Homily: Where Charity and Love Abide
Where is the Divine in all of this? If you’ve ever had sessions with a spiritual director, that may sound familiar. If you are a theist, they may ask you to reflect on where God’s presence seems nearby. If you are agnostic, they might get more creative, like where are you finding awe and wonder, where is a sense of reverence popping up in your life, when do you get a tingle that something sacred is happening?
One of the songs in our prelude this morning, Ubi Caritas, suggests that where charity and love abide, the Divine is there. I find that deeply comforting – I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do believe in kindness, and remembering the ways that people and other beings express love helps me to have faith that there is something holy moving through the world.
In times such as these, I am looking for every sign that I can. It is easy to get overwhelmed with world events and personal sources of sadness. Really, I wonder, where is the Divine in all of this? If there is a higher power, I don’t think it makes arrangements intentionally for our suffering, but maybe there is a power that can comfort and inspire us and move us to respond when humans hurt each other. Maybe it comes from humans ourselves acting our best and highest; or maybe it comes from the Source of Love, beyond our knowing. We need that kind of help right now. Where is it?
It may be that part of my problem is looking for the sacred in one, concrete place, as if it were a pair of scissors that keeps moving around the house. My mind is trained to seek things that I can see and touch and hold, and perhaps the holy is not a thing with a single location. Particularly in times such as these, when everything is changing quickly and our basic assumptions about how the world works are being upended, concrete predictability will not yield a force that brings comfort, inspiration, challenge to live our values, or a sense of connection with the universe. in times like these, perhaps what we seek can’t be found in one place. It’s not a commodity to be grasped. Not even signing up for the right workshops or collecting scented candles will allow us to possess it and tame it. What we seek is a spirit that moves.
Some of our Pagan friends celebrated Beltane not that long ago. One of the traditions of this holiday is to light fires. Some say that one aspect of the tradition is to put out all of the fires in the community, to light a new fire to be the Beltane fire, and re-light all of the hearths of the community from this new flame. In this way, the warmth and light of every household is connected to one source, to one flicker of renewal. Cattle are driven between festival fires in hopes for their continued health. Partners jump over the fires to renew relationships. Grains from the previous year are cast into the flames, symbolically purifying the stores of that which is stale. The fires of Beltane remind us that renewal happens in relationship. Our community is linked by shared renewal. Partnerships thrive in cooperative renewal. Our ability to thrive agriculturally is relational with the earth. And none of it is static. Instead, the spirit that moves dances like the flames, taking no final form. The Beltane fires are something to pass through or leap over or rekindle, but cannot be predicted or held in place.
Another story about fire is coming up for Christians at Pentecost, celebrated this year by Western Christians on May 31. As the story goes, Jesus’ friends had been coming to terms with his death and the possibility of his resurrection for over a month, meeting in small groups and figuring out what it meant to continue their movement without their leader. In some of the stories, the resurrected Jesus had appeared to them, and at the end of this time of regrouping, left them to return to heaven. It was again a season of pilgrimage in Jerusalem, and there were people from all around the known world crowding into the city.
As the story goes in the Book of Acts, the disciples were all gathered in one group when “tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” The fires of Pentecost are the fires of renewed mission. They could not continue witnessing and healing the way they had done; they had changed and the world had changed. Fire symbolized that they had to carry out their mission in a new way. They needed new language, new skills for communication, new technologies for finding connection. The shape and the outcome of their movement was not set at that point; they were traveling through a time of transformation. The flames of Pentecost gave them energy for change, but not certainty.
Though Unitarian Universalism grows from Christian roots, not all of us are close followers of Christian tradition. I don’t know if the story happened exactly this way, but I believe it’s true that a movement that witnesses for justice for the poor and accountability for the powerful, a movement that knows that state-sanctioned violence is a real possibility, a movement that seeks right relationship between people and with the holy — that movement needs to be ready for change. Sometimes the times in which we live are fires to pass through, and our way of pursuing our mission must adapt. Outcomes are not assured. The shape of things to come is unclear. The spirit that moves can’t be held in our hands. Yet there are powers that inspire and challenge and draw people together.
In the story from the Book of Acts, people are in Jerusalem for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. This is a holiday that is celebrated very differently now than during the second Temple period of first century Palestine. Nevertheless, it’s a day worth noticing, and it is also coming this month, on May 29. Shavuot is partly a harvest holiday, bookending the grain season that begins with Sukkot. By tradition, the Torah was given to the people on Shavuot, and the holiday has become an occasion to celebrate the Torah by staying up all night studying.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, we read that the first version of the Torah that God gave to Moses to share with the people did not last. Moses came down from Sinai, the mountain ablaze, and saw that the people had already strayed, and he smashed the first two tablets. God helped Moses create another set, Torah 2.0, and those were the tablets placed in the ark.
According to Jewish mystics, the first set of tablets were written with black fire on white fire. Perhaps the black fire represents judgment and the white fire represents mercy; or the black fire represents interpretation and the white fire — what we might think of as blank space in graphic design — represents possibility. Perhaps the fires represent what is written and what is hidden. Rabbi Michael Strassfeld suggests that the white fire is the world around us, that the sacred must always be understood in the context of life as we are living it — holy words must be interpreted in relationship with the world as it is in the current time and place.
So, again, the spirit that moves cannot be pinned down. The Divine flickers and dances and resists concrete form, revealing and purifying and drawing people together in ways that adapt to the times in which we find ourselves.
