Worship Script (3 of 4)

  

OPENING WORDS

Lift up your hearts, this day!

Let them fill with the light of community

And the warmth of our vision!

Welcome this moment, in all that it holds:

Its quietude and shadows,

Its bright light and promise.

Welcome this life, as the precious gift that it is.

Let us be together as one.

 

HYMN 20 Be Thou My Vision

 

FIRST READING

“TRIPPING OVER JOY, by Hafez

What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
You have a thousand serious moves.” 

 

SECOND READING

The Quaker theologian Rufus Matthew Jones said, “Sacrifice, surrender, negation, are inherently involved in any great onwardmarching life. They go with any choice that can be made of a rich and intense life. It is impossible to find without losing, to get without giving, to live without dying. But sacrifice, surrender, negation, are never for their own sake; they are never ends in themselves. They are involved in life itself.” 

 

HYMN 34 Though I May Speak with Bravest Fire

 

STORY FOR ALL AGES

“The Chernobyl Three” 

On the morning of April 26, 1986, scientists got to work on a new series of tests in Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine. Soon after the tests began, things started going wrong. Very wrong. Two explosions rocked through the unit. Two unfortunate engineers were killed instantly. But that was just the start of the problem. More seriously, a fire had started in the light water graphite moderator reactor. Plumes of radioactive smoke were sent into the sky. A further 49 workers quickly fell ill and died over the next few weeks. 

The accident meant that more radioactive fallout was sent into the atmosphere than was caused by either of the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. The damage was massive. But it could have been so much worse. A second explosion could have caused the whole Chernobyl complex to go into full meltdown. Had this happened, experts estimate that nuclear fallout would have spread over half of Western Europe, killing untold numbers as well as destroying land and food crops.

Thankfully, a second explosion was avoided, thanks to the three men who have gone down in history as ‘The Chernobyl Three.’ The story goes that, several weeks after the first explosion, the plant chiefs became seriously worried that radioactive material was traveling in a molten flow towards the huge pool of water under the reactor. If the two came into contact, it would have caused a second steam explosion, potentially destroying Chernobyl’s three other reactors. Someone needed to go into the pool and drain it. 

According to most accounts, two plant workers and one soldier stepped forward to take on the job. Undoubtedly, they would have known that the basement of the reactor was highly radioactive. Even if they could get the job done quickly, they would still be exposed to lethally high doses.

The three men put concerns of their own safety to the back of their minds and, after much trying, finally found the correct valves to open and drain the pool. Because the Soviet authorities hid much of the historical record of these events, it isn’t clear what, exactly, happened to these three men after that. But what can’t be denied is that all three of them stepped into the darkness beneath a molten radioactive core and put the good of humanity before their own safety. 

 

MEDITATION

Let us be in mindful quiet together.

As we allow our breath to grow deep and steady, (pause)

As we settle into this place where we are,

And this moment right here, (pause)

Let us acknowledge whatever pain might well up,

Whatever regrets.

And let us acknowledge whatever sorrow we hold,

Whatever grief there might be. (pause)

Let us also be aware of the light in the distance,

The hope that remains.

The promise of a new day. Of more discovery.

Of more love. That this life always contains. (pause)

We can hold it all in our view, at the very same time.

We can let life rest easily in us, in this moment.

(long pause)

Blessed be.

 

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 that they 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

American Sacrifice                

by Karen Louise Hutt

Sacrifice is a powerful, ancient, evocative word that conjures images of animals slaughtered in rituals to bind a community together in a celebratory feast after a drought, or with a long-awaited harvest. Sacrifice can be a visual, visceral and vivid concept that attracts our curiosity but repels us morally. Sacrifice is also described as a blessed act of holy reverence, a necessary rite to cleanse the soul of an individual or restore the hope of a people. Sacrifice can be a visual, visceral and vivid concept that attracts our curiosity but repels us morally.

Sacrifice is also described, as a blessed act, of holy reverence, a necessary rite to cleanse the soul of an individual, or restore the hope of a people. Many traditional religious cultures revolved around sacrificial practices, and ritualized the scapegoat mechanism of sacrifice, preserving it as an instrument of social stabilization that could channel the disruptive violence of social life into a safer symbolic act of violence.

