“What We Live Through” – a dialogue sermon with Rev. Deanna Vandiver – 1/15/2017

PAUL

When I chose the theme “What We Live Through” for this morning, I had in mind a double meaning. On one hand, what we live through is what we endure – and may wear us down. On the other hand, we live through what is life-giving – and can build us up. The same four words – “What We Live Through” – can mean nearly opposite things. But here’s the good news: the power to interpret them – to decide their meaning – is ours. Many things in life are like that. When I was unemployed a few years back, I chose to view it as a self-funded sabbatical. I took it not as a setback, but as an opportunity. That didn’t change the problems I faced, but it changed my attitude and shaped my decisions. At the same time as I looked for work, I applied for a professional development grant and enrolled in a training program for spiritual directors. Instead of seeing my world falling apart, I saw it reconfiguring. And it strikes me that the political change we are living through now is like that. We can see things falling apart, or we can see an opportunity to make things better. That choice is at heart a spiritual one: we have a vision of things falling apart when we doubt or fear for our power to hold them together; we see opportunity when we believe and feel empowered. When we feel our own power – that’s vitality. That’s what we live through. And I think that goes for life individually and collectively. What do you think, Deanna?

DEANNA

Thank you for laying out the poles of possibility, Paul.  As many of us have experienced in life, much of What We Live Through is a complex mix that makes us stronger and wiser in some ways, injured and triggered in others, open to whole new understandings of the world, or maybe resistant to anything that feels threatening based on experience.  In this particular moment in time, it will take real spiritual practice to resist dichotomous, either/or thinking.  In the process of engaging our own sense of power and vitality, we can acknowledge with compassion our grief and our struggle.

Kenneth Jones and Tema Okur wrote in ChangeWork in 2001, either/or thinking is “closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict.”  Now is a great time to be willing and able to learn from mistakes and accommodate the conflict that arises in times of movement building.  So much of the spiritual gifts of What We Live Through emerge when we are willing to slow down, to think creatively – like you did on your self-funded sabbatical, to give ourselves permission to honor the complexity of our own experience and the interdependent web in which we live. I agree, Paul, that we are making spiritual choices about who and how we will be in the world, individually and collectively.

PAUL

Yes. So now what? That was the big open-ended question before me when the hospital laid me off. And I chose to sit with that question rather than rush to answer it. I qualified for unemployment benefits, and between that and some preaching gigs up in north Texas and a wedding here and there, I kept myself afloat financially while I took time to review the commitments I had made and compared them with what I felt called to do.

Taking that same approach to current events, I’m asking myself what my commitments have been to helping the arc of the universe bend toward justice, and whether or how I feel called to reconfigure them. Before I rush on to work that out, though, I’m kind of “taking my temperature.” How is it different with my spirit since the election? And how is it the same? What stands out for me is the divided, polarized, antagonistic feel of political discourse. That’s been there a long time, at least back to 1994, when partisan fights in Washington started to turn decidedly personal – more and more ethics charges and investigations of individuals, and fewer and fewer thoughtful debates about government policy. What’s different for me is, I can’t watch it any more. It’s too mean, too over-the-top, too detached from any real life that I know. And there’s a new tone of contempt – not just for people but for facts and logic and even for compassion – that disarms my usual ways of coping. I can’t laugh it off – it’s not funny – the laughable can carry the day. The meanness can win. The immoral choice can become policy. And that means that as a country, collectively, we are troubled in spirit. I like what the Rev. William Barber has been saying: we don’t need a political left now, what we need is a moral center.

All of which is to say that, while we are indeed talking about politics this morning, what we are after is not a political stand, but a spiritual and moral ground. Some people would like to separate not only church and state, but also politics and religion. That’s not possible. Politics and religion both rest on values and commitments that we make. We can separate institutions, but it troubles the spirit to try to live by different values and commitments in different parts of our lives. If we’re to take this troubled time as an opportunity to make things better, we need to know what spiritual and moral ground we are committed to stand on. That’s why, to me, when we put our Black Lives Matter banner on the altar, it isn’t a political gesture; rather, it’s a reminder to keep the central dilemma of American life before us during a time of increasing violence and more transparent oppression. The question that comes before “So now what?” is: “what are we committed to?”

