Sermon: Foundations


As prepared for the October 11, 2020 online service of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.

Over the years, I have tried to follow the injunction, attributed to Karl Barth but probably apocryphal, to preach with “the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” Not being a Christian, I have never taken the injunction literally. Rather I have understood it to mean, root yourself in your tradition, ground yourself in the goodness of the Earth, and from that foundation offer up what wisdom you can as a guide through the confusion in which we live.

The confusion in which we live, Ralph Waldo Emerson offered us similar advice. He told us, in the gendered language of the nineteenth century, “The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life,–life passed through the fire of thought.” Emerson believed that good preaching came from someone who reflected upon their life and then shared what they had gleaned as a word for others. Understanding that personal experience was just as sacred as the scriptures, he enjoined the Unitarian preachers of his day to take their inspiration from the world around them. It was here, he taught, that they might encounter the divine. He began his pivotal text, the “Divinity School Address,” not with a reflection on the Christian scriptures but with an invocation of holy ground: “The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers.”

In these times, in this confusion, it has been difficult to find my own grounding. I have been struggling to know what message to offer you. “[T]he earth forever turning” often feels like the Earth spinning wildly out of control. When I began planning my sermon, I knew that there was a reasonable chance that by the time you heard it the globe would have added a few degrees to its tilt in one direction or another. And so, I felt uncertain in my craft, muddled even.

The first presidential debate, the nomination of a Supreme Court justice, the revelation of the President’s taxes–I suppose I should have been shocked that he paid $750 in income tax during a year that I paid many times that but I was not, the rich, someone once said, will never be poor and federal tax law was not written for you or me–the President’s diagnosis, the exposure of the White House as a viral hotspot, a white supremacist plot against the governor of Michigan… the weeks that were could have been their own history book. The scholar in me anticipates that each of those items will eventually get their own tome, a bookshelf filled with: “The Injustice of a Justice”; “All the President’s Taxes;” and “The Madness of Militias.”

And here I stand, a single point in this great storm of discord and hope, enjoined to offer some word amid all the forces that buffet body and soul. I almost think that the task of the hour is simply not to be shattered by them. For many of us, they make private grief, which is already heavy, even more difficult to bear.

And here I might remind you, and remind myself, that one of the purposes of a religious community is to care for each other in these times. If you are struggling, I hope that you will reach out to either one of the ministers or to someone through one of our many online programs. There is no shame in struggling and there should be no shame in asking for help. Nor is there shame in mental illness. I know that right now the number of people who are facing mental illness, fighting addiction, or experiencing domestic abuse is at record levels. And if you are in one of those situations, I want to tell you that you are not alone. There are resources out there to help you get through. This congregation, yes, but much more importantly professionals and community organizations that specialize in providing services.

I am going to pause the sermon for a public service announcement: the phone numbers of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Veterans Crisis Line, an addiction treatment referral helpline, and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

In these times of confusion, the best I can think for us to do is to return to our foundations. One of our foundations is the truth that we humans are social creatures. We need each other to survive. We do best when we connect with others. Remember that none of us is ever truly alone and that we are each part of all that is. “I am a living member of the great family of All Souls,” William Ellery Channing claimed–words I often quote because we each truly are part of the same human family and made of the same star dust.

Think on that: the body that is yours was forged in the brilliant heart of a celestial orb, once the matter that is you glowed hot with the luminous light of the heavens, before there was a you, and a me, and a ground to rest upon, we are were all united in a great globe gifting heat and shining color into all the curvature of the universe. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we might be, but, oh, what ashes, and what dust. When you find yourself lonely or disconnected perhaps think on that, the immense star of which we were once a part. That universal foundation might give you comfort in this world of confusion. It does for me.

Last week, as I was caught in the bafflement, I found myself thinking about foundations as I listened to our guest preacher, the Rev. Duncan Teague, talk with us about sacred ground. Standing in the lush greenery of his backyard, surrounded by the majesty of trees, a voice, a presence, a calm, as the occasional siren passed by, and the tock of history ticked, Duncan gave us a gift. He called us to remember that the totality of the Earth–from her blue green hills to her glass and cracked concrete canyons–is sacred. And each of us has the power to name for ourselves the part that we find the most holy.

Duncan’s word came to me this past Tuesday when the Democratic Party’s nominee gave a speech at Gettysburg. I rarely listen to campaign speeches in their entirety. Usually, I satisfy myself with the snippets that journalists extract for the news. But the former Vice President’s choice of a location seemed notable–a obvious symbolic choice, an opportunity to make a claim for, as he called it, “this sacred ground.”

“[T]his sacred ground,” so I listened the man who would be President, and who says that he is fighting a “Battle for the Soul of the Nation,” invoke the legacy Abraham Lincoln and come close to acknowledging the brutal truth: that this country is mired in a civil war. It is not that there is one coming. One has already arrived–what academics would name a low intensity conflict in which there are armed groups and blood in the streets and parliamentary politics have fallen apart. The question in the coming years is: will this civil conflict be contained or will it consume the country.

