Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sermon: "The Person Sitting Next To Us May Need Exactly the Words We Refuse to Sing" (Delivered 8-2-09)

This morning’s reading is a short excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s 1977 poem, “Natural Resources”:
There are words I cannot choose again:
humanism androgyny

Such words have no shame in them, no diffidence
before the raging stoic grandmothers:

their glint is too shallow, like a dye
that does not permeate

the fibers of actual life
as we live it, now:


My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

Some poetry can stand by itself and some poetry needs a little bit of explanation. The key is to know when explaining a poem kills it and when explaining a poem is helpful. I think I should try to be helpful.

Adrienne Rich is a powerful poet. At age 21 she published her first volume of poetry and launched a 60 year career as a poet, essayist, and professor. Excerpts from two of her poems, including the one from which I just read, are included as readings in our hymnal. Her poem “Natural Resources” is an important declaration of feminist thought; she rejects the word “humanism” as a part of rejecting all words that claim to speak for men and women equally. She finds such words oppressive.

But I chose this poem for other reasons. Frankly, I chose to read from it because I thought it might challenge some of us. In particular, I especially wanted to include the provocative line, “There are words I cannot choose again: humanism…”

This morning I want to talk about religious language. But more than that, I want to talk about religious community. Authentic religious community is a place of dialogue and discussion, speaking and listening, conversation, intercourse, and interlocution.

Religious communities are communities of language. Our being together depends on understanding and being understood. To digress for just one moment, I wonder if anybody here knows how the word “barbarian” came to exist. The word actually comes from Ancient Greece and a barbarian was someone who could not speak Greek. If you couldn’t speak Greek, you were teased by Greek speakers who mocked your language, claiming it sounded like, “Bar bar bar bar bar.” Perhaps “barbaric” behavior happens when people are not able to talk and communicate with each other.

Returning for just a moment to Adrienne Rich, I am trying to be provocative. The first line that I quoted reads, “There are words I cannot choose again.” I am going to guess that among us this morning there are some people here who have perhaps made a short list of words that cannot be chosen again. Some of us, sitting here in this room, cannot choose the word “God” again. Others of us have decided there may be more religious words that we cannot choose again.

“That word, that word is a word I cannot choose again,” has anyone ever thought this way before? Well, that is why I decided to include the Adrienne Rich poem. When she writes that “humanism” is a word that she cannot choose again, she is saying that it is a harmful word, a word that hurts and oppresses people. She is saying it is a dirty word. Sticks and stones can break our bones but words will never hurt us. We know this isn’t exactly true. We know that words have the power to harm and to do violence. And here is Adrienne Rich writing that the word “humanism” is a word that does violence to other people.

Does this make any of us uneasy? I remind you that Adrienne Rich is not a fundamentalist. Our hymnal contains two of her poems, including the final stanza of this very poem of hers that I am talking about this morning. How does it feel to be told by someone close to you that a word you may have strongly identified with is wrong? My guess is that it does not feel good.

In late June I heard a response to a lecture that was offered by my good colleague Rosemary Bray McNatt who serves the Fourth Universalist Church in New York City. Rev. McNatt spoke fiercely and passionately. Here is part of what she said,
Consider who many of us are, and who we are pretty proud about being, no matter what our race or ethnicity. Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. […] Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing.
I love this last line of hers. “We forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we refuse to sing.” There is a story from very early in my ministry here that I love to tell. When I first came to Shawnee Mission I wanted to sort of feel out where we were with theological language, with “God talk,” and so on. So, early in my ministry I decided to end the service with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” The hymn really fit with my topic that morning. But I was curious about what the response would be. In the receiving line following the service one person gushed enthusiastically and said that “Amazing Grace” was her favorite hymn and that she wished we could sing it every single Sunday. She was followed in the receiving line by someone who shared that she hated “Amazing Grace” and wished we would never sing it again. We don’t sing “Amazing Grace” every Sunday and we have not stopped singing “Amazing Grace” either. We sing it as often as we sing it. We sing it no more often and no less often than we sing it. We did not put the hymn up for a congregational vote. We did not take a survey.

But Rosemary Bray McNatt’s comments made me think of something that I had not thought of before. What if those two people in the receiving line had been sitting right next to each other? Our neighbor may need the word “grace” as much as we need the word “reason.” Our neighbor may need the word “God” as much as we need the word “humanism.” Do we fully understand this? What would allow us to be able to look into the heart of the person sitting next to us?

