I Can’t Breathe (A Post Election Sermon)

690px-statue_of_liberty_silhouetteThis morning I am going to be talking about Building Our Own Theologies but as is often the case it may take me some time to get around to my topic. For this morning I am thinking of the words of the poet Emma Lazurus inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” AND I am also thinking of the words of Eric Garner as NYPD put him down on the ground in a choke hold for selling cigarette’s without a tax stamp, words he said over and over again before he died in their custody, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.”

This morning all of us are aware that we have been through a particularly brutal campaign season where the candidates were not content to simply attack each other but targeted many other people and groups in our society. Today many of us may be feeling like collateral damage in that conflict.

So if you have had an overdose of negative campaign ads, vitriolic social media, home or office micro-agressions then I can understand it if this morning you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are a women who has ever been targeted for verbal abuse, objectification, vilification, sexual abuse and violence, then I can understand it if this morning you are feeling like, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are a person of color who has been asked during this campaign season, “Can you speak English?” “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” “Are you here illegally?” then I can understand it if this morning you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

If you are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, queer or questioning you may be feeling like someone just rained on your Pride Parade. You may be worried about your marriage being annulled, your body targeted for violence and so I can understand it if this morning you are feeling like, “I can’t breathe.

If you are anyone else who feels targeted for abuse, disrespect, disenfranchisement, demonization then you are not alone. If you lost a friend or have a family member that will no longer speak to you then we can all understand why you are thinking, “I can’t breathe.”

This morning there may be more than a few people in this room who can’t breathe. However, let me assure you that when you walk through the doors of this congregation you are entering a spiritual home, and the word spirit comes from the word spirare which means to breathe and spiritus which means breathing, inspiration, the breathe of life. So when we walk into this congregation everyone of us needs to know that here, “We can breathe.”

In a moment I will be addressing the topic of Building Our Own Theologies but first let me say something that may seem self-evident and yet controversial. Let me say something that is a biological fact but also may at first seem like Unitarian heresy, here it is – breathing is more important than thinking. Breathing is more important than talking. Breathing is more important creeds or catechisms, doctrines or dogmas. Today our service is about Building Your Own Theology but what we need more than theology, one of our primary spiritual needs is a place, a community a congregation where we can breathe, where we can be inspired, where we can be infused with new life and uplifted by new energy.

In our class called Building Your Own Theology each one of us wrote out our own succinct statements of our own personal beliefs and commitments, our credos. Before we began writing, however, I shared some other succinct theological statements for inspiration. One of those statements came from the Civil Rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960’s. It was a Commitment Card that civil rights activists were invited to sign before participating in any demonstrations. This card is 50 years old but it is still particularly timely this morning in a week when tens of thousands of people marching in the streets of major cities. The Commitment Card asked participants to do the following things,

  • REMEMBER always that the nonviolent movement seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  • Walk and talk in the manner of love for God is love.
  • PRAY daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.
  • SACRIFICE personal wishes in order that all might be free.
  • OBSERVE with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  • SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  • STRIVE to be in good spiritual and bodily health. Refrain from violence of fist, tongue and heart.

I chose this statement for inspiration because it is a distinctly theological statement but it is also about putting theology into action. Because, in the Unitarian Universalist church each one of us is free to build our own theologies but this is not an academic exercise only. For as we build our own theologies we are also building the kind of world we want to live in, we are building a new way. It is about announcing to the world that no one can be free until everyone is free. It is about building a world where everyone can breathe free.

That Commitment Card with the simple statement also included a place where the participant was asked to put their name, address, phone number and the name and contact info of their nearest relative. That last item, the place for the next of kin, was in the event that someone was injured or killed or hospitalized or put into prison. In other words this is a theological statement that involved a very serious level of commitment.

This week many have been asking me my thoughts on Election 2016. On Wednesday morning I posted some of those thoughts on social media and I want to reaffirm some of the principles of that statement.

  • In democracies there are no permanent victors or permanently vanquished.
  • Winners get a chance to prove they are worthy of the office.
  • Losers get the opportunity to organize for the next contest.
  • Most of us have been through many election cycles experiencing both wins and losses. Even so we do not identify as either a victim or a victor. Instead we can be fighters, advocates for the causes in which we believe and for the people we care about.
  • We can remain committed to fighting the good fight, finishing the race and keeping the faith by overcoming evil with good, hatred with love, falsehood with truth, despair with hope, enmity with peace.

