Our 50th Anniversary:
Wrestling Less with Angels Than with Prophets

A sermon by Jaco B. ten Hove, co-minister,
Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church - Oct. 31, 2004

The Jewish invention of the prophetic in Hebrew scriptures (says) that he or she who loses sight of the poor insults one's maker, (but) he or she who is in solidarity with the poor exalts one's maker. (Proverbs 14:31.) Biblical folk, you can look it up.
-Cornel West, in an interview about his new book, Democracy Matters (www.alternet.org/story/20017)

PRELUDE We Will Build a Land B. Zanitti/C. McDade
David Chapman, pianist and music director

WELCOME & ANNOUNCEMENTS Jim Flaherty, worship associate

CALL TO WORSHIP Jaco B. & Barbara W. ten Hove, co-ministers

HYMN #389 Gathered Here
Children may leave for Religious Education/Exploration activities.

MOMENT OF MINDFULNESS

INTONATION De Colores D. Arkin/Spanish folksong

FLAMING CHALICE DEDICATION Leo Jones, worship associate

SPECIAL MUSIC Minstrel Man L. Hughes/M. Bonds
Muriel Morisey, vocalist

READING O Young and Fearless Prophet S. R. Harlow, 1885-1972

HYMN #276

SERMON Wrestling Less With Angels Than With Prophets
Jaco B. ten Hove

HYMN #170 We Are a Gentle, Angry People

SHARING OF JOYS AND SORROWS

SILENCE, REFLECTION OR PRAYER

OFFERTORY Allerseelen (All Soul's Day) R. Strauss

CLOSING WORDS

RESPONSE #123 Spirit of Life C. McDade

EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE

POSTLUDE March of the Dwarfs E. Grieg


FLAMING CHALICE DEDICATION ­ SOCIAL JUSTICE AT PBUUC - LEO JONES

Many years before the members of our denomination covenanted to "affirm and promote . . . justice, equity, and compassion in human relations," which is the second principle of our faith, the liberal religious community that would later become the Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church included members who committed much of their time and energy to the support of social justice issues.

In 1957, members of the congregation set out to desegregate the maternity wards at the Prince George's Hospital. African-American mothers were kept so far from the nursery in which their newborns were housed that they could not breast feed. Led by the church's first minister, the late Dave Osborn, several members of the congregation and its partner the NAACP protested, were arrested, and spent nights in jail. They planned their strategy in the Riverdale photography studio of church member Roy Hart, who later was elected to the Maryland General Assembly.

From the 1950s to the present, Paint Branchers individually and as a congregation have continued a tradition of social activism. In the early 1960s restaurants in the Washington area continued to discriminate against black patrons despite several federal court desegregation orders. Janet Osborne and Marge Owens convinced editors at the Washington Post to run a story that featured a brochure created by Roy Hart. The brochure quoted business owners who argued that they had not lost business when they desegregated, and, in fact, their businesses had become easier to run once they stopped discriminating against black customers. Once the Post story ran, Marge and Janet distributed copies to all Maryland legislators. The Maryland General Assembly soon passed the state's public accommodations law.

In the years since, the Paint Branch congregation has continued its social justice activities. As members of a welcoming congregation for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons, Paint Branchers work actively as part of Capital Area Interweave, the Interfaith Fairness Coalition of Maryland, and Unitarian Universalists for Free State Justice to support equity and fairness.

As a part of the Community Ministry of Prince George's County, the Paint Branch congregation participates with other religious organizations in the Warm Nights Shelter Program, an initiative to provide shelter, hospitality and services to the homeless during the coldest nights of the year.

Our congregation also supports the good work of Beacon House, a halfway house for single mothers with children on public assistance. Members like Nate Rummel volunteer at Beacon House, and the congregation contributes funds and time to support its mission.

A few years ago, Paint Branch began a partnership with Suitland High School here in Prince George's County. Our church contributes money and materials to support the school's Visual and Performing Arts Program. We also have had the pleasure of welcoming Suitland students who have participated in our worship services. Sylvia Lagerquist has been instrumental in this effort.

The list of Paint Branchers active in social justice is too long to recite in full here, and I am certain to omit the names of many who deserve to be recognized. Dick Bienasz has worked actively and steadily as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union, and Marj Donn works tirelessly to urge us to contact our representatives in Annapolis in support of a variety of progressive causes. If I have mentioned your name, or you have participated in any of the social justice activities I have mentioned, would you please stand so that we can acknowledge your good work?

