Truth and Lies”

Worship Script 4


 Worship Script (4 of 4)

The Freedom Found in Prophetic Truth

 

OPENING WORDS

"I Call that Church Free" by James Luther Adams, #591 Singing the Living Tradition

 

I call that church free which enters into covenant with the ultimate source of existence,

That sustaining and transforming power not made with human hands.

It binds together families and generations, protecting against the idolatry of any human claim to absolute truth or authority.

This covenant is the charter and responsibility and joy of worship in the face of death as well as life.

I call that church free which brings individuals into a caring, trusting fellowship,

That protects and nourishes their integrity and spiritual freedom; that yearns to belong to the church universal;

It is open to insight and conscience from every source; it bursts through rigid tradition, giving rise to new and living language, to new and broader fellowship.

It is a pilgrim church, a servant church, on an adventure of the spirit.

The goal is the prophethood and priesthood of all believers, the one for the liberty of prophesying, the other for the ministry of healing.

It aims to find unity in diversity under the promptings of the spirit "that bloweth where it listeth . . . and maketh all things new." 

 

HYMN #102 We the Heirs of Many Ages

 

FIRST READING

“Prophets” by Clinton Lee Scott

 

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.

  

SECOND READING

Excerpt from “The Social Implications of Universalism” by Clarence Skinner


The genius of Universalism is liberty. Its fathers dared to challenge the olden tyr­annies of ecclesiastical authority, and in­terpret life in larger, more triumphant terms. Its beginnings are linked with the stormy days of political and industrial revolution. Its prophets were stoned in the streets for their daring, they were os­tracized by their contemporary complacent fellow religionists. But they fought the battles of religious and civil freedom, and to-day one of the most splendid character­istics of the Universalist Church is the un­challenged right of every individual to in­terpret the fundamentals of religion ac­cording to his conscience. Absolute free­dom of utterance and latitude for adven­ture is secured for preacher and layman in the articles of faith which declare that no form of words and no precise phraseology shall be required of any member of the church. 

Such intellectual liberalism and such broad fellowship, after winning the battle for theological freedom, have put Univer­salists in the forefront among defenders of the new science. They have been among the pioneers who have helped to harmonize that science with religion. When it was heresy to believe in evolution, our fathers dared to proclaim it as a doctrine which would save religion, not destroy it, which would reveal God, not abolish Him. 

But the fight for freedom is never won. Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradi­tion. Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar. Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.

 

HYMN #391 Voice Still and Small

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES
Freeing Truth  by Ranwa Hammamy

Once upon a time there was a drop of water named Higgins.

Higgins was no ordinary drop of water. He was a drop with a dream.

Higgins lived in a valley where it had not rained in a very long time, so all the lovely green grass was turning brown, all the beautiful flowers were wilting, and all the trees were starting to droop.

Higgins had a dream that one day the valley would be a beautiful place again. But what could he do? After all, he was only a drop of water.

One day Higgins decided to travel and tell others about his dream. All the other drops listened very politely, but no one believed that his dream would come true. “Higgins,” said one, “get your head out of the clouds. You can’t spend your whole life dreaming.”

Higgins decided that he had to do something to make his dream come true. So he began to think and think and think. One day, as he was walking by a rusty old bucket, he got an idea.

“If enough of us drops of water got together in this bucket,” Higgins thought, “there would be enough water to sprinkle on a few flowers to help them grow and become beautiful again!”

Eagerly, Higgins told everyone his great idea. But everyone thought he was being foolish. “That Higgins is nothing but a dreamer,” they said.

Higgins decided he had to do something to convince the others that he was right. So he said to them, “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting into the bucket! I hope some of you will join me. Then there might be enough water to help at least some flowers grow beautiful again.”

So Higgins ran as hard as he could, hopped way up in the air, and landed with a kerplunk in the bottom of the bucket.

And there he sat . . . JUST A DROP IN THE BUCKET.

For a long time Higgins was very lonely. It seemed like no one else was going to join him. But after awhile some of the other drops could see that the grass was dying and the flowers were wilting and the trees were drooping. They all agreed that something must be done.

