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Sermons at First Parish Church

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Thought as the Service Begins

Show me the strength and fortitude I possess to confront injustice.
Show me the seed of hope I might use to grow hope in others.
Show me the faces of all who suffer, and all who cause suffering
   so I may remember that they are all my sisters and brothers.
Show me there is still hope.
If we have any hope of transforming the world and
changing ourselves, we must be:
bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be:
so bold,
so brave,
and so loving. (Rev. Joseph M. Cherry)

So Bold, So Brave, So Loving

(Audio of this sermon)

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton

Our worship theme for the month of December is Comfort and Joy. I fear the events unfolding around us in our country over the past few weeks are anything but comfortable or joyful. But here is what I know: sometimes we have to move through discomfort. Sometimes there is something greater at stake than comfort, which is transformation. And sometimes we have to experience the discomfort of fear and sorrow, confusion and grief and disillusionment before we can find comfort again. And oddly perhaps but beautifully, sometimes it is possible to experience joy in that very place of discomfort. This is how Rev. Victoria Safford writes about it:

Whatever our vocation, we stand, beckoning and calling, singing and shouting at the Gates of Hope. This world and its people are beautiful, and we are called to raise that up - to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery and gladness that befits a human being.

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of hope, not the prudent gates of optimism which are somewhat narrower, not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense, not the strident gates of Self Righteousness which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); not the cheerful, flimsy garden gates of everything is gonna be alright. But a different, sometimes lonely place, about our own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world not only as it is, but as it could be, but as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle but the joy in the struggle. And we stand there beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.

And the other words I want to share with you this morning were written in the 1400s by the Persian poet Rumi who wrote these words about fear

Keep walking…
Don’t try to see through the distances. That’s not for human beings.
Move within, but don’t move the way fear makes you move.

Rumi’s words “Keep walking. Don’t move the way fear makes you move,” remind me of one of the best known photographs of Ruby Bridges, the African American six-year-old who by herself integrated one of the elementary schools in New Orleans in 1960. The view is from behind Ruby as she enters the school building. She is surrounded by three US marshals - tall, white men in black suits with armbands. Ruby looks tiny in the photo; the marshals tower over her. She is walking by herself - holding no one’s hand, in a short pleated dress, with a white bow perched like a butterfly on her small, dark head.

I have been thinking about Ruby Bridges the past couple of weeks as the protest movement has grown in response to the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the lack of indictment by grand juries. I have been thinking about Ruby Bridges as I have been thinking about another African American child, 12 year old Tamir Rice, about whose death a grand jury has yet to be called.

Many thousands, if not millions, of words have been written and spoken, blogged and facebooked over the past couple of weeks about racism in America. I have read a lot of them and know that many of you who have as well. In truth, I am reluctant to add more words. But I have to. I have to because we live in times like these. Racism is a spiritual issue; it sickens the souls of everyone it touches. I have to because the first principle of our faith Unitarian Universalism is respect for the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Every human life matters. But African Americans are telling us in the thousands that from what they experience from what they live, from what they see and feel and hear every day, their black lives do not matter. And I believe it is our responsibility, our obligation and our urgent calling to proclaim the worth and dignity of every person especially those whose dignity is being denied or diminished. As Victoria Safford puts it, “to bear witness to the possibility of living with the dignity, bravery and gladness that befits a human being.”

There is systemic historic racism in this country. We live in and are part of a society whose institutions including education, law enforcement, economics, every system you can think of, all reflect the tragic fact that some lives matter more than other lives. Please understand that I am not saying that all white people are racist; many of us try actively not to be. I am not saying that all law enforcement officers are corrupt or abusive of their power. Most police officers I know and have ever known are the opposite - courageous, brave, selfless. Racism is much larger than any one of us. It is part of the history, the very fabric of our country and it is still with us - experienced by people of color every day. White and black Americans, especially poor black Americas have profoundly different experiences in this country. We, who have the comfort and privilege of walking around in white skin, need to hear this; we need to listen to it and to believe what those who are protesting in the streets are telling us, and have in fact been telling us for a long time, even if we would prefer to think otherwise.

In the past few weeks there has been an eruption of anger and outrage in our country. But here is the wonder of it: it is also an eruption of hope and possibility and yearning for change. Unitarian minister and radical abolitionist Theodore Parker said these words that Dr. Martin Luther King used to quote: The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice: So I hope, I pray, I believe this moment, this anti racism movement is another bending of that arc. I hope, I pray and I believe that people are once again reaching up and grabbing that arc of the moral universe and bending it towards justice . And this bending of the moral arc of the universe is painful; it may make us feel uncomfortable, unwilling and afraid.

It isn’t happening here we may say, it has nothing to do with us. But it does and it is. The urgent reaching for human dignity, for equality and justice has everything to do with us - it is one of the corner stones of our faith.

So I think about courage and about Ruby Bridges but also about her white teacher, Barbara Henry, who taught her every day, risking her safety and that of her family to do it. In her book of memories called Through My Eyes, Ruby Bridges shares some of her memories of that year in New Orleans. After a Federal Court mandated integration in the city schools, the school board started testing African American kindergarteners, making the test intentionally much too difficult, hoping that when all the children failed the test, the school board would indefinitely postpone the integration process. To the school board’s surprise, a few children passed anyway, including Ruby. The NAACP was involved from the start and urged Ruby’s parents to send her to integrate William Frantz School.

Ruby’s mother Lucille Bridges said about their decision:

Ruby was special. I wanted her to have a good education so she could get a good job when she grew up... There were things I didn’t understand. I didn’t know Ruby would be the only black child in the school. I didn’t know how bad things would get. I remember being afraid on the first day Ruby went to the Frantz School, when I came home and turned on the TV set and I realized that, at the moment, the whole world was watching my baby and talking about her. At that moment, I was most afraid.