It is already too late to make a long story short, but the list continues: Paint Branchers Doyle Niemann and Abby Crowley are past and present members, respectively, of the Prince George's County School Board. Doyle is now a member of the Maryland House of Delegates. Bob McCrory is Mayor of Bladensburg. Both are following in the footsteps of Roy Hart and Cora Rice, a Paint Branch member who served as president of the Prince George's NAACP.

Other members of our congregation have made social action their life's work. They are teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, ministers, attorneys, medical professionals, public servants, and consultants who work every day to put into action our covenant to promote and affirm "justice, equity, and compassion" in our local, state, and national communities. If your work falls into one of the categories I have just mentioned, please stand and be recognized.

In so many ways during the past fifty years Paint Branchers heeded the biblical injunction to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and give hope to the downtrodden. Individually and as a congregation, Paint Branchers have worked to make ours "a faith with a spiritual center and civic circumference," in the words of Bill Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

So it is my honor this morning to dedicate our Flaming Chalice to the memory of those who began the tradition of social activism at Paint Branch, to those who have contributed their time and energy to advancing the common good, and to those who will continue this work during the next fifty years. For in "giving life the shape of justice," they have advanced the goal of creating a world ruled by love and reason.

HYMN #276 O Young and Fearless Prophet -by Samuel Ralph Harlow.

O young and fearless Prophet of ancient Galilee:
Your life is still a summons to serve humanity,
To make our thoughts and actions less prone to please the crowd,
To stand with humble courage for truth with hearts unbowed.

0 help us stand unswerving against war's bloody way,
Where hate and lust and falsehood hold back your holy sway;
Forbid false love of country, that turns us from your call
Who lifts above the nation the neighborhood of all.

Create in us the splendor that dawns when hearts are kind,
That knows not race nor station as boundaries of the mind;
That learns to value beauty, in heart, or mind, or soul,
And longs to see God's children as sacred, perfect, whole.

Stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth;
For some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health.
Once more give us your challenge above our noisy day,
And come to lead us forward along your holy way.

SERMON

I suspect that some Christians might struggle with this hymn's portrayal of effect of the "young and fearless prophet of Galilee"-"Stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth, (as) some go starved and hungry who plead for work and health." But then such recognition of stark inequity certainly inspires others, including non-Christians, to dedicate their lives to helping the less fortunate, taking their lead from this very formative prophetic exemplar, whose "life is still a summons to serve humanity."

Author Cornel West reminds us (in quote above) that the origin of the prophetic tradition is to be "in solidarity with the poor." More expansively, the prophetic tradition calls out for justice, and a prophet usually ventures beyond service, per se, to fiercely challenge the status quo on behalf of the voiceless, the most vulnerable. As a non-Christian, I am humbled by the prophets, especially Jesus, whose memory launched a whole movement named after him that indeed wandered in some directions rather far afield from his essential teachings. This does not, however, negate the power of the teachings.

Jesus was a different sort of prophet from most of the Hebrew Scripture prophetic figures, in at least one way: he actually developed a following. Many of the earlier prophets were rather lonely figures, although they felt true to the name prophet, which in Hebrew means one called or sent as a messenger [found in Understanding the Bible by John Buehrens, pg. 79]. They railed against what they saw as the corruption of their day, and about how to restore right relationship with their God and each another.

The so-called Literary Prophets had their concerns noted in the Scriptures, perhaps because their claims held up over time. But there were many other prophets who not only went unheeded, but also unrecorded, including plenty of false prophets.

In our day, there are no fewer voices claiming to be prophets than in any other era, most either on behalf of the poor or for some manifestation of justice. One of the most renowned, prolific and popular Unitarian Universalist theologians of the 20th century, James Luther Adams, once suggested that "the ratio of false prophets to true probably has not changed much since the time of Elijah: 450 false prophets to every single true one" [Ibidem].

If this is the case, then the rest of us are in the same position as our forebears, trying to sort through and judge lots of emotional claims on our conscience about the sad state of society all around us. And today we have regular election cycles to accentuate the negatives for us.

Even what we call "justices" seem to not always be on the side of justice. Shortly we shall see how our modern court system treats the latest voices decrying election improprieties. Can you believe the accusations flying about potential voting booth fraud and party operatives that either register multitudes of voters illegally or connive to disenfranchise folks they would prefer not be counted? I find it hard not to believe some of it, given what unfolded in Florida four years ago.

