Open Minds, Loving Hearts (or How Not to Be a Troll)

If you read your church newsletter – or what I like to call fake news – then you will be under the impression that this morning’s sermon is about how to practice a religion of open minds, loving hearts and helping hands – and it will be eventually.

But first I want to speak about building bridges. This season our chalice lighting song is named Building Bridges and it speaks of “building bridges between our divisions” and Lord knows we need some bridge builders in our divided society. But on the first Sunday we sang this song, Will Dunklin, our church organist, said to me, “If we are going to talk about building bridges when are we going to talk about trolls?”

He has a valid point. According to mythology and folklore bridges often serve as shelter for trolls. Add to this that we live in an age that has turned the word troll into a verb so that it is common to hear people talk about trolling or being trolled. So it seems irresponsible to talk about building bridges unless we are willing to confront the reality of trolls.

So this morning I want to talk about what we can do as a people of faith to keep open minds, keep loving hearts, keep helping hands and keep building bridges in time when we might be tempted to troll or be trolled.

As I was meditating on this sermon topic I was inspired to compose the beginning of a modern folktale, which I posted on my Facebook page and I will share with you now.

Once upon a time the Little Billy Goat Gruff posted something on Facebook click-click-clickety-click-post. “WHO DARES POST AN OPINION CONTRARY TO MINE,” commented a troll in all caps. “It is I the Little Billy Goat Gruff,” the young goat replied, “But please don’t flame me and gobble me up. I am too small. Soon the second Billy Goat Gruff will be posting on her page and she is much bigger than me,” and so the troll said, “VERY WELL I WILL BIDE MY TIME.”

You can finish the story for yourselves in your own imaginations. After I posted my beginning on my Facebook page a friend commented, “Can Billy goats be female?” and I replied, “In my stories Billy goats get to choose their own gender identity.”

Suffice it to say that we live in a peculiar time in our history when trolls are not just mythological creatures. Indeed it is hard to go through an entire day without encountering a troll.

But it was not until this month that I realized that there are actually those who self-identify as trolls, indeed, there are troll meet up groups, troll forums, troll conventions and even troll celebrities.

Up until this month I had always assumed that being a troll is something every one of us could be if we happen to be in a bad mood. Every one of us is capable of being snarky, overbearing, petty, angry or spiteful. We do need reminders of that.

For instances, when you drive up to our church on Sunday morning you see that many words are engraved on the outside of our building, words like love, joy, justice, humility, hope and peace. John Bohstedt has suggested that we need to engrave words on the other side of our building, words like withering sarcasm, belittling put downs, snide condescension. In other words, we all need some kind of reminder that every single one of us is capable of becoming a troll.

And I do believe that –that everyone of us is capable of becoming a troll. But it never occurred to me until recently that someone might actually chose to be a troll, relish in being a troll and even be admired for being a troll.

So what does it mean to be a troll to those who admire the name and who aspire to live into the role. To be a troll is to be provocative. The ultimate goal of a troll is to get a reaction. Trolls love to live out their own aggressiveness, to lay waist to conventional ideas about civility and destroy anything that smacks of political correctness or even polite restraint. Trolls pride themselves on being offensive. Trolls love to be inflammatory. Troll comments are often insulting, degrading and belittling. Trolls are the consummate name callers. Because trolls love to get a reaction the more you react the more you will get trolled.

During the last election season it was hard to tell the difference between politicians and trolls whether you were a nasty woman or in the basket of deplorables. Our political campaigns have become less a contest of ideas and more a banquet of insults.

It seems that almost anyone could be drawn into the fray. For instance here in East Tennessee our usually congenial and considerate congressman has taken to calling some of his own constituents “kooks, extremists and radicals.” He claims that in our current political atmosphere it is impossible to have a civil conversation in a town hall meeting. He seems oblivious to the fact that his own name-calling contributes to that atmosphere he says he deplores.

Here is the problem with the politics of name-calling. When Thomas Jefferson wrote the words to the Declaration of Independence declaring, “all men are created equal” he was considered a radical. When Susan B Anthony and other suffragists rewrote those words to declare that “all men and women” are created equal she was considered a kook. When John Lewis and thousands of others marched in the civil rights movement he was considered an extremist.

Friends, history is on the side of the kooks. History is on the side of the extremists. History is on the side of the radicals.