 Suddenly, one drop shouted, “I’m going in the bucket with Higgins!” And he leaped through the air and landed—kerplunk—in the bucket.

Then two other drops yelled, “Wait for us!” And they hopped through the air and landed in the bucket. Then ten drops jumped through the air into the bucket. Then thirty. Then fifty! And then hundreds of drops came from all around just to hop in the bucket!

Soon, the bucket was completely full of water. But there were still more drops that wanted to join, so they found another bucket and hopped in. Before long, there were two buckets of water—then three—then four—then ten—and then hundreds—and then thousands of buckets of water!

Along came a powerful breeze that blew over all the buckets, and all the water flowed together to make a mighty stream. Everywhere the water flowed, the grass turned green again and the flowers bloomed and the trees stood tall and straight once more.

All this happened because Higgins had a dream and his dream came true. Because he knew that although he was just a drop in the bucket, enough drops in the bucket make a bucketful, and when there are enough buckets with the wind behind them, then justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

 

MEDITATION

“Labyrinth” by Leslie Takahashi

 

Walk the maze

within your heart: guide your steps into its questioning curves.

This labyrinth is a puzzle leading you deeper into your own truths.

Listen in the twists and turns.

Listen in the openness within all searching.

Listen: a wisdom within you calls to a wisdom beyond you and in that dialogue lies peace.

  

CANDLES OF JOY AND CONCERN

Those who are so moved are now invited to come forward to light a candle, expressing a joy or concern in their lives.  As you do, you may briefly share what it is.  We ask that people coming forward speak for no more than a sentence or two, and speak from the heart about issues in their lives, rather than political issues, which we can take up at coffee hour or in the parking lot.

 

SERMON

Freeing Truth by Rev. Ranwa Hammamy

What makes a prophet? Our responsive reading this morning speaks about how it is “easier to pay homage to prophets than to heed the direction of their vision.” But before we can even consider that point, there is a much more basic one that we need to address: How do we select the people that we think are worthy of our recognition? What have we decided makes a prophet?

I suggest that we start with a kind of resource that should be fairly explicit in their description of “prophets” - religious texts. Let’s look at one of the more obvious options, someone that I assume many of us probably know thanks to either our childhood religion classes or Charlton Heston: Moses. What was the first obvious sign that he was a prophet? I imagine that for many people, the answer to that question might be something like “the burning bush.” In the story, we know that at this bush Moses is singled out by God. He has an exchange with God who identifies him as the person chosen to free the Hebrew people from their experience of slavery. Moses repeatedly expresses doubt that he is the right person for the job, but God assures him over and over again that he will never be alone, and eventually Moses accepts his role as the one chosen to confront Pharaoh and lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt.  

Okay. That helps give me some idea of what makes a prophet, but I think I need to do a little more research. How about another key example from religion, maybe the Prophet Muhammad? His story is perhaps a little less familiar to people in the United States, but for people who identify as Muslim, nearly a quarter of the world’s population, it is arguably basic knowledge. What was it that made him a prophet? According to the story of the first Qur’anic revelation, Muhammad was also chosen by God. The way the story goes, he was meditating in a cave and then all of a sudden felt a squeezing sensation, as though an invisible presence was holding him in a crushing embrace. It was in that moment that Muhammad was told by the angel Gabriel to “Read!” After Muhammad protested, saying that he could not do so, he suddenly was overcome with and spoke the words that became the first revelation of the Qur’an. After that encounter, Muhammad still did not think he was a prophet, in fact he thought he was losing his mind. But with the assurance of his wife Khadija he began his legacy as a prophet.  

In both of these stories, there is this shared theme of being “chosen” for prophethood. More specifically, they seem to have been chosen by God. If we look at their stories from this angle, we could argue that Moses and Muhammad were singled out as leaders without really having a say in the matter. They were even a little reluctant. From this perspective, it is their being chosen that seems to be the most memorable evidence of their being prophets. But is that an accurate picture? Is that even true of all prophets? 

