Words of Prophecy
Rev. Douglas Taylor
March 29, 2015
I had a professor in seminary whose preferred way of teaching theology was through biography. She believed that the stories of people’s lives illuminated the heart of the theological venture. Thus, one class I took from that professor was all biographical accounts of the religious activists of the 19th and early 20th century. We would read about the person’s life and then interpret their theology and values. A colleague of mine, Ann Fox, talks about a spiritual teacher who shared much the same sentiment with her. Read biographies, the stories of people’s lives. “You will read about that life and ponder it deeply” Rev. Fox’s teacher advised, “and will likely not forget the story even as you are creating your own story.”
As Unitarian Universalists we honor this idea about the stories of people. When we drafted out statement of 7 principles back in the ‘80’s, we also drew up a list of our sources of authority and inspiration. The second source is “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” We lift up, not a single sage or prophet. Instead we bring many names from our history and the history of all humanity.
We speak of the people who were our founders such as Channing, Emerson, Murray, Ballou, David, and Socinus. We also love to talk about Clara Barton, James Reeb, Horace Mann, Susan B. Anthony, Olympia Brown, Jane Addams, and William Lloyd Garrison.
This second set of names is not a list of ‘founders,’ they were prophetic voices along the way that help guide us into who we have become today. We also reach back to the wisdom spoken by those who were not Unitarian Universalism’s history. We pull on the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets, the eastern mystics, Sufi sages, and modern activists. We listen for the prophetic wisdom of Amos, Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Dr. King.
I think, for example, about Rev. John Haynes Holmes. Holmes was the Unitarian Minister from Community Church in New York. I was rereading his biography recently because I was looking for the information about how he was one of the founding members of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. While I was reading, though, I was reminded that Holmes was also a founding member of the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union. And I was reminded about his commitment to pacifism, particularly during World War I. I was reminded about his connection with Gandhi, (Holmes being one of the first Americans to recognize the significance of Gandhi and doing a lot to introduce our country to what Gandhi was doing in India.)
But if you go looking for the story of how the NAACP was founded, you are not going find a lot about Holmes. If you look into the story of Gandhi’s introduction to Americans, you are not going to find much, if anything, about a guy named John Haynes Holmes. But you have heard of Gandhi, right? You are familiar with the NAACP and the ACLU – perhaps you’re even a supporter of these organizations. That is what Holmes was trying to accomplish.
Holmes believed in justice and in building institutions to support the continuing work of justice. Holmes was committed to the power of religion to make a difference in society, to be a positive force for justice in our world. He wrote:
Religion must be used in furthering great works of justice and reform. It must be used to establish right relations between different groups of [people], and thus to make a reality of [the kinship of humanity]. It must be used to abolish poverty, the breeding ground of all misery and crime, by distributing equably among [all] the abundance of the soil. And it must be used to get rid of war and to establish enduring peace. Here is the supreme test of the effectiveness of religion.
Dorothea Dix is another example I would offer of a prophetic person from our history. Dix was a Unitarian from the 1800’s who is remembered for her tireless advocacy for the civil and humane treatment of the mentally ill. When she started her work, chronicling the disturbing conditions in Massachusetts, the mentally ill were customarily kept in farm basements, poor houses, correctional facilities and jails. Dorothea investigated every place where mentally ill persons were kept in Massachusetts, every place! Taking careful notes, she was able, at the end of her 18 months of research, to convince the state legislature to respond with a bill to relieve the present situation and provide for future accommodations. Her efforts ushered in sweeping reforms.
She went on to investigate other states, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island. One of the stories told of Dorothea Dix involves her work to establish the New Jersey State Hospital. She met with phenomenal opposition. The New Jersey legislature even passed a resolution providing $100 for a one-way train ticket to “get Miss Dix across the Delaware River and out of the state.”
Dorothea however, did not give up, and within three years, New Jersey appropriated funds to build a hospital. Indeed after visiting Europe where she instigated reforms in Scotland and Italy; and returning to the states to organize the Army Nurses during the Civil War, she finally retired to live out her last six years in a small apartment behind that New Jersey State Hospital.
At her funeral they read the passage from scripture: “I was hungered and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger and ye took me in: naked and ye clothed me; I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison and ye came unto me.” The prophetic words and deeds of Dorothea were inspired in many ways by the prophetic words and deeds of Jesus and others who came before her.
This, of course, is not just about people who are Unitarians or Universalists. I, like many, continue to find inspiration in the words and deeds of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But this is not just the luminaries, it is also about more ‘regular’ people who offer insight and inspiration toward making the world a better place. And this is not just about people who are now long dead. Think about the impact of actor George Takei! He was in the original Star Trek series as Sulu. In recent years he has become a prominent voice for gay rights leading public opinion through social media. Takei is not a UU, but he is appreciated by many UUs as a voice of reason, wit, and acceptance.
