September 23, 2018: “We Have The Power”


Rev. Dr. Susanne Intriligator

Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church

September 23, 2018

“We Have the Power”


For our reading this morning I offer an excerpt of “A Brave And Startling Truth,” a poem by Maya Angelou.

We, this people, on a small and lonely planet

Traveling through casual space

Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns

To a destination where all signs tell us

It is possible and imperative that we learn

A brave and startling truth

And when we come to it

To the day of peacemaking

When we release our fingers

From fists of hostility

And allow the pure air to cool our palms

When we come to it

When the curtain falls on the minstrel show of hate

And faces sooted with scorn are scrubbed clean

When battlefields and coliseum

No longer rake our unique and particular sons and daughters

Up with the bruised and bloody grass

To lie in identical plots in foreign soil

. . .

When we come to it

Then we will confess that not the Pyramids

With their stones set in mysterious perfection

Nor the Gardens of Babylon

Hanging as eternal beauty

In our collective memory

Not the Grand Canyon

Kindled into delicious color

By Western sunsets

Nor the Danube, flowing its blue soul into Europe

Not the sacred peak of Mount Fuji

… These are not the only wonders of the world

When we come to it

We, this people, on this small and drifting planet

Whose hands can strike with such abandon

That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living

Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness

That the haughty neck is happy to bow

And the proud back is glad to bend

Out of such chaos, of such contradiction

We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it

We, this people, on this wayward, floating body

Created on this earth, of this earth

Have the power to fashion for this earth

A climate where every man and every woman

Can live freely without sanctimonious piety

Without crippling fear

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

SERMON : “We Have the Power” Rev. Intriligator (copyright)

Way back in the middle 1960’s, a young couple fell in love. This was back in the days when abortion was illegal everywhere, when birth control was hard to come by, and premarital sex was generally discouraged and often shamed.

This particular couple were sophomores in college, in the Midwest. 19 years old and far from home. When they got pregnant, they weren’t sure what to do. After some time and some soul-searching, they decided to get married. Protestants, they went first to the ministers in the denominations they’d been raised in. Will you marry us? “No!” came the answer. “We don’t know you, you are pregnant and shameful, sinners. Go away.”

No one in town would marry this couple, in the mid 1960’s. That is . . . . until they found their way to the small Unitarian church. “Yes” was the answer there. “Your love is good and strong. You are welcome you here. Come, come in.”

Of course, they never forgot that church. The couple got married and moved in together and somehow, with a lot of struggle and support, they graduated from college and even had another baby. In time they settled in suburban Philadelphia to work and raise their children. They sought out the local UU church, joined, became leaders, and raised their children there.

Twenty years after their ordeal, their younger child, a girl named Karen returned to their alma mater, the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, in the 1980’s. In her sophomore year, she told her roommate this story. That roommate was me.

Having been raised Catholic in a working class home just outside Detroit, I had never heard of Unitarian Universalism until I lived with Karen and heard her stories about her family and her church youth group.

A church that governs itself? I could hardly believe it.

that has no theological dogma?

that takes political stands on the big issues and goes to protests together?

that raises its kids to be independent thinkers?

that welcomes and supports young lovers of whatever kind?

Say Whaaaat?

I never forgot Karen’s story. And years later, when I settled in New York City, I sought out the UU church and joined and became a leader and then a minister.

These days I often wonder: What if Karen had never told me those stories? My life today would be so much different.

You need to tell your friends about your church – if not for your sake, for theirs.

My point is this – We can never know the full impact of our actions. Even the smallest ones – a story told, a smile given, a helping hand – they ripple out from us, like waves in concentric circles expanding out, over a whole lake. We cannot know their impact, sometimes for many years into the future, sometimes never. We cannot know how our lives set the stage, to change other lives out into the future.

And I believe that – when we live out our values, in smiles and stories, in activism and voting, in interactions large and small, we help the world to evolve, to become fairer, more just, more whole. Even if we can’t exactly see that vision in the darkness, we can feel it. We can walk toward it in faith.