Let’s try widening our stories a bit and see what happens. Before Moses encountered God in the burning bush outside of Egypt, he first lived inside Egypt. He was the son of a Hebrew woman, born during a time when the Pharaoh had commanded that all Hebrew boys be drowned in the river. In this part of the story, we meet three people who are often overlooked: Moses’ mother, his sister Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. Their roles in the story seem inconsequential, two of them don’t even get names, but against this backdrop, their actions are nothing short of heroic. Risking her own life, Moses’ mother goes against the royal decree and conceals her son for three months. Eventually, she can no longer hide him and places him in a basket by a river. And you know what? My guess is she knew exactly what she was doing. She knew who would show up next. That’s probably why her daughter, Moses’ sister Miriam, watched from a distance to see what was happening to her baby brother. She was waiting to play her part in this brave plan. Before much time passes, the Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the river for her bath. She sees the basket, has it retrieved, and when she opens it, realizes what happened. The Pharaoh’s daughter knows about her father’s decree. But she also chooses to go against it. Aided by Miriam, she returns Moses to his mother to have him nursed, and eventually adopts him as her own son, so that he can grow up safely. What we end up with is two courageous women among the oppressed in a society who risked their lives for justice, and a woman who used her position of power to help them save an innocent life.  

What about the story of Muhammad? Before he encountered the angel Gabriel in the cave, he was a merchant, married to the wealthy Khadija. She belonged to a powerful tribe known as the Quraysh, and it was actually she who proposed to Muhammad. That’s some modern-day gender-equality. Khadija did not have to attach herself to a poor merchant - she chose to make that relationship happen. And when Muhammad came down from the cave on that fateful night, she did not have to tell him that he had in fact encountered an angel. She chose to calm him down and believe in his story. When Muhammad began to publicly share messages about economic justice and monotheism that angered members of the wealthy and polytheistic Quraysh tribe that was Khadija’s own family, she did not have to support him. She chose to encourage his words rather than ask him to stay silent. When they were ostracized from society to the point that their lives were threatened, Khadija did not even have to stay with Muhammad. But she chose to do so. Like the women who saved the infant Moses, she too risked her life for something that she knew was right – without being told to do so. Moses’ mother, his sister Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Khadija - none of them had a moment when they were explicitly “called” or “chosen.” But all four of them had moments when they made a choice.  

Now I think I’m getting somewhere. If we look at the stories from this angle, we see choice once again enter the prophethood equation, but this time it is not by an external source. We could even argue that there wasn’t a “God” character in their stories! By widening these stories, we uncover other prophets - people who were not chosen to act, but who made a free and responsible choice to act. No divine being delivered instructions through a burning bush or an angel (wouldn’t that make our lives simpler?). They had to decide for themselves what was worth risking their lives to achieve. They were fierce, free-thinking women. And what their stories show us, the risks they took on, is that prophets are not the select few who are chosen among us. Prophets are the ones among us who make certain choices. Choices that few others realize that they too can act upon.  

I recognize that the stories of Moses and Muhammad may be too far removed from our own experiences. They are only stories after all, and we don’t necessarily know whether any of what is described in them actually happened. So where else can we search for answers to the question about what makes a prophet? As it turns out our Unitarian Universalist tradition has something to offer. Among the six sources of our tradition, we claim to draw upon the “words and deeds of prophetic men and women which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.”  

Great! We have a source that includes prophets. But it doesn’t mention choices. So what can we glean from this source in figuring out what makes a prophet? “Challenge.” Prophets are people whose words and deeds challenge us. They do not say or do things that are easy or free of any risk. They do not tell us to follow the normal or traditionally accepted course of action. In fact, they do just the opposite. In the words of Bernice Johnson Reagon, one of the founding members of the group “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” prophets “lay down the world as it is,” and pursue a new way of being, knowing full well that doing so comes with a price. This idea fits nicely with another obvious source we can turn to in helping to define what makes a prophet: the dictionary.  

