A Walk to Remember

Aug 16, 2020

By Reverend Rebecca Bryan

Our reading this morning included the opening words of John Lewis’s eulogy, delivered by Barack Obama, words from the gospel of James, Chapter 1. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” We are all being asked to develop perseverance, aren’t we?

God put perseverance into John Lewis, Obama said. He went on to say that Lewis had a “forceful vision of freedom.” As a young man listening to Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis was taken by the idea of nonviolence and preached about it. King learned about nonviolence from Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi understood ahimsa, or nonviolence, to be the essence of our true nature as human beings. “Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.”[1] Like John Lewis, Gandhi had a forceful vision of freedom. He called the Indian movement for independence he led, Satyagraha, translated as “The Force which is born of Truth and Love or nonviolence.” He adamantly refused violence as a means for establishing peace, believing that we as humans will become extinct if we rely on violent policies.

Gandhi also said, “Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is.” And, “I could not be leading a religious life unless I identified with the whole of mankind, and that I could not do unless I took part in politics.”[2] I think John Lewis would agree.

For the longest time, I wished that weren’t true. I wanted to believe that politics and religion were distinct and separate. I didn’t want to soil my sweet religious experience or journey with the dirty evils of politics. But then again, I was raised to believe in what Richard Rohr calls a “little Jesus” who is worried only about our individual salvation.

I understand Jesus quite differently today. Today I see him as a model and great teacher, who, like John Lewis, Gandhi, the Nuns on the Bus, and Rosa Parks, understood religion and love to be the antidote to the abuses of power, too frequently masked by the cloak of religion. These people were not afraid to be people of faith whose actions were informed by their faith and whose faith was strengthened by their actions. Nor should we be.

Religion and politics are both about how we live with one another and the Earth. The rules, laws, and stances of both religion and politics dictate how we are expected to relate to ourselves, to one another, and to the greater society.

Our faith as Unitarian Universalists is founded on seven principles that we promise to work to uphold. These include the inherent worth and dignity of all people and the use of the democratic processes in all our affairs. These principles, among others, are being violated every day, killing thousands of people, highest among them Black people, immigrants, and our most vulnerable populations.

We join our voices in our Affirmation of Faith every Sunday and affirm that love is the doctrine of this church and service is its prayer. Our hope is that these things will allow “that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine,” or universal salvation.

The politics of today violate the principles of our faith. It is impossible to leave politics out of church and be faithful and true to what we say we believe. If we are silent, we are complicit. People are trusting us to act on our values. If we give only lip service to our values and do not take action to support our words, we cause harm. As a result, we are called to act with, I believe, love, or nonviolence.

Not everyone can get out and act in the same way. And thank goodness. There are things we all can do, however. One is to support those who are taking action on the streets, here on Market Square and elsewhere. We can offer our love, encouragement, childcare, financial resources, and honor.

So too, we can and must act in support of our youth by giving them agency – voice and power. This includes putting them in the pulpit at church and elsewhere, regularly. We do this, so that we can learn from our youth, support their work, and do what they ask us to do, not to hand things off, but instead to engage more fully in the work of the future.

Certainly, many of us also have other actions we can take: writing postcards and letters, lobbying, being proximate to those who are oppressed, and marching in the streets. We all make the choices of what we are called to do, that we can do, and that are right for us. There is no hierarchy of goodness in the actions we take. It can be as simple, and as difficult, as standing up for our values in conversations where they are being corrupted.

We are also called to take action as a church. The stories of Unitarian Universalists taking action abound, though we are far from perfect at it. Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Waitstill Sharp and his wife Martha put their faith, their marriage, and literally their lives on the line when they left their children and the comfort of their home in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, to lead efforts smuggling refugees out of Nazi-controlled areas to safety. In 2005, they became the second and third Americans to be named and honored as “Righteous Among the Nations,” a distinction granted to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Unitarians Reverend James J. Reeb and Viola Liuzzo lost their lives in Selma, Alabama, during the same fight for the rights of Black people to vote that John Lewis is so famous for.

Our faith has many other heroes whose names are unknown. These heroes include those in churches providing sanctuary to those at risk of deportation, those taking a stand for the rights of LGBTQ, and those having their buildings defamed for hanging Black Lives Matter signs. Those churches are made up of people like us who understand that faith without works is dead, that faith with just words is hypocrisy.

Politics – strategies, priorities, laws made and then upheld and not upheld – affect people every day.

Eighty days (or so) from now, we will know who the President of the United States will be for the next four years. Far too many people’s lives, including our own, could be endangered, or lost, as a result of this election. We cannot look away from what is happening and say service is our prayer. We cannot look away from what is happening and commit to the worth and dignity of all people and the importance of upholding the democratic process.

Equally important to taking action is how we are being in the world. Our proposed mission statement calls us to take courageous action. It also calls us to embody love, authentic connections, and spirituality in all we do. It asks us to be people of grace, dignity, and principle.

Barack Obama said that John Lewis’s life teaches us about courage: “…that’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.”[3]

John Lewis was a man of grace, dignity, and principle. We can choose to be that too. It’s all about answering the call, with love.

Amen, and may it be so.

[1] Gandhi on Non Violence, Edited by Thomas Merton, New Directions Publishing Corporation, New York, NY. 1964. Pg. 36.

[2] Ibid. Pg. 80.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/us/obama-eulogy-john-lewis-full-transcript.html




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