The philosopher and activist Rebecca Solnit begins her book Hope in the Dark with this anecdote:

On January 18, 1915 six months into the first World War, as all of Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, in England, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”

Solnit comments:

Dark, Woolf seems to say, as in inscrutable not as in terrible. We often mistake the one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Who, decades ago, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union had vanished and the internet had arrived? Who then dreamed that the political prisoner Nelson Mandela would become president of a transformed South Africa? Who, four decades ago, could have conceived of the changed status of all who are nonwhite, nonmale, or non straight, the wide open conversations about power, nature, economies and ecologies?

To Solnit’s list I would add:

Who, 20 years ago, would have believed that Ireland would vote to overturn its abortion ban, as it did last spring? Who just 20 years ago, could have foreseen the iPhone or the Obama presidency? Who would have believed that the Supreme Court would affirm gay marriage?

26 years ago, when Anita Hill testified before the Senate hearing on Clarence Thomas, there were 2 women in the senate. This week, as we prepare for new testimony in the Kavanaugh hearings, there are 23 women in the senate. 23 women – 10 times as many.

Yes, sexual harassment is still a problem, and it is beyond frustrating that powerful men can still disbelieve, can still throw around the “defense” that boys will be boys. But will these men get re-elected again? Can we organize against them?

Beto O’Rourke has a solid chance to defeat Ted Cruz, even in ruby red Texas. The face of Congress is changing – Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Ayanna Presley. So much more is possible now than even just 10 years ago.

We forget, we forget, just how much the world has changed since the 1950’s and 60’s and 70’s, just our lifetimes, in ways we could have never have foreseen or predicted. We forget to remember that now and always the future is dark, it is inscrutable. It is not known, it is not yet written.

And who is it who made all these changes, these tectonic shifts in our culture and society?

We did, by and large. Ordinary people.

In 2001 a 3-year-old girl named Annie Goodridge asked her parents, “If you love each other, why aren’t you married?” Sparked in part by that question, the parents, Unitarian Universalists Hillary and Julie Goodridge decided to join in as plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit that would bear their name, Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health. Over the next two years, the couple suffered harassment and death threats but in 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court backed them up, when it declared — for the first time anywhere in the country — that Massachusetts could not legally deny “the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry.”

The Goodridges, ordinary people just like us, who were willing to come forward and demand their civil rights, and suffer the backlash, made it happen. They made a ripple that started a tide that changed history.

In her book on Hope, Rebecca Solnit tells a story about a group called Women Strike for Peace. In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, when above-ground nuclear testing was causing radioactive fallout that showed up everywhere, even in mother’s milk and baby’s teeth, WSP gathered women across the country in protest. 50,000 women marched in 60 cities across the country, and over two years, they brought about a huge victory: the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, which ended above-ground testing.

But it was grueling work. One woman organizer told about standing in the rain for hours one day, outside the White House, protesting the Kennedy administration. Soaking wet, she felt foolish and futile. But then years later, she read that Dr. Benjamin Spock, who later became a high-profile antinuclear activist said that a turning point for him came one day when he saw a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration. And he did.

You can never fully know the impact of your actions. Just exactly when you feel foolish or futile, you may be changing the world.

In the 1990’s, when I worked at Ms. Magazine in New York, it was my privilege to work on a few projects alongside Gloria Steinem, the Magazine’s founder, who was and is a pioneering reformer.

I remember one day, some reporter asked Gloria about the magazine’s reduced readership, its lower public profile relative to the 1970’s, when it was first founded. Was feminism now out of fashion? Had it failed? he asked.

“Hell no,” said Gloria. “We won.”

She explained: “Back in the day, in 1972, Ms. was literally the only media outlet talking about domestic violence, rape culture, the pay gap between men and women, the lack of affordable childcare, sexual harassment in the workplace. You name it, Ms. introduced the issue, put it on the map, opened the dialogue, gave women the encouragement to start telling their truth out loud. Yes, 20 years later, you can read about all these things in Time magazine and the Washington Post. Because awareness of them has become part of the mainstream culture. We did that. Along with millions of women who stood up for themselves. We won.”

German philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote: “The work of hope requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.” To hope is to give yourself to the future and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.

