preached for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing
by the Rev. Kathryn A. Bert
January 12, 2014
So I’m really pleased to be here this morning. I’ve been away for two Sundays and a Christmas eve service – I went as far away as South America, and though the trip was lovely and we got to see our son who is well and thriving and in the Amazon right now, it is good to be home, despite the cold. Getting away is helpful for gaining perspective. And we had a lot going on in December of 2013. I must say I am grateful that the new year has arrived, with hopes for more joy this season.
We begin the year with a theme of justice. Nic in his sermon last week named the foundation of our justice work as love. And though some of you may be have been tripped up by James Luther Adams language in the reading this morning of “God’s love and law,” I think he was heading in the same direction as Nic, really – or Nic, more likely, was heading in the same direction as Adams:
To understand power as God’s law and love is to understand it as Being; to understand it as human freedom is to understand it as our response to the possibilities of being.
I think if you’re an atheist or a humanist, you can still understand what JLA – that’s James Luther Adams – is saying here. Translate God’s law and love, to the way things are, or how the world just is. There is the power of the world as it just is, and there is the power of our response to it. Social action, says JLA, is our response. I’m relating social action to justice. Justice is about striking that balance, equity, getting things right – as we think they should be, fair: Sound trumpets of triumph for marches of peace, east, west, north, and south, let the long quarrels cease!
Even when things are terribly wrong, we have a sense of what would be fair. What would be right. We were shocked in December by the murder of two of our own, because that is not how the world should be – and yet, I say those words, knowing full well that it is how the world is. You know it too, whether or not we wish to say it aloud or admit it together. And JLA reminds us that we need to be grounded in “God’s law and love” – in the way things are:The destructive element of power appears whenever power is divorced from an understanding of its source in the divine.
So here comes the part about love, what I believe Nic was reminding us last week and what I believe JLA is telling us with his words. “It is the destiny of humanity to love and to be loved.” writes JLA, in a part of the essay we didn’t hear this morning.
We have being, and our response to being. When we remember that we are loved, our being is better able to respond with love. Our response, our social action, needs to be grounded in reality, in the way the world just is.
What does that mean? That our action needs to be grounded in the world as it just is?
I’ve got three ideas. You may have more. But, I think it means that our justice work needs to be grounded in social reality, that our justice work needs to be grounded in love, and that our justice work needs to be grounded in our personal reality.
There are many groups competing for my sermon content this morning. That’s is a part of the social context here this morning –reproductive justice, the fight against global climate change, the fight against domestic violence, those for gun sense in America, and restorative justice, to name a few. I can make an argument that each one is THE most important issue to focus on, but the truth is, they are all important and we need to make progress on each.
And forgive me for not naming the social justice cause – oops immigration – that you are most committed to… yes, they are all important.
Social context. So let’s take immigration for a moment, the justice issue I failed to mention at first. The social context is that most of all of us in this room come from an immigrant family. This is a country largely of immigrants – though there were those brought here as slaves, indentured servants, and the Native Americans who were on this land before the others. There’s the global context of poverty, which brings some to our soil. Oppression, which brings others. All these contexts must be considered – all these ways the world “just is” – need to be taken into consideration as we seek to change, As well as the reality of the families: I think especially of latinos in the South, whose families crossed what became the border between the US and Mexico for years prior to a border ever being established…. if we frame immigration reform without recognizing these inherent realities, we will fail.
Or perhaps the issues of violence – domestic violence, gun violence, mass incarceration – the social reality is that we live in a violent culture, one that “precipitates and perpetuates war,” to borrow language from Martin Luther King Jr. and that it can’t be separated from issues of race, class, gender, and gender identity – reproductive justice becomes an issue because limiting women’s choices is just another way to control and oppress women.
and, of course, global climate change. None of these other issues matter if we kill our planet and have no where to live. I like the quote I put on the cover of your order of service, except for the fact that Einstein privileges the treatment of people over the treatment of animals or plants or the environment…….but I attribute that mistake to the times in which he was writing. “In matters of truth and justice, there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same.”
For justice, though a decidedly human notion, does not just affect humans. That’s the social reality we need to be grounded in.
My second notion is the one where you may more likely disagree with my theological conclusion – but of course, you are free to do that here. It’s my job to speak my truth, and your job to come up against it to decide whether or not you agree or disagree.
