By the People

A Sermon by Jennifer Brooks, ministerial intern
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

– November 11, 2001 –

[Readings: Lyrics to "America the Beautiful"; Gettysburg Address. Songs prior to sermon: "This Land is Your Land." Special presentation: "Chosan" ("Ancestors"), a Tae Kwon Do moving meditation performed to "God Bless America." Song after sermon: "We'll Build a Land."]

Abraham Lincoln, in his supremely eloquent Gettysburg Address, described America as a nation "conceived in liberty" and "dedicated to the proposition" that all people are created equal. He said "men," of course, but over time we have grown to understand the American ideal as a democracy where all people have a voice, where all are protected by law, where freedom is for everyone.

This vision of America is captured in Katherine Lee Bates' lyrics to America the Beautiful. She imagines those pilgrim feet beating a thoroughfare to freedom, but pleads the need to mend every flaw, to confirm liberty in law. There is still work to do before the "patriot dream" is realizedóbefore every American city is "undimmed by human tears."

Lincoln and Bates both acknowledged the debt we the living owe to all those who gave their lives that this nation might live. Today, on veteran's day, we honor the members of our armed forces, past and present. Although not every person who signs up for military service is catapulted into war, each one understands the possibility that war may come. After September 11, the young men and women who have flooded recruitment offices are aware, as Americans were after Pearl Harbor, that they are volunteering in a time of danger.

Many of these new volunteers who stand ready to defend America are immigrants. The New York Times reports that non-citizen immigrants who hold green cards are not only eligible for military service but are volunteering in numbers out of proportion to their representation in the population. They, like the Korean immigrant Joon Rhee, feel a fierce patriotism that must express itself in action. They came to America for a better life. They have found themselves awe-struck by the extent to which freedom of speech and religious tolerance are a reality here. They are willing to risk their lives that this nation might live.

But it is not only those in military service who are at risk. In this new kind of war, where the enemy is often unseen and unsuspected, the home front is also the front lines. Right here in Greenbelt, at Gold's gym, some of the September 11 hijackers worked out. Post Office employees in Brentwood died from exposure to anthrax. Many of us here today have friends and relatives in New York City, where the ruins of the World Trade Center are expected to continue smoldering for 18 months.

We are all engaged in a war we did not seek, a war that came to us unbidden. Those among us who once had ordinary jobs now find themselves at risk.

May I ask, are there any mail carriers or other Postal Service employees here today, would you raise your hands?
Any firefighters? Police officers? Members of the National Guard?
Any government employees, anyone who works in a government building?
Anyone who travels frequently, and has returned to flying?
Anyone who anticipates making a plane trip? Who has altered their plans to avoid flying?
Anyone who works in a tall building? Who has a friend or relative who works in a tall building?
Anyone with children in a school that has asked for additional emergency information?
Anyone with children in school who worries about being separated from them if another emergency occurs?
Anyone who opens mail at the office? Who opens mail at home?
Anyone who worries, is distracted, is occasionally depressed or discouraged?

Would those of you who have raised your hands in response to any of these questions, please stand as you are able?

Look around. Look around. We are all affected. We stand together. We are America. Thank you [gesture to be seated].

As I have reflected on the meaning of veteran's day at a time when the home front is the front lines, I have tried to piece together the implications. I have been anxious and distracted, seeking solace, seeking hope. I have been unnerved by vague warnings that another terrorist attack is imminent, warnings that come without any specifics that would help me fashion precautions. I have done my best to cope with the anxiety of my 8-year-old son, who 3 weeks after September 11 became afraid when he saw a man in camouflage clothing; was that man a terrorist?

I open my mail at arm's length and try not to inhale. I wonder if everyone in America is doing this. I have a friend who is a clinical psychologist. One of her patients has obsessive-compulsive disorder and always opens her mail wearing latex gloves. My friend wonders if we all will be doing this. My mail carrier doesn't wear gloves or a mask, even though he's been issued them, and he shrugs when I ask. No, he says, he never used to think of his job as dangerous. Life has changed.

We have grieved and given blood, worn flag t-shirts and ribbons, contributed money, and stuck flag decals on our cars. We keep jugs of water under the sink and in the closet. But we know all too well that we cannot prepare for what we don't expect. The uncertainty, and the anxiety it produces, are exhausting.

A World War II veteran tells about a time near the end of the war when his commander called him in, along with others, to prepare for a new mission. Everyone in the room was exhausted. The commander looked around and said that no one was required to take on yet another dangerous task. "You have till tomorrow morning," he said. "Just come to me and tell me you're a coward, and you won't have to go." Harsh words. The vet who tells the story says that he lay awake all night wrestling with himselfóhe didn't want to go. He was a coward, he was willing to admit it; no matter how many missions he'd been on, he was afraid and didn't want another. We wanted to give up, to stop, to be safe. And yet he could imagine that if the mission went on without him, it would be his friends who shouldered the task, who would be responsible for doing the work that would keep him safe. He couldn't abandon them; it was as much his mission as it was theirs. He chose to carry on.

We, too, must carry on. We can't hold our breath forever. At some point, we've got to inhale.

