Note: This service came the week after George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, the week the protests and riots began, and the week the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States passed the 100,000 mark.
Rev Kevin’s opening at the beginning of the service included the following:
“This past week has stacked heartbreak upon heartbreak, stoked fear upon fear, piled discouragement upon discouragement. It has brought a terribly heavy load for the heart and for the spirit, and I know that some of us are feeling buried beneath the weight of it.
. . . beneath the death of George Floyd, yet another black person held under the knee of yet another white person, long enough and visibly enough this time to tear your heart and your hope for humanity, . . .killed in a way that horrifies most, but that shocks only those who have not looked deeply beneath the veneer that light skin and privilege cast over everything on this continent, a veneer that has required a white knee on the neck or back of every person of any other color for more than 500 years.”
Tongues of Fire
Rev. Kevin Tarsa
Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
A sermon delivered May 31, 2020
[Watch for the video of the sermon soon on UUCM’s YouTube Channel.]
I had originally thought to use this morning to invite us to look forward, as a congregation, from this sustained, external limbo, this liminal threshold from which the view of the future is rather clouded. That will have to come another time. The week is requiring something different.
Like New York Times columnist, David Brooks, who I mentioned earlier, I am feeling short on words this week. Like some of you, I am a person who must turn first inward in order to express outwardly, and there is so much to take in lately. I need to feel if for a time before I can speak to it fully.
Maybe it would be helpful and “enough” to rage cathartically today against the injustices, the systems, the particular behaviors that are so destructive to what we value, and I may yet.
Have you been swearing as much as I have lately, when you receive the daily news stories? Or crying?
I’m raging a fair amount these days, in my home-bound introverted way, but beneath my own anger and my fear, my learning about racism, white supremacy, and U.S. history no longer leads me to see individual police officers or departments, or trios of murderous white vigilantes, or frightened and frightening dog walkers, or even individual self-obsessed people in high national office as the true source of the destruction, or the useful targets of my rage.
Their behaviors must be stopped, yes, using all the means we have or can create, and persons and institutions must be held accountable for their actions, yes. That would be a genuine move forward!
And…. while we are doing that, we have to see that they are, in important ways, racism’s decoys, part of white supremacy’s slight-of-hand that diverts our attention to the shocking and the horrifying as if the latest tragedy is an aberration, focus our attention on the individual bad actors we can rage against safely and righteously, distancing ourselves from them, while the real dynamics are stoked and sustained every day out of sight where we don’t see them, including within ourselves.
Racism is a shape-shifter, my teachers have taught me. It hides in plain view and keeps mutating to avoid detection, so I’ve become wary of the obvious.
Another Kind of Virus
As we members of UUCM’s Challenging White Privilege group are trying to learn and take to heart, we are carriers of the virus of racism, all of us, even when we don’t recognize having symptoms, and we transmit the infection without realizing it, in myriad invisible droplets.
Quarantining a few obviously symptomatic “others” will not ultimately protect people of color or ourselves. Thinking that it will helps to keep racism in place. It’s going to take massive and widespread changes of heart and behavior, with enough of us “in it” together, and we are each responsible for starting with our own awareness and behaviors.
I went to a hardware store on Memorial Day. I know, not the smartest move. A busy hardware store that day. I did not see a single employee wearing a mask and only a very small percentage of us shoppers wearing masks. This, on a weekend known for out-of-town travel. It’s a story I heard many of you repeating from your experiences in other local stores and businesses.
The disturbing Memorial Day weekend party behaviors – the unmasked, undistanced, seemingly oblivious behaviors relative to the COVID-19 virus – give a symbolic tiny hint at the scale and the scope of challenging racism and white supremacy.
Dr. Anthony Fauci’s recent words to John Hopkins University students come to mind: He said to them:
“All of you, directly or indirectly, will be [must be, I would say] doing your part together with the rest of us to come out from under the shadow of this pandemic.”
“All of you, directly or indirectly, [must be, I would say] doing your part together with the rest of us to come out from under the shadow of this pandemic [of white supremacy.]”
And as Dr. Fauci said to students at the college of the Holy Cross:
“Now is the time, if ever there was one, for us to care selflessly about one another.”
Who Is This About, Anyway?
Getting angry and loud and righteous, as white persons, or feeling the pain personally, quietly and deeply are important and can be useful IF they strengthen our empathy, our connection, our compassion, our resolve, or motivation, or our solidarity.
In my experience they sometimes risk keeping us focused on ourselves rather than on those who are suffering most, and they risk serving as release valves that help those of us who are white to feel better emotionally, without asking much of us, and without lasting or helpful effect. Righteousness and despair are luxuries that only those of us with privilege can afford.
So, rage, and cry, and worry, and despair even, for a moment, if you need and if it will help – those are valid and appropriate responses to the events of this past week, the past four years, the past decade, the past century, the past 500+ years. And as soon as you can, while you are doing that, notice where your rage, your worry, your despair is focused. Is it on one of the decoys, or on a true, more subtle, much more widespread, near, and viral source? Is it leading you to action, or inaction?
I’m just starting to learn, as a white man, to not let shame or my perfectionism, or my desire to be seen as good to get in the way of accepting the infectious, viral nature of racism and its presence in me. I’ve got a long way to go. Denial and resistance are trademark symptoms of this virus and there is no vaccine in sight.
We’re going to have to do this the personal, sustained, imperfect, over-the-long-haul way, as daunting or discouraging as that may feel to us – like the thought of a long road of sequestering ahead. It’s yet another invitation of this extraordinary time, when just maybe, things will be shaken up enough, when we will be shaken up enough, for something new to be possible.
Pentecost: Preparing for a Blessing
To invite us into this moment more poetically and prayerfully, I would like to close by preparing us for a blessing…a blessing for Pentecost Day, which is today, written five years ago and exactly for today by Jan Richardson. It was published in her book Circles of Grace: Blessings for the Season. Beth Karow shared it with the Worship Team (Thank you, Beth!), and it is a gift in this moment.
For those who are not familiar with Pentecost, it is first a Jewish holy day 50 days after Passover, thus “Pente-cost,” meaning “50th day.” It is rooted in earlier celebrations of the first wheat harvest of the summer. In Christianity, it marks the 49th day after Easter, the “50th day,” if you include Easter.
According to the story – and I invite you to hear this story as a story, in the ways that allow you to hear its truths – the followers of Jesus were gathered for the Jewish holy day of Pentecost. Their beloved and radically inclusive teacher had been killed violently, had appeared to them for a time, and had ascended to heaven, leaving them on earth, having promised that he would at some point send his spirit to guide them. They were waiting, lost, afraid, uncertain, …heart-broken.
“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,” [the story says] “and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Acts 2: 1-4 NRSV
It is in that moment that those brokenhearted and fearful followers found courage and confidence and direction, and began to take their beloved teacher’s message of love and radical inclusion out to a wider world. In Christian communities, it is celebrated as the beginning of the Christian church.
I invite you to receive this blessing through the events of this week and all the related events that have preceded it.
I invite you to receive this blessing through the values of this Unitarian Universalist tradition and congregation.
I invite you to receive this blessing through the lens of Tikkun Olam and the shatterings that have split love into countless fragments that we are called to gather up one by one.*
I invite you to receive this blessing through the lenses that best open its gifts to your heart and your mind in this moment.
This Grace That Scorches Us
A Blessing for Pentecost Day
by Jan Richardson
* A reference to Amy Petrie Shaw’s free retelling of the Shevirat haKeilim (from the Kabbalah), offered earlier in the service. Find it at https://www.uua.org/worship/words/story/shattering-vessels