Like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, the former Vice President would put the United States back together again. Quoting Lincoln, who he told us “reimagined America itself,” and warning “of the price of division,” he recalled one memorable speech, “a house divided cannot stand,” in the hopes of making another.

I heard his plea for social peace, his rejoinder that “we must seek not to build walls but bridges,” and I thought about the ground upon which he stood. For whom, is it sacred and why? What does it represent to you? To me? Is social peace the right message for the moment? Certainly, it is the most comforting one. And it definitely is true that the nation needs to be depolarized if it is not to descend further into chaos.

But I also remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who, in times every bit as polarized as these, warned the “great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is … the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” And I recall James Baldwin who once cried out “We what … we?” When a friend tried to explain to him what “we” were doing in Vietnam.

As I listened to the Democratic Party’s nominee, I recalled that I too have been to Gettysburg. I have walked its green expanse; climbed its stone walls; moved across the fields where the Grey and the Blue fought a war that began, not as we are sometimes told, to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. For this is a truth of the Civil War: the South launched it to maintain chattel slavery and white supremacy; and the North fought it save the Union. And, as it went on, African Americans took on the crucial role, withheld their labor from the Southern slave masters, defected across the Northern lines, and made the war about slavery. It was only that then, in W. E. B. Du Bois’s words, that “the North found itself actually freeing slaves… when it had every intention not to.”

In his speech at Gettysburg, the former Vice President cited President Lincoln’s second inaugural address and Frederick Douglass’s approval of it as a “sacred effort.” In that address, the penultimate one he ever gave, Lincoln is widely remembered as having said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in.” That celebrated sentence crescendos and concludes with a call “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Less well remembered are his words of stark warning immediately preceding that oft quoted line. There Lincoln castigates both North and South for the sin of slavery, says that the war was divine punishment for that sin, and, in words I find most chilling states: “Fondly do we hope–fervently do we pray–that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Like Martin King, Lincoln wanted the people of this country to understand that a country founded on injustice will fragment and fracture until the broken foundation is replaced with the solid stones of righteousness. It is, of course, an impossible task. For we are humans, not gods, and will always build imperfect structure. The question, I suppose, is whether we try to repair and replace that which has outlived its usefulness with something else.

There was an effort to do just that immediately after the Civil War. Reconstruction was the United States’ great attempt at multiracial democracy. Building off the work of DuBois, Angela Davis has called it an effort to create an abolition democracy–something I have spoken with you about before. She is worth repeating, “the abolition of slavery was accomplished only in the negative sense. In order to achieve the comprehensive abolition of slavery… new institutions should have been created to incorporate black people into the social order.” Lincoln did not live to see that effort. The man who followed him, President Andrew Johnson, was undoubtedly the worst President in the history of the country, and he did everything he could to undermine it: pardoning former Confederate leaders rather than holding them accountable for their treason; seeking to block or impede the creation of institutions controlled by free Black people; fighting the very idea of reparations for slavery.

But for a few years, Reconstruction flourished. Most of the state legislatures in the South became biracial bodies. Mississippi sent Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce to the United States Senate. More than a dozen black men served in Congress. Black wealth began to substantively build through the development of the Freedmen’s bank. Schools were founded.

All of this was eventually betrayed by what the historian David Blight has called “reconcilationism”–the belief that the white North and the white South could smooth over their differences and be brought back together in social peace. Gettysburg is a symbol both of the victory of the Union Army over the South and that great betrayal. For it was at Gettysburg, fifty years after the Civil War, that there was a reunion to celebrate “Blue-Gray fraternalism.” The veterans appear to have been exclusively white. The President, at the time, himself an ardent Southern white supremacist, declared the “quarrel forgotten.” White newspapers declared “two civilizations have become one.”

Throughout the entire affair healing mingled with forgetting and the pursuit of justice was forgotten. That year, 1913, in many ways represented what appeared a final defeat for abolition democracy. One black newspaper asked, “We are wondering whether Mr. Lincoln had the slightest idea… that the time would come when the people of this country would come to that the conclusion that by the ‘People’ he meant only white people.” Jim Crow reigned supreme and the President began the process of imposing segregation on federal government employees.

The current Democratic nominee’s speech made no reference to these events. He spoke out against white supremacists and for a vision of a multiracial democracy. But he also spoke of the importance of social peace and reconciliation. There are two distinct foundations available at Gettysburg. Both were present in his speech. As I listened to it, I found myself wondering which he would choose: abolition democracy or reconcilationism. The creative tension necessary to bring a just peace or the lack of tension that masks unresolved conflict.

The next weeks and months may well challenge all of us to make a choice between these two foundations. Which will you choose? And which will I? Which is the religious choice, the faithful choice, for us to make? For this is not a partisan speech, it is a sermon in which I am attempting to trouble the easy tropes of the nation’s civil religion so that we might, in the end, catch some sight of that thing for which all our spirits long–a more justice filled world.

