a shock to the formally complacent and dysfunctional system. As soon as we embrace that we are all in this together, we will stop displacing our responsibilities, we will cease giving away our power, and we will get over judging others as the problem. As soon as we dare to bring our full selves to the vision of a world in harmony, then we’ll be up to the gift of transformation we have summoned.

Let’s take a look at some of those “cosmic tumblers”. First, we have the state of the economy. The state of the nation’s economy is one of the more compelling factors in any presidential election, but what may have been forgotten in the journey of a nation conceived in liberty is that the actual drafting of the Constitution of the United States was compelled by economic instability.

James Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution” convinced the leaders of the states in 1787, that the articles of Confederation, drafted in 1781, were not sufficient. That a more functional nation, a shift in paradigm, was imperative. The reasons were primarily economic.

“The articles seemed to Madison woefully inadequate,” states historian Roger Bruns, “the central government, he believed, had insufficient power to regulate commerce. It could not tax and was generally impotent in setting commercial policy… Saddled with this weak government, the states were on the brink of economic disaster...Congress was attempting to function with a depleted treasury; paper money was flooding the country, creating extraordinary inflation…and the depressed condition of business was taking its toll on many small farmers. Some of them were being thrown in jail for debt, and numerous farms were being confiscated and sold for taxes.”[1]

So, at a time when our economic woes are deep and long, and on the brink of disaster, a new approach to Constitutional leadership comes into being. The echoes of history intermingle with the willingness to evolve, and a more profound understanding that we are all in this together comes into being.

Another “cosmic tumbler” was the organization and willingness of youth to be involved. A sense of participation was inspired and responded to. Each new life brings a new world into our midst. An unprecedented amount of voters of all ages, but especially those just beginning to vote came to a place of knowing that compelled them to get involved and find their voice.

In the historic echoes of Dr. King, spoken 50 years ago to a youth march for integration of schools, he affirmed this timeless phenomenon. “Indeed in your great movement to organize and march for integrated schools,” King told the crowd of thousands, “you have actually accomplished much more. You have awakened on hundreds of campuses throughout the land a new spirit of social inquiry to the benefit of all Americans.”[2]

And, of course, the “cosmic tumblers” of the centuries of anti-racist work, the millions of people over hundreds of years who dedicated themselves to equality for all people, regardless of race and ethnicity. As in the story of Ruby Bridges shared in our Story For All Ages this morning, we are here in the next – but no where near final – step toward equality because of the courage, perseverance, solidarity, sacrifice and compelling advocacy of people from all walks of life. Ruby’s brave journey integrating her school was not possible without family, legislators, teachers, neighbors, fellow citizens whom she never met and respected leaders who risked censure. There are countless stories of this kind of striving. These “cosmic tumblers” must always have a place of celebration and gratitude in our hearts to enliven the soul of our nation.

One of the drawbacks of having a bi-racial president is the notion that we have somehow “made it”, that the work of anti-racism or inclusivism of any kind is no longer needed. We make a mistake if we think we can live a life that is “color blind”. The world is color-rich…we are blind to its magnificence if we ignore the richness of diversity and we will not have authentic engagement with one another if we choose to ignore difference, or try and white wash the tapestry of peoples.

This means we must be willing to be uncomfortable now and again. We must be willing to learn of a new way of being that can coincide with our basic needs. We may most likely still need to give up that which does not give room to another.

When we elected a man of African American descent, we became a different people. That does not mean we have come to the end of our journey toward peace and justice in the world. It simply means we have agreed to open our minds and hearts to dimensions of interrelating that we had not yet allowed in our way of being. This is something to celebrate, but surely not something to rest on. This is a starting point, a launching pad to ways of being not yet known or manifested; ways of being that we cannot rely on one person to define; ways of being that we all must contribute to and find together.

We are now blessed to have a president who has dwelled in many contexts, with many themes running through his blood: Africa, Indonesia, the multicultural reality of Hawaii, middle America Kansas, urban Illinois, African-American culture by choice and marriage and interracial tensions by birth. We have welcomed a president who is recognized as part of many communities, yet unique in straddling the many cultural identities in his life. This can bring a sense of safety in our dwelling with one another as we heighten our awareness that this is one world shared by all. So we cannot rely on any one allegiance but must find ourselves relying on our own orientations to the world as we know it and be willing to engage with others. Barack Obama’s invitation to dialogue is a gift of vast proportions, one that will only work if we take him up on it and call him to account when and if we are ignored.

My tears during the national anthem in regarding the flag emerged from within that place of humanity that our founders tapped into, a place of longing and hope, a place of vision and courage, a place of gratitude and humility. It reminded me to claim my highest hopes and believe in our sacred wisdom for justice, harmony and joy. It reminded me to take my freedom seriously and support this extraordinary nation in its journey toward wholeness.

May we have the audacity, the love, and the humility to claim our priorities for humankind and the earth on which we live to call ourselves from

Love of power to love of principle…

From a conquering mandate to a mandate for justice…

From telling to listening…

From the vision to rule the world to an embrace as part of the world…

From greed to generosity…

From “right and wrong” to patience and perseverance for the common good…

From idolizing independence to cultivating interdependence…

From “each man for himself” to we’re all in this together.

This I pray, this I claim, this I honor with my tears.

So may it be. Amen.

Notes

  1. A More Perfect Union: The Creation of the U.S. Constitution.
  2. King, Dr. Martin Luther, 18 April 1959. as recorded in A Testament of Hope, edited by James Washington, p.22

Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.

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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.

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