as preached for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston’s September 20, 2020 online service
Today, I frame my sermon with words from deceased Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately known to many as the Notorious R.B.G. “[T]he questions we take up are rarely easy; they seldom have indubitably right answers,” she wrote of her experience adjudicating on the nation’s highest court.
Ginsburg was one of the great liberal and feminist icons of the last decades. Her patient persistence over a career that spanned more than sixty years fundamentally transformed the law in the United States for the better. “In my long life, I have seen great changes,” she once humbly wrote–not indicating that a better sentence might be wrought, “In her long life, she made great changes.”
And those changes were great, as historians and legal scholars will tell you. First as the co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and then as a judge, she played a singular role in reshaping the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Through her careful argument and deliberate strategy, the nation’s highest courts came to understand that its guarantee of equal protection included not just a bar on racial discrimination but a ban on gender discrimination as well.
Ginsburg’s death has changed the contours of what was already the most contentious and pivotal presidential election since 1876. That year, white supremacist violence throughout the South resulted in a brokered deal between Northern white liberals and former leaders of the Confederacy to end the brief flowering of multiracial democracy known as Reconstruction.
This year, the future of multiracial democracy appears to be again at stake. One of the nation’s major political parties has openly aligned itself with white supremacists–praising them as “very fine people” and claiming that indoctrinating children into their interpretation of history is a matter of “patriotic education.”
And whether or not her replacement is confirmed before the election, Ginsburg’s death emphasizes that liberal understandings of women’s rights and reproductive health will also be on the ballot. Sadly, it appears that the ballot additionally includes the question of whether or not the two of great crises of our epoch—the climate emergency and the pandemic—will be addressed with science-based policy.
Some years ago, during an earlier moment of political turmoil, the theologian Rebecca Parker published an essay “After the Apocalypse.” In it, Parker names what feels like the essence of “Living in these times… the simultaneous presence of violence, chaos, breakdown, loss, creativity, liberation, possibility, recovery, reconnection, and empowerment.” In these times we are confronted with the twin questions: What is worth saving? What must be let go?
Right, left, center, apolitical, theist, pagan, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or just human, the crazy year of 2020 is challenging each of us with these questions. What is worth saving? What must be let go?
These are fundamentally religious questions. They get to the essence of what it means to be human–to be historically conditioned, to be caught in what the poet Jaime Sabines called “the water of time” and what James Baldwin named “the gaudiest, most valuable, and most improbable water wheel the world has ever seen.”
What is worth saving? What must be let go? As Justice Ginsburg said, “[T]he questions we take up are rarely easy; they seldom have indubitably right answers.”
In this season of antagonism, I hear our two questions and attempts to answer them in the words of people I vehemently disagree. This past week, the White Christian evangelical Pat Robertson went on a rant against Black Lives Matter. In it he complained that the racial justice movement was pushing for “a lesbian, anti-capitalist Marxist revolution.” And that it members are “talking about destroying essentially Christianity as being racist.” He told the viewers of his show The 700 Club, “We don’t want that for America.”
Robertson answered the first question with an assertion that a particular vision of the United States, religion, and the family all needed to be saved. And he answered the second by arguing that a particular understanding of justice needed to be let go. From his perspective, the country, Christianity, and the nuclear family could only preserved by rejecting a vision of the world that embraces the full humanity of everyone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation, which questions the exploitative practices of our economic system, and understands that white supremacist institutions must be dismantled if Black Lives are going to matter.
Now, it would be easy to make Robertson a target of this sermon. I am preaching to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. The antipathy between Unitarian Universalist religious communities and the White evangelicalism of folks like Robertson goes back a couple of hundred years. As early as the 1740s proto-Unitarians like Charles Chauncy, minister of First Church in Boston, were voicing their objection to what became White evangelicalism for creating what he called “the Rise and Growth of Disorders in the Church.”
But truthfully, we should be after bigger fish… how will each of us answer the questions: What is worth saving? What must be let go? What we will carry with us as we move through the water of time?
In these times, as Rev. Scott reminded us last week, it is hard to “stay grounded and connected.” Our theme for the month is water and, as he pointed out, it “is one of the ways we stay connected.” Throughout the year we will be meditating on a variety of ways to stay connected–to each other, to our muddy blue ball of a planet, to all of humankind, to the star strewn universe as a whole. In the next months, we will be focusing on the Greek elements–Water, Earth, Air, Fire. And then as the water of time drips through the winter into spring and then summer, we will turn to the six sources of Unitarian Universalism to best root ourselves as the gaudy waterwheel turns and we must make our way through a world that–no matter who wins the election–will continue to be in crisis.
We begin with the elements, in part, because of the truths offered in Jaime Sabines’s fine poem “Mi corazón me recuerda…,” “My heart reminds me…”
Agua soy que tiene cuerpo,
la tierra la beberá.
Fuego soy, aire compacto,
no he de durar.
I am water with a body,
to be drunk by the earth.
I am fire,
I will not last.
We are each composed of earthly matter–a temporary arrangment of molecules that upon our deaths is recomposed into other earthly forms. “Yo soy el tiempo que pasa,” “I am time passing by,” Sabines reminds us.
And as we traverse the water of time, whether the waters be smooth or rocky, we must each answer the questions: What is worth saving? What must be let go?
Justice Ginsburg had clear answers to these questions. They oriented her life. She wished to carry forward a belief in the rule of law as framed in the United States Constitution. And she wanted to let go of, in her words, “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women,” that prevented women from seizing many opportunities. In the place of such generalizations, she sought to put a vision that she partially drew from the Swedish feminist Eva Moberg who wrote, “Both men and women have one principal role, that of being people.”