This week I was introduced to the work of writer and activist Chris Crass. People were talking about inspirational people around today and a colleague mentioned Chris Crass. Crass works to build “working class-based, feminist, multiracial movements for collective liberation.” (Wikipedia) He has been and organizer and public speaker who uses lessons from feminism to build anti-racist community. His book Towards Collective Liberation: Anti-Racist Organizing, Feminist Praxis, and Movement Building Strategy was published in 2013.
Interestingly, Crass was introduced to Unitarian Universalism through a partnership with UU Youth and the Catalyst Project. He was impressed with the youth and that is what eventually led Crass to become a Unitarian Universalist. When I looked him up online I was a little surprised to discover That Chris Crass looks a lot like me: a middle-aged white guy. But what he is doing is working to transform the community of which he is a member. He claims that his goal is “to help turn race, class and gender into catalysts to help us build our progressive Left movement rather than have them continue to divide us.”
And closer to home I think of conversations from earlier this month at our Board meeting. We and Geri brought a proposal to the board for input about asking the congregation to take a stance on climate change. And I am reminded of Doris Reed’s life story, which several of us heard half of at an Elder Wisdom talk in 2014. I understand the Elder Wisdom organizers are settling a date for part 2. And later today, we will be having a panel discussion about politics and money. My point is not to make heroes out of people, but to lift up that all of us have the capacity to be part of the story.
Humor me a moment and pull out your hymnals for a responsive reading. Turn to reading #565. It is called “Prophets” by Clinton Lee Scott. Scott was a Universalist minister who inspired many of the elder colleagues I now look up to. I will offer the regular text and ask you to respond with the italicized text.
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets
than to heed the direction of their vision.
It is easier blindly to venerate the saints than to
learn the human quality of their sainthood.
It is easier to glorify the heroes of the race than
to give weight to their examples.
To worship the wise is much easier than to profit by their wisdom.
Great leaders are honored, not by adulation,
but by sharing their insights and values.
Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet
sometimes gather up the stones to build the prophet’s monument.
Always it is easier to pay homage to prophets
than to heed the direction of their vision.
All of us have a part to play, have a way in to making a difference.
Last weekend I sat on a panel on Spiritual Wellbeing at the Pride and Joy Families Conference. We were a Priest, a Rabbi, a Methodist Minister and a UU Minister… no joke. And while the focus of the conference was on how to support gay or lesbian families, and the focus of our panel workshop was on how faith communities can support gay and lesbian families, the conversation ranged through various topics.
For example, one woman asked us about how she could respond to her child’s anger at God. She said “my transgender child is in pain and is asking why God made him wrong.” We on the panel spent a few minutes just acknowledging her pain and her child’s pain. “Yes,” several of us said, “that is a real question. Yes, that pain is real.” Then we added, “God did not make anything ‘perfect.’ And God didn’t make anything ‘wrong’. The world and we are as we are. But we are co-creators with God, perhaps most clearly when we are advocates for justice. Our work is to build a better world – not because God got it wrong but because that is our part of the work. That is the whole point of justice-work. It is not a statement that God got things wrong and we need to fix it. But justice is a response to the brokenness within us and around us, a response to the pain and separation experienced in life.
If you think back on the examples of John Haynes Holmes and Dorothea Dix, you will see that everything they did was a response to the pain and brokenness, a desire to build something lasting that would continue to make the world more whole. Looking at the other examples, that’s what we are doing. The work of justice is everybody’s work and it is a response of compassion to the brokenness and the anger and the separation we experience.
It has long been a point of Unitarian and Universalist theology and practice that all people hold the capacity to act in the world in ways that enhance justice. We do not leave the work to a select few.
Yes, it is good and edifying to consider and carry forward the prophetic words and deeds of women and men from the past, words and deeds that inspire you and challenge you and call you to step up. But then we each can do exactly that: step up. Each of us can make a difference. Each of us can offer prophetic words and deed.
It need not be grand. It need not be far-reaching. It need not be accomplished soon. It need not be something you do alone; indeed it is better to find good people with whom you can engage. Hand in hand. Your voice need not be the most profound or even remembered in the years to come. You need only listen to the heartbreak and brokenness within your heart and in the world around you – listen and respond. Hand in hand, stone by stone. Add your words and your deeds to the ever-growing wellspring of justice that brings the world one step closer to wholeness.
In a world without end, may it be so.