As I watched that speech, my mind traveled to another cemetery, Waldheim. Outside of Chicago, it is where the Haymarket martyrs are buried. You might not of heard of them. The powers and principalities of this country have tried to forget them. They were eight men who fought for the eight hour day. They were framed after a riot broke out during a strike. Eight policemen were killed. In retaliation, the police arrested eight activists who were part the workers’ struggle. A show trial was held and most of the men executed. Afterwards, workers across the world commemorated their deaths by making May Day into the workers’ holiday–an event that is not celebrated here in the United States.

To Waldheim I have gone for Waldheim has become a burial ground for those who sympathies are with labor’s martyrs. There you can find old Eddie Balchowsky whose tombstone reads, “Artist, poet, raconteur, one-armed pianist, veteran of the Spanish Civil War, as a volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade your friends, family, and fellow ‘premature antifascists’ salute you.” And there you can find the tombstone of Emma Goldman who the poet Kenneth Rexroth celebrated in his poem “Again at Waldheim.”

Goldman’s words are found in our hymnal. She tells us, “Some day, men and women will rise, they will reach the mountain peak, they will meet big and strong and free, ready to receive, to partake, and to bask in the golden rays of love.” Her aspirations were rooted not in the same foundations as the ones found at Gettysburg. She rejected loyalty to the nation in favor of, in Rexroth’s words, “the irrefutable / Coalition of the blood of men.”

Goldman and Rexroth’s language is gendered. If either were alive today, they would restate their visions in different terms. Each understood, “nothing could ever be / More desperate than the truth,” and the truth was it is our great calling to each uncover the light within, the power of the human spirit, that thing which can cause each of us to unfold like a flower into who were truly are.

Rexroth wrote that poem as World War II progressed. Another time of confusion, when the path was uncertain, and the foundations unclear. He felt, as did many who understood that each of us is made from star stuff, that the war was destroying much, and that totalitarianism everywhere was on the rise. “How heavy the heart is now, and every heart / Save only the word drunk, power drunk.”

In this time of confusion, in this epoch of bewilderment, when, in Yeats words, it appears “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” we each must seek foundations lest we become unmoored. Goldman’s and Rexroth’s represent that close cousin to the abolition democrat, the anti-fascist. The stake “on the turn / Of a card whose face you” know you will not see because you imagine some loyalty to beyond the particularities of nation and nationalism. The strange recognition that my blood and yours has made us star siblings, children of the same deceased mother of light and matter. The impossible hope that even in “an evil century” we might recognize that there is but a single human family and that those ideologies of race and nation that tell otherwise most always be contested.

Listening to the former Vice President, looking at his set of American flags dancing, like flowers in the merry breeze, and thinking back to Waldheim, I found my mind drift farther down. Down, down, to the good Earth itself, into the soil, and in my confusion, in my search, I wondered why neither the Democratic nominee nor Rexroth recalled whose land upon they stood. Gettysburg and Waldheim are sacred sites. They each their offer foundations. But both rest upon land that was taken from the continent’s indigenous nations. Each offers a bedrock that comes from European settler’s and not the original peoples of this hemisphere.

The Dakota remember Lincoln not as the Great Emancipator but as the man who oversaw the largest mass execution in the United States history–the hanging of the Dakota thirty-eight. They were a group of men who sought to defend their nation from an invasion by the same United States military that was fighting against the Confederacy. They resisted the belief that this continent belonged to settlers from Europe. And they paid a grave price for that belief.

It is important to honor and remember them, and all of those like them, this Sunday before Indigenous Peoples’ Day. It is important to ask the question: on which foundations do we rest? This nation was built upon the theft of indigenous land. Gettysburg, Waldheim, this church, whatever good earth upon which you rest, all indigenous land. What foundation does that truth offer?

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz would tell us that it provides “possibilities for life after empire.” And that if we recognize that this foundation we might live into the word of Simon Ortiz:

The future will not be mad with loss and waste though the memory will
Be there: eyes will become kind and deep, and the bones of this nation
Will mend after the revolution.

Reconcilationism, abolition democracy, the wisdom of the indigenous peoples, antifascism, even white supremacy, there are so many foundations, in this great muddle, this storm in which we stand. Which shall each of us choose? What ground and what story will be made sacred? On which card shall we place our bets?

None of us are responsible for the past, for the past is over and gone, but each of us, to quote Dunbar-Ortiz, is “responsible for the society in which they live in” or, as James Baldwin put it, “We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.” Or, as we heard in our call to worship from Theresa Soto, “You are here to put out the ravenous flames and heal the world. Enough is enough.”

A time of responsibility is upon us, a time for making clear our foundations. And here is my prayer:

Star brother,
star sister,
fellow child of the stars,
whatever gender you are,
may we each remember this,
whichever foundation we look to,
may somehow,
may someway,
in all we do,
perhaps just before it is too late,
may we recall this great truth:
you and I,
and all that is on this muddy blue-green ball,
are descendants
of the same great
globe of light
and matter
the same nuclear furnace
the same glowing universe
and part of the same great family of all souls.

May all remember this in the days to come.

Amen and blessed be.

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