Easter Homily: The Rhythm of Life is a Powerful Beat

The Rev. Josh Pawelek

“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”[1] 

I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.


Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.”[2] And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.

If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?

Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.

I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”

The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.

Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed,[3] then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.

Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.

Amen and blessed be.

 


[1] This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.

[2] Luke 13:37b.

[3] Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.

Love Keeps Coming: A Christmas Eve Homily

I found Colin McEnroe’s editorial in the Hartford Courant this weekend very moving. He was reflecting, one week later, on the December 14 tragedy in Newtown. He said, “If there’s an elixir, some potion we can drink, it’s almost certainly love. Right? Love is the only possible bright sparkling rope bridge we can clutch as we stutter-step through the dark universe.

“What a joke,” he goes on. “Our only good piece of equipment is love, the thing we fail at so often. We’ve been talking all week about weapons, but our only sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness is love….

I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.”[1]

I don’t know if he intended this as a Christmas message, but there it is: “We are reminded to love.”

Many of you know this past Friday I had the honor of participating in Tom Ashbrook’s National Public Radio On Point conversation about the spiritual challenge of Newtown. I believe Tom Ashbrook is a hopeful person, a positive person. But I also know that he, like all of us, was shaken to his core by this tragic event; and he wasn’t going to let his guests off easy. He wasn’t going to let us simply proclaim, “we should be hopeful.” He really wanted to know why. Given what we’ve witnessed, why should we be hopeful this holiday season? And how? How can any of us justify a feeling of hopefulness after this?

I suppose I ought to add: given all of it—given a culture of violence and crass materialism; given our national addiction to militarism; given our political polarization; given racism, classism, homophobia; given homelessness and poverty; given all the ways in which we are isolated from one another, separated, fragmented, alienated; given pervasive loneliness; given all of it, how can we justify an attitude of hopefulness? That’s what I was hearing Tom Ashbrook ask on the radio Friday.

It’s a fair question. And I suppose it’s the ultimate question any person of any kind of faith whatsoever is challenged to answer: why hope, when there is so much around us that says, again and again and again, there’s no reason to be hopeful?

Well, I’m not sure there is an answer—not a good one—not one that will suffice in the face of a tragedy like Newtown. Maybe we really do live in a cold and impersonal universe; and terrible, tragic things will happen from time to time; and evil things are just as likely to happen as good things. “It’s just the way things are,” said one of Friday’s On Point callers. “And it’s naïve to think you can somehow change it.”

But I do think we can change it. I really do. I don’t know exactly why I think this. If I did, I suppose I would have my answer to the question, Why be hopeful? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that our ancient ancestors learned to trust that the sun would return at the darkest time of year. Maybe it has something to do with the way a candle flame looks in the darkness—small, thin, even frail, but beautiful and heart-warming nevertheless. Maybe it has something to do with the grandeur of stars in a cold winter night sky. Maybe it has something to do with the ways people come together in the aftermath of tragedy, holding each other, supporting each other, bearing witness to suffering. Maybe it has something to do with the little kindnesses people seem to offer each other, over and over, in a million different ways. And maybe it has something to do with our capacity for love, this “joke,” says Colin McEnroe, this “thing we fail at so often,” yet this thing which is our only “sure-fire weapon against chaos and nothingness.” Time and time again, in the midst of pain and suffering—not always, but often—people find ways to love one another. As selfish and mean-spirited as we humans can be, we are capable of incredible love. I don’t ignore the mean-spirited part—I know it’s real; I just choose, most of the time, to focus on the love part.

Colin McEnroe said, “I don’t know what comes next. But I am reminded to love.” It may not be a good answer or even a sufficient one, to the question, “Why be hopeful?” It may be a naïve answer. It may even come across to some as a weak answer. But for me it’s the answer that makes sense.  It’s the only reasonable answer to an otherwise violent and chaotic world.

This is what I know: Love comes into world, again and again and again. It comes as a new-born baby, and it comes in the wise eyes of our elders. It comes with angels singing proclamations of peace on earth and good will to all, and it comes silently, a hand held in the midst of grief. It comes with gifts from wise men. It comes with Herod’s soldiers breathing down its neck, hoping to destroy it. It comes despite our best efforts to thwart it. It comes when we don’t think we’ll ever find it. It comes sometimes because we seek it out. It comes sometimes when it wasn’t what we were looking for. It comes sometimes in strength and abundance, and sometimes it comes thin and fragile.  Sometimes it makes all the difference and we can say with confidence, “love wins.” Sometimes it loses and at least for a time, hope disappears.  But love keeps coming, like the returning sun at midwinter. It keeps coming, like stars in the night sky. It keeps coming, like one small candle lit against the darkness. It keeps coming. And I, for one, am hopeful. I hope you are too. Love keeps coming.

