What follows is a transcript of the sermon I preached extemporaneously for the Universalist National Memorial Church. Like a flower that's been pressed into a book, it only gives an impression of what I said: the context and the execution of preaching being lost. But perhaps better a representation of the sermon than none at all, particularly for those who saw it live. I've added the occasional bracketed word where the meaning may not make sense.
The texts were from the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 and Matthew 28:16-20, but from the Revised Common Version.
Good morning and thank you to Pastor Gatton for asking me back and for welcoming me into your homes and putting up with the fact that sometimes I don’t see the microphone button. But I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about each of you over the last several weeks, and I’ve been praying for you by name. Uh, special things this week to Lee Folia-Brunt who asked me what the sermon title was going to be. Not knowing that that was such a such a loaded and important question, because when she asked I didn’t have an answer, and that’s therefore there is no title today because how can you know what’s going to come? Two days ago, four days ago, a week ago. Who would believe that we would be where we are at this moment? And where will we be a day, three days a week, a year from now. So I didn’t have an answer.
And what do you then call what you’re not going to know what to say? Now I mean. And how can you even conceptualize the life that you’re in when everything is changing so quickly? So the sermon doesn’t have a title. But I’m hoping that it does have some threads which will carry back a day back, four days back. A week back. A year back. Back centuries and likewise centuries forward.
Let’s recap. It has been up until the last couple of days absolutely terrible. I don’t think this is controversial or news to anybody. When I started writing the sermon back when I thought it had a title. There were helicopters whirling overhead through the neighborhood. We were under curfew. And the only thing that would come up on the news — online or on television — were images of people being shot with rubber bullets or tear gas, or who knows what? And everything just seemed like it was going downhill continuously fast. These are not great conditions under which to write a sermon or for to think, or really to live.
So, we could be undercut by despair. We could be undercut by fear or anger or bitterness. We can certainly feel all these things, but to the fear of being pulled down by all these things is what worried me most of all. To think: what can we pull out of our religious lives in order to overcome this? Not just for this moment, because problems have come before.
Our problems are not a week, or a year, or three years old. Some of them go back decades and centuries. And whomever is elected in November, or whatever decisions are made in the next year or two, those problems will continue unless we are able to make systematic, deep-seated, heartfelt and hard-won changes.
We have a lot of resources. They’re not fairly distributed, of course. Some people have wealth and other people don’t. Some people have comfort at home and other people don’t. Some people have large and supportive families and other people don’t. Some people have health and their right minds and other people don’t. But collectively we have a lot of strength and one of the things that we can [also] call upon is our faith, because even though that is also not evenly spread out through the population, it is a resource which keeps giving and will not be exhausted. So I’m not [going to] talk about your wealth, and I’m not going to talk about your families, and I’m not going to talk about your political opinions and not even going to — and this is really rare for Washington — I’m not even going to talk about policy. But I am going to talk about our faith, because that’s something that we can do here and trust one another with. And that will give us some direction where we need to go with everything else.
Faith is not the same thing as religion, after all. Religion is sort of what we’re doing now. It is the customs and the folkways and the language and the texts and the stuff. Now that Zoom has become part of our religion. It’s the doing of the faith. But I want to talk about the faith part. The faith is what draws us into an understanding of the universe and the nature of God. It’s sort of the meta-level over which religion is the day-to-day piece. And it boils down to one question: What do you have trust in? Because sometimes we’ll talk to one another, and will say “I have a lot of faith in you”, or you may get this at a employment review. Or you may hear this among friends or within your families. “I have faith in you.” But in the larger sense, perhaps in the more proper sense, what we have trust in shows what we’re willing to rely on when we have to make those difficult decisions. And one thing that we can have trust in, and one thing Christian should have trust in, is the nature of God to be love.
