New Year's Day Service

January 1, 2006
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

READING from "Walking With the Wind" John Lewis

Georgia Congressman John Lewis tells the story of a Saturday afternoon in his childhood in rural Alabama, when he and fifteen of his cousins were playing in his Aunt Seneva' s dirt yard when a terrible storm came:

The sky began clouding over, the wind started picking up, lightning flashed far off in the distance, and suddenly I wasn' t thinking about playing anymore; I was terrified. I had already seen what lightning could do. I' d seen fields catch on fire after a hit to a haystack. I' d watched trees actually explode when a bolt of lightning struck them…

Lightning terrified me, and so did thunder. My mother used to gather us around her whenever we heard thunder and she' d tell us to hush, be still now, because God was doing his work. That was what thunder was, my mother said. It was the sound of God doing his work.

But my mother wasn' t with us on this particular afternoon. Aunt Seneva was the only adult around, and as the sky blackened and the wind grew stronger, she herded us all inside. Her house was not the biggest place around, and it seemed even smaller with so many children squeezed inside. Small and surprisingly quiet. All the shouting and laughgter that had been going on earlier, outside, had stopped. The wind was howling now, and the house was starting to shake. We were scared. Even Aunt Seneva was scared.

And then it got worse. Now the house was beginning to sway. The wood plank flooring beneath us began to bend. And then, a corner of the room started lifting up!

I couldn' t believe what I was seeing. None of us could. This storm was actually pulling the house toward the sky. With us inside it. That was when Aunt Seneva told us to clasp hands. Line up and hold hands, she said, and we did as we were told. Then she had us walk as a group toward the corner of the room that was rising. From the kitchen to the front of the house we walked, the wind screaming outside, sheets of rain beating on the tin roof. Then we walked back in the other direction, as the other end of the house began to lift.

And so it went, back and forth, fifteen children walking with the wind, holding that trembling house down with the weight of our small bodies.

- In The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen' s Guide To Hope In a Time of Fear, Paul Rogat Loeb, ed.

THE SERMON "The News of the Year in Religion" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

The news of the year in religion was quite literally stormy. It was a year of terrible, terrifying storms, and the big news of the year in religion is the story of those storms, and the suffering that was caused by them, the meaning we tried to find in them, and the ways we responded to them.

While some thought that the big religious question about all the natural catastrophes of this year was, "Why is God doing this to us," others asked, "What are we to do with this? How can we make meaning of this, and what sacrifices will we be called on to make in order to most humanely respond to it?" These are all religious questions.

The lines blurred: people of faith put aside their Scriptures, rolled up their sleeves and opened their houses of worship for the stranger to literally dwell with them. Urban planners and scientists sounded like the prophets of old, crying "Woe New Orleans" and ripping their garments with fury and frustration that their predictions of the devastation had not been heeded, and had indeed come to pass. Even though some self-appointed prophets voiced smug "I told you so' s," no one had real cause to feel superior: we were all in Aunt Seneva' s house, holding hands and walking slowly from one end of the wind-blown house to the next, trying to hold the shaky structure down by sheer will and cooperation.

It began, you will recall, at the turn of last new year, with the tsunami that swept thousands away in one unbelievable moment that looked like something only Steven Spielberg could have dreamed up. Two hundred thousand dead. Our mouths hung open and our hearts pounded with the terrible awe of it; a sensation that for many of us would finally put us in visceral touch with what the ancients meant when they spoke of "the fear of the Lord." Mother Nature, so easy to romanticize as our nurturing, perpetually regenerative parent, reminded us that she is a living organism of her own, and that she is not beholden to any species to fulfill its sentimental fantasies about her.

This was not just about Nature, of course. It was also about money, about economic justice, about tsunami early-warning systems that are in place on some coastal regions and not in others. It was a story about the beneficence of animals: we heard how elephants sensed the tidal wave coming and wailed inconsolably in warning, then scooped up tourists onto their backs and ran for the hills. It was a story about loss upon loss: Sri Lankan leaders dared hope that the devastation from the tsunami might put an end to the civil war that has raged through their country for over twenty years. Sadly, this has not come to pass – in fact, quite the opposite. The Sri Lankan civil war continues unabated and has greatly interfered with humanitarian aid getting through to the people.

The year 2005 was a sobering one for any of us who cling to an optimistic humanist faith. While natural disasters did bring out the Good Samaritan in some individuals, we saw plenty of evidence that our planet is in desperate need of a new ethic of reverence for life and respect for the basic human rights of all. The genocide of black Sudanese in Darfur continues unabated. Terrorists murdered 52 people in London by bombing public transportation during rush hour. U.S. leaders debate when, if ever, torture is a justified means of obtaining intelligence during interrogation. The media attention around the clemency hearings for Stanley "Tookie" Williams in California gave us all occasion to ask ourselves hard questions about the death penalty.

Let me pause there and tell you that I was one of the thousands who called Governor Arnold Schwarznegger' s office to encourage him to grant clemency to Williams. It was the end of a long year of ugliness in the human nature department, and I did it to put in my vote for the possibility of redemption, and the possibility of rehabilitation, and because my faith as a Unitarian bids me believe in the improvability of each human soul, "growing into harmony with the divine," as we say. I did not do it because Will Smith or any other celebrity told me to, or to add to the suffering of the families of the four people Williams allegedly murdered.

