When the Spirit Says Do


as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, August 29, 2021

Thank you, Sophia for that exquisite violin performance. It is a blessing to have such talent in our congregation. I think that I can speak for the entire community when I say that we are proud of your achievements and wish you the very best as you continue your musical education. I am certain that you will bless many people with the gift of beauty in the coming years.

You might not know this, but when we first planned the service we were intending to have you perform during the offering. However, early in the week we decided it wise to limit singing and cut out congregational hymns. We want to do what we can to curb the spread of the coronavirus while, at the same time, providing a much needed space for community.

I mention the shift we made in the order of service because it connects directly to this morning’s message. There is beauty and joy to be found even while we struggle to live through these times. We know this because people have found joy and made beauty amid the hard times that came before.

The title of our sermon came from the hymn we had planned to originally sing prior to my remarks. “When the Spirit Says Do” is an old civil rights anthem. It was sung on many a picket line, at many a march and demonstration, and in many a jail cell. The song was meant to give activists an experience of joy no matter their circumstances. Facing dogs and water hoses, they sang, “you got to do when the spirit says do.” Fearing police clubs and Klansmen, they called out, “you got to dance when the spirit says dance.” Enduring mockery, marginalization, and humiliation, they brought their voices together, “you got to sing when the spirit says sing.”

The lyrics communicated a point as simple as it was profound. Whatever the troubles they faced, the activists were not going to let someone else define them and tell them what to do. They were going to define themselves and find joy and beauty despite the odds.

The hymn is exuberant, jubilant, maybe even a bit ecstatic. I was looking forward to singing it. Then, on Tuesday, the staff and I met and, after reviewing the current rise in COVID cases, decided that as a safety precaution we should limit singing for the next several weeks. Someone, actually it was Alex, at the staff meeting made the joke that I should change my sermon title to, “When the Spirit Says Don’t.”

The spirit says don’t, during these times of pestilence it seems like there’s a lot of that going around. I had anticipated that I would be framing my sermon in response to a rally that supposed to take place on Discovery Green. I was intending to attend an event marking the fifty-eighth anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The Texas legislature’s hard work to turn back time, bring back Jim Crow, and restrict access to the ballot box made it seem to me that participating in the rally was an urgent matter. It felt important to be present and witness, along with many of you, to resistance in the face of oppression, to demand that our voices be heard, to show up for love, justice, and democracy. And then… the spirit says don’t. The rally was cancelled by the city because of COVID concerns.

So, here we are, trying to find a bit of joy, a bit of beauty, a bit of resilience in the midst of what I am tempted to call the bad days. Sophia, I want to say that I am grateful to you for reminding me that even when we are confronted with the experience of the spirit says don’t it is still possible to find beauty and joy in life. For certainly, Bach well played is a thing of great beauty, and to play Bach well I suspect that you must find joy in the playing.

Beauty and joy can serve as a source to give us strength to do what must be done. It can gift us with the power to make a way out of no way.

We are not the first people who have been confronted with the conundrum we face, the difficulty of living when the spirit says don’t, the challenge of finding joy and beauty when it seems like the world’s gone grey, the impossible task of making a way out of no way.

There is a passage in James Baldwin–and you if you have been worshipping with us for awhile you have probably figured out by now that Baldwin’s a bit like scripture to me… Anyway, there’s a passage in Baldwin that touches on this:

“When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those win- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty?”

What will happen to all that beauty? Now, when I say Baldwin is a bit like scripture to me I mean a couple of things. His words are a sort of holy text. When I read them I get a sense of truly connecting to something that is beyond myself. I feel like I am being invited into the great cosmic conversation about what is, and what is not, real, what is true and what is false. Eddie Glaude, Jr. claims Baldwin is a poet who “bears witness to what he sees and what we have forgotten.”

Like true scripture, it would take me the better part of an hour to attempt to exegete the passage from Baldwin which I have just read. In a single passage he bears witness to the horrors of white supremacy, the enduring trauma that people who believe that they are White inflict on other human beings–a form of trauma that the Texas legislature is trying to once again inflict upon people of color–and, at the same time, he is asking us, what are you going to do when the spirit says do? What are you going to do when you wake up, when you become aware, that we are surrounded by all this beauty?