Abraham Lincoln said that the people of his time were engaged in a great civil war. Take out the word "civil" and suddenly his Gettysburg Address is written for us today. We are engaged in a great war testing whether this nation can endure. Imagine Lincoln at the ruins of the World Trade Center: We cannot consecrate, we cannot dedicate, we cannot hallow this ground. Those who struggled here have consecrated it far beyond our poor power to add or detract. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before usóthat from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the task for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.

Think of the firefighters and police officers running into the building. Think of the office workers who stayed with their wheelchair-bound friends.

Lincoln said: We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom. That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Government by the people. Shall not perish. That's our task, to preserve liberty, to make democracy real, to make the ideal of "government by the people" a living thing.

Anxiety and fear, distraction and depression are the enemies we fight every day. Like the veteran who called himself a coward, we must continue because otherwise we ask others to shoulder our responsibility.

Most of us here can't root out terrorism or discover a secret anthrax lab. Others take on those tasks. Our task is different, and in some ways more difficult, because we don't have the satisfaction of tracking down bad guys. Our task, in the midst of uncertain treats to our safety and the safety of our loved ones, is to ensure that democracy continues.

Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister quoted at the top of the order of service, first used the phrase "government by the people." He was describing the ideal of democracy. A friend passed on a copy of Parker's speech to Abraham Lincoln, who honed and refined Parker's language. But the provenance of "government by the people" is Unitarian. Democracy is a deeply-rooted value of Unitarian Universalism. It is one of our seven principles. It is part of the history of our denomination, of our ancestors' struggles to decide for themselves what they believed and how they would worship.

A commitment to be active in our governance is deeply imbedded in our faith. It is as much a part of Unitarian Universalism as our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; as our commitment to protecting the environment.

Yet it would be easy in these difficult times to turn our attention away from the day-to-day business of government decisionmaking. It would be easy to let our elected representatives carry on without our input. We have our personal woes. We are tired. We are afraid. Yet we are called to carry on.

One of the lessons that Tae Kwon Do has had for me, this ancient Korean art form, is the importance of persistence in the face of difficulties and challenge. Although I've been practicing Tae Kwon Do for almost 20 years, it is only in the last few years that I've had difficulty with asthma--probably because of air pollution, particularly in the Washington, DC area. I discovered that things that used to come easily to me are no longer so easy because it's necessary to have oxygen if our muscles are to work. I've found myself without oxygen more times than I like. My instructor, Michael Coles, was compassionate but insistent: "Never give up," he said. "Never give up." And he also told me about Coach Lombardi's famous statement (I hadn't heard it before). Lombardi said, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." And it does, it does. We get so tired. I somehow found a way to work past my discouragement and fatigue so that I could continue performing a traditional art that, for me, is meditation; for me, is part of my spiritual life. I couldn't let asthma take it away, it was too important, so I found a way to fight my fatigue, the fatigue induced by lack of oxygen, and to keep on going.

Never give up. We cannot cede the government of our country to special interests, to the decisions of representatives who are strongly influenced by campaign contributions to favor those with money and power. Government by the people.

Perhaps in these dangerous days we will not send letters by mail, but we can fax members of Congress; we can e-mail; we can telephone. We can ask for decisions in government policy-making, for laws, that reflect our Unitarian Universalist values.

We can ask that laws enacted to track down terrorists be carefully written so that we do not lose the civil liberties that are so precious to America and to freedom itself.

We can ask that our laws continue to protect those who would dissent from the policies chosen by our government; to protect those who question the administration's decisions about how to defeat terrorism; to protect even those who assert that the war on terrorism can only be won by relentlessly waging peace--a peace that seeks to improve conditions for impoverished people who live in foreign lands

We can ask that the existence of a crisis not be used to justify damage to our environment, especially our wilderness areas. We can ask that conservation be an important part of our energy policy and the effort to end our dependence on foreign oil. We can ask that renewable energy sources be supported, that automobile fuel efficiency standards be increased, and that incentives for conservation be enacted.

In our compassion, we can ask that legislation to provide economic stimulus be written in a way that considers the victims of terrorist attacks who have been laid off from their low-wage jobs as hotel employees and restaurant workers. We can ask that economic stimulus laws be drafted and written and crafted in a way that does in fact stimulate the economy, rather than line the pockets of special interests.

We can ask, at this crucial time in our nation's history, that none of us abandon those who are most at risk in an economic downturn: the poor and the 20% of America's children who live below the poverty threshold.

We are Unitarian Universalists. We are Americans. This land is your land; this land is my land. We can keep it that way only if we continue our practice of being involved in policy-making by our government; if we continue to be the people who exercise the right of government by the people.

We are all Americans. We are all part of the struggle to preserve our democracy and its values from outside attacks. And we must also preserve our democracy from the erosion of our liberties, our environment, and our ideals of justice.

Government by the people. With liberty and justice for all.

We live in a new time, and this is a different kind of war. We will be the veterans of this time and this war.

And one day we will be the veterans of this time and the veterans of this war. May we be able to look back and say that we did our best to preserve the patriot dream.

Let it be.

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