Thursday, December 20, 2012

Reflections on the Killings in Newton

We invited UUCF members to send sermons, prayers, reflections for sharing after the school killings in Newtown, CT. Here is one of those received. Links to others have been included in the Christmas 2012 Special Good News Online Issue.
In the Wake of a Massacre

December 16, 2012

Written by Rev. Peggy Clarke

First Unitarian Society of Westchester, Hastings on Hudson, NY


       This is a different sermon than the one I wrote on Thursday, although, not as different than one might think.  I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been alive a while, or what happens when you try live a life awake.  Horror is gripping, but not out of the realm of possibility.  I let go of the sugar-daddy in the sky image of God a long time ago, the one that makes sure everything is always going to be OK, who locates parking spaces when I most need them and ensures that no matter the trouble I face, there are lessons to be learned.  In other words, the God that ensures meaning even in the face of meaninglessness. 

            And yet, even having wrestled with the reality of suffering before, the world felt different on Thursday than it did on Friday.  It seems we are in a sadder, starker, more dangerous place.  This wasn’t our first school shooting or massacre of innocent people.  It wasn’t the first time children were targeted.  This time it was close to home.  My brother-in-law went to Shady Brook Elementary School.  Some of his classmates have children there.  One lost her daughter on Friday.  My sister is raising her family in the town next door and because her son was in lockdown, an officer went to visit her in the school where she teaches to keep her updated on her son’s safety.  (She won’t soon forget the first moment that policeman pulled her from her classroom.)  My father is currently a patient in Danbury Hospital, the hospital that went into lockdown directly after the massacre while they awaited victims. 

            Proximity, though, isn’t the reason for national shock.  We live in a world that feels increasingly dangerous.  There is a powerlessness in the face of the constant possibility of violence, a powerlessness so frightening that retreat from mainstream culture can look like a viable option.  While most of us laugh at extremists who live in Mexican deserts where they stock pile weapons and canned goods, I admit there’s a part of me that, from time to time, understands the impulse to get out. 

            We’ve created a complicated political, organizational, national, global system, a system that doesn’t display any real clear path through.  The issues are myriad and if we move deeply into them, we discover that each one winds into long, deep rabbit holes that bring us into a governmental Wonderland where nothing makes sense, where questions can’t be answered and answers can’t be heard.  Gun control that controls access to guns, universal mental health care that gives people a chance at health, an economic system that empowers someone other than the powerful, an educational system that teaches the whole person rather than teaching for the test.  We have a tangled mess that requires bold, brave leadership not only from our leaders but from all of us.

            Today is New Member Sunday.  When I started last year, our official count was 136.  I think after today, the number is 159.  Growing this congregation, growing UU congregations around the world, is a sign of hope.  I believe that our values are desperately needed in our bruised and hurting world. Our Principles could become a healing balm.  If more people were convinced of the inherent worth of every person, universal health care, including mental health care, might become obvious. 

            My neighbor- a good Christian who tends to be, at least in our infrequent dealings, a kind and generous person, - my neighbor recently sent me an email letting me know that there are squatters in a small, abandoned house on our corner and that she and another neighbor have decided to buy the property to get these people off our street.  My email back said “Oh no.  I wonder if it’s the same family that used to rent that house.  It was a sister and two brothers.  They always seemed too young be on their own.  Imagine how cold they must be.”  I made a joke about how impatient she and I were in October when we didn’t have light, heat or water- that she and I could never survive a winter in an abandoned house.  Her reply started with “LOL!  As soon as I hit send I told my husband, Peggy’s going to bake those people cookies and them bring hot chocolate.  You crack me up!”

            I love that she thought of that before she got my email.  I love that, not knowing the Principles by which I live my life, my neighbor, who I barely know, jumped immediately to the correct conclusion about my approach to squatters on our street. 

            But, my neighbor has money and she’s going to purchase that house for the sole purpose of ensuring whomever is living there gets out.  The police will help her with the criminal trespassers  and the law of this land will be upheld.  No one will ask why they are there or what they need and no one will help them find a safe or warm place to go.

Suffering is real.  Ours is not a religion that denies that, but suffering is the Achilles Heel of most religious traditions.  After creating a worldview in which behavior ensures safety, the precarious pathway of human life inevitably offers us opportunity to doubt or even to see faith disintegrate when that worldview cannot hold up under the weight of real pain.   We do not have a mythology to which we have committed ourselves so strongly that we have to continually alter reality in order for it to make sense.  We have not indoctrinated a belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful god, so we do not have to struggle with that image while confronting the massacre of 5 year olds.  We don’t have to ask if god knew in advance or if god chose not to stop it and we do not have to justify god’s actions in the face of it with empty platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or “god has a plan”.  Tell a grieving mother THAT this morning.  Tell her there are lessons to be learned and that everything is exactly as it’s supposed to be.

