When the Unitarian minister Edward Everett Hale was chaplain of the United States Senate he was asked the question, “Do you pray for the Senators?” and the Reverend Hale replied, “No, I look at the Senators and I pray for the country.”
This week the Senate was sworn in but Hale’s statement made all the way back in the 19th century reminds us that regardless of the winners or losers in any given election cycle of any given year we often have ample reason to pray for the country.
We live in polarized times. The politics of demonization mean that one person’s candidate is another person’s devil. One person’s hero is another person’s villain. Is there anyone we can all admire and respect? This week I was in Chicago for a conference pondering this question when an answer dawned on me – the Chicago Cubs.
This year the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years ending one of baseballs longest losing streaks. Up until this year the Cubs were most famous for losing. Somehow they managed to keep their fans thus becoming known as the lovable losers. Everyone loves an underdog so I suspect there were even some Cleveland fans who felt a certain satisfaction in seeing the Cubs win the World Series.
Human beings need hope to survive. This week I was scrolling the Internet when I saw a list of things to give everyone hope in hopeless times and prominent on the list were the words: Remember the Cubs!
Let’s say that together: Remember the Cubs!
So sports fans (or even if you don’t like sports) in this age where groups are often pitted against each other, and society is divided into winners and losers, let us remember the example of a team who know how to be lovable losers and gracious winners.
Walking around Chicago I thought of another person who can inspire us all Dr. King, who was often reviled in his lifetime but is rightly honored in our time, a man who had rocks thrown at him in Chicago, was stabbed in New York, assaulted in Alabama and shot in Memphis, a man who taught us not only to pray for our country but to put our prayers into action overcoming evil with good, hatred with love, physical force with soul force.
Dr. King’s nonviolent approach has always had skeptics. Many of his critics consider Dr. King a mere dreamer, a hopeless idealist. For this reason this morning I want to offer a cynic’s case for nonviolence. So if you are angry, cynical, jaded or bitter then all I can say about this sermon is– this one’s for you.
I am the youngest of five kids. Are there any other youngest children here today? I thought there might be. Being the youngest meant I was always the smallest and weakest member of the family. For this reason I learned how to speak up for myself, state my case, advocate for my cause, but also minimize the chance that someone was going to beat me up.
My older brother Bill was a football player in high school. I tell people that I really enjoyed watching my brother play football because it was refreshing to watch him do violence to other people. Call me a cynic but having an older brother who played football helped me to become a strong believer in nonviolence.
Unlike my brother I was a kid who read comic books and watch sci-fi TV shows. Believe it or not, this is one of the reasons I felt at home in the Unitarian Universalist church when I found it. Whenever I am asked to explain my faith to others I will sometimes say, “In the world of religion Unitarian Universalism is closest thing you will find to a Star Trek convention. We are the nerds. We are the geeks. We are the ones you picked on in high school. And while we may not always turn the other cheek – we are almost always willing to set our phasers on stun.”
Since I did not have a workable phaser with a stun setting as a child I had to rely on diplomacy. If my brother ever proposed a violent solution to a problem it fell to me to come up with a nonviolent alternatives, to say as A J Muste said, “There is no way to peace –peace is the way.” This wasn’t idealism. It was self-interest.
So I know from personal experience that you do not have to be an idealist to champion nonviolence. All you have to be is the runt of the litter. If you know anything about the world of nature and animals then you know that runts have it hard. The runt is the smallest, weakest member of the siblings. This means in any competition for scarce resources the runt will be the loser. Often this is question of life or death.
The runts of the litter are not popular in our time. We live in an age that glorifies the Alpha Male, the guy on top, the person who is the highest in the pecking order. Jesus, on the other hand, offered a different message in his time. Jesus identified with the runts of the litter. Rather than basking in the light that always shines on the man in charge Jesus chose to shine the light on the blind, the lame, the lepers, the widows, the orphans and the outcasts saying, “What you do to the least of these you do also unto me.”
We are told that working for peace is idealistic but the truth is war is even more idealistic. As William Sloane Coffin once said, “All wars are fought for self-interest or national interest but justified in the name of ideals like freedom or justice.”
This week I went to Chicago Art Institute where we saw an exhibit on military and political propaganda in which there was a picture of very young children dress in surprisingly realistic military garb alongside a quote from a World War II era Japanese newspaper, “Even three year old children must when they play war, be taught how to use guns and sabres and be instilled with the feeling that war is pleasant and that one must love war.” We call the peacemakers of the world romantics but I believe it is those who teach children to love war who are the purveyors of a most destructive form of romanticism.
This is the Sunday before the inauguration and we have just been through an extremely divisive election. There are times when our current culture wars begin to feel like a civil war and we are reminded of the words that Abraham Lincoln spoke in his inaugural addresses, words that remind us to bind up the wounds of our nation, to bear malice toward none and charity for all, to return to the better angels of our nature.
But how shall we do this? During the last Presidential Debate each candidate was asked to name something they admired about the other. …It was an awkward moment. Donald Trump said the thing he admired about Hillary Clinton was that the fact that she is a fighter. She never quits and she never gives up and that is something he respects. Hillary Clinton said she admired Donald Trump’s children and felt their abilities and commitments reflected well on their father. Perhaps these statements can help us know how to move forward as a nation.
If fighting for what we believe is admirable then let’s do admirable things. If raising our children to be good people is admirable then lets be admirable. In the days ahead we can fight physical, political and economic force with soul force knowing that the power in you and the power in me is greater than any power we will encounter in the world.
This week our country will witness the inauguration of new President. When comedian Chris Rock played the President of the United States in a movie called Head of State he would sign off his speeches by saying “God bless America and nobody else.” The President of the United States is often called the leader of the free world – but this title hasn’t always been accurate.
When Harriet Tubman led the Underground Railroad she was the leader of the free world. When Sojourner Truth spoke out for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women she was the leader of the free world. When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus challenging segregation laws she was the leader of the free world. When Fannie Lou Hammer organized sharecroppers in Mississippi and delegates for a national political convention in Atlantic City she was the leader of the free world. When John Lewis stood at the front of the line on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a face-off with the Alabama National Guard he was the leader of the free world. When Martin Luther King wrote the Letter from a Birmingham Jail he was sitting in a prison but he was the leader of the free world.
So as we go forth from this church today remember to pray for our country, remember to pray for our world, remember to pray with our actions but also …remember the Cubs.
Remember the Cubs. Remember the underdogs. Remember the runts of the litter. Remember that life is full of upsets and surprises -and remember, whenever President of the United States does not want the job- we, the people, can be the leaders of the free world.
(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 15, 2017)