What is worth saving? What must be let go? How do you answer these questions? How should we answer them as a religious community? A city? A state? A country? A human family? These questions haunt us during this divisive political season and during this era of climate catastrophe. Democracy is under assault. White supremacy is resurgent. Unprecedented climate fires burn through Western forests, demolishing towns, filling cities with ash. The pale horse of death–in the form of a global pandemic–rides forth.
How we address each of these profound crises depends on our responses to our questions. And, as the global discord might suggest, Justice Ginsburg was wise to observe, “[T]he questions we take up are rarely easy; they seldom have indubitably right answers.” Our answers are our own but of life together is attempting to hold each other accountable to them.
I was reminded of all of this a week or so ago when my son and I went fishing with one of his friend’s and his friend’s father. We went out on Galveston Bay. The day was clear. The sun bright. And it was not too choppy.
It was my first-time ocean fishing. And it was my son’s first-time fishing of any kind. Now, we did not catch anything–though I do have the inevitable story about the one that got away–but that had little to do with the pleasure of the experience.
Fishing was one of my favorite activities as a kid. After they sold their farm, my maternal grandparents lived in a lake house. It was within easy reach of the water. My grandfather taught my brother and I to fish. “Babies,” he always called us babies for some reason, “it is time to get up and fish.”
Now, I know fishing is considered a sport. I understand that there are some who are good at it, much in the way that one might be good at soccer or football. I never achieved much proficiency. I mean, I had enough sense to know that you have to cast your line wherever the fish are and that you have a better chance of catching lake and river fish at dusk or dawn. But beyond that… If my grandfather was still alive I imagine he would tell you, and tease me, about snapped poles, tangled lines, lost lures, and missing bobbers.
My grandfather was a fabulous raconteur. On our early morning or early evening expeditions, he liked to recount stories from his life growing corn and raising cattle. They often revolved around favorite dogs and horses and the animals’ seemingly miraculous exploits. He repeated one in particular so often that it grew into almost legendary proportions.
There was a creek that ran through my grandparents’ farm. It split the farm in two–separating the land where the cattle grazed from the farmhouse and the barn. It was prone, as creeks are, to flooding.
One year there was a torrential rain of biblical proportions. The rain came in so fast and so hard that my grandfather was not able to get across the creek in time to move the cows. Cows, being cows, were not about to move themselves.
And here came the heroism of a dog–a dog named Lucky. Lucky was a Border Collie with amazing instincts. He knew exactly what to do. Making his way through the rain, across the rising water, he found the cattle and, nipping, snarling, and barking, rounded the whole herd up–every calf, heifer, steer, and bull accounted for–and drove them back to the barn.
In his canine brain, in that moment of crisis, Lucky answered the questions: What is worth saving? What must be let go? Good dog that he was, he answered: the cattle; my fear.
For us humans, the answers are not usually so simple. But my grandfather’s love for his hero dog points to something that we almost all agree is worth saving as we move along the waters of time: stories. They form the essence of who we are, narrative creatures who share with each other the tales of our own beginnings and endings.
This came to me as we all sat in my son’s friend’s father’s boat. There were bottlenose dolphins to one side–breeching, fin and snout above the waves, swimming in the boat’s wake. It came on the ocean as we all shared and made our own stories. The water of the ocean like the water of time, requiring that I decide what I wanted to bring along–carry into the vessel–and what I wanted to leave at the shore.
My son’s friend’s father, I might mention, has a radically different background and outlook on the world than I do. He did not go to college. He’s a self-made small businessman. His politics are dramatically different from mine. And as we dangled our poles into the deep blue, we each seemed to be attempting to answer for ourselves, but really for our children and those who will come after, the questions: What is worth saving? What should be left behind? What do we want to see float across the water of time?
These questions are found in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in which we are in the midst. It said in the Talmud: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for those in-between.” According to the Talmud, the wicked find themselves inscribed by the divine in the book of the death, the righteous in the book of life, and the rest of us are placed in a sort of suspended state until Yom Kippor, some ten days afterwards. At that time, we are to have answered the questions: What is worth saving? What must be left behind? What do we want to carry across the water of time? And, according to the tradition, our answers must satisfy the divine if we wish to find our constellations of earth, water, air, and fire, brought forward into the New Year.
Friends, it is a time of contemplation when those who observe the High Holidays and mark the Days of Awe are asked to examine our misdeeds, change our ways, and seek out the sacred. “And, therefore,” said Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, “the righteous will see and be glad, the upright rejoice, and the faithfully loving celebrate in song while evil is silenced and all wickedness vanishes like smoke–for You will erase the tyranny of arrogance from earth.”
In these times, disputes over who is the righteous, the wicked, and the in-between shadow all of our lives. We cannot avoid the conflict. But we can recognize that, whatever our politics, whoever we are–be we White evangelical, Unitarian Universalist, Jew, gentile, hero dog, or something else or some mixture of the above–we are each challenged: What is worth saving? What must be left behind?
“[T]he questions we take up are rarely easy; they seldom have indubitably right answers,” the Notorious R.B.G. told us. But we have to each answer them. And as the lives of all of those who have gone before–Justice Ginsburg, Jaime Sabines, James Baldwin, my grandfather and his dog Lucky–and all those living–Pat Robertson, Rebecca Parker, me, and you–tell us our answers have consequences.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s answers changed history, not what she once called “the weather of the day” but what she named “the climate of the era.” I could end our sermon there, with a tribute to the jurist whose import to the cause of freedom is almost unmatched. But instead, I bring us back to the ocean–for we are like waves upon the ocean of time, cresting briefly, crashing into the shore, and then fading back into the all of being. As we travel we bring along some things and leave behind others. And like each wave we play a part in the shape that the shore takes afterwards. What part will you play? Or I? What shall we each save? What shall we leave behind?
May we each do our best,
with whatever it is we hold most holy,
to answer these questions.
Amen and Blessed Be