Like scripture, Baldwin’s text is surrounded by commentaries that illuminate, elucidate, complicated it, more voices added to the cosmic conversation, more attempts to find beauty and joy and make a way out of no way when the road does not just seem rough and rocky but it appears not to be leading to anywhere at all.

The Unitarian Universalist theologian Rebecca Parker, has a wonderful commentary on Baldwin’s text. She interprets his words to be directed to the “greatest challenge in our lives.” In her words, this “is the challenge presented to us by the beauty of life.” She wants us to open ourselves to “what beauty asks of us.” She pushes us to consider the question “what we must do to keep faith with the beauty that nourishes our lives”?

When the spirit says don’t. When the spirit says do. Where are you finding beauty in your life right now? What are you doing to nurture your spirit?

These can be hard questions. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the Governor’s opposition to mask mandates, Hurricane Ida moving toward Louisiana, the numerous barbaric laws going into effect here in Texas in the next week–shameful laws limiting women’s access to abortion, encouraging the open carry of firearms, banning public school teachers from teaching critical race theory… the state legislature’s assault on voting rights, the climate crisis, the ongoing pandemic, which we just recognized with our candle ritual, the limits we have to place on our daily lives to live as safely as we can…

We live amid what Martin Luther King, Jr., named “the fierce urgency of now.” He used those words to describe the times he lived. He offered them in his speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. “This is no time… to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. … now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment,” he told us.

What King told us almost six decades ago is just as true today. To be alive right now is to be alive during a fiercely urgent moment. At such a time, to invoke Parker’s reading of Baldwin, we have to offer “prophetic witness” and “see what is happening, to say what is happening.” And that certainly means naming what is wrong with the world, why it is wrong, and what must be done to make it right.

Offering prophetic witness means accurately describing much of the recent legislation in the state of Texas as racist and, well, designed to perpetuate white supremacy. How else should I interpret the Texas House Speaker’s statement that he would “appreciate” it if representatives did not use “the word ‘racism’” when debating the bill to limit voting access? We all know that the law is intended to reduce the political influence of people of color in Texas. And that it is designed to ensure that white men stay in the Speaker’s seat.

President Biden and the Democrats in Washington could sweep aside such legislation with the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. They could strike a blow against white supremacy. They seem unlikely to do so. It is true that the House passed the bill last week. It is also true that it will probably die in the Senate. So called moderates there, the peddlers of the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” appear more intent on preserving the body’s arcane practice of the filibuster than on ensuring that voting rights for all citizens, that justice, becomes a reality.

Prophetic witness… “When the Spirit Says Do,” was sung at times like these when offering prophetic witness seemed like more of a yoke, a burden, than a joy. It was intoned by people trying to make a way out of no way when it seemed like a way could not be found. The verse is not, when the Governor says do or when the President says do or the Senator from West Virginia or the Senator from Arizona says do, it is when the spirit says do.

Singing together, singing in the face of opposition, in the face of the brutal racist and gradualist moderates of their day, the civil rights activists of the 1950s were clear in their verse. They were not going to let someone else define their vision of freedom. They were not going to let someone else decide when, or where, they could laugh, sing, dance, or do. That was for the spirit–which we might interpret as spark that resides within each of us, the core of our being… that was for the spirit to decide.

The spirit says do… part of our challenge right now is we need a sense of the spirit says do when we also have to be open to the spirit saying don’t. We are not going to sing the song together at the end of the service. We are going to listen to a performance of it. I know it will be a beautiful and inspiring performance. But it will not be the same thing as joining our voices.

The spirit says don’t… Let me return to the questions I asked you a little earlier: Where are you finding beauty in your life right now? What are you doing to nurture your spirit?

These are not my questions to answer. They are yours. But I can return to Baldwin, and share with you that we are surrounded by so much beauty. Whenever I get stuck on my sermons, whenever I have a hard time figuring out what words to share with you, I remind myself of this by looking at the windows of my study. They overlook the live oak trees on Southmore. Aged twisting beings, evergreen with waxy leaves and bearing lichen and tillandsias, those fascinating plants that grow, rootless, in the air, the trees are true marvels.