DEANNA

There is such a joy in preaching from a pulpit the proclaims itself to be place of sexuality and gender acceptance with the Welcoming Congregation shield created by Marcie Brennan many years ago, beside an altar with a Black Lives Matter banner signed with a ritual of commitment from members and friends of this congregation.  The solar panels on the roof of Community Church Unitarian Universalist and their rebuilding after the flood as the first LEED certified house of worship in the state of Louisiana speaks unapologetically of our faithful commitment to respond to climate justice work – because climate change is real.  

I really love the way Caitlin Breedlove of the Standing on the Side of Love Campaign has named this moment.

She says “We are now in a new political terrain, but one that exists within centuries of old struggles and organized resistance around the questions of who has the right to exist, the right to lead, and the right to remain.”

State violence and state condoned violence and oppression has been rendered more and more visible – not only the shooting and disappearing of black youth and adults by organizations proclaiming public safety as their mission, not only the lack of consequences for this violence in the court system, not only the revelation that a child’s first encounter with the criminal justice system is now mostly likely to occur through the school system, not only the economic violence rendered against communities of color and of queerness, not only the fact that companies are allowed to track your journeys through stores by the pinging of your smart phone looking for a wi-fi signal – not only any of these things, but all of them and then some.  

Folks have been in the struggle for a long time… I still feel like a newbie organizer most days and it has been over 20 years since I started waking up to the systemic nature of the struggle, while working in a domestic abuse shelter and the Minnesota AIDS Project during college and later serving as a legal tech at an immigration law firm in Washington DC.  Slowly I came to see how much organizing was happening around me – had been happening since before this land was colonized by Europeans who would come to be called white – organizing that I had not been aware of because I didn’t really see the struggle.

It is faithful work to take the time to find out who has been resisting oppression we have newly or re-newly woken up to and to choose to be in relationship with these movement elders, even if – sometime especially if – they are younger than we are.

PAUL

Oh, those young elders give me hope! I like to go to organizing meetings just for the solace of seeing how well-organized and responsible they are! I do! It’s a comfort – I recommend it!

Now, we at First Church decided we’re “The Church That Shows Up” – that’s what it says on our t-shirts. And we are registered to March tomorrow morning in the Martin Luther King Holiday parade – we’ll meet in front of City Hall, in Duncan Park, in time for the start of the parade at 9am. We’ve invited our sister GNOUU congregations to bring their banners and join us. Some of the best of New Orleans’ young organizing elders are also participating, in part to raise awareness about the demonstrations of resistance to the new administration’s agenda that they are organizing for Inauguration Day. I would like us to show up for that, too. Our three GNOUU congregations will gather in Duncan Park at 2:30 on Friday afternoon for a “Spiritual Warm-Up” before the main demonstration begins at 3pm. See if you are able to be with us that day, and to stand with our neighbors who share our concerns about social, racial, environmental and economic justice. It’s not just a chance to make a statement of public witness, it’s a chance to witness the organizing skills of these elders, and it’s a chance to meet them. That’s the first step toward being in relationship. And the church that’s in relationship is the church that shows up, and shows up, and shows up!

DEANNA

Organizing is intimately and ultimately about relationship. This is also a truth of our faith and of the very fabric of the universe.

Sometimes we speak and sing about ‘building bridges,’ but at a deeper level, we are all already interconnected, an interdependent web of existence.  Much of our faithful work is clearing away the illusions and social constructions that lead us to divided, isolated lives.  

Before the November election, after the November election, this week, and on into the future, people from all over this country have been and will be turning out and turning up in embodied demonstrations of our interdependence and collective resistance to political lies that have been told to divide and conquer, denying our collective inherent worth and dignity.  

So we are invited to practice our faith, practice our values, practice organizing.  We are invited to be intentional in this practice.  Going to the Martin Luther King March on Monday and or the J20NOLA march on Friday?  Let others know where you’ll be and invite them to come with you. Plan to go with someone or someones.  Pack something extra to share – cookies, crackers, band aids, stickers, rhythm shakers – some intentional bit of preparation that lets your soul and your companions know that you are showing up as a part of the collective.  

And friends, if you have clarity about your mental health, physical health, and or life commitments and know that a march is not the best way for you to show up, know that we see and honor your wisdom.  Know that you can show up in many, many faithful ways.  As civil rights organizer Ella Baker was known to say, “I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others.”  

You can give shout-outs to you friends, congregation, and cluster for the organizing, encourage each other with calls, notes of support, sustaining meals, create art for the resistance to oppression, offer transportation support – there are so many essential ways to show up and show up and show up.

PAUL

So let’s do it! Let’s show up in the best ways we can. Amen?

[CONGREGATION]:  Amen.

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