WORSHIP SERIES: THE VIRTUES OF HUMANISM
SERMON: Living Sanctuaries
SPEAKER: REV. TARYN STRAUSS
SERVICE TIME: 9:30 AM & 11:00 AM
Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. To be a humanist is to embody an ethos of humility and compassion. How can we become living sanctuaries for each other in times of conflict?
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Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
I remember when I was ordained by you last Spring, my friend Elandria said to me, “Don’t forget where you came from, those are the ones who will help you get where you are going.” I was reminded by that phrase when I encountered a T-Shirt this past week. The T-Shirt was worn by none other than our own congregant Carrie Angus-Ramos, and it was one of those black T-Shirts with names listed in white lettering, with the “and” sign between them.
The T-Shirts were introduced in 2001, when a Japanese company printed T-Shirts that read, “John and Paul and Ringo and George,” and they were tremendously popular while I was in Seminary, when people would come to class wearing T-shirts that said, “Mark and Luke and John and Paul,” or “Audre and Maya and Toni and Alice.”
When I saw Carrie’s shirt, I asked her about the names on her shirt. They were all women’s names, but unrecognizable to me.
She said, that’s my mother, and her mother, and the woman who adopted her and then her mother.” In many cultures it is a sacred act to name your ancestors before you speak, like a prayer or a reminder of all who lived and worked so you could live and give the gifts of your life to the world. I think it could be like an humanist invocation, and I’ll be honest I haven’t seen it as much in white culture.
Often at the top of a sermon a Christian preacher will say a quick prayer, “may the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord.”
But today, as we honor the virtues of humanism, I want to call forth my own ancestors, My great grandmother who I knew as Nani, who I just found out yesterday was named Valeria Rose Koons,
who ran a candy shop in the North Side of Chicago, lived simply and lived long and enjoyed sweets her whole life, and spoke to children with curiosity and seriousness. My grandmother, Pat, a pretty redhead with a very driven work ethic, who loved her inner-city Methodist church, who appreciated birds especially cardinals and who married a musician so that even when her life was hard and mundane raising kids she could still access romance and music.
My grandma Pat died this past year, and I never told you. My mother, Lynn, who envisioned more for her life than her parents were able to, who broke molds of all kinds and sought a bigger, deeper life than what she had come from. I carry them with me today, and I invoke their names as they were humans whose lives continue to make meaning in the lives of those who followed.
If you wanted to read the Humanist manifesto, in it’s the introductory statements you would find the humanist lifestance:
Guided by reason,
inspired by compassion,
and informed by experience.
It sounds simple enough, but do we do this? We may keep to one or even two of these tenets consistently, but we often run into the limits of our compassion. Especially if the experience that informs us is an experience of abuse and oppression at human hands. It is humans who ultimately disappoint us as much as they inspire us.
For me, the central humanist question is:
How to be a humanist in devastating and disappointing times?
The humanist response to the Holocaust was complicated enough that they created a new humanist manifesto, taking into account the possibility that human progress is not an inevitability.
The second humanist manifesto reads more humble, to me, and reframes the focus on human relationality and all of its power and potential.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
On this black history month, I am particularly inspired by black humanists who have influenced humanisms and are influencing humanist philosophy and expression even more today than ever before.
I choose to focus today not on metaphysical ideas nor the differences between secular humanism and religious humanism, not on the quality of our beliefs or non-beliefs, but on the quality of our presence. The quality of our commitment to compassion and the great call of humanism to strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. There was a hymn we sang at our staunchly humanist UU congregation in Chicago in the 1980s, and I remember singing it with gusto as a child.
Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With ev’ry step I take
Let this be my solemn vow
To take each moment and live
Each moment in peace eternally
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me
These words were urgent, they were intimate, and they echoed in my brain in strange moments throughout my life, like a mantra.
Let there be peace on earth
And let it begin with me.
How many of you have gone walking this week in your neighborhoods? Have you noticed the flowers? They are confused. Bright sparks of color along my path, I have discovered yellow daffodils, pink lenten roses, purple crocuses and others, typically symbols of fresh hope, spiritual renewal, and the faith that spring will come again. Instead, I found each of them drooping, confused. They reflected my own drooping inner hope for a new season of hope and clarity in our political landscape. Instead, nothing is as it should be. Not in our gardens, not on our planet, and not in our democracy.
Yet these flowers persist, even chunky snowflakes won’t pummel them down, just as inspiring political ideals persist, just new freedoms persist, blooming up against the odds, even as our administration seeks to trample them one by one.
Yes, we still have beauty’s story to tell, stories of human kindness and connection, stories of resistance like this week when hundreds of protestors camped out in front of Maimonedes Hospital in Brooklyn fending off ICE agents who brutally injured someone during an arrest and deportation attempt.
There is always the hope of human capacity to resist, to reverse course, to evolve. There is hope for each one of us to treat each other with greater compassion and to recognize ourselves in each other. As the poet reminds us, sorrow is the other side of kindness, and we each have been touched by sorrow.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
IJEOMA OLUO, 2018 winner of the FEMINIST HUMANIST AWARD and author of “So You Want to Talk About Race,” said this to the Annual Humanist Association’s Award dinner:
The great evils in our society may be enabled by religion, but they are not created by them and they are not cured by the absence of religion. There are many people in our circles who are seeing the rise of Black Lives Matter as a threat to their white supremacy and the rise of #MeToo as a threat to their role in the patriarchy.