My last sacred story is not so much about fire as it is about commitment. We are in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims recall when the Prophet Muhammad, Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him, received the revelation of the Holy Quran. During this month, Muslims not only fast from food and drink during the day, but they are particularly careful to avoid lies, slander, gossip, false oaths, and greed or covetousness. According to one story, the Prophet Muhammad was in contemplation when he was visited by the Angel Gabriel, who commanded him to read. Muhammad replied that he was unable to read. Gabriel embraced him, and then commanded him to recite, which he did:
“Read! in the name of your Lord who created
Man from a clinging substance.
Read: Your Lord is most Generous,–
He who taught by the pen–
Taught man that which he knew not.”
So ends the reading. Not only am I moved by the commitment to charity and love that I observe in my loved ones who fast during Ramadan, I am reminded by this story that we move through times of uncertainty with abilities that we either didn’t know we had or that we pick up because we didn’t know we would need them before. Being committed to our values means we adapt. If it is our hope to be in the places where charity and love act, we change along with the spirit that moves. Charity and love are not static. They are always in motion, always part of a system of relationships.
This brings us back to wondering where the Divine might be in the midst of this pandemic. How is the spirit moving us through the fires of this time of transformation? We do not know how society will be different on the other side of this. We can try to shape that change. As we do that, let’s stay anchored to our values. How do we move with the spirit in which charity and love abide?
As I mentioned earlier, I feel that our commitment to honoring the interdependent web of existence and the inherent worth and dignity of every person means that it is incumbent upon us to recognize that the stresses of the pandemic fall most heavily on those who hold one or more marginalized identities. The decision to go to the store or wear a mask or exercise outdoors is more risky for some because of factors like racism, xenophobia, and ableism. My prayers are with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered in February, and whose family had to endure being re-traumatized this week as his death gained publicity. May the trial of the two men were arrested for his murder proceed swiftly and with integrity. The inequitable effects of the pandemic don’t stop there. Wealthy people are invited to shelter at home, while meat packing workers are ordered into places of danger, being told by a Wisconsin state supreme court justice that their illnesses and deaths don’t count because they are not “regular folks.” Families of color — especially Black families — and families who are poor are sustaining heavier losses. In the United States, we mourn for over 76,000 people who have died of Covid-19, and we ache for leadership that will honor those who are left. We are faced with an urgent need to transform our society toward justice, equity, and compassion, now more than ever.
I know this congregation is full of compassionate people. You have been reaching out to one another through the contact tree and spontaneous calls and cards in the mail. You have responded with generosity to the Minister’s Discretionary Fund. You are capable of great kindness. The charity and love you express is part of something larger. Love goes out to individuals, and also to whole systems, where it takes on the name of justice. Your personal calling may be rooted in acts of individual compassion. We don’t all have to be full time activists. We do, if we are honest, need to remember the systems of oppression that make suffering worse. Let us remain committed to our deepest values.
This is a threshold time, an open doorway, a sacred fire for us to pass through or around or over. I do not wish for us a return to everything as it was before. The future is still unfolding. My hope is that we adapt, that we find our place in the dance with the spirit that moves, that we follow the rhythms of justice and compassion. So be it. Blessed be. Amen.
Message: Rainbows in the Windows by Jen Blosser, Read by Interim DRE Marsha Thrall
Somewhere in the world, there was a child and their grandparent sheltering in place, just like you are now – and they were really fed up, perhaps a bit like you are sometimes. The novelty of being at home all the time and doing whatever they wanted had worn off for the child and they felt booooooored. For the grandparent, it was less a feeling of boredom weighing them down, but rather, a sense of hopelessness. They watched TV for hours, though how many hours remained a mystery—they had stopped keeping track of time, really. The days all blurred together, they felt they had been doing this for so long.
And then one day, when the child accidentally sat on the remote (after getting more snacks) and the TV accidentally turned off, there was something new reflected in the black screen of the powered down TV. The child and their grandparent turned around to look out their front window and find the source of this reflection—in the house across the road from them, there was a piece of paper taped in the window, and on that paper was a colorfully drawn rainbow.
Well, this was something new—something unexpected and bright and cheery and new! The child and grandparent turned to one another knowingly, grinning. In a flash, the child retrieved a sheet of paper and crayons and began to draw a rainbow while the grandparent fetched tape – a moment later, they gazed upon their window with pride. Their rainbow shone back across the street, joyfully mirroring their neighbor’s rainbow.
What happened next, was like magic. Every day, more cheerful rainbows appeared in more windows, all up and down the street. The child and their grandparent gleefully drew rainbows for each window in their home, watching their neighbors doing the same. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, and all manner of other colors burst forth, seeming to shine through the windows. A cacophony of color!
But the people didn’t stop there—they continued to draw. Rainbows were taped to neighbor’s doors, slipped into mailboxes. They were sent to care homes, to beloved elders who couldn’t have visitors. Rainbows were left tucked under the windshield wipers of Uber Eats driver’s cars. They were left out for the delivery folks. People made rainbows to send to hospitals, scrawled with messages of gratitude and admiration for everyone working to help the sick, from the doctors and nurses to the custodial staff and maintenance workers. Stockers working hard in grocery stores found paper rainbows between cans of beans and corn, left waiting on the shelves where the toilet paper was sold out.
Now, families on solitary walks around the city go rainbow hunting. The child and their grandfather like to do this—taking paper with them to write down all the places they see rainbows hanging. The empty school, the corner store, windows of brownstone homes, even hanging from balconies fifteen stories up. They make a list of all the rainbows emerging, logging each place where the colors shine into the empty streets.
By now you’ve probably figured out that this story is really happening, all over the world, right now. Folks are coming together in spirit while physically distanced to lovingly reassure one another with brilliant colors. The rainbows are beautiful and to see them alone is a joy, but they carry with them a promise.
The rainbows shine as a reminder of hope: we are in this together, the storm will end, and we will come out on the other side.