Friends I know this is not easy. There has been so much acrimony. Sometimes it can feel like the world is broken beyond repair, but as the singer songwriter Leonard Cohen once wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light get’s in.” This morning we are all to aware that there is a crack in our country. There is a crack in our politics but if we order our lives in the right spirit then that’s where the light will get in. So let us recommit to the work so that we can say, where there is darkness we will bring light.

I also think it is important to state openly that many people are using politics to try to stop changes that cannot be stopped by politics or government. Technology and transportation have made the world smaller and we are going to be living in a more diverse country in terms of race, religion, culture, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, political party affiliation, beliefs and values. No election is going to change that because the forces involved are bigger than government.

No election is going to change the fact that more women than men are enrolling in colleges and universities today which means more women than men are going to be entering into to the jobs of the future, not just grieving the jobs of the past, which means more women are going to be in positions of leadership in the future.

An election can decide who sits on the Supreme Court but no one can tell you who to love or who will be your partner or what your family will look like. The problem with today is too many people are trying to stop changes that governments can’t stop. There are politicians who think they can suck up all the oxygen in the room but “We the people” are an unstoppable force for change whenever we are yearning to breathe free.

In the Unitarian Universalist church I do not assume that everyone voted for the same candidate or is experiencing the same emotions today but I do know that we share some of the basic commitments. The first effort to create a Unitarian church in this city in the early 20th century was through the efforts of suffragists who were also working for a woman’s right to vote. We share the same convictions.

Our current congregation was born in 1949 and became the first historically white congregation to become integrated and has continued to be a leader for civil rights and racial justice from the sit-ins of the 60’s to the Black Lives Matter movement now. We share the same faith.

When the Supreme Court made their ruling for marriage equality our congregation hosted the first legally recognized same-sex marriage right here in this sanctuary, a consummation of decades of activism for the cause of equality. We share the same hope.

So let me say to you that now more than ever our church matters, our mission matters. The words of the Unitarian minister and Nature essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed our spirit well when he said, “Go where freedom is not and I say I am for it.” We are called to be a countercultural church, when the culture is filled with despair we are called to incubate a culture of hope. When the culture is filled with vitriol and violence, we are called to co-create a counterculture of peace, justice and reconciliation – to go where love and understanding are not and say, “we are for it.”

Many years ago when I was a new member at this church I took the BYOT class and I went through an exercise where I was asked to give my own personal definition of the word God. Because this is a Unitarian Universalist I knew I did not have to do it, nobody was going to make me do it. I was simply invited to do it. I wrote “Whenever two or more are gathered to love and support and encourage each other there is a power greater than ourselves that can renew, restore and sustain us.” That power is in this room. That is my definition of God, that is my credo, that is my personal statement of faith, and it is applicable at this moment, in this time, because when we love, support and encourage each other we are building a new way.

This week a friend who is transgender sent a message to his friends after the election,

The world feels scarier to many, yet for some of us it has always been a scary world.
For some of us, the very act of living is a radical act of resistance. May we each find the strength to continue living. For some of us, our bodies have been battlegrounds for far too long. May we continue to be resilient in the face of hatred, bigotry, and violence…
Now is the time to come together, to support one another and offer each other deep, life-affirming Love.

So let me ask you if we are doing our job right as a congregation this morning by asking you a question, can you breathe? If so, say “We Can Breathe!”

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

Can you breathe?

We can breathe!

We may be tired this morning. But we can also have a song in our hearts, and you know the song I’m thinking about from the roller rink,

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
I get knocked down
But I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down

 And as we sing our song we remain committed to building a church where we can build our own theologies as we are building a new way and building a land where everyone, our tired our poor our huddled masses yearning to breathe free can say, we can breathe.

Can we say that?

We can breathe!

Can we say it again?

We can breathe!

Can we mean it?

We can breathe!

Let’s make it so!

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee on Sunday, November 13, 2016)

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One thought on “I Can’t Breathe (A Post Election Sermon)

  1. Thank you, Chris! I didn’t have the emotional stamina to go to UUFR Sunday and just happened upon your sermon today. Sometimes I almost believe in the “holy spirit.”

    Like

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