You Shall Be as a Firebrand [50th Anniversary]

It’s relative, of course, this business of anniversaries. 50 years is a long time to be married. The 50th is a really small class reunion. 50 years is not too long since a prize wine was corked. And, really, it’s not all that long for a congregation to have been gathered. Some years ago, I served the First Unitarian Society in Hudson, Massachusetts, which is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary. After that ministry, I served another congregation in Massachusetts, which was gathered in 1680. I was installed as the 38th minister of that congregation. While my wife and I were on sabbatical in England, Wells Cathedral was celebrating its 800th anniversary.

So, what’s fifty years?

But notice the heading of your Order of Service this morning. It says, “Celebrating 50 years of the rebirth of liberal religion in Atlanta.” As you heard in Dr. Gable’s fine sermon last week, and as you’ve read in our history, this congregation has its roots down into the 19th century with Unitarian and Universalist congregations bringing the liberal religious message here to the deep south.

Those early missionary ministries came to a sad end. We might say they “crashed and burned.” I won’t re-state the whole history. It’s enough to say that, in 1948, our forebears in the Liberal Christian Church of Atlanta, mired in the mud of southern racism, denied membership to an African American. The minister resigned. The congregation fragmented into schisms. Finally, the American Unitarian Association, which held the deed, sold the property. Liberal religion in Atlanta was in ashes. And that might have been the end of the story.

But there was a stirring in the ashes. And that’s another story – the story of the Phoenix that great plumed and fabulously colored bird that serves as icon for this congregation and for the once-devastated city of Atlanta. Hans Christian Andersen told one of its stories. The phoenix was born, he wrote, in the first rose to bloom on a bush beneath the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. “His flight was like the flashing of light,” Andersen wrote, “his plumage was beauteous, and his song ravishing.” But, when the forbidden fruit was plucked and Adam and Eve banished, a spark from the flaming sword of the guardian cherub fell into the nest of the Phoenix, and the bird was engulfed in flames.

Not the end of the story, of course: from a red egg nestled in the ashes there arose and fluttered aloft a Phoenix reborn. The great and awesome creature gathered its strength, spread its great plumed and painted wings, and took the skies again.

The ancient and majestic Phoenix bird has been for aeons the symbol of death and resurrection, destruction and renewal. This new, vital, exciting, and ever-growing city rose out of the ashes Sherman left in his march to the sea. And this religious community, time and again renewed for “new occasions and new duties,”1 rose up from its ashes to grow strong out of the vision of those faithful people who gave it new birth. Fifty years ago, a new strong breeze of faith fanned the ashes. Determined people, several of whom are still active among us, people who never lost heart or hope, began to rebuild the congregation. The light of liberal religion was rekindled: Plucked from the ashes.

But the United Liberal Church was reborn into dark times. That congregation opened its doors as the first integrated congregation in Atlanta – as far as we’ve been able to determine as the first integrated congregation in the south. It was an oasis in a dry and hostile land. Those people of color, welcomed into the Sanctuary in 1954, were not welcome in the precious dining room of Rich’s Department Store – to say nothing of the public toilets or drinking fountains. “White only” and “Colored only” signs were still very much in evidence throughout the city and still very much taken for granted.

In 1954, there was yet a long, sad, and violent journey to be taken. It would be almost another troubled decade into the future when dynamite blasts struck a Baptist Church in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four children who were getting ready to participate in the Sunday Service. There were forty-one racially-motivated bombings between 1947 and 1963 in Alabama alone.

It would be another troubled decade when Unitarian Minister, James Reeb, was killed on the street in Selma in 1965. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. That baseball bat wielding, racist embarrassment to any enlightened citizens of the south, Lester Maddox, would be governor from 1967 to 1971. Oh, there was a long way to go from the darkness of 1954 to the dawn of any more hopeful time.

Plucked as a firebrand. Into and through those dark and perilous years the Unitarian Universalists of Atlanta were a source of light, a place of welcome, and a stalwart example of righteousness in the best sense of that term – that is, religiously just and true to moral principle. Think again of the myth of the Phoenix bird as Hans Christian Andersen told the story. She is reborn out of the burning of the one who went before, rising out of the ashes of tragedy.

Now consider this image. The glowing embers of the Phoenix nest – and the story carried forward in the words of the Hebrew Prophet, Amos, “You shall be as a firebrand, plucked from the burning.” A firebrand is a torch, a torch pulled from the embers and ashes and held aloft to light the way. And there can be no doubt that the bearers of that light, the dedicated laypeople and ministers through the past fifty years of liberal religion in Atlanta, were the inspiration for the justly proud community that celebrates today.

“Ours the years memorial store, honored days and names we reckon, days of comrades gone before, lives that speak and deeds that beckon. From the dreaming of the night to the labors of the day, shines their everlasting light, guiding us upon our way.” Risen from the ashes like a great Phoenix Bird. Plucked from the ashes like a firebrand. A true believer might well assume that God had something great in mind for a people planted in such unpromising ground 150 years ago, holding them up in the light through dark decades of bombings, beatings, hangings, unjust wars, and all manner of evil.

What will it be, Dr. Gable asked in her sermon last week – what will the mission be that will galvanize this congregation as the civil rights movement and the peace movement fired and unified and grew it decades ago? Paula admitted that she didn’t know the answer. I don’t know what one great and true mission there might be either. I don’t know that there will be such times that call for one great and true mission again. But that does not mean that there will be nothing for a congregation in the tradition of heroes and prophets to do. New occasions teach new duties. There is plenty to do.