In fact, I'd go so far as to portray the undermining of our election system as a good example of our collective neglect of internal security in favor of all the expensive external security efforts aimed at our borders. And while our eyes are focused out there, a giant time bomb of national debt, the exporting of jobs, global warming, our emasculated public education and vanishing civil rights, etc.-everything else gets short shrift before the dynamic specter of the terrorist threat.

But who can blame us for this neglect? We've been so frightened by credible threats from the outside-which are easy for corporations to profit from-that we pay little or no attention to the erosion of our inner security, which is a much harder item to demonize-or market. It's the triumph of mass manipulation over meaning and we are its willing victims!

Do I sound like a prophet yet? Or am I just paranoid, or overly inclined toward conspiracy theories, or maybe even getting ready to run for office myself? Who's to say? Who, indeed.

Perhaps tonight you'll try to go to bed but instead spend hours mulling over your fears about security-or any impending situation you face, maybe even how to vote on Tuesday. You might agonize over the complications of it all. Perhaps your conscience will nag at you, and you'll rationalize prior behavior. Finally, you might arrive at a plan or some approach to the next day that offers a path you can feel okay about.

If so, you might also find comfort in the Hebrew Scriptures Book of Genesis, Chapter 32, which tells the story of Jacob wrestling all night with an angel. It happens as Jacob is camped outside his brother Esau's home, awaiting a potentially dangerous reunion with his sibling, whom Jacob had cheated out of an inheritance many years earlier.

The verses are vague about details and the angel remains a nameless "face of God," but it's clear that Jacob spends a restless night dealing severely with his issues, alone with is conscience for this metaphorical tussle with an angel. Come the morning, Jacob is so grateful to even still be alive that he takes on a new, empowering name: Israel, which literally means, in Hebrew, "contender with God." And oh, by the way, his reunion with a forgiving Esau goes well.

We all wrestle with various inner voices at significant moments in our lives, and this is important work that helps us find authentic equilibrium so that we may step forward and live life with gusto and ethical resolve. But we also must wrestle with outer voices, especially ones that might call us to account for our complicity with injustice and urge us to stand up for what is right. I know I need reminders and reality checks.

One of the six "Sources" of our Unitarian Universalist "living tradition," shown near the back of your Bulletin each week, says we UUs draw strength from "Words & deeds of prophetic women and men, which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love."

This is one of our most demanding values. For in order to "confront powers and structures of evil," we have to be able to judge what is evil. Complex post-modern culture, loaded as it is with relativity and tolerance, has inspired a considerable backlash from absolutists, which we generally reject. But how do we know what is evil? And how do we decide to contribute our precious life energy to what causes? This alone might be worth a restless night or two, wrestling with our conscience, stirred by loud prophetic voices all around us.

To at least improve the odds for better sleep, let me offer three yardsticks by which I measure and grapple with various calls for my attention. (And I, too, honor the folks from this congregation who have, over five decades now, done their own grappling with and acting on important social action issues of each generation.)

What I offer are three fundamental guides that help me prioritize almost all other concerns. They are: the gap between rich and poor; the environment; and evolution. (If it helps, there's a handy acronym here: Gap, Environment and Evolution...GEE.)

 

For me, the necessary criteria for assessing true prophetic voices starts with Jesus and his teaching about the importance of standing with the poor. Continuously relevant from his day to ours, this can be a very telling gauge of competing claims, prophetic or otherwise. When I hear a righteous voice demanding change-or objecting to change, I look to see who might profit, and if it's the folks who already have a lot, I judge accordingly. In more crass terms, I take the advice of perhaps less noble but equally savvy voices: follow the money.

Were the "young and fearless prophet" among us today, I believe that's what he'd want us to do. (So if I encounter that curious Christian query "WWJD?"-What Would Jesus Do?-I can suggest that he would Follow the Money, as he did so famously in the temple when he challenged the money-changers.) In particular, I try to assess the contribution any particular action or inaction makes toward the huge divide between poor and rich. This hideous gap is a very pivotal point, through which many other assessments must pass, I believe.