They don’t even understand that they’ve decided to take a stance against these movements.
I’m seeing the strain in our circles from people who think we’ve pushed for too much equality, that we’ve been too divisive in deciding that the white male default is no longer acceptable and who are very threatened by the thought that they may not always be at the very center of their movements and may even prefer to burn it to the ground rather than reevaluate their roles in society.
“Where it has been easy for you to be a part of the system is where it will be easiest for you to change the system, but that requires really painful work. It requires being willing to see yourself as less great and more human.”
I’m saying this because I don’t think it’s why any of you signed on to humanism. I don’t think it’s why any of you are here. But it’s very intoxicating. We live in a society where the privilege you have feels like the air you breath.
The moment any of that is threatened, you feel like you’re suffocating while those of us who’ve never had enough clean air to breathe are just gasping for a simple breath.
What I need is for you to not always be looking for the harm others are doing but look for the harm you have done.
These days, it is seductive to look for the harm others are doing. It is seductive to hyperbolically announce the end of the republic, or the death of democracy. But that is not what is happening here. We are experiencing an apocalypse, an uncovering of the shadow side of our political system. In the meantime, we do the work that is ours.
We look not always for the harm others are doing, but also for the harm we have done and are doing. We must harbor a laser-sharp clarity that zeroes in on the truth, and names the serious threats to democracy and justice, and we must do the hard work on ourselves.
If we are to claim humanism as a sacred and historical source for our religious tradition, then we must not become distracted by the quality of our beliefs, but stay focused on the quality of our presence.
This means if someone is telling you about their lived experience, then as a humanist, you must understand they are not inviting you into a winnable argument or a competition. You cannot debate someone out of their experience. If we are to take seriously that humanism is informed by experience, we must be willing and wonderstruck witnesses to each others’ experiences. Remember that phrase from last month’s sermon, it works well here: “help me understand.”
Guided by reason.
After seeing a particularly interesting application to study astrophysics at Cornell University, reknowned scientist Carl Sagan invited a 17-year-old kid from the Bronx Neil deGrasse Tyson to spend the day with him in Ithaca.
That kid, Neil deGrasse Tyson, grew up to recount that day as a pivotal moment in not just his career in science, but his life as a human being.
He wrote, “ I already knew I wanted to become a scientist, but that afternoon I learned from Carl the kind of person I wanted to become. He reached out to me and to countless others. Inspiring so many of us to study, teach, and do science. Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations.”
We know religious tradition is taught through ancestry, but now we hear that science too, is cross-cultural and generational. I recently listened to a theological conversation between the great civil rights leader and activist Ruby Sales, and the artist and Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors. In a conversation with Krista Tippett, Sales spoke about how religion affected her ethic for civil rights and justice, and she wonders how the Black Lives Matter movement engages theology.
“None of us considered ourselves to be religious in the way our parents or grandparents were, and there was a lot of religion, but we were rejecting so much of what we’d grown up with. We didn’t think that defined us. And we only realized later that even though that was true, we were steeped in that tradition, in the hope, in the sense of love, in the songs, in the community. We had our armor on.” “And then we became involved in policy, and we sent our children out into the empire without their armor on.” And I’d love to know how you hear that and think about it.
Patrisse Cullors:I love that Ruby Sales said that. I think we think about it differently. I mean to be honest with you, so many of us in the Black Lives Matter movement have either been pushed out of the church — because many of us are queer and out. Many of us — the church has become very patriarchal for us as women, and so that’s not necessarily where we have found our solace.
And I think we have had to contend with that during this movement. How do we relate to the black church, and how do we understand ourselves in relationship to the black church inside of this movement?
But that hasn’t stopped us from being deeply spiritual in this work, and I think, for us, that looks like healing justice work, the role of healing justice, which is a term that was created probably about seven or eight years ago and was really looking at how, as organizers, but also as people that are marginalized, that are impacted by racism and patriarchy, that are impacted by white supremacy, how do we show up in this work as our whole selves? How do we be in it as our best selves, and how do we look at the work of healing?
I believe that this work of Black Lives Matter is actually healing work. It’s not just about policy. It’s why, I think, some people get so confused by us.
They’re like, where’s the policy? And I’m like, you can’t policy your racism away. We no longer have Jim Crow laws, but we still have Jim Crow hate.”
If we are to claim humanism as a sacred source for our Unitarian Universalism, then we must be do the work of healing justice. Justice grounded in care and compassion for each other, and ourselves. We must interrogate the harm we are doing even as we take our sense of justice out into the movements.
My dream is that we are doing it all: In community, we are looking within, and deepening our insight, focused on the quality of our presence. How our actions and our words impact others. Out in the larger community, we are being justice healers. We are known not only for our ability to show up, to do the work of activism and resistance, but to take the love we encounter in this sanctuary, and bring it out into the world.
To connect with our own sorrow, and to always speak, type, and act with kindness at the center of our work for human rights.
From the American Humanist Association’s Executive Director Fred Edwords:
Even in critique it is tolerant, defending the rights of all people to choose other ways, to speak and to write freely, to live their lives according to their own lights. So the choice is yours. Are you a humanist? You needn’t answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ For it isn’t an either-or proposition. Humanism is yours — to adopt or to simply draw from. You may take a little or a lot, sip from the cup or drink it to the dregs. It’s up to you.”
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.