We began the service this morning with Marjorie Bowen-Wheatley’s wonderful responsive reading that reminds us that it will not matter if you are black and I am white, if you are female and I am male, if you are straight and I am gay, or if you are older and I am younger. Similarly it will not matter if you are theist and I am atheist, if you are humanist and I am Christian, if you pray and I meditate. When we join our differences together and build community, it does matter.

In all this seriousness about language, we can forget that language can be poetic and imaginative and even playful. Consider the following quotation by Laurel Hallman from an address she gave in 2003,
I spoke to our Adult Sunday School Class in Dallas on the topic “Why I am not a Theist.” They packed the room to hear what I had to say, because of course they thought I was [a theist]. Why did they think I was a Theist? Because I use the word God. Because I pray in the midst of the worship service. I was embarrassed a bit myself, to find that I had failed to make the distinction that the use of metaphors and poetry and scripture has to do with religious imagination, and not with one theological category or another. We had a lively and productive discussion that day, as I spoke about religious language, and how it communicates the depths of experience, and that it isn’t always what it seems.
What I love so much about this paragraph by Laurel Hallman is how open it is, how the author breaks up categories in our mind that we imagine to be restrictive. A non-theist who loves to talk about God. What categories do we insist on holding firmly onto? Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley insists that categories of gay and straight, male and female, conservative and progressive do not matter. Hallman insists that categories of theist and non-theist do not matter.

Imagine what we could do if we really liberated our language! Imagine what we could understand if we really exploded the boxes of our categories! Imagine what we could do if we focused on the words that others need instead of the words that we prefer and recognized that sometimes the words we can barely bring ourselves to say are the words that the person sitting next to us needs.

When I talk about liberating our language I am talking about generosity. I am talking about what it means to have a generosity of spirit, a generosity of self. What if we also cultivated a generosity of language?

I want to tell you a little bit about one of the core principles of my ministry. One of the core principles of my ministry is that I will not ask you to do something that I am not willing to do. And, to be completely honest, I am extremely comfortable with God language. I am extremely comfortable with religious words. I’m comfortable with the vocabulary of theology. So, I asked myself, is there any language that I really have a problem with?

And there was. I cannot stand jokes about Unitarian Universalism. A lot of UU jokes drive me nuts, and I’m especially driven nuts when the jokes Garrison Keillor tells about us are repeated. I find many of these jokes to be insulting. UU jokes sting because I’ve dedicated my life to the service of our Unitarian Universalist movement and a lot of UU jokes insinuate that our faith is not a thing worthy of taking seriously, that it is not worthy of dedication. Which I know not to be true! Which I know not to be true! Because I’ve seen the lives changed. And I’ve seen the lives saved. And I’ve seen people transformed. And I’ve seen communities changed because of our justice work.

But, if I am going to ask you to expand your language, I need to expand my own. So, let me tell you a UU joke. There are some jokes I’m just not ready to tell; there may be ones I’ll never be ready to tell. This is a joke that only mildly bugs me and it goes like this,

When you die, your soul travels on a path and comes to a fork in the road. The signpost has two signs, one sign says “Heaven” and an arrow points towards a majestic crystal staircase leading up into clouds that radiate golden light. The second sign points down an ugly corridor to a cinderblock room with flickering fluorescent lighting and peeling paint. In the room there are uncomfortable folding chairs and a dirty coffee urn. The sign that points in this direction (which is the direction that every UU follows) reads, “Discussion about Heaven.”

I still don’t like this joke, but if we are going to face a fork in the road, if we are going to walk down that cinderblock hallway to the poorly lit room, let us—God, let us—be able to discuss any subject with an open mind and a generosity of language.

Let us learn to be playful with our language. After all, it was the Unitarian poet e. e. cummings, who used language so playfully and lightly, who wrote another poem that can be found in our hymnal,
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
My Microsoft Word automatic spelling and grammar check hates this poem. My heart loves it.

If you are new to us, let me explain that we are a liberal church. We are a part of the liberal religious tradition. That liberalism has to do with the subject of this sermon. It has to do with Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley’s claim that we are a community made up of people who are different, and that those differences are beautiful. It has to do with standing on the side of abundance rather than on the side of scarcity. It has to do with having a broad and inclusive language of faith and not a narrow or exclusive language of faith. As e. e. cummings writes, “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”

Shalom. Salaam. Amen. Namaste. Blessed Be.