Now, I do not think that we need to completely equalize or flatten the economic status of all people, but in our lifetimes we have watched the steadily increasing separation between "haves" and "have nots" turn into a rout, both nationally and globally. We should reverse the curse of this extreme gap. It is wrong-evil, even-and one doesn't have to be a prophetic Christian to feel that way. I say that if we apply this measuring stick to any issue, the ethical implications become clear. "Stir up in us a protest against unneeded wealth."

For instance, I believe true prophets of our time are railing against the incredible differential between what top American executives are paid and what lower level workers take home I believe true prophets of our time are railing against 10,000 sq. ft. single-family homes and their wastefully luxurious ilk And, yes, I believe true prophets of our time over in the District of Columbia are railing against how readily that government can find millions of dollars to build a new baseball stadium for private owners, while its decimated public school and public protection systems go to pieces, begging for any morsels of additional funding, year after year.

According to the well-respected goad, Cornel West, one percent of the population is now holding 48 percent (almost half!) of the country's net financial wealth, while 20 percent of our precious children of all colors are living in utter poverty in the richest nation in the history of the world. His conclusion: "It's a moral disgrace"[found in "Matters of Justice," by Terrence McNally, AlterNet, 9/29/04, www.alternet.org/story/20017].

And it provides us with a filter through which to examine many demanding issues. If something or someone isn't helping to reduce the looming divide between rich and poor, chances are it's more a part of the problem than the solution, a false prophet.

 

Our extremely polarized economic climate is not only a structure of evil, it's outstandingly near-sighted, which leads me to a second yardstick by which to measure prophetic claims: the actual climate and health of the Earth-our home, the very ground of our being. Because of the profligate wastefulness of its current caretakers, the Earth may humble us all into poverty very soon, as the planetary systems we depend on become so imbalanced and polluted that they degrade irretrievably.

We have been hearing environmental prophets for some years, almost to the point that we are numb to their warnings. Extremists on both ends seem to have the debate at a logjam, as conditions worsen. A very hopeful criterion I want to explore is put forth by one of the longtime prophetic voices in this arena, the prolific global activist Lester Brown. His periodic studies on "The State of the Earth" have been models of depth, clarity and force, even as they catalogue the ways we are fouling our own nest.

One of Lester Brown's recent books [Eco-Economy: Building and Economy for the Earth, 2001] addressed how we might create better ways to integrate our capitalist system with the eco-system. He suggested a deceptively simple, yet literally Earth-shaking attitude shift.

"The environment,' he explained, "is not part of the economy," as many in the corporate world believe. It's the other way around: "the economy is part of the environment The economy must be designed so that it is compatible with the ecosystem of which it is a part" [found in Timeline, July/Aug. 2004, "Real Security; Taking Care of Our EcoSystems," a book review by Mac Lawrence].

In other words: put some "eco" into "economy." So I believe we can and should judge any proposal at any level of organization-from home owners to multi-nationals-by assessing how well it fits in with whatever environment it affects. Lester Brown and I recognize the demands of this condition, but really, what are our options here?

His latest book is called "Plan B: Rescuing a Planet under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble." It explains precisely what is going wrong and what can be done to reverse the combined disastrous effects of our population overload and near-sighted mismanagement. Essentially, his message is that our global economy must be redesigned, post haste. This is pretty prophetic stuff-and it's optimistic. He describes how many of the necessary Plan B solutions are already being demonstrated all over the world; they just need greater advocacy and more widespread application. (I noticed that he includes "geo-thermal as an under-used resource.")

"Plan A," in case you were wondering, is what we are currently doing: "continuing to overconsume the Earth's natural capital," which is clearly no longer a viable or ethical option. How much more negative evidence do we need to give up on this damaging approach, and intentionally move toward a more feasible and more mature "Plan B"? So many other issues are either subsumed or dwarfed by this one that it becomes a pivotal yardstick.

 

And speaking of maturing, my third guide for how we might assess prophetic claims is an even bigger picture item: evolution. This may not be as visible in specific issues, but it provides important perspective that helps us both judge what really matters and find hope amid so much distress.

Consider the evolution of the Earth, a long story in which our species is a significant but very recent player. Nonetheless, the collective energy of our rapidly expanding presence has become so huge that we have pushed right up against the limits of what is realistically sustainable, especially as we fail to really know ourselves as interconnected and interdependent with all planetary life.

