A Wider Vision

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, January 13, 2018.

Last Sunday I talked about some of the ways our UU tradition has failed people of color. How we have fallen short of our aspiration to be a truly welcoming faith. The good news is, there’s plenty of work for us to do, inside these walls and out in the world. Our world needs us! I hope you’ll come be part of the conversation on social justice today at noon. 

Today I want to lift up our potential, our giftedness, the possibilities that lie before us. Even with the struggles of these days, I am generally hopeful about what lies ahead. I sense that the pains of this time are the birth pangs of an expansion of more liberty and more justice for more people. The problem right now is that some folks are fearful about what’s changing; they are worried about what they could lose. They assume there’s a limited amount of human rights to go around. That you getting your freedom somehow diminishes mine. That you having more opportunity means I get less. But that’s not how it works! There isn’t a limited amount of love or justice in our world. We can create as much of that as we want! 

Our worship theme for January is “Unity and Diversity.” It’s not “Unity or Diversity,” as if you have to choose between the two. Though some people act that way. When I was a kid, we were taught that our country was a melting pot, where people from different natures and cultures were assimilated into this stew we call America. But is that how it works? Should any of us give up our ethnic heritage, or our regional differences, in order to be American? I’m heading to North Carolina on Tuesday, and one of the little things I’m looking forward to is checking out a barbecue restaurant that my uncle is always talking about—tasting that food and hearing folks in that town talk Southern and drinking some sweet tea!

Rather than the melting pot, a better image of America is a tapestry, with threads of different fabric woven together; or a mosaic, made of different sizes and shapes and colors that combine to create something beautiful. When you come to this church, we don’t ask you to give up whatever religious heritage you may have grown up with, unless you want and need to do that. For me, it was the openness and the freedom of UUism that allowed me the space and the encouragement to go back and explore and recover and redeem parts of that tradition which formed me, and this has been nourishing and liberating in ways I never could have imagined. 

Is it possible or desirable to melt away the experiences and the cultures that formed us? No, I believe we are meant to be particular people, and it is through embracing who we are, our light and our shadow, that we are then able to enter into deeper relationships with others, and with the wonder and mystery of life. Some people and institutions see diversity as a threat, and try to impose a top-down uniformity in order to keep people controlled and in line. But our individuality and diversity is our birthright, our original blessing, that we are invited to embrace and celebrate and share. 

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah says “O people! We have formed you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another" (49:13). It says we are different so that we might get to know one another. Not so we will fear or demonize or hurt one another.

One of the things I love about being a religious leader in these days is that the walls between traditions are becoming much more porous. The people at the relatively new Islamic Temple in Haverhill have been so welcoming of people of other faiths to come and share their rituals and celebrations with them. Our Haverhill clergy group fosters strong relationships between clergy from an increasingly diverse range of traditions and cultures. We have learned to be open with one another and respectful of each other; not to water down our differences, but rather, to look for what we can work on together. 

Unity and diversity are not opposed to one another; rather, to the extent we do our own work, and know who we are, are mindful of our gifts and our limitations, then we are able to reach out to others. When Tracey and I were married, one of the prayers said, “Give them such fulfillment of their mutual affection that they may reach out in love and concern for others.” Isn’t that how it works? You can’t give what you don’t have. But when you feel grounded and whole and free, then you can share that with others; you want to share it with others, yes?

We need one another, the Black UU minister Mark Morrison-Reed writes; it’s why we have communities like this one. He reminds us:

This is the central task of the worshipping community:
to invite the Spiritual Presence; 
to unveil the connectedness of all humanity through the story of life;
and thus to reveal this universal truth, 
which is only discovered amid the particulars of our own lives
and the lives of others. 
Once felt it inspires us to act for justice.

We forget that we are all one human family, and so we need to be reminded. We aren’t all the same. And isn’t that good? But when you come into that mysterious Presence, whether it’s when you’re looking up at a starry night sky or holding a newborn baby or singing together in church or joining hands with others to work for justice, then you know, don’t you, that we are all connected. That we are all in this together. That we are here to see and behold and know one another, to grow our capacity for love and understanding, to open our hearts and our arms a bit wider, a bit wider.

I’m ever grateful that we have this beautiful and fragile planet under our feet, this blue-green island home, spinning through space, bringing us day and night and the seasons which come and go. When the troubles of this world get to be too much, I hope you know how to be in touch the wonder and the mystery all around, the goodness of the earth. 

The poet Mary Oliver, who is no stranger to struggle, writes about this, how each day we are given this gift of this world. 

If it is your nature 
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination 
alighting everywhere. 
And if your spirit 
carries within it

the thorn 
that is heavier than lead— 
if it's all you can do 
to keep on trudging—

there is still 
somewhere deep within you 
a beast shouting that the earth 
is exactly what it wanted—

each pond with its blazing lilies 
is a prayer heard and answered 
every morning,

whether or not 
you have ever dared to be happy, 
whether or not 
you have ever dared to pray.

My prayer is that you will know and remember that you are beloved on this earth. That if it is hard for you to trust that right now, that you will have companions who keep whispering it in your ear, and you will hear the Spirit of life saying it too: “You are beloved on this earth.” My prayer is that you will trust that you are here for something. That you see your life as a gift and a blessing that you are here to share with others, as the hymn says, “to build the common good, and make our own days glad.”

May we be people of faith and courage and good will, stretching and growing, loving and supporting one another and reaching out to welcome and embrace those we haven’t met yet. Let this be our prayer and our song: the light of hope and love here shines upon each face. May it bring faith to guide our journey home. So that one day, we will all get there, together.