Ruby remembered the crowds on the first day of school yelling things she didn’t understand but her most vivid memory, she writes, was “seeing a black doll in a coffin, which frightened me more than anything.” There is a photo of that, a young white child, not much older than Ruby, holding up a large placard with a photo of a black doll in a crude coffin. On the second morning, a woman screamed at Ruby, “I’m going to poison you. I’ll find a way.” She yelled the same thing every morning. Ruby went through a period of not being able to eat her lunch that year but she doesn’t know if it had anything to do with the fear of being poisoned. She attributes it more to the deep sense of loneliness she felt.

What is particularly poignant to me is that until the very end of the school year, Ruby didn’t really understand why all of this was happening. As she explains it, she knew what integration meant, that she would be the first African American child to attend the William Frantz School, but she didn’t understand that all the hatred and cruelty was about her skin color. In some ways it makes her courage seem all the more when she had no context for what was happening to her - no real way to understand that hatred wasn’t about her personally, but about all that she represented.

Ruby’s teacher, Barbara Henry, spent every day of that first grade year teaching just Ruby, the two of them sitting side by side in an otherwise empty classroom, because the white parents refused to send their children to school as long as Ruby was there. Barbara Henry observed that Ruby was calm and ready to learn most of the time. Henry said “I grew to love Ruby and to be awed by her. It was an ugly world outside but I tried to make our world together as normal as possible. Neither one of us ever missed a day. It was important to keep going… I wanted Ruby to know that none of the integration problem was her fault. I didn’t want hate to enter her life and in any way diminish her beautiful spirit. I told her she was a wonderful and special person. I told her the other children would come back to school eventually.”

There were a few other white children who did attend school that year, though they were kept separate from Ruby, and they were threatened and taunted too. Rev. Lloyd Foreman a Methodist minister was determined to keep his daughter Pam at the Frantz school and walked her there and back every day. Ruby Bridges said of the Foreman family, “Very quickly, the chorus of racists became obsessed with the Foreman’s. They taunted them without mercy.”

Child Psychiatrist Robert Coles, who was then a young doctor stationed with the Air Force outside of New Orleans, volunteered his time to work with Ruby and the three other African American girls who were integrating another school in the city, as well as the white children in each of the integrated schools. Dr. Coles remembers this conversation with Ruby which is included in his book, The Moral Life of Children:

I knew I was just Ruby, just Ruby trying to go to school and worrying that I couldn’t be helping my momma with the kids younger than me, like I did on the weekends and in the summer. But I guess I also knew I was the Ruby who had to do it — go into that school and stay there, no matter what those people said, standing outside.

Faith was a great source of strength for Ruby Bridges. When she had nightmares and went to her mother’s bedside for comfort, her mother would always ask whether she had said her prayers and send her back to say them. Ruby writes, “Somehow it always worked…My mother and our pastor always said you have to pray for your enemies and people who do you wrong, and that’s what I did.”

Ruby Bridges graduated high school, went to work for a travel agency, married and had four sons of her own and never thought very much about her first year of school. She said she had trouble connecting any of it to her. She writes, “It has taken me a long time to own the early part of my life” But once Ruby was an adult and after her youngest brother was killed in a drug shooting leaving behind young children who attended the Frantz School. Ruby went back to the Frantz School as a volunteer and she realized, to her dismay, that the inner city schools of New Orleans, like the schools in cities across the country, had become segregated again. All who could afford to move to better neighborhoods had done so, leaving the poorest students, all African American, to attend the substandard school.

The lack of resources at the Frantz School motivated her to establish the Ruby Bridges Foundation to provide enrichment and resources such as after-school classes in the arts. The adult Ruby Bridges is now a lecturer and advocate for ending racism and building bridges between children of all races. She writes “I now know that experience comes to us for a purpose and if we follow the guidance of the spirit within us, we will probably find that the purpose is a good one.

The anti-racism movement unfolding around us right now may not be the one you would have chosen or created. Michael Brown may not be the case you would have chosen to spark this movement. But this is the movement that is happening and we are not in charge of it. In fact , I think it is time to listen more, pay attention more, imagine more, empathize more, dare I say to follow more. We may not agree with everything, in fact we may disagree quite stridently with some things, but we need to decide how and if we will respond to what in fact is happening. We need to decide how we will respond as individuals and as a community of faith. Will we be engaged in intensive and intentional anti-racism conversation and education as we did with the welcoming congregation program 15 years ago? Willl we deepen our commitment to leaving the building to engage with communities of color as we are doing now with City Reach and our work with those who are homeless? Will we rekindle connections with refugee communities in Lowell through the international institute? And we need to be humble and gentle with ourselves and each other. Shame and guilt and self-righteousness are not the tools for transformation and never have been.

Once, when she was a very young girl, psychologist Harriet Lerner was invited to go with a friend to Coney Island. She was pleased and excited, but when she got there she found herself frightened by the same rides she so desperately wanted to try. One ride in particular both terrified and enticed her, a high-speed roller coaster called the Cyclone. She kept watching other children her age get on and off of it, amazed by their fearlessness. Finally she went up to a boy as he got off the ride and asked him bluntly, “How did you do it? How do you get over being afraid?” “You don’t get over it”, he told her. “You just buy a ticket.”

I end with the prayer we began our morning with, written by Rev. Joseph M. Cherry:

Show me the strength and fortitude I possess to confront injustice.
Show me the seed of hope I might use to grow hope in others.
Show me the faces of all who suffer, and all who cause suffering
   so I may remember that they are all my sisters and brothers.
Show me there is still hope.
If we have any hope of transforming the world and
changing ourselves, we must be:
bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be:
so bold,
so brave,
and so loving.

grad-rainbow

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Created 2014-12-10