In January of 2020, I was asked by a dear friend, a reverend, to deliver a sermon in her stead. What follows is my attempt to honor her belief that I was even remotely qualified to do so.
I am so incredibly honored to be here with you today. It strikes me as terribly improbable that I’m the one standing in the pulpit, and I think it’s only fair to tell you why.
I’ve never done anything remotely like this before. And hey, depending on how well it goes, I may never do anything like it again. I am not what one would call a religious person, nor am I active in any kind of congregation.
I came to be here by request of a friend. I believe many of you know Reverend Karlene Griffiths Sekou. She has graced this pulpit with her passion and wisdom a number of times, and was scheduled to be again here today, but was called to a conference in Paris, poor dear. And so she wrote to ask if I would, in her words, be free to give a word in her stead. Sounded simple enough when I said yes. But I was, to be honest, shocked that she was asking. Shocked enough that I wondered if perhaps she’d dialed the wrong number, but she swore that the call was meant for me, and that her trust was not misplaced.
When I told my daughter, who I am so pleased is here with us today, that Karlene had asked me to come preach for her at First Parish Church, she said, “Oh my God.” I told her I thought that was an appropriate response, on a lot of levels. She then said, “Wait, she does know we’re Jewish, right?”
I laughed, and assured her that Karlene does indeed know that we are Jewish. I explained that the Unitarian Universalist doctrine is one of inclusivity, welcoming people from all faith traditions, all belief systems, all paths and all journeys, no matter how direct nor winding they may be.
While my Jewish heritage is important to me, and I take great pride in it, the truth is that my identity as a Jewish woman is wholly separate for me from the concept of faith. As a child, my little family celebrated any and every holiday, regardless of origin, as long as it promised food or gifts, or better yet, both. Our celebrations were full of joy, but they were also scrubbed of their spiritual or religious foundations.
When I was around seven years old, my dance teacher was tragically killed in a car accident. It was horrific. Her sudden passing was the closest encounter that I’d yet had with death and I’ll never forget coming back from the funeral and plaintively asking my dad, “What happens to Miss Susie now?” He responded by explaining the process of burial and the science of decomposition. My dad is nothing if not pragmatic. His doctrine was and remains that what we see is what we get. Until we decompose.
When my children were young, I had what I somewhat pithily described as a crisis of no faith. A couple of things had happened both in my tiny universe and in the world at large that shook me to my core, and I found myself floundering, desperate for something solid. It was then that I made a decision. I was going to fake faith. It was too late for me, I reasoned, but I wanted my girls to grow up believing in something larger than themselves. I wanted God, in some form, by any name, to be a part of their lives.
And so I googled God. As one does. I started from scratch, open to any and all faith traditions, anything, really, that would bring my children comfort and community. I decided to pretend to believe in the only version of God that I was yet able to conceptualize. For a time, we even attended a local church. But it didn’t stick. The girls weren’t buying what I was selling because I wasn’t buying what I was selling.
Now I want to be clear that I’m offering this background only to explain the context from which what follows came. Not by any means to preach as gospel my thought process or belief system, nor even to endorse the path by which I’ve come to them. But because I think the story matters. Because understanding the perspective and motivation of the person in the pulpit, proverbial or otherwise, always matters.
So after years of searching, both externally and internally, I think it’s fair to say that I am still far more a humanist than a theist, but I no longer dismiss the notion of divinity. In fact, I’m here to deliver a sermon about it.
Because I believe that there is indeed something that is at once bigger than each of us, and yet dwells inside of us. I believe that there is a force that pulls us not only together but into a space that is as sacred and holy as any described by any prophet of any tradition, and by all of those traditions at once. That force – that powerful, incredible, divine force – is LOVE.
Last month, as we celebrated the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I wrote about how easily we tend to quote him. About how we white folx, especially, so often pride ourselves in the performative allyship of reciting his words: “I have a dream!” and “Hate cannot drive out hate!” About how we then bathe in the glow of the soft, blurred-edged portrait that we’ve concocted out of our collectively sanitized memory of the man, parsing only the words of his that coddle our fragile egos and using them to signal our virtue to the masses.
But what a grave disservice we do to Dr. King’s legacy when we exalt this man who never was – the false idol, preaching only of inclusion: of nothing but comfort and light and love. This watered-down, white-washed version of a man who we are so content to pretend wanted nothing more than peace, and who laid down his life in the name of equality.
Dr. King fought not only for peace, not only for equality, he fought for JUSTICE. Hold on to that, my friends, because we will be coming back to Justice.
In 1965, Dr. King said, “Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation.”
“I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension,” he continued. “I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates. Injustices to the Negro must be brought out into the open where they cannot be evaded.”
And let us be clear, the man who said those words did not ‘lay down his life.’ He was a reverend, not a soldier. He was brutally murdered by the white supremacy he was working to dismantle – by the same deeply-ingrained system of thought and action that today separates families into cages at our borders, that dehumanizes the disabled, that foments violence against our LGBTQ siblings and turns a blind eye to native women murdered in record numbers and allows us to stand by while sacred burial grounds are blown to smithereens. The same system that sends soldiers off to fight in wars of our own making, that demonizes Black Lives Matter, and that vilifies even the most benign forms of civic protest.
While those of us who do not inhabit marginalized bodies might be shocked at some of what we are seeing today, I would argue that we are living in a time at which tensions already present are being exposed. A time at which injustices long suffered are being brought before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion. A time at which we are being forced as a nation to reckon with our reflection in a mirror that has been too long shrouded in the pretense of inclusivity while our power structures have continued to deny access and agency to far, far too many of our own people.
