Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Binding Together

The following two-part sermon was delivered as part of the Unitarian Universalist Student Chapel held at Union Theological Seminary on November 12, 2014. The chapel name was "Binding Together," and included a choral version of Ysaye Barnwell's "Wanting Memories."

First Reading
A Litany of Restoration 
by Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley
"If, recognizing the interdependence of all life, we strive to build community, the strength we gather will be our salvation.
If you are black and I am white,
It will not matter.
If you are female and I am male,
It will not matter.
If you are older and I am younger,
It will not matter.
If you are progressive and I am conservative,
It will not matter.
If you are straight and I am gay,
It will not matter.
If you are Christian and I am Jewish,
It will not matter.
If we join spirits as brothers and sisters, the pain of our aloneness will be lessened, 
and that does matter.
In this spirit, we build community and move toward restoration."

First Sermon: Wanting Inclusivity

I really want to love this reading. It starts off so powerfully. Salvation is a community affair. It’s not “my salvation,” or “your salvation,” but “our salvation.” It is an active and universally inclusive process, driven by an understanding that our individual journeys are necessarily woven together, shape each other, and give us strength.

And the ending. “The pain of our aloneness will be lessened,” and we will “move toward restoration.” It’s recognizing the brokenness that exists in our world. It’s recognizing the suffering that can come from feeling abandoned or dehumanized by our society because of who we are, what we think, who we love. And it’s recognizing the possibility of healing.

But it’s not recognizing me. It’s not recognizing a lot of people.

This past summer, I served as a facilitator for the UUA’s Multicultural Leadership School. I was responsible for re-centering the group for one of its sessions, and on a whim, I decided that I would use this Litany of Restoration. I thought it was perfect for this group of youth and young adults of color to hear the words of one of their Unitarian Universalist predecessors. I wanted them to see that the work we were doing that weekend, the experiences we were sharing, they were all part of a tradition that included and celebrated them. And a part of me wanted to lift up the legacy of the litany’s author, Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, a woman whose ministry transformed the anti-racism efforts of our denomination, and whose example so many of us strive to follow.

But as I started the reading, my heart began to sink. Not everyone in the room was black or white, not everybody there was female or male, gay or straight, Jewish or Christian. I looked around the room, and I realized that I was leaving more people out than I was inviting in. And the problem wasn’t the words. The problem was my decision to bring them out of their context and into a world that was so different from the one that Rev. Marjorie had written in. I had been so eager to lift up the struggles and beautiful memories of our past, that I ended up forgetting to see the beauty and struggles of the present. I wanted so badly to show the power of the work that had been done yesterday, that I failed to see who was in the room doing the work today. I was among young leaders whose stories were so often forgotten, who struggle virtually every day to have their voices heard through that barrier of the binary...and I ended up reinforcing it.

I want to love this reading, but seeing the world as it is today, I know that I also need to critique its present use. When we look to the successes of our past, we can find the strength and inspiration to continue the work of those who struggled before us. We can follow the spirit of their efforts, and take it on in new and more-informed ways. But when we rest in the successes of the past? What are we doing except nothing? When I don’t make an effort to move beyond what I already know, how is that any different from giving up? For the people who find themselves comfortable and unwilling to challenge today’s world, how is that any different from saying “I got what I need, sucks to be you.”?

So what do I do with this reading? How do I keep the memories alive without letting them be all that I see? How do we honor but challenge our outdated successes?

Second Reading
A Litany of Diversity 
by Michael Sallwasser
If the colors of our skin or the lands of our ancestors are different,
It need not divide us.
If the genders we claim are different,
It need not divide us.
If the stages in our lives are different,
It need not divide us.
If our means of achieving the common good are different,
It need not divide us.
If who we love and how we love are different,
It need not divide us.
If the spiritual paths we follow are different,
It need not divide us.
If our abilities to think and do are different,
It need not divide us.
If our resources are different,
It need not divide us.
If we join spirits and hearts,
Our differences will not divide us, but deeply bind us together.

Second Sermon: Needing Particularity

This Litany of Diversity may offer an answer to my litany of questions. Nearly twenty years after the Litany of Restoration was written, Michael Sallwasser and others committed to work that Rev. Marjorie had started read her words in a meeting, and experienced the same tension that I felt over the summer. And with her permission, they updated Marjorie’s words. They preserved the spirit of her efforts by doing exactly what she had done in her time - they took a critical look at their traditions. Like Marjorie had advised and modeled, they chose to "witness to and actively participate in the transformation of their faith community and society." They took to heart her distinction between liberal religion, which conforms to the world and rests in our past successes, and liberationist religion, which transforms the world and critiques what lies beneath our inherited practices. Like Marjorie, they refused to settle for something that they knew they had the ability and responsibility to evolve.

And the litany itself does move us past the inherited practice of binary thinking. It no longer limits the conversation to two voices, and it allows for the constant inclusion of new identities in communities. With this looser and open language, anybody and everybody is welcome to join spirits and hearts together. But is it too loose? Is it so focused on including anyone that it actually excludes everyone? Does it do such a good job of making sure that no voices have a monopoly on the conversation, that it actually further silences those that have yet to be heard? This litany, this version of open thinking, it lifts up that our differences need not divide us, but it neglects the importance of our particularities. It tries so hard to ensure that nobody is offended, that it chooses to remain in the safety of ambiguity, conforming to the warm and fuzzy resting place of liberal religion.

See, Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley also criticized the tendency for liberalism to view “freedom in the abstract,” and this litany unfortunately seems to do that. Her original words, as binary as they were, they recognized that for us to move forward in community, our differences must be explicitly named. In order for us to be the liberationist transformers of our world, we have to give weight to the specifics. We have to be grounded not in the abstract principles that sound good, but in concrete experiences that push us out of our comfort zone. The ability to ignore our particularities and their lived realities, it comes not from a place of wanting to find universal truths, but from the privilege of never having to consider that there are experiences in the world that are different from one’s own. Removing the specifics is no better than limiting them to two options, because it brings none of our stories to the table, and lets those who have set that abstract liberal agenda in the past keep it in its conforming place.

These litanies may be Unitarian Universalist readings, but they’re not the only example of these differences in thinking. Here at Union, we have the option to create a faculty position that comes to the table with a specific voice; we have the opportunity to recognize the particularities that come from a womanist perspective, and the liberationist transformation that this view brings. But something is keeping us from explicitly naming it as such. We are stuck in our liberal, abstract freedom, preferring the warm and fuzzy resting place of ambiguity over the difficult work of concrete liberation. Like the latter Litany of Diversity, our vague approach is so inclusive, that it is actually excluding the specific voices we need to hear. Our looser language is not living up to our responsibility to change our community and evolve.

With the spirit of these two litanies in mind, it is our responsibility to balance the desire for inclusivity with the need for particularity. It is our responsibility to keep the memories of our predecessors alive, to honor the spirit of their work, by being true to what we know about our world today. And that requires us to create that open and inclusive community by being specific and concrete with our liberationist goals. The communal process of salvation that Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley wrote about in her original litany invites us to be critical of tradition, but it does not mean that we must abandon it entirely. It means that our past successes help us to see that there is something better ahead. It means that the transformation we seek will come, but we must first be willing to name the particularities that will bind us together. 

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