I think our justice work needs to be grounded in social reality, and that our justice work needs to be grounded in love. This notion of love is more theological, I grant you, than scientific - though you cannot dismiss evidence such as the production of oxytocin in the body which aids our feelings of responsibility and desire to care for the young….
Oxytocin aside, justice work needs to be grounded in love. We must remember that we are loved, and in turn love the world we seek to change. Fear tactics, threats, and violence only perpetuate fear, threats and violence. Or as King put it, “we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” “The foundation of such a method is love,” said King.
Adams said that “The destructive element of power appears whenever power is divorced from an understanding of its source in the divine.”
When the source of our power is love - a firm sense both that we belong, we are loved, and that the world is worthy of our love – that is when power can be creative and productive and good. I can’t prove that statement to you. It is just a matter of theological belief. But for me, it is true.
That’s why the story for all ages this morning. Although anger can motivate us toward justice work, it will not sustain us. Anger drains us, and if that is all we use to make a difference, we will burn ourselves out.
There was a time in my youth, when I thought sacrificing myself for a cause was noble, burning myself out was okay…. but thank goodness for age and temperance. I find more creative productivity when I rest in the knowledge that I am loved and loveable, when I take care of myself, and when I act out of love.
“The creative element of power is divine,” writes James Luther Adams, “The destructive element of power appears whenever power is divorced from an understanding of its source in the divine.”
Anger signals to us that something is wrong – but the thing that is wrong is not always external to us. Sometimes the anger signals internal work that needs to be done. and so it is tricky to count on anger as a guide. Better to tame that anger – not supress it, but tame it, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, so we can think better and more clearly and take action in a thoughtful way. We can let love back in. Let love guide our action.
I think our justice work needs to be grounded in social reality, that our justice work needs to be grounded in love, and that our justice work needs to be grounded in our personal reality.
This is, of course, where it gets personal.
Let me go back to the topic of social reality – I named different justice issues that folks might focus on. It was not a comprehensive list – I didn’t name poverty or homelessness or a myriad of other social problems. But it was a partial list of some of the topics that the church social action committee has taken on in the last couple of years. Whenever I list off topics in a sermon, there is someone who will point out the topic that I didn’t name – the one closest to their heart. This is why I say it is personal. We construct our identities, in part, around the social issues we care about and work on.
I know that my sense of self is deeply rooted in the identity of teacher. I come from a teaching family and education is very important to me. That part of my identity hasn’t changed much as I changed careers from public school teacher to preacher. My sense of justice is rooted in the works of Paulo Friere and his pedagogy of the oppressed.
But we often trip ourselves up when we play what we call “identity politics” – when I claim that my justice issue is somehow more important than your justice issue…. or that I need you to own my justice issue in order for me to feel validated and loved…
now, we’re back to my theological point – the fact that we all seek to be loved and to love. When we aren’t grounded in that feeling of being loved, we can seek that feeling through our justice work, and undermine our own progress….
All politics is personal. We are apt to succeed when we ground our justice work in the way the world just is, and in the way we just are.
What is your personal reality? What have you chosen to devote your life to? What are your priorities? The new year is always a good time to take stock in our lives and decide if we’re doing what matters most, and what we need to be doing. What is the unique contribution you make to the world? and how does that inform your sense of justice making? What justice issues prick your conscience the most? and how can you affect the trajectory of change?
It is easy to become overwhelmed if we don’t set priorities; if we try to do it all. We are shockingly ineffective when we try to do it all. There is so much need in the world. We must target our efforts. Decide what matters most or how you might be most effective, and trust that others will work on other things, and that together, we have half a chance. Because alone, I promise you, we don’t.
No fewer than five members of the congregation died in December. I remember that in my first year of ministry here there were five deaths, and I thought that was a lot. We reached that in a single month last year. and one thing I can say about death, is that it sure puts life into perspective. We had clear things to do in December, responses to make, consolation to offer. Two of the deaths felt particularly “unjust” – and people recommitted to their work against poverty, domestic violence, guns. But even the more timely deaths – the ones that occurred in just time – Arlie, Dot and Walt – give us pause and allow us time to reflect on our lives and how we wish to live to the end of our days.
May we all live, remembering that we are loved, understanding our own social and personal context, and choosing to spread love, not hate, out into the world; a world that so desperately needs our love and good works.
Sermons are meant to be spoken and not written. I have not edited this sermon to written form.