And our theology doesn’t require that we appease an angry god.  We don’t think humans are sinners or that god has put us in slippery places and awaits our fall, who keeps us from the pit of hell only by his good grace.  We aren’t worried that we haven’t fought hard enough for prayer in schools or that we’re being punished for marriage equality.  We don’t think those children or that town or any people anywhere deserve the depth of their torment. We aren’t looking to unearth the wicked in a search for blame that will redeem us and we don’t believe the blood of the children slain will bring about our salvation. 

The Free Will Defense, in my opinion, is the strongest of the monotheistic options- far stronger than the throw-a-virgin-into-the-volcano response hoping to satisfy an abusive god who has grown tired of our disrespect.  Free Will suggests that god loves us so much we have been given the opportunity to make our own mistakes.  I can live with that on most days- but not Friday.  And Friday isn’t singular.   There have been too many Fridays to let god off the hook that easily.

            No, as Unitarian Universalists, we are allowed to be shocked.  Without an omnificent deity controlling our every breath, we don’t have to be afraid of our own horror and we don’t have to alter our faith in order to make room for reality.  Our search for truth includes an embrace of unanswered questions and a confrontation with the depths of human suffering.  We don’t generally blame god, although it might be easier to do that. 

            For most Unitarian Universalists, hope is not external.  Hope does not come from the ancient god of Moses or Jesus or Muhammad.  Hope comes from us, from the reality we are creating, the world we are dreaming and building together.  Hope comes from this room, from this building, from this community.  Hope comes from Now and Here.  Hope comes from We Who Come in the Name of Love.[1] 

            Congregational life in the 21st century is an act of defiance in our individualistic get-what-you-can-for-yourself world.  Since anyone can come here for a lifetime and never join and never be asked for anything, the decision to sign your name in our book, to declare membership, is counter-cultural.  Commitment is an act of rebellion in a throw-away society. 

            When you sign our book, a book that goes back 100 years in a congregation that goes back 160 years, a tradition that goes back 400 years, when you sign this book, your book, you agree to wrestle with the difficult reality of human existence, to become an active participant in the unknowing.  You agree to submit to the most rigorous religious authority- that of your own mind, that of your own conscience.  But with that, you will also be invited to sacrifice any impenetrable viewpoints, allowing yourself to be transformed by the possibility of not knowing, the possibility of new perspectives.

            Congregational membership, covenanted relationship, is rooted in love.  This love sees the Other clearly and entirely.  Love isn’t blind; it sees EVERYTHING.  Love means we can see each other as whole people, standing independently, together.  It’s a full acceptance of who someone is now, coupled with a profound willingness to help them become more, to help us all become more- to live like we are more.

            Congregational life is an experiment in being human. There’s a UU congregation with about 150 members that has a line item in their budget of $5000 from the Sunday collection.  They never got much over $4,000, but they keep putting it in as a sign of hope.  The minister then suggested that they split whatever they collect with outside organizations.  That seemed like a crazy idea.  After all, they weren’t even making budget, how can they afford to lose half?  (Most congregations live on the edge of financial crisis.)  Nonetheless, they agreed to try it for a year.  In that year, they collected almost $9,000.  They did it again the year after and raised close to $11,000.  After several years, they decided to take an even larger risk and give the whole thing away and discovered that they gained even more money through other avenues.  This isn’t the only congregation with this experience.  100% of the time, when a congregation opts for radical generosity, they find themselves in stronger financial positions.[2]  Why?  Because we are here to live into the rich possibilities of being human.  We are here to try something new, to experiment with our deepest potentialities and because we know that together, we have far more prospects than we have alone.

            We are here in the name of love.  As Rev. Ortman said, we come in the name of love.  We live in the name of love.  I believe we join in the name of love.  Membership isn’t a static reality.  We become members over time.  Love grows, relationships grow, commitment grows.  Membership grows.  And membership isn’t a location.  You don’t sign the book and settle in so much as you sign the book and start moving.  You move into this community, you move into these relationships and, if this is a strong, healthy congregation, you move into the world, no longer alone. 

One of my favorite images of love comes from Augustine’s Confessions.  There’s a moment in that 4th century book in which Augustine is standing beside his mother who is also his best friend and they are watching a branch outside their window.  Side by side.  Paying deep attention to the world.  That’s love. 

            I’m not going to reduce our woes to a need for more love.  I know it’s not that simple. And I’m certainly not going to suggest that if there were more UU congregations we’d be free from violence.  But I am going to suggest that when we face into human suffering as we are today, it’s the strength of our shared faith, grounded in our covenanted relationship that will hold us when everything else feels like it might fall apart.  If there’s hope, I believe it will be found in the radical, counter-cultural, witness of congregations like ours, of people who are willing to name the suffering without dismissing it with platitudes or over-simplifying it because the rabbit hole is too deep or justifying it with an absentee god.  If there’s hope, it’s because we are willing to participate in the experiment of being human, moving us forward into the unknown. Awake and afraid, but not alone.


[1] The reading before the sermon came from Rev. Charlie Ortman’s sermon found here:
[2] I’ve been researching this question and have put out a call for any story in which the congregation gave away money and ended up with less money.  Obviously, this is the expectation, but no matter how hard I push, the only stories I get back are of wild success. 


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