With this dilemma in mind, futurist author Barbara Marx Hubbard suggests that "Homo sapiens, in our current phase, is a transitional species. We are not viable in this state of separated consciousness with so much power. We will either evolve or become extinct" [Hubbard, Conscious Evolution, pgs. 15, 60].

The good news, she points out, is that "it is the nature of nature to transform, especially when life hits a growth limit" [Ibid., pg. 61], and she proposes that our next destination be a new form of the species, called Homo universalis. But to get there, we have to be able to learn deeply from our journey so far. We must increasingly engage in "Conscious Evolution," which is the name of her very stimulating 1998 book, subtitled, "Awakening the Power of Our Social Potential."

Not only is it "the nature of nature to transform," but another of the lessons of evolution is that "crises precede transformation" [Ibid., pg. 48]. Looking ahead, for instance, the painfully demonstrated threat of nuclear weapons will hopefully force us to move beyond war. And perhaps the ugly deterioration of the environment will force us to truly internalize the interdependence of all life. Both of those developments, stirred by crises, would count as transformations in my book.

The yardstick of conscious evolution, by which I think we can measure prophetic claims, helps us realize that Nature historically and continually creates from parts in the interest of wholeness, which actually inspires great diversity as we all grow increasingly complex. Nothing brought this home more deeply for me and many others than what has been called our planetary baby picture, the image of the earth as seen from space-such a powerful icon of the wholeness of our planetary organism.

It's a baby picture because we are still maturing as a species. Until recently, we were much like other animals, unaware and uncaring that there might be limits to our growth. We were conditioned to concentrate on two primary drives: self-preservation and reproduction. Now, we are called, prophetically, to evolve beyond being merely instinctual procreators, to become conscious co-creators on our very finite planetary home [Ibid., pg. 74].

Each leap we make in complexity expands our capacities, although we are really just learning to how to balance the interwoven skills of consciousness and freedom, and of course we make mistakes. For instance, we know we are "free" to drop a nuclear bomb on an "enemy" or preemptively start a war, but more and more we realize how we ourselves can be hurt by fallout from our own violent acts.

Those lessons can be painful ones and we must grow wiser from them, not increasingly rigid and even more nearsighted. We have to learn to manage the fears of our time and not let them stunt our spiritual growth. We must deepen our awareness of what "right relationship" really looks like. I'm listening for prophetic voices that help me do all that.

Barbara Marx Hubbard, Lester Brown, and Cornel West, are three contemporary prophetic voices that echo the "young and fearless prophet of Galilee." They provide essential context for how I might effectively wrestle with important matters-and survive. This improves the odds that I can at least sleep better at night, understanding where I fit in and what really matters. To my mind and heart, reduction of the gap between rich and poor, creative and realistic protection of our precious environment, and increasingly conscious evolution matter a lot.

There have been and continue to be other courageous, "prophetic women and men" among us, whose "words and deedschallenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love." You can probably name some of your mentors, and I encourage you to do so.

I also urge you to identify and articulate the abiding values, worldview perspectives, and religious philosophies that guide your choices, that provide you with meaning, hope and stamina. They will help you distinguish between true and false prophets; they will accompany you into voting booths; they will be passed on to younger generations who are always watching and learning.

May your inimitable contributions be blessings to the communities you help animate, such as this one, so that together we might lift up "the neighborhood of all," and be about the glorious business of "singing for our lives," aided by #170 in your hymnbooks.

Composer Holly Near, a renowned folksinger and activist, who spoke and sang inspirationally at last June's UUA General Assembly, wrote this song in 1978, in response to the assassination of. gay San Francisco City Council member Harvey Milk. A very upset and volatile crowd had gathered at the steps of City Hall, so she brilliantly crafted a powerful song that acknowledged their anger but led them into loving action. Notice, as you sing, the emotional movement from first to last verse...

  1. We are a gentle, angry people
  2. We are a justice-seeking people
  3. We are young and old together
  4. We are a land of many colors
  5. We are gay and straight together
  6. We are a gentle, loving people

CLOSING WORDS:

In "singing for our lives" of oneness, by evolving and learning how,
We "stand with humble courage for truth with hearts unbowed."

We're a justice-seeking people, gathered here for 50 years.
We're prophetic-angry and loving, rising well above our fears.

May your yardsticks be effective and your choices for the good.
May the stirrings of compassion sustain all our neighborhoods.

Please sing with us #123, Spirit of Life...

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