Now that is so easily brought out that’s almost as bad as “you’re in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s so easily [used], just thrown out with no particular meaning and falls to Earth without a sound. But for us, who should be taking these things very seriously, there can be no greater and deeper guarantee than God’s nature is love, because it builds connections. And we can trust those connections that whatever else happens in the world, no matter what cruelty or power or strength or principalities, to use Paul’s language, we have that connection to the creator of Heaven and Earth who cares for us. And that’s important to remember when other people are willing —whether in your family or in the neighborhood or in government or around the world — who’re willing to say that you are nothing.
And that you were not important and what you care about is not important, you know, and can trust in your heart that the maker of Heaven and Earth cares for you. And the feeling is [ought to be] returned.
Of course it’s not just us, it’s not just a private property to be a member of a church, even the Universalist Church [it] isn’t to say that I have something that you don’t have. It’s not the AAA. you don’t call them up to jump your battery or to your car away, and if you’re not a member, you don’t get those things. But rather we know that based on that relationship — sometimes we forget — but we know that based on that relationship that same thing is true for everybody else as well. Which means that we are in an elastic but very strong network. Jesus had a word for it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So that connection that we have runs all ways.
God, we love to deny it though. We love to deny it in our casual habits and in our systems. The ones that we inherit, the ones that we built and the ones that we suffer under, whether we choose to or not. That’s sort of the one thing I think of: the first pillar of Christian faith that I was to come back to. But the other ones a little sneakier. That in a word the world is not what it seems to be. Because if everybody was decent and forthright and believed this way, or at least kind of fell along with the program, we could rely on God being love and God loving us and that we would love everyone and everything would just be OK wouldn’t it ? But it’s not that way. Never has been.
We know that there is another pillar to Christian faith that we have to rely on and that is knowing that the world has this deep strain of sadness in it. Something’s not right. I’m not going to get into whole doctrine of original sin because I think that’s been so overplayed that it kind of misses the point that we just kind of know that things aren’t right. That suffering continues and life ends. And they’re good people don’t get what they deserve. And that sometimes people, even if they’re not good, just don’t get the basics to keep going. We know that there is something sad and continuous in this world, but that the same faith that we have — the same trust we have in that God is good and loves us knows that the world is not as it seems, and that we just cannot trust everything that comes to us.
Just because someone says that the powerful rule does not mean that they have a right to that that the systems that they exist, even though they are long and inherited, does not mean that they are good. And that we can look and think that there are other ways that we can have dreams. And those dreams as they form in our consciousness can become ideas, and that idea is the basis of hope. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it. I mean God will flip the script on you really quick. There’s a line that I come back to every once in a while. I’m just going to read it.
This is Saint Mary and her praise of God at the in the first chapter of Luke. And she cries out, sings even. Speaking of God:
He has scattered the proud in their imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things. And the rich, he has sent empty away.
I mean, you don’t have to agree with me on these things because we’re not that kind of church. But one thing I hope that I can encourage you to think about, or at least engage with is there. There are two pillars of Christian faith that we can rely on. [First,] God’s nature is love, not just some sort of thing that God pulls out every once in awhile to impress us or to get us to think that maybe we should join the club, but that God’s nature is love, and that connects everything.
And that just because things seem to be set in stone doesn’t mean that they are. I can’t promise you policy changes. (I told you I wasn’t gonna talk about policy.) Can’t promise you wealth either, or a long life, or all the dreams that you’d cooked up. But I hope that that something that you can carry away and give yourself a little hope, because hope is the anchor of the soul. And without which it doesn’t matter where else we come up with.
But this is Washington after all, and you don’t think I’m going to [not] talk about something that’s happened in practical terms recently. The president came up with a really good idea on Monday. I mean, you’ve seen it. You watch the news. He was going to make a stand, I guess. I don’t know what goes through his mind. So he had some people clear out [the] people who were protesting, which it was their thorough right to do. Clear them out: horses, tear gas, pushed them away. We saw that we’ve seen that. That would be bad enough, galling enough, abusive enough. Boy, he just took it that much further, didn’t he? (And I know that the tear gas and the horses and all that, that’s the serious thing; that’s the important one. I get that.) But then he came out and used a church and a Bible as a prop piece to remind us that power is the first and most important [thing]. We know that’s not true, but it came out to remind us of this “fact.” And I’ll tell you that just sticks, sticks right here. [Points to throat.]