According to Merriam-Webster, a prophet in the religious sense is one who “utters divinely inspired revelations.” That sounds like our first story angle. But the next definition is a person “gifted with more than ordinary spiritual or moral insights.” Someone who sees beyond what others see, who “lays down the world as it is” because they have a different understanding of what is happening around them. And that’s not all. If we look at the Greek origins of the term, we see that it comes from the word prophetes, which means to “speak out,” “to declare,” or “to make known.” Prophets don’t just see things differently, they share what it is that they see. 

Ok. I think I have it now. What makes a prophet? Prophets teach new truths that challenge our understanding of reality, even if that understanding is popular and loved. They are willing to speak what others might be afraid to admit, and combat forms of oppression that others still deny or even defend as the “law” or “justice.” And they do so in spite of the isolation, criticism, persecution, dehumanization, and even death that may follow. Like the women in our earlier stories, prophets are not necessarily chosen. Prophets exemplify the difficult choices we have to make. They demonstrate how we must live if we hope to “confront the powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” 

So if it is those difficult choices that make a prophet, what stories can we draw upon to challenge us? Who are the women and men who declared truths that were meant to transform our society? There are some obvious answers to that question. Martin Luther King and Gandhi quickly come to mind. Malala Yousafzai, a young education activist who survived an attempt on her life by religious extremists. Or Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching advocate whose investigative journalism against Southern racism led to many threats on her life. In our UU tradition, we have prophets who led movements for the religious and social freedoms we now experience. Women like Margaret Fuller and Olympia Brown. People like Theodore Parker who risked his life to support abolition from the pulpit. Or Fannie Barrier Williams and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who fought for the expansion of civil rights to women and people of color. You might know of James Reeb, the UU minister who was killed in 1965 by white segregationists while he was marching in Selma for civil rights.  

We can also look to Clarence Skinner, a Universalist minister who was criticized for his pacifism during World War One. In his book, The Social Implications of Universalism, he celebrates that the prophets of our past gained for us the freedoms that we enjoy today. He wrote: "The genius of Universalism is liberty. Its fathers dared to challenge the olden tyrannies of ecclesiastical authority, & interpret life in larger, more triumphant terms.” But that daring, he acknowledges, comes with a cost: “Its prophets were stoned in the streets for their daring,” and “ostracized by their contemporary complacent fellow religionists.” Ultimately, he says, it was their willingness to fight the “battles of religious and civil freedom” that granted for us the “unchallenged right … to interpret the fundamentals of religion according to his conscience.” 

But Skinner also writes to challenge us. “The fight for freedom is never won. Inherited liberty is not liberty but tradition.” The liberties that those before us fought to achieve? They are already outdated concepts. The “freedoms” we were born into do not include everybody, in fact some still exclude and even intentionally harm. Look at our alleged criminal justice system, which is little more than a collection of practices designed to dehumanize and imprison black and brown men and women. Here in Pennsylvania the state’s budget practices and the growing “school-to-prison pipeline” show that criminal justice has become a for-profit endeavor, often at the expense of our children’s education. Or voting laws that claim to fight voter fraud, but in actuality, seek to silence the voices of minority, low-income, immigrant, and even young adult voters.

 Skinner’s words, nearly a century old, capture a challenging truth that we must engage if we are to live prophetically. He writes, “each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented and peculiar.” What we know as freedom actually contains new forms of tyranny, new masked oppressions and structural injustices that we have to find the courage to name and tear down. Just like the prophets that have come before us, who made the difficult choice to risk their comfort and safety in pursuit of a new way of being, we must now choose whether we will live prophetically or passively. We have the option to “glorify the heroes” of our human race by simply remembering them, or to “give weight to their examples” by making new and difficult choices of our own. If the prophets of our past were alive today, what choices do you think they would face? If we want to “win an ever larger and more important liberty,” what decisions must we now make?

 “In times of moral crisis, moderation is a cop-out.” Irshad Manji, the author of Allah, Liberty, and Love, wrote those words, because she believes that we can do better. She believes we have to do better. And after the events of this summer, her words fuel the growing fire in my spirit. We have been sinking deeper and deeper into a horrifying moral crisis, thanks to the overt operation of sinister forces. But it is now time that we stop hiding from a truth that stares us in the face and continues to violently claim lives. It is a truth that some of us already know well, perhaps on a painfully personal level. It is a truth that the events this summer, particularly in Ferguson, Missouri reflect as the symbolic and microcosm examples of a larger social epidemic.