While these biblical and anthropological images of sacrifice have limited resonance for most Americans today, our self-obsessed culture has made self-sacrifice a term worthy of consideration. We honor the self-sacrifice of the soldier. We commend the self-sacrifice of a parent on a travelling sports team. We praise the self-sacrifice of a partner who puts their career on hold to support their spouse’s aspirations. We use self-sacrifice to remind others that we are willing to give up something for some greater moral or virtuous good.

Self-sacrifice can manifest itself in a number of ways. For instance, in an unjust political society that is subject to capricious oppression, self-sacrifice can be both necessary and powerful. Gandhi pledged in 1932 to starve himself to death over an issue related to the injustices of dark-skinned Indians in the caste system. Black parents in Arkansas sent their children to desegregate the Little Rock schools in 1957, knowing that violent white women and men would be shouting epithets at their children while they attempted to kill them. These were acts of sacrifice in the sense that people voluntarily risked something of great value to achieve a political end.  

Clearly, sometimes sacrifice does draw one to selflessness and generosity of spirit or generosity of resources. When we witness this type of sacrifice, we often praise it as the perfect surrender that anticipates no return for this good and kind act. On the other hand, we consider some forms of self-sacrifice as unhealthy, some forms of self-sacrifice are masquerades that lead to martyrdom, which is detrimental to our selfhood and harmful to our psyches. Think about those you have known in domestic abuse situations who stay in bad marriages for the sake of the children. Think of those who go without asking for help because of an embedded religious doctrine of suffering.

The concept of sacrifice is a complex religious, social and political construct whose meanings derive from cultural experiences and expectations, but I want to explore sacrifice as a political act associated with social violence. These days political and social sacrifice seems ubiquitous, from the rhetorical mobilizations at our southern border, to the ideological sacrifice of austerity for the poor and largess for the rich, to the “necessary” constructs of neoliberalism and libertarianism that emphasize privatization, deregulation, and unfettered free markets over public institutions and government services. We see the sacrificial environmental violence associated with the lack of urgency to address a rapidly changing climate.

Drill down into the data for an hour, and you will see that sacrificial thinking is the new normal.

The motif of “sacrifice” or “blessed brutalities” and sanctioned violence permeate all layers of the social and cultural fabrics purporting to offer an explanatory framework for contemporary imperial American practices. Each instance of our blessed brutality—whether it is the execution of Quakers in Boston in the 17th century, the enslavement of Africans, the genocide of native people, or the abuse of wives in the early American republic—is all a distinct trajectory that is the bedrock of the American empire of sacrifice.

Yes, friends, today American sacrifice is an intentional machine gun mounted on a hill of lies that is aimed at the rule of law, the truth and role of expertise. Everywhere you turn, it seems, some form of sacrifice is rearing its head, demanding tribute and governed by an algebra of expected returns. The transactional nature of sacrifice creates unholy alliances and disturbing binary outcomes of either/or.

When we look more closely at sacrifice we see that sacrifice is a form of violence that places itself in relation to a desired effect, so that the gain depends upon the loss or destruction of something—call this something the offering. The conscious act of sacrifice links the two. The offering might be a black rooster or a packet of tobacco, but it could just as well be a species, a landscape, the heart of a captured enemy, or the youth of a nation. What matters is the necessity of this destruction, within a logic that renders the destruction understandable—and worthwhile—as a means to some higher gain. Sometimes the terms are blunt, issued as a judgment: This species is common, uninteresting or of “least concern.” This landscape is worthless, remote or uninhabited—it can be destroyed. The minimal value of what stands to be destroyed will be recovered, many times over, in the projected return.

But friends, sacrifice also comes in the disguise of moral control. Just pay attention to the arguments that weave through the next housing development, the next culled species, the next police review board, the next military intervention, the next cut to the Special Olympics. Sacrifice is almost always a mechanism in which loss and gain have been made equivalent, the balance settled—like trading a mountain for jobs in the mining sector, a forest for a highway and a faster commute.