Last Wednesday it was my privilege, along with MUUC member Laura Morin, to bring your mountain of gifts of supplies to the Lawrence Senior Center to be distributed to poor folks who were displaced by the gas explosions. Your gifts were gratefully received. Thank you. Then on Thursday night, I asked the board to vote to publicly endorse the Yes on 3 campaign, to protect transgender Bay Staters from discrimination. Because the congregation had already voted to be an affirming and Welcoming Congregation, the board agreed to the idea. So then on Friday I drove into Boston to pick up 20 lawn signs, for the church lawn and my lawn at home, and for you, here in Coffee Hour, to take home, in exchange for a donation.

What a fun week. It is so exciting for me to be part of this, to help you mobilize for good, take a stand, envision new ways to help our community. There is so much energy here, to make change. What more can we do?

Of course, this church already has a proud tradition of helping our neighbors struggling with food insecurity through the Bread of Life program. And our vibrant Green Sanctuary team not only installed solar panels on the roof, but it educates us on Climate Change and helps us become more responsible global citizens.

In addition to those two ministries, MUUC spent all of last year exploring diversity, looking at issues of race, class, gender, ability, and age and how they impact our community and our lives. Then at year’s end, at the annual meeting, the congregation voiced a desire to move forward, to step from exploration to action on some of these issues. But how?

Over the summer, church leadership looked at models of Team Ministry used in other UU churches. The idea to allow and encourage teams of folks within the congregation to organize themselves around ministries that call to them. The teams then each write a brief statement about their purpose, how it aligns with the church’s mission and a minimum number of members, say 4 or 5, sign that statement, as commitment to work together for a year. The teams present their plans to the congregation, which then chooses which team projects to endorse as the church-wide priorities for the coming year.

The great thing here is that it follows the energy of the people here. What you want is what happens, what gets done. And it allows the church to focus on those projects. We’re not going to do everything this year. No.

But we are going to join together and really focus on . . .

for example . . . becoming an intentionally anti-racist congregation, with a Black Lives Matter banner outside . .

Or . . . creating a plan to become a more physically accessible building for people with mobility problems

Or . . . reaffirming our Welcome and inclusion of LGBTQ people and working especially to uphold Yes on 3

Or . . . expanding our Bread of Life ministry to include programs and advocacy on Income Inequality, hunger, and pervasive poverty – how do we change that?

Or . . . perhaps there’s another idea you have, a passion for justice you want to see our church embrace and walk forward. Can you envision a team of us working on that this year? Who would you ask first? What would your mission statement say?

So yes, start thinking about your project and your team. Right now your church leadership is ironing out the details of a Team Ministry roll-out. We’re hoping in October to have team signups in Coffee Hour and online, so that we can start to build vibrant new teams this first year, around the issues you care most about.

Frederick Buechner, the great theologian famously said “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

The world is so hungry, so I have to ask: What is your deep gladness? What is your passion for change, the gift you have to share with us that no one else can give?

What are you dreaming of for us? What do you want to see on a banner on our lawn, beckoning in the community’s support?

Build a team and we can make it happen.

I know that these days, deep in the Trump presidency, when watching the media circus and witnessing the rising hate, we can lose track of hope, we can give in to despair.

But cheer up, my friends. The future is indeed dark, but that’s a good thing. It is inscrutable but not terrible. It is still unwritten and we the people can write it. We have the power.

When we live into our shared UU values, we draw people to us, to join in, and we help the world to evolve, to become fairer, more just, more whole. We are ordinary people, like my roommate Karen, and we have the power to grow our faith, just by telling people about it. We are ordinary people like Hillary Goodridge and her co-defendants, and we have the power, to stand up for our rights and change the world. We are the woman standing in rain outside the White House. We are Gloria Steinem and her readers. Ordinary people who changed the world.

Even if sometimes, in the dark, we can’t exactly see that vision we are walking toward, we can feel it. We can remember that like our forebears and all those who came before. We have the power.

Maya Angelou says . ..

When we come to it

We must confess that we are the possible

We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world

That is when, and only when

We come to it.

Amen and amen.