 The truth is, racism is a deeply embedded and rampantly active force in our society. Three weeks ago, Michael Brown became another young man murdered simply because of the color of his skin. As though his life being violently taken away from his was not enough, the follow-up since has been horrifying. There have been irrelevant and misleading stories circulated about his activities prior to the shooting, in an effort to blame the victim for his own death. There have been moves by officials to cover up and then justify the brutal way in which he was killed. These deliberately misleading efforts continue because there is a simple and undeniable truth: Michael Brown did not deserve to die. His last words, with his hands up in the air were “I don’t have a gun, stop shooting.” But that did not matter. Darren Wilson had already made up his mind about how their exchange was going to end. Our society taught him that he could get away with it. Our society, with its Jim Crow-based mass incarceration system, its pop culture portrayals of racial minorities as criminals, and its biased reporting against black victims of violence as compared to white perpetrators, had taught Darren Wilson that black men had less of a right to live. Even before the two crossed paths, Michael Brown’s life was in danger simply because he was a young black man living in a racially-hierarchical America.

 The angering reality is that Michael Brown is not the only example of this life-destroying truth that has occurred in recent weeks. Just a few days before Michael was killed, John Crawford, a black, 22-year-old man, was also shot and killed in an Ohio Walmart when officers thought that a BB-gun he had purchased that day at that same Walmart was a real gun. His last words? “It’s not real.” John Crawford is dead because he bought a BB gun. Yet somehow, white “open-carry” activists are able to walk around family establishments like Target and Chipotle with real rifles strapped to their backs and nobody shoots to kill them. Before John Crawford, we saw video of Eric Garner being choked to death in broad daylight by police officers using a banned chokehold to subdue him, ignoring his cries of “I can’t breathe.” And these are just some of the stories that we have caught on camera. What happens when nobody is watching?

 The truth is that there is a disturbing and sinister force at play here, and it is time that those of us with the power to say something make our voices heard and our presence known. We must speak up. The individuals who have organized in Ferguson during these last three weeks in response to these deaths have highlighted just how far our society will go to deny the violent reality of systemic racism. People have been threatened, arrested, tear-gassed, shot, and dehumanized by a militarized police force who claim to be keeping the peace. But how can there be peace when there is no justice for the lives of these murdered men? How can there be peace when the first instinct is to try to blame them for their deaths, to find some way to claim that they were the threat, and not the other way around? It may seem too awful to be true, but for the people whose lives are at risk the minute they walk out the door, it is indeed a reality. In the words of James Baldwin, “we have to look grim facts in the face because if we don’t, we can never hope to change them.”

 This is the choice that faces us today. As other voices continue to deny that Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner’s or hundreds of other deaths this year had anything to do with the color of their skin, we now have the choice to be prophets. To name the difficult truth that racism has found new and more pervasive ways of operating in our world – that the law treats black and brown lives as having less value than white lives. We have a choice to live out the values that we proclaim to uphold, by challenging the common narratives that serve to vilify and dehumanize people of color, whether they relate to criminal justice, immigration, education, or terrorism. Doing so involves great risk, not the least of which is acknowledging that we have all been party to institutional oppression. But we cannot let those risks stop us from responding to Clarence

Skinner’s challenge. Because those risks come with an amazing and essential payoff: justice.

 And because we know can do better. We know that it is in our nature to love and create, not hate and destroy. We know in our minds and in our hearts that to let injustice stand, when we have the choice to confront the truths sustaining its presence, is an act that violates our innate sense of compassion. We know that real change is possible when there is the daring willingness to sacrifice the false safety of the masking lies that we have believed about our world and its social and political structures. If we are to live into the values of equality, justice, compassion, dignity, and love that are essential to our Unitarian Universalist tradition and inherent to all humankind, we must be willing to recognize this difficult truth. If we are to succeed in our efforts to defeat structures of evil, we must be willing to engage a new understanding of the ways in which racism remains present today. We must be willing to name the forces that we have allowed to unconsciously control our lives and our social practices. And we must be willing to show the world that a new way of being is possible.