My prayer for each of us this evening is that we encounter love, and that we rediscover, even if we’re not sure why, our reasons to hope.  

Merry Christmas. Amen. Blessed be.

Decolonizing Our Faith

READING

An excerpt/adaptation from “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed” (Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, Provost and Professor of Cultural Studies and Islamic Studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry)

“Decolonizing” [religion] means looking at how it can subvert the dominating paradigm instead of merely reflecting it or having a merely reactive response to it….  [We must name how] the demonizing of the dark leads to the war against women and their bodies from the Inquisition to the beginning of the dismantling of women’s reproductive rights [and] is connected to the masculinization of the healing industry, to the hardening of Christian religious dogma in northern Europe, to the driving out of the Goddess, to the destruction of the Earth, to the mass killing of kweers of all colors, is connected to the expulsion of the Dark Other, i.e.,  the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain, is connected to the Afrikan slave trade and the invasions of the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Islands, where indigenous peoples, Afrikans, and Asians were enslaved and massacred (and continue to fuel a fear of brown-skinned immigrants and the brutal murdering of dark-skinned peoples, women, kweers, etc.) because they were considered to be like women: incarnations of evil; incarnations of unbridled lust; like women, they were considered to be too connected to the body and to sex; and where the Earth was destroyed because like women, the Earth was considered to be wild and needing to be dominated; like dark-skinned peoples, it needed to be dominated and controlled. This interlocking vortex became reflected in our language, where all that was evil was “dark” and vice-versa. The Dark Other was soon not only people living with brown skin, but anyone who was other: people living with disabilities, women, kweers, etc.

SERMON: Decolonizing Our Faith

“Evening breeze sings to me…. Mother earth awakens me.”[1]

Friends, this sermon is about awakening—waking up, opening our eyes, rising, stretching, greeting the dawn, greeting a new day, greeting a new way of being in the world which, in some respects, is not new at all. That is, greeting a new way of being in the world whose roots are ancient; or greeting an ancient way of being in the world that has been with us all along and even though it has been hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, discounted, ridiculed, colonized, marginalized, made invisible, lampooned, bamboozled, attacked, assaulted, bombed, burned, bashed, bullied, battered, tainted, taunted, targeted and terrorized it has survived and has been asserting itself anew; has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. This sermon is about awakening to an ancient way of being which is also new.

Throughout my entire ministry I’ve wrestled with the claim—a philosophical and academic claim—that we live in the end times of the modern world.  Not the Biblical end times—that’s something completely different and involves far too much hellfire and brimstone for me. The era scholars call modernity is slowly coming to a close. I encountered this idea in college in the 1980s and then in seminary in the 1990s. While I’m not convinced anyone knows entirely what this means or what the future holds, I do think naming and reflecting on this claim provides insight into the mission of the liberal church today.

 

I wrestle with this claim because I don’t believe the modern world will transition to something new without considerable conflict. Despite all the wonderful gifts of modernity—modern science, medicine, technology, industry, transportation, democracy, freedom, liberty, individual autonomy, human rights—all of which I fully expect will continue in new forms in whatever era is coming—despite this positive legacy it is also true that the modern world has always held itself in place through violence and oppression. For nearly six centuries modern nations and their leaders have far too often turned to domination and exploitation to achieve their goals: domination and exploitation of the land, of natural resources, of the global working poor and laboring classes, of the global south, of peoples of color, of women, of indigenous peoples and cultures, of (in the words of Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “kweers of all colors,”[1] of Jews and Muslims—and sometimes Christians—of Goddess religions, earth-based religions, and all manner of traditional folkways, including healing and agricultural practices.  