I did it because I came to believe that Tookie Williams' writings and testimonies about the evils of gang life will do much more to turn kids away from gang life than his execution by the state can ever do. I did it because after much thought and prayer, I began to discern that there is a difference between forgiveness – something that can never be granted a murderer, because his victims are beyond being able to forgive – and redemption, which is something of deep worth purchased at a terrible price. I believe that Tookie Williams achieved a kind of redemption, and that in that, there is a powerful witness for us all, and now we have executed that witness. To have done so is to have placed our faith in violence and to deny the possibility of redemption. It is more than a gesture. It is a silencing of a life whose message we apparently don' t want to hear.

Williams' case led me to carefully consider the difference between justice and retribution, and to conclude that while retribution is probably served through the administering of the death penalty, justice may very well not be.

I' ll be reflecting more on the death penalty in March, when I plan to give a sermon on secrets and evil, particularly the evil we met this year in the person of Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer. These are hard things to contemplate, but it is the work of the religious community to walk into these territories of moral consideration together.

The year in religion was one of urgent moral debates and difficult, humbling reflection. The Catholic Church got a new Pope and buried a beloved one. Israel evacuated the Gaza settlements as part of Ariel Sharon' s "disengagement" policy, and 1.5 million Israelis were relocated amid much grief and trauma. We can only hope that the disengagement will help bring about a moral stable Middle East. A judge ruled that the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools in Dover, PA, was unconstitutional, no doubt leading Pat Robertson to call down the wrath of God on the judge and on Dover, Pennsylvania. A woman named Terry Schiavo became the catalyst for a national screaming match over the very definition of life itself.

And the winds blew and the waters rose and the earth shook. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked into the Gulf Coast in August, and a massive earthquake hit northern Pakistan and India-controlled Kashmir in October. We look for signs of hope amid governmental botch-ups, early apathy and unavoidable revelations of poverty in our own nation, as well as the reminder of the scourge of poverty abroad.

We look for hope not only because it helps us to feel better, but for a religious reason: to be religious , at its essence, means to act as though we are walking together in a sacred story, even when we can' t always believe that we are. We say that we "practice" religion, because we are indeed always practicing. Reading or watching the news as a practicing Unitarian Universalist means not just to gather facts, or to get a guilty thrill from the spectacle of others' suffering, but to be willing to encounter the issues of our time through the lens of compassion, oriented from a place of fellowship with all human beings and a steadfast confidence and hope for the ultimate redeemability of the whole human enterprise.

So let me leave you with two signs of hope:

In Pakistan after the earthquake in October, two dioceses of the Church of Pakistan set up a clinic in a tent village outside of hard-hit Balakot. Christians throughout the country donated money, blankets, tents and medicines to the mostly Muslim ‘quake victims. According to Bishop Azariah, the generosity and swiftness of this response caused serious cognitive dissonance for some Muslims in a very conservative area where hellfire-and-brimstone fundamentalist preaching and the U.S. war in Iraq have made the West and Christianity synonymous with evil. According to the bishop,

"Those who reached the earthquake scene first were primarily people from Europe and the United States. Before anyone from Pakistan could reach the area they were already there, with money and food and supplies. One fellow in the earthquake area said, ‘The people we call infidels are the first ones who came to save us. So what are we talking about?' These are hopeful signs."

(-- from "Agony in Pakistan," Paul Jeffrey in The Christian Century, Dec. 27, 2005)

The second story of hope comes from New Orleans. It is also about the strength of community, the evidence of how much we need each other, and how much it matters to be able to gather in worship together, (lest we take that for granted):

Like many other New Orleans churches, First Emmanuel Baptist Church was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. The 118-year old building lost much of its roof, part of the ceiling, and was flooded out. Luckily, the church's beautiful stained glass windows survived unscathed, and more miraculously, so did almost all 1200 members of the congregation.

On Christmas morning, some of those congregants drove from Baton Rouge, and Houston and other points far across the Gulf Coast to get back to Emmanuel Baptist Church to worship together. To get there, they walked past collapsed buildings and piles of storm wreckage just for the chance to be together as a congregation for the first time since the hurricane hit. Even though the ceiling hung precariously over them and the carpets sogged under their feet as they sat in the pews, the minister' s wife, Lila Southall, said, "This means everything. We' ve come home. My house is gone but I' m still home for Christmas." The church was planning to run a bus from Baton Rouge – an hour and a half away -- each Sunday to bring members back for church. I have every faith that even though only a scattered handful was present on Christmas Day, this congregation will be strong in number and in strength very soon. We wish them well in their ingathering and homecoming.

The news of the year in religion was heavy to hold this year. Again and again we got sucker-punched by surprising moral dilemmas and monumental challenges to our goodness of will and generosity. Through it all we had good cause to hold to heart these words of George Odell, which I invite you to read responsively with me now, on page #468 of your hymnals:

We need one another when mourn and would be comforted.
We need one another when we are in trouble and afraid.
We need one another when we are in despair, in temptation, and need to be recalled to our best selves again.
We need one another when we would accomplish some great purpose and cannot do it alone.
We need one another in the hour of success, when we look for someone to share our triumphs.
We need one another in the hour of defeat, when with encouragement we might endure, and stand again.
We need one another when come to die, and would have gentle hands prepare us for the journey.
All our lives we are in need, and others are in need of us.