The very earth itself is crying out for salvation. And you know it’s not going to be saved by more logging roads through the forests or oil rigs on the tundra, or by corporate comrades-in-arms belching pollutants out of their chimneys.

There’s another fifty years of witnessing there.

There are thousands of individuals and families – and not only poor individuals and families – who have been or who are soon to be financially ruined by some catastrophic illness because they are not protected by insurance.

There’s another fifty years of witnessing there.

There are children dying horribly of abuse because the systems that are supposed to protect them are inadequately funded. There are not enough investigators, and too many are incompetent or overworked.

There’s another fifty years of witnessing there.

There are men and women who are executed, put to death deliberately and with forethought, often innocent, poorly represented, men and women. In a barbarism that embarrasses us before other nations.

There’s another fifty years of witnessing there.

A woman’s right to choose: Watch for it. Get ready for it. Roe vs. Wade is going to fall. The government is going to wrap its arms around the religious right in gratitude for its theocratic support and deny the human rights of same sex partners. Talk about a civil rights movement.

There’s another fifty years of witnessing there.

And let me say something about the moon and Mars – nothing romantic, mind you. I like the moon. I like Mars. I like to look up at them. But we have been to the moon and there was nothing there. And from what I can see of Mars, there’s nothing there, either. And will returning to the moon and traveling to Mars galvanize our nation, unite us and inspire us? Certainly it will; for several months; and we will be united and inspired and we will do precisely nothing with our inspiration – just as before. And several trillion dollars later into this exploration of space there still will not be space for the homeless, for the aged, or for the sick in mind and body.

Get your cross-trainers, your fanny packs, your water bottles, and your posters and placards ready. I don’t know if there is one grand, unifying mission – but there is certainly fifty years of witnessing to do. “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Amos, again.

There is other work to be done, continuing work. It is the continuing work of discovering our religious selves and of being a religious people in community. The religious community is inspired by its faith and history to do justice. But doing justice is not the purpose of religious community and religious communities that have forgotten that have eventually lost the power of faith to change hearts, minds, and lives.

I was reminded of the old days a year or so ago when I received a letter from a woman complaining that, in an era when people in the world are hungry and homeless, seventy-five percent of our church budget goes to support ministers, staff, education, and programs. She was criticizing the church for being what it is instead of something else.

There were heroes during the civil rights movement and during the war in Viet Nam whose actions, and in some cases, whose martyrdom was grounded in their faith. There were also heroes who had no interest whatsoever in the faith of the religious communities, the spiritual health of the people, or in the church as a place of worship. They attempted to make the church something else. They used it for their own ends, believing that those ends justified any means. In many cases, the churches they used were destroyed; their resources depleted, their spirits broken, and their people bitterly and permanently divided. When the civil rights and Vietnam War eras came to their inconclusive ends, those who had come to use the churches left them.

Frankly, I was embarrassed for our Unitarian Universalist movement during the decade or so after those eras of social upheaval. We waded about knee-deep in pages of questionnaires and occupied ourselves with endless surveys to “discover Unitarian Universalist identity,” to find out why our tiny little religion exists at all. We were like an empty shop waiting to see what would go in its windows next. It was a long time before some of us dared to suggest that perhaps what we could do in our religious communities is consider faith, community, spirituality, and the religious as a reason for our existence.

There was that time when God’s death was proclaimed, when the centuries-old light of faith dimmed, and it seemed that no one cared. Then a mission was thrust upon us. We had glorious purpose! The forces of evil were lined against us and the trumpets called us from our fading dreams to do battle.

But as Solzhenitsyn, in Gulag Archipelago, writing of the Russian prison camps, said “If only it were so…simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy his own heart?”

That is why we are called to be a people of faith first and out of our faith, immersion in our religious history and our religious experience become a people who seek justice. Our reaching out is to be inseparable from our reaching in to know our own hearts, inseparable from our inward heroic spiritual journeys in which we find our power, defeat our monsters, and return to do justice.

A mature religion helps us to come to rediscover what was once obvious – that we are related, that the inner and the outer are the same, that what injustice is is a wound in our own being, a hunger in our own souls, cold and sickness in our own spirits. In his powerful little book about racism, The Hidden Wound the poet Wendell Berry writes that slavery made a wound in the mind and soul of the American people from which we have yet to recover.

To heal and nurture the Spirit in which our own spirits participate, and to do good that is a deep and lasting good, it is not enough to go out to save the world, as if the world were something separate from us and its suffering people and even its cruel people not like us. The first of the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism speaks of our affirmation of “The infinite worth and dignity of every person…” and the Seventh Principle affirms “The Interdependent web of which we are a part.” We come to know in our faith, through our worship, our sharing, and our learning together, that those two principles are woven together. The worth and dignity of every person is grounded in the interdependent web of all being.

There is an astounding sculpture by Philippe Wolfers of a beautiful swan that is looking down in horror to see a snake striking death at its breast. As we look at the sculpture longer, we see that the serpent that has struck the swan is not another creature but is part of the swan itself. There is no “they.” In wounding “them” we wounded “us.” Racism, violence, greed – all manner of evil – are not separate aspects of reality or of the devil. William Carlos Williams wrote “I am…the brutal thing itself.”

As we make the spiritual journey in the company of religious community, we rediscover not only ourselves but also ourselves in kinship with all people, our relatedness to all of being. We find that the evil against which we struggle is within us as well as in the world, and that our mission in the world is inseparable from the mission to our own spirit. We seek to do justice in the world because our own spirits cannot be whole apart from the wholeness of the earth or apart from each torn and ragged being in earth’s every corner.

1 James Russell Lowell