I can also tell you that I am so glad that you have joined us today. We come together not only to offer prophetic witness. We come together to share the beauty in our lives and nurture each other’s spirits.

Part of my prophetic witness is to remind you of the beauty that surrounds us at all times. To be human is to be surrounded by, in Parker’s words, “the beauty of life.” This is not discount the difficulties that beset us. It is to proclaim, to offer witness, to the truth that part of making a way out of no way is waking up to the beauty of the world.

Here I want to turn to our reading from earlier, Federico García Lorca’s “New Songs, August 1920.” I admit that he is one of the first poets I loved. I discovered him in college and have carried him with me ever since, his voice a tantalizing invocation of beauty of life. I invoke Lorca this morning because he found beauty despite the horrors of his day and he shared that beauty with others.

When Lorca wrote “New Songs,” Spain was in the midst of a low intensity civil war. Gun thugs stalked the streets, murdering trade unionists and those opposed to the country’s ruling monarchy. The trade unionists struck back with their own campaigns of violence. Almost everyone thought that the government would soon fall, that society was broken, and that violence would escalate further.

Lorca was no bystander in all of this. He was a supporter of the anti-monarchists who wanted to replace the king with a democratically elected government. He knew people who were murdered in cold blood and years, later, long after he wrote, “New Songs,” he was murdered by fascists.

We do not get that in “New Songs,” at least not directly. Instead, we find the poet “thirsty for shadows.” “I want stars,” he tells us. He is questing after beauty in the poem and he is finding it, no better, he is making it.
Un cantar luminoso y reposado,
pleno de pensamiento,
virginal de tristezas y de angustias
y virginal de ensueños.

A luminous and tranquil song
full of thought,
virgin to sadness and anguish,
virgin to reverie.

The poem offers witness to the beauty of the world. The poem insists that the poet wake ups to the beauty of the world. The poem calls to open ourselves to the beauty of the world.

When the spirit says do… when the spirit says don’t. I move to the end with a return to Baldwin’s question, restated by Parker, as “What shall we do with all this beauty?” Whether or not we can sing together, there is beauty in the world and there is beauty in this community–thank you again to our fantastic guest musician. Our religious task is to find it and share it.

Some of you might recall, I have been greatly influenced by the scholar Elaine Pagels work on the Gnostic Gospels. These are the early Christian texts that were left out of the Christian New Testament. In them–as in some of the canonical gospels–we repeatedly find Jesus instructing us that our religious task is to wake up to the world as it and open ourselves to the beauty of the world. I sometimes call this the resurrection of the living. It comes from the belief that great spiritual teachers like Jesus or the Buddha are not saviors. They were people who could point us how, in words attributed to Jesus, to encounter the “revelation of what is.” It comes from an acknowledgment of the Buddha’s answer to the query, “Are you a god?” with the words, “I am awake.”

Awake to the fierce urgency of now, to the injustice of the Texas legislature, to the dangers of the pandemic yes, but also, to the beauty of the world. The second–the way tillandsias dangling from tree limbs–providing us with the strength we need to confront the first. The second, the grace of the violin, strengthening even further when we share it together. For your words, your joys, can help me open to beauty. And I hope that mine can do the same for you.

So, here, let me close with–shall I call it a homework assignment?–a suggestion for spiritual practice this week. At whatever point in the week you find yourself confronted with the spirit says don’t–and I know you will–pause. Take a breath. Then another. And try to find the beauty in the moment. Maybe you will encounter Lorca’s “luminous and tranquil song.” Perhaps you will discover the unfolding ripples of tree bark. Or hear the strain of the violin. Whatever it is, whatever the beauty is, take note. And then, well, then share it. Call up a friend and tell them about the beautiful tree you saw. Post on your Facebook page about flowers. Comment on YouTube about the beauty you encountered after Sunday’s worship. Share with us, with whomever will listen, a bit of the beauty of the world.

In doing so, you will help your own spirit say do. In doing so, you will invite others to let their spirits say do. In doing so, you will bring a bit more song, laughter, joy, into the world, and that is what we can most give each other, in these times, when we are challenged to bear witness, and confront the fierce urgency of now.

Have a beautiful day, Amen, and Blessed Be.

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