Um, so it’s sticking so much that I actually decided to pay for a subscription to the Washington Post so I can see some of the photos in more detail. Now when I’m gonna spend money for something you know that there’s a problem. OK. So I was able to get a photo of the president in his photo op. Holding the Bible as, like it was a dead fish. And they gotta close up of it, and I saw it, and I saw the spine. And I just about… I saw it in my heart went cold. It said the Revised Standard Version on it, which is not a new Bible. This was the sort of the mainline favorite between the late 40s. President Truman was given the first copy of it. That might be his copy for all I know. I suspect it was a presentation piece left at the White House at some point. Between the Truman administration and say, though the first, Bush administration. That was sort of the highlight of that of that version and so I decided to redeem it a little bit today, and Alex very graciously read today’s lessons from that version.
Because I think that if we take our religious life. Seriously, we need to reinterpret and understand what corrupt and powerful forces would have us believe. This thing, [gestures a bible] we will open it. And we will find strength from within it. We will look into our hearts. We will open them. And we will know what we have to do. Let’s talk about the readings for a second. These actually are the appointed readings for the day. I didn’t come up with these. I didn’t invent these for the purpose, but there’s something that’s really interesting about both of them.Both the second Corinthians and the Matthew are the last passages from their respective books. And Paul offers council to this unsuccessful little church in Corinth that needed his help remotely. If he had Zoom, he would’ve had a much easier time of it. And in Matthew, on the other hand, you have the departing narrative of Jesus, the his earthly ministry is ending and he is transferring authority to his students that he might be — that what disciple means — to his students, so that he might create new students in a world that might understand this way of God’s relationship with the world. But both of them are parting stories; both of them are endings.
Something, something in our sad world is ending right now. Maybe something better will follow. I don’t know; people have said that a lot, too, over the centuries and generations. I’m not going to make any promises. But when it comes to endings, we know that there’s grief that follows. And there’s a lot of tears that haven’t been shed yet. Not only for these people who were slain and had no.… I just can’t say it … Who should be with us here today.
Not only are there not enough tears for them, but for the ones, for them [for whom] there was no camera nearby. An artificial report was written up, which itself is deception and lies. We have not had enough tears for the dead and not enough truth to address the lies.
Something old is ending. But we cannot step to what is new, even if it’s good, even if it’s holy, and wholesome and beautiful until we properly, accountably, and in a holy way remember the hurt and the dead. We’ve been through these things long, I mean. Years and generations. Of course, we know how the story goes. There will be another disease, or there’ll be another crisis, or the economy will probably tank out from under us and will be caught up in all of that. And people who for whom this is not the first concern. (Those people are largely white people. So let’s put a little bit little flag in that.) We want to move on. We will not move on, right? Because our hearts are not yet open for that love which God has for us. And at which we must have for one another! must have! And we have not yet trusted that the world in its stream of sadness, [which] tells us lies about what is right and wrong. It’s not there yet. But I have faith and I have faith in you, each of you, that you will not let this pass away with the next new cycle in the next distraction or the next possibility of something more pleasant.
There’s this evidence of this. There are signs. Last week was horrible. Early on it got a little bit better, and once again, that’s in part due to you. And for the people who turned out on 16th Street in front of church. Who showed up in the smallest little towns across America and around the world to say no. No. “But my life matters.” And the things are not going to be the same. And that is, tt’s not the new, but it is a foretaste of the new which, like someone looking for food in a time of hunger [would] be a taste to allow us to go forward.
I’ve said too much. Let us mourn. Let us reflect. Let us be open. Do not be forgetful or distracted. But have faith, knowing that God is love. And that we must love one another, and that has responsibilities with it, and duties which we will find in order to address our sad world. To cheer it and to create that city which comes down adorned like a bride and be united with God. Amen.