Derrick Bell was the first Black tenured professor in the law school at Harvard, and founder of the academic discipline of critical race theory. His 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well includes an allegory entitled “Space Traders,” which explores what happens when extraterrestrials make first contact with the United States—using a holographic projection of Ronald Reagan—and offer to solve all of the country's economic and environment problems. As proof of their power, the aliens turn the Statue of Liberty into solid gold and clean the polluted air over Los Angeles and Denver. The extraterrestrials have a price for this service. All Black Americans must to be given to the aliens, for purposes unknown.

Will African-Americans become food, pets, subjects for experimentation? Perhaps they will be feasted, protected or worshiped? The extraterrestrials provide no answers. Could this be the ultimate solution to the centuries-old “Negro Problem”? A Republican president and his administration debate the merits of the offer from the aliens and eventually decide that the American people should vote on the matter.

Of course, this outcome has the superficial veneer of being “fair,” because the outcome was “democratic.” The safety, security, and freedom of Black Americans are treated as something illusory, debatable, something that can be compromised. The historic resistance to provide Black people inalienable civil and human rights makes the results clear for the majority of white voters. “Space Traders” concludes with millions of Black Americans—much like their ancestors being loaded into the bowels of slave ships centuries before—being marched at gunpoint into the cargo holds of the alien vessels. A return is calculated, and the decision is made to execute a sacrifice.

When this book came out in ‘92, I remember talking about it with Black and white friends and our reactions were reminiscent of the OJ verdict in ‘95. Very different responses. Many white friends were horrified by the story, unable to believe that such a vote could happen in the year 2000 when the story was set. Many Black friends were horrified that the white people were so naïve as to believe that it could not happen. And there was still a small set of us (me included) who pondered leaving the US for what could be a better life with the aliens. Many of us said that anything might be better than this place. I was willing to take that trip on the spaceship because the unknowable future might provide me with a new hope that I lack after 400 years in America. What would it be like to live in a world where I am not vilified, minimized, objectified or pacified by a system that has struggled so desperately to obliterate me and my ancestors?

Friends, remember the basic tenets of sacrifice. The sacrificial offering must be destructible—but also, it cannot be worthless. If anything, it must be exalted, because the destruction of its value is what renders the sacrifice worthy, even heroic. Sacrifice infuses the destruction of value with value, justifying itself not only in the prospect of a return, but also in the inherent nobility of surrender. Here the idea becomes not just dangerous, but insidious, continuously threatening to identify destructive surrender not just as moral action, but also as the very ground of morality. To be good—to be a good citizen, a good person—is to surrender what you value, what you love, for a “higher” cause. In “Space Traders” one of the ideas floated by the government was to create a selective service for Black people to volunteer to go with the aliens as a duty to country.

As Unitarian Universalists we have the imperative as people of faith to be spiritually animated by the sacrificial violence all around us. We need to be animated enough to see the sacrificial violence in policies that appeal to our heads and ignore our hearts. We need to be animated enough to dismantle false equivalences of sacrifice. We must be animated so we can demand answers, so we can resist the duplicity of sacrifice. We must make our faith three-dimensional enough to resist sacrifices out loud. When people of faith and goodness charge head on into that sacrificial altar to destroy it, the mechanism of sacrificial thinking will be disassembled, their logic revealed, their syntax demystified, and their weapons will become inoperable.

So pause for a moment at the next “justified” sacrifice you are asked to vote on or participate in, the next “trade-off sacrifice” and dwell on these questions: What is hiding among the lines of spreadsheet calculations and seemingly innocent platitudes of this sacrifice? Where is the scapegoat and how is sacrifice being framed? How does this sacrifice hide in plain sight? Whose hopes stand to be fulfilled in this and whose losses are guaranteed? And where do I stand as a person of faith?

 

HYMN 89 Come, My Way, My Truth, My Life

 

BENEDICTION
As the people charged with loving this world

As much as we can,

Let us go from this room, and this hour,

Lifted up, charged up, and empowered

To be the vessels of love

That will bring it into those places

That have not yet had enough

So that hearts can be turned

And lives can be changed.