I don’t see our congressman as someone who aspires to be a troll but someone like you or me who is capable of going there. Our congressman prides himself on being a conservative and so this morning we might do well to remember that conservative icon Barry Goldwater who once said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is not vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” And when Barry Goldwater learned that his grandson was gay he became a fierce champion for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

Goldwater loved his grandson the way many of us love our neighbors and love our family and friends and for that reason when it comes to basic human rights I know I speak for many when I say we will not be moderate in our pursuit of justice. We will be proud to stand with our Founding Fathers, our reforming mothers and our brothers and sisters from Selma and Stonewall and be extremists on behalf of liberty.

However, to be an extremist does not mean that we have to be a troll. We do not have to insult our way into political power or belittle others in order to feel strong ourselves. We can seek to ground our power in something deeper than political power or economic power or military power. We can ground our efforts in spiritual power.

We can remember the conviction that helped John Lewis stand toe to toe with vicious racists and armed thugs, “Each and everyone of us is imbued with a divine spark…that spark links us to the greatest power in the universe. It unites us with one another and …Creation.” With this conviction we can stand against all who seek to separate and divide us, all who seek to build themselves up by tearing others down.

When we are guided by the still small voice within and illuminated by this inner light then we know that withering sarcasm, belittling put-downs, snide condescension, police dogs and fires houses will not be enough to turn us around.

We will not troll or be trolled but live up to a higher standard and strive to align ourselves with the better angels of our nature.

There is an important message that comes out of the freedom movements all over the world. When we strive for freedom and justice we must not see this as a distant goal to be achieved in the distant future, we must live with the conviction that we are already there.

When we insist on following our conscience and doing the right thing we’re already there.

When we refuse to be silenced but instead speak truth to power we’re already there.

When we do not falter or fumble or waiver we’re already there.

When we feel courage instead of fear, hope instead of despair, energy instead of apathy, love instead of compassion fatigue we’re already there.

We may sing, “Come and Go with me to that Land where I’m bound.” We may sing, “There’ll be freedom in that land.” We may sing, “There’ll be justice in that land,” but as we sing we must ground ourselves in the conviction that we are already living in that land, breathing in that land, moving in that land. We’re already living in the land where we’re bound. We’re already there. We’ve already won.

On Valentine’s Day Suzanne and I went to see the movie Hidden Figures, which I highly recommend. The movie is based around the life of Katherine Johnson, the African American physicist and mathematician, who worked for NASA and did the calculations that allowed John Glenn to become the first American man to orbit the earth and return to earth without burning up in the atmosphere upon re-entry. In many scenes in that movie she is clearly the smartest woman in the room but she often has to undergo the indignities of racism, segregation and sexism simply to do her job.

There is a moment in the film after the first successful manned orbit when her boss a white man named Al Harrison turns to Katherine and asks her if she thinks they can do the next impossible thing – is it possible for NASA to put a human being on the moon and she replies to her boss, “We’re already there.”

And that’s my message this morning. We may not have done all of the math. We may have not computed all the calculations or solved every problem or done all the work but we are already there.

And this is why we gather here on Sunday mornings to remind each other that we are already there. February is black history month, a time to remember our ancestors, to remember how their lives continue to enrich our lives.

Recently our President said something that suggested that he thought Frederick Douglass was still alive. Historically, he is wrong but spiritually he is right. In many ways Frederick Douglass is still very much alive and is still empowering us to speak out for justice.

So it is important to remember that the themes I have been preaching this morning are not new or original for we are aligned with our spiritual ancestors. These themes are as old as the spirituals that empowered the Underground Railroad and as fresh as the convictions that launched humanity into space. Ours is a faith that is informed by those who struggled before us and this month and every month we can avoid the temptation to be a troll but instead aspire to live out the values I recently saw printed on a t-shirt (Friends, sometimes the words of the prophets are in the holy scriptures and other times they are on t-shirts.) We can aspire to…

Speak like Frederick

Lead like Harriet

Think like Garvey

Educate like W.E.B

Believe like Thurgood

Write like Maya

Fight like Malcolm

Dream like Martin

Challenge like Rosa

Build like Oprah

Change like Obama

And we might add do math like Katherine.

For this morning we can hear the harps eternal and we can sing together in the choir invisible and we can celebrate that our church news is not fake news but good news because…

Ours is a church of the open mind.

Ours is a church of the helping hands.

Ours is a church of the loving heart.

Together we care for our Earth

And work for friendship and peace in this world.

So be it.

(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday February 19, 2017 by the Reverend Chris Buice)

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