 The necessity to pursue this task is as clear as our fourth principle – the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. This principle is often interpreted as supporting one’s individual search, but today I ask you to remember that this is not all it includes. The free and responsible search for truth and meaning cannot just serve us as individuals – it must move us as engaged and prophetic members of society. We cannot afford to ignore that this principle also means asking difficult questions about ourselves and our world. It cannot be a responsible search for truth if we decide that some questions are too scary to ask, some problems are too big to solve, or some histories are too long to explore. And it is not a responsible search for meaning if we deny that there are explanations beyond those that are easy to defend. Because to uncover these truths is not enough- we must also be willing to risk sharing and defending them. In response to the events in Ferguson, one woman who self-identifies as white wrote about her grappling with this process as she raises her two blue-eyed, blonde-haired sons. She realized that she must teach them about the racism present in society, and the privileges that come with simply having their white skin. She realizes that she has to teach them about this truth, because to ignore it means she risks letting them turn into the people on the other side of the gun, the ones pulling the trigger.

There is one more element that helps make a prophet. We know from our stories, UU sources, and dictionary definition, that prophets make the difficult decision to proclaim challenging truths. And they do so because, as other definitions suggest, they can predict the future. They prophesy about what is to come. And their words are grounded not just in outrage but, more importantly, in hope. Prophets speak difficult truths because they have a vision for something better to come. They have hope for a more just and peaceful world. They call attention to the tyrannies of our world because they know that we can do better. And they see that change, however tremendous and difficult it may be, is the only way to reach that beautiful future. It is what moved Moses and Muhammad, Miriam and Khadija. It is what sustained Martin Luther King and Ida B. Wells. It is what Irshad Manji knows when she writes “All of us are chosen; a few of us recognize our choices and act on them.” The prophets that have come before us made the choice to speak and act upon difficult truths. They made the choice because they hoped, they knew, that there was something better to come if they took that risk. And now, it is our turn.

 I have just one more story about prophets for you. Last spring, I had the honor of teaching a group of youth the story of the Prophet Muhammad. In some versions of the story, it is said that he was destined to be a prophet because he had a mark on his body - the mark of a prophet. One of the students in the class, Ellen, asked me a reasonable question: “What did it look like?” I told her that I didn’t know, in fact none of the stories told us what it looked like. And then I asked her, “What would be your mark?”  She thought for a moment, and then said “A circle.” “That’s interesting,” I responded. Why a circle?” She looked at me and said, “Because it is finished but never ends.” She’s nine.

 Racism should not be the pervasive and destructive force that it is in our world today. But until we are willing to acknowledge its presence as deeply embedded in our institutions and social norms, we will never see an end to its violent effects. Unless we speak the truth – that there are actions that we can no longer tolerate because we know we can do better – discrimination and injustice will always claim innocent lives. Those who came before us dared to challenge the tyrannies of their time, knowing that their actions carried a price. In the words of Clarence Skinner, “Let us meet the issues of our time with intellectual frankness and with moral courage. Let us recognize the challenging facts of our day, and answer them with truth and with reason.”

 The prophethood of Moses, Muhammad, Miriam, and Khadija may be finished, but the need for prophets never ends. The power to confront evil and injustice with love, compassion, and a universally-liberating truth is one we all can possess. Let us learn to live prophetically, remembering that it does not matter if we are chosen – it matters that we recognize that we have the choice to see and build a greater freedom.

  

HYMN #118 This Little Light of Mine

BENEDICTION
By Ranwa Hammamy

We stand in this space today as holders of two truths: the violent reality of racism and the beautiful reality of our innate potential to be better. We now face a choice that others before us encountered: to make known the truths we hold and move towards a greater future, or to remain silent and allow injustice to prevail. As we leave this space today, let us remember that it does not matter if we are chosen, it matters that we have the choice to be prophets.