The modern world may be ending but its insidious underside—its tendency to resort to violence and oppression—won’t just disappear. Over the centuries it has insinuated itself deeply into modern consciousness, into our social, political and economic structures. It is the constant, unspoken threat of violence at the heart of so many international negotiations. It is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate saying “all options are on the table,” which we know is code for “we reserve the right to bomb you.” It is the rise of drone technology striking up and down the Afghan-Pakistan border and across the Southern Arabian Peninsula. It is gang warfare on city streets and corporate warfare on workers and the environment. It is wealthy nations with no will to address crushing poverty within their borders. It is the crazed search for fossil fuels despite incontrovertible evidence we’ve already combusted the climate beyond recognition. It is theories of “legitimate rape.” It is all the uninvestigated, untried murders of transgender people. None of this will simply disappear with the end of modernity. It must be confronted, challenged, resisted, subverted and undermined in creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent ways. It must be declawed, defunded, dismantled, disorganized and voted out of office. It must be transformed into something peaceful, just, fair and sustainable. In my view this is our work as free, liberal, loving people of faith. This creative, innovative, artistic, nonviolent work of confronting domination and exploitation is a critical role of the church in these end times of the modern world. In embracing this role I believe we awaken to that ancient way of being which is also new.

Let me tell you how the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has recently said yes to this task of challenging the violence and oppression at the heart of modernity. At our 2012 General Assembly (GA) in Phoenix, delegates voted overwhelmingly to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. I was not familiar with this term until UUA board members started talking about it a year ago. I was familiar with some of the history surrounding it, but not the term itself. In short, the Doctrine of Discovery provided the intellectual, moral and spiritual justification for European colonization and slavery at the dawn of the modern era. Here’s a quote from the UUA website: “The Doctrine of Discovery is a principle of international law dating from the late 15th century. It has its roots in … papal decree[s] … that specifically sanctioned and promoted the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian territories and peoples. Hundreds of years of decisions and laws continuing right up to our own time can ultimately be traced back to the Doctrine of Discovery—laws that invalidate or ignore the rights, sovereignty, and humanity of indigenous peoples in the United States and around the world.”[2]

These original papal decrees were written in Latin, but you can find English translations online. Two in particular stand out. The first, entitled Dum Diversas, issued in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V to King Alfonso V of Portugal, is widely regarded as the first official sanction of the African slave trade. Here’s a quote: “We grant you full and free power, through the Apostolic authority of this edict, to invade, conquer, fight, subjugate the Saracens and pagans, and other infidels and other enemies of Christ, and … to lead their persons in perpetual servitude and to apply and appropriate realms, duchies, royal places, principalities and other dominions, possessions and goods … to you and your use and your successors the Kings of Portugal.”[3]

Then in 1493, in response to Christopher Columbus’ first Atlantic voyage, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree entitled  Inter Caetera to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. “We … out of the fullness of our apostolic power, by the authority of Almighty God … give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever … all the islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter.”[4]

A picture emerges of 15th-century European power elites—popes and monarchs—authorizing the domination and exploitation of foreign lands, peoples and resources, and thereby ushering in the modern age.  A few centuries later Protestant rulers of Europe and the United States adopted the Doctrine of Discovery for their own uses. You can see it in Mass Bay and Virginia colony charters; in the Atlantic slave trade; in American expansionism and manifest destiny; in centuries of Indian wars, countless broken treaties, trails of tears, and detainment on reservations. You can see it in the Mexican-American war, the annexation of the American southwest, the colonization of Hawai’i, American imperialism, the history of immigration law, the war on drugs, the war on terror and the mass incarceration of black and brown people in American prisons. You can see it in a variety of United States Supreme Court decisions, the most recent being a 2005 case called City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York. [5] “The case involved a dispute over taxation of ancestral lands…. During oral arguments, it became clear that [the case] would hinge on whether … the Oneida Indian nation ‘has sovereignty status’ with regard to [its] ancestral lands…. In [the first] footnote [of her] decision for the Court majority [Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg writes:] ‘Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign—first the discovering European nation and later the original states and the United States.’”[6] For me this underscores how deeply modernity’s tendency toward domination and exploitation is quietly woven into our legal system.

When the UUA was designing the 2012 GA and the various ways our delegates would bear witness against Arizona’s harsh immigration laws, our Arizona partners started talking to our leaders about the Doctrine of Discovery. They said, essentially: the reason state and federal governments and the sheriff’s department can treat us this way, can racially profile us, can raid our neighborhoods, can keep us from accessing our ancestral lands, can tear families apart in the middle of the night is because the United States still believes in the Doctrine of Discovery. They asked us: Will your General Assembly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly ask your leaders to work with indigenous people to propose a Congressional resolution calling on the US government to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Will your General Assembly call upon the US government to fully implement the standards of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?[7] We said yes. We voted, resoundingly, yes.

