The Longed-For Tidal Wave of Justice"

This is the rough text of the Institute Sermon delivered in Asilomar on Tuesday, February 3rd, to the 2015 UUMA Institute for Excellence in Ministry.

"The Longed For Tidal Wave of Justice."

I am retired; so many things fall away when you retire. You no longer have to be the most mature person in the room, whatever room you are in. You get Saturday night back. But mostly you give up your special chair on Sunday morning. Where should I sit? Sunday morning, I can sit wherever I want. I don’t have an assigned place. I found this so disturbing at first that I joined the choir, just to get my own chair. I like it because, now, I still get to sit up front where people can see me, and, I get to watch people’s faces.

I go to Ann Arbor congregation in Michigan where the issue of marriage equality is still a hot issue. My congregation (and now I am allowed to call it “my congregation”) is served by a minister, Her Holiness, the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer and his Associate Holiness, the Rev. Mark Evens.  Gail is a community leader in Ann Arbor for marriage equality. My congregation is my link to that issue. And, because the rights denied to gays and lesbians intersects with many other oppressions, my congregation is now a link to all of them.

We are a singing congregation. And so, on Sunday, among everything else that goes on, I am given the chance to take a stand with the great struggles of the day, even if all I can do some weeks is stand as “I am willing and able”, sing out with gusto, and clap along. Worship gives us all a place to sit, a place to stand if we are willing and able, a place in the wide world.
We are finding our place, not only in the context of the progress toward marriage equality, but now also in the midst of the “black lives matter” movement, the current phase of the African American liberation movement, the present incarnation of the anti-racism movement.

The BlackLivesMatter Movement is feeding into an open-ended reformation of our ethics: what we do day to day with the people around us, and the demands of this moment in history. Reformation movements are RE-Formation movements. We have been formed by our society; and now we must be Re - Formed (Formed Again!) to live with justice.

30 years ago, in the middle of the Reagan Presidency, UU’s codified our social ethics in six, and then seven, principles.  We made a covenant among our congregations to uphold — we made a promise to each other — that we would promote and affirm those principles.

Those Principles are summaries of our ethical hopes; they are about how we hope to live, how we hope our congregations would be. They are our hopes for the world we want to live in. But,they were not just our hopes, but the hopes of many, many people. We didn’t invent them, we only named them.

At the time we adopted them, UU’s were anxious to define themselves as a distinct identity, how we were unique, that we were Somebody in a culture that thought liberalism passé and ridiculous,and where the conservative megachurches were flourishing and we were not.

The principles we named then can seem pious and wishful thinking, platitudes that a Rotary Club could adopt without controversy. As bold statements of our unique identity, for many UU’s, the seven principles are a little disappointing. 

But time and history changes the meaning of words and statements. 

Those seven principles are not bland generalities anymore.

Today every one of those principles, first six and now seven, is highly controversial. There are actively contested in the public square. They may have been written in a committee, but they are paraphrased on picket signs in the streets all across this country. 

They are no longer, our unique trademark. They summarize the aspirations of millions of people who have never heard of Unitarian Universalism. But we have spent 30 years gathering communities around them; we have taught them to hundred of thousands of people, including children.

Go down the list of the seven principles:
Is not the affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity” pressed upon us by the reminder that “black lives matter.” 
Are not the fast food and minimum wages workers asserting “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”
Isn’t the acceptance of each other and the encouragement of spiritual growth what the effort to calm Islamophobia is all about?
Aren’t climate change denial and creationism attempts to refute of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning?
Fifty years after Selma, aren’t voter rights still a live question in upholding the democratic process in society at large?
How can we square America’s policies of constant war with our commitment to a world community of peace, liberty and justice?
We promised Respect for the interdependent web, and our government considers whether to permit the Keystone pipeline.  

I am not just saying that our principles have some theoretical application to some of the issues of the day. I am saying that real people from all strata of society are out there fighting for the principles we named, and that we have promised to affirm and promote.


They are our public theology, 

Some people say that Unitarian Universalism lacks a firm theological foundation. Some have said that our extensive social and political activism needs a firmer theological underpinning.

I think that we have more than enough theology; what we need is more theological reflection on what we believe and what it requires of us at this moment of history.

I want to take a minute to talk about the metaphors we use to talk about justice and history. 

Today, walk talk about the arc of the universe. Our Theodore Parker started the story. Think about it. Parker says that somewhere out there, further than he can see, and beyond what he can figure, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Somewhere out there. 
But listen to Seamus Heaney talk about justice and history in a different way.: “But then, once in a lifetime, there comes a longed-for tidal wave of justice, and hope and history rhyme.” 
The Universe bends somewhere out there; but tidal waves come to you. You stand on the shore, and it comes to you. And if you are not ready to turn and sail, or surf, or swim with it, as it tumbles toward you and breaks over you, you will be destroyed. 

There it is: that’s my whole sermon right there. I could sit down now. 

But we are on the forming edge of our lives, so let’s reflect on our promises as this tidal wave of justice tumbles down upon us. 
As I have said, The culture is in the midst of a reformation in social and personal ethics. The reformation in ethics is surfacing as questions of privilege: white privilege, male privilege, cis-privilege, heteronormativity.

It’s personal. It’s about how you, as a person, relate to other persons.

To whom do you defer? 
From whom do expect deference? 
Who do you see as “like yourself’ and who do you see as the other. 
Whose lives matter? 
Remembering that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, whose lives do you regard with routine indifference?

We must allow ourselves to be re-formed, re-made at this most personal level of habit and identity. 
But many people lack the spiritual resources, to move beyond just protecting the small relative advantages they have. They are feeling the challenges. But they need to hear many messages of affirmation and love. They need communities that support them, and challenge them and forgive them. They need companions. They need a place to stand as they are able, to clap and sing along.


  1. Did you consciously avoid referencing King's Ware Lecture because you knew that audience would at some point go there without you? Or am I overthinking things?

  2. Preach it, live it, teach it. Thank you.


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