Two years ago, the Charlotte Observer published an editorial that read, “Martin Luther King Jr. was not a well-liked man. He was one of the most polarizing figures in the United States during his final years of life. He was not the cuddly creature we re-invent every King Day to lie to ourselves and our kids about how he only wanted us to get along. His approval rating began to rise only after he was no longer here to demand America live up to its ideals.
King wanted peace, but not at the expense of equality. He wanted little black girls and boys to play with little white girls and boys, but not if it meant pretending that racism didn’t exist. He respected authority, but challenged those wearing badges and sitting in the Oval Office.
He wanted moral clarity, not cheap comfort.”
As so many of us know, one of Dr. King’s most oft-repeated quotes is, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
It’s easy to repeat, but much, much harder to live. Because the love of which he spoke is not passive, my friends. It is not meek. It is not quiet. It is not patient nor deferent nor small.
The love that drives out hate is messy. It’s disruptive. It’s loud. It’s brave. It is unfathomably powerful. It is infinite. It is where, after all of my searching, I believe divinity dwells.
As the pastor, Jon Pavlovitz said, “Love is the furious eruption of the heart in the face of all that feels wrong and broken and deadly.”
Yes, it is love that drives out hate – a love that is an irresistible yearning to be better, to do better, to dig deep into the place where our humanity dwells and to bring forth from that place the very best of what we find there.
Dr. King’s love, Pavlovitz’s love – is a call to action. A call not to hope for but to get down into the dirt for, tearing apart that which does not work and BUILDING anew the world of which we dream.
That love, the love that drives us past creed and into deed, the love that insists that we pray not just on our knees but so too with our feet, THAT is the love in which I find the divine. That is the love that moves us from victimhood to victory. That is the love that pulls us together, unified in an unquenchable desire not just for peace, but for justice.
And there it is again – that weighty, delicious word, justice.
My younger daughter is autistic, and she loves, loves, loves words. I dare say she comes by it honestly, as her dad is an English teacher and her mom a writer, so she’s grown up on a linguistic playground. Knock knock jokes are among her favorite, in which words can be pulled apart and rethought, repurposed, re-interpreted. Knock knock? she asks constantly, Who’s there? we answer dutifully. Lettuce, she says. Lettuce who? we ask. Lettuce in it’s cold outside, she says, squealing with delight every time.
And so it is that as I say the word Justice, I pull it apart, I rethink it, repurpose it, reinterpret it.
Just us. There is no cavalry, my friends. There is no one coming to ride in on a white horse to save us from our current crisis – from what and who we have allowed ourselves to become. From how far afield we’ve strayed from who we swore we meant to be.
There’s Just us.
There is no perfect candidate, no president from central casting who will swoop down from the mount and save the day.
There is JUST US. The flawed, the messy, the too hot and the too cold and the never, ever just right. There’s just us.
We are the ones who must – and the only ones who can – save ourselves. We are the ones who must drive out hate with the kind of love of which Dr. King spoke: the love that speaks out and speaks up, the kind of love that shows up in droves – that organizes, that knocks on doors, that talks to neighbors and friends, the kind of love that prays with our feet. The kind of love that VOTES in numbers simply too high to ignore.
There is Just us.
We are the ones who can and must fact check the lies, demand the truth, who must be driven by love to disrupt, to upend, to dismantle the systems that continue to harm, and to build them anew TOGETHER. We are the ones who can and must tear down the walls, repudiate the fear and the bigotry that drive us apart.
Justice. Just us.
Justice will only be within reach when we recognize that there is just us. While there is still a them, a bogeyman to take the blame for all that ails us, to distract us from the deeply flawed structure of our own house and unite us in fear of those who need our help – while there is still us versus them there is no justice.
Until we recognize our shared humanity, there will be no justice.
And so what do we DO? One of my favorite human beings in all the world, the Reverend Dr. William Barber said not too long ago:
A Muslim brother said, “If we see injustice we must change it with our hands. If we can’t, we must say it with our tongues, if not that we must hate it with our hearts. But knowing that just hating it with your hearts and not working to change it with your hands is the weakest form of faith.” The weakest form of faith.
Another one said to us, “If we don’t do this work, God may forgive us, but history won’t.”
And so, we need moral analysis that goes deep, that helps this nation own that we’ve always struggled with these flaws. In every generation we’ve needed some moral articulation to speak out against these flaws, either from our deepest faith traditions or deepest constitutional traditions.
But silence is not an option, we need moral activism. We are required sometimes not just to dissent but to disrupt what is disruptive. Not with hate, no. With revolutionary love.”
REVOLUTIONARY love. Oh, how I adore that phrase. Revolutionary love. Messy, brave, loud, divine, revolutionary love.
As I have begun to learn more about Unitarian Universalism, I have been drawn to the idea that while we may not all be ministers, each of us has the ability to minister. While we may not all lead services, each of us has the ability to bless one other, and to bless the world. Each of us has the capacity, and the responsibility – to, in our own unique ways, be revolutionary.
When Rev Karlene asked me to fill in for her today, I was incredulous. And frankly, terrified.
I told her that I was blown away that she’d think of me. That it was an incredible honor. And that I wasn’t sure what the heck I would possibly say.
“Oh you have lots in that deep, fiery belly of yours,” she said.
And then she told me something that will stay with me.
“Stand in your voice.”
I encourage each and every one of you, as you leave here today, to do the same. To dig down deep into the place where divinity dwells and to bring forth from that place your own kind of loud, messy, brave, revolutionary love.
To use the power of that love to minister to one another, to bless one another, to organize, to uplift, to support, to disrupt, to dismantle and to rebuild, together.
To stand in your voice.
Because we’re fighting for justice.
And no one is coming to deliver it.
There’s Just US.