This yes is important to me; I hope it’s important to you. This yes meant, first, that as a historically white religious association with a distinct European American heritage we were able to hold ourselves accountable to people of color organizations in Arizona. That’s what it means to be antiracist: white institutional power made accountable to people of color, their institutions, and their organizing for a more just society. But deeper than that: in repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery we said yes to decolonizing our faith. That is, we said yes to a vision of our world free from the violence, oppression, domination and exploitation at the heart of modernity. We said yes to working as Unitarian Universalists to achieve that vision. We said yes, we are ready to wake up to a new way of being in the world—a new way of being whose roots are also ancient.

What is that way of being, asserting itself anew, singing now on the evening breeze, waking with the morning sun? If Professor Farajaje is right—and I believe he is—that one of the central strategies of modern domination was the demonization of the Dark Other, which connects the demonization of the earth to the demonization of women, people of color, indigenous peoples and cultures, immigrants, Jews and Muslims, ‘kweers of all colors,’ and on and on, then this new way of being must point us away from demonization, away from division, away from distancing us from them; it must point us towards balance. The modern world has been out of balance since its inception. We need to regain our balance—our own, internal sense of balance and a collective, global sense of balance.

We need balance between the dark and the light, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them. We need balance between day and night, dawn and dusk.

 

We need balance between our current habits of consumption and what we truly need for living well—a movement away from the fetishizing of material things and the resulting rape of the earth towards more holistic modes, methods, practices and principles of sustainable living, of renewable energy, of reduced carbon footprints—an honest, realistic balance between the needs of humanity and the needs of the earth accountable to generations upon generations into the future.

 

We need balance between our technological lives and our natural, flesh and blood lives. We need balance between our technological relationships and our natural, face-to-face, body-to-body, person-to-person relationships. We need balance between our online friends and our actual friends.

 

We need balance between male and female energy, between the beauty each has to offer, and all the beauty that lies between them—indeed, a recognition that male and female not only balance, but blend, mix, merge and cross—a wonderful truth of human diversity—the reason we bear witness at the Transgender Day of Remembrance this Tuesday evening, saying no to the murders of transgender people, and yes to the dignity of transgender lives, yes to the human capacity for changing, transitioning, bending, crossing and queering.

We need balance among all faiths and cultures for a world in which no faith or culture dominates, where each faith and culture has access to the public square, yet where each refrains from imposing itself on the others, where each respects the others, where each seeks to understand the others, where all come together on common ground to work for the ongoing advance of justice and equality for all people and for the earth.

We need balance between the tools of war and the tools of peace, and much greater wisdom when it comes to declaring war.

We need a more just balance of wealth, for a world in which the rich and the poor and not so far from each other, not so unfamiliar to each other, not so disconnected from each other.

This sense of balance is that new way of being that has been asserting itself in these waning days of modernity; that new way of being that has been speaking, calling, singing like the evening breeze, shining like the morning sun. And in fact, it has been with us all long. Have you heard it? Its roots are ancient: It is there in the Tao, yin and yang, wu wei, neti neti, namaste, the middle path, shalom, the great commandment, the Sacred Way. Yet is also new. We have tools, knowledge and insights the ancient masters could never have imagined. So let us awaken from our modern slumbers, open our eyes, rise, stretch, and greet the dawn; and in this new day let us first regain what we have lost—our balance; and then let us begin to refashion the world.

Amen and Blessed Be.

 


[1] Farajaje-Jones, Elias (now Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje) “Queer(y)ing Religious Education: Teaching R(evolutionary) S(ub)-V(ersions)! or Relax! . . . It’s Just Religious Ed”  Unitarian Universalism: Selected Essays, 2001 (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, 2001) pp. 19-20.

[2] See “What is the Doctrine of Discovery?” at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/index.shtml. Also, the UUA has produced a helpful introductory video at http://www.uua.org/multiculturalism/dod/199378.shtml.

[4] An English translation of Inter Caetera can be found at http://www.doctrineofdiscovery.org/inter%20caetera.htm.

[5] City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, 125 S. Ct. 1478, 148384 (2005).

[6] Frichner, Tonya Gonnella, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery,” a preliminary study submitted to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, 9th session, February 4th, 2010, p. 19. See: http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/E.C.19.2010.13%20EN.pdf

[7] Language to the UUA Board’s Responsive Resolution for repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery is at http://www.uua.org/statements/statements/209123.shtml.

 


[1] Composer Unknown, “Evening Breeze” Singing the Journey (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2005) #1072.