“From the fragmented world of our everyday lives we gather together in search of wholeness.” These are the beginning words of our responsive reading this morning. “From the fragmented world . . . we gather together.”
So it is. A fragmented world. The news has been filled with the unfolding details of the San Bernardino mass shooting. It was actually the second of two mass shootings on Wednesday. It marked the 355th mass shooting this year. 355 - that’s more mass shootings thus far this year than we’ve had days in the year. The way a mass shooting is being defined, I’ve learned, is if bullets strike four people or more in the same attack. 355 of those so far this year. How will we get to Christmas or Solstice or Kwanzaa in the midst of such shattering of lives?
It’s hard to make sense of this level and amount of violence. When CNN showed photos of the people who died in San Bernardino, my heart was breaking. When they showed the photos of the couple who did this, my heart was breaking. Certainly for different reasons. Complicated reasons.
From the fragmented world. A world where one’s neighbors who seem to be living an ordinary American life with a new baby get up one morning and a few hours later have killed 14 people and injured many more – and are themselves dead.
Despite the recurring examples, too many examples, I continue to be shocked and saddened - not numbed. The reality of our world is not a Hallmark Card or a Norman Rockwell painting – even at the holidays. It never has been. Despite our culture’s urge to turn this season into an emotional ideal, suffering is real. There is the suffering that many are holding in their personal lives – the losses, stresses, heartaches. And there is the suffering caused by individual actions and institutions that are wreaking havoc on individual lives and communities.
The kind of suffering that is inflicted with intention can be the most difficult to understand and accept. It doesn’t make sense. How can it make sense? At such times, we want answers, sometimes desperately, and we want solutions. The politicians are quick to jump in to offer them. But such suffering and such actions don’t yield easily to definitive understandings or clear-cut solutions that will remedy the ruptures. In the face of these realities, we mourn, we rage, we may even lose heart for a time.
The other half of that opening line in our responsive reading tells the rest of the story. We gather. We indeed gather in search of wholeness. This is the season that calls us to connection and reconnection. The winter holy days have connection at their very core. Christmas, Solstice, Kwanzaa and Hanukah have something to offer and teach us about what it means to be in relationship with ourselves and also with something greater than ourselves. The winter holidays can help us to reclaim hope, kindness, love, community, and meaning. The winter holidays have always marked a time when the holy, the mystery, breaks through in the midst of tyranny, alienation, separation.
I’ve been reading a book a friend of mine sent me a few weeks ago, called Accidental Saints: Finding God in all the Wrong People. It’s written by a Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber is self-described as tattooed, angry and profane. She’s a former standup comic. Writing about Christmas, Bolz-Weber asks:
how did Christmas go from what it was originally – a story of alienation, political tyranny, homelessness, working-class people, pagans, and angels – to a Hallmark Channel, Precious Moments, Norman Rockwell delusion? . . . we’ve lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of as the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.
If you were to look up the word religion, you’d most likely find it defined as belief in God or worship of God or a particular system of belief or faith. But modern scholars like Joseph Campbell and most Unitarian Universalists favor the word’s derivation from re-ligare, which means “to bind or connect.” This etymology points to religion as that which reconnects us - to God, to each other, to one’s best selves, to rituals and ethics, to religious community, to meaning.
One of the ways to begin to give meaning to difficult situations and reclaim the holy is by gathering. Let me share a little more of what Bolz-Weber has to say. When a seminarian asked her: “Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?”, she answered: “What? Nothing. Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.” Half the time, she says, she wishes God would leave her alone. Like the times “when traumatic things happen in the world” and there’s “nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have,” she says, “is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting.”
What we do have is a group of people who gather every week, who will mourn and pray over the devastation of a mass shooting, or incarceration of immigrant families, or the killing of young black men, or the mass-incarceration of young black men, or the tyranny of ideology and fundamentalism, or the rampant fear that barricades hearts to human connection, or the death of a beloved person in our lives.
What we have is a group of people who will gather to heal, to reflect, to learn, and also build and rebuild the human bonds as many times as it takes. In our coming together we practice truth telling and truth seeking, speaking as best we can about the realities of life, both good and bad. Our response is to come together and invite widening circles of kinship and human kindness and understanding.
In the midst of witnessing separation and division, our congregational response is to dedicate a Black Lives Matter banner and invite not only our own members and friends but also people from other religious communities to join us in sharing stories and experiences - because we know we don’t have the whole story. This brought us together with new partners, expanding our understanding of ourselves and our work for racial justice. The stories remind and teach us that we have a common thread among our human community. This happens not just because we have the right idea but because we are trying to develop a lived kinship with real people and honor our common thread. The common thread is our humanity and our shared desire for the well-being of people everywhere. We Unitarian Universalists are not alone in the longing for healing and wholeness.
Our response to division is to gather in worship across differences of religion, race, theology, and culture at Thanksgiving. Members of the Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, Buddhist, and Christian communities came together here in our sanctuary on Thanksgiving Eve for what proved to be a profoundly heartening and bridge-building experience. So many people from those other communities made a point of thanking me for our hosting of the service. One person was quick to point out that we are the only religious community in Berks that has put up the Black Lives Matter banner. Just because others haven’t done it, doesn’t mean they wouldn’t like to or don’t appreciate that we have. In light of the killings this week, I am grateful that we are a community that is in conversation and relationship with Muslims. Having connections with people who represent the true heart of Islam helps us avoid knee-jerk fear and confuse radicalized ideology with genuine faith. I am proud that we are a religious community where on Thanksgiving eve a Muslim woman can speak from our pulpit of interfaith connections and religious tolerance.
Today, our congregation’s response to human division is to host an immigration and race forum. This forum is bringing together religious and secular partners and others committed to understanding and working toward immigration justice. We are not alone. Again we are gathering from the fragmented world to learn and listen to each other, to grow in understanding, and to come more fully into a place of honoring the humanity of all people.
Our work on a number of these fronts is making it possible for me to interact with people in a way I didn’t always feel comfortable about. I was at a holiday event the other day and speaking with an American woman who is from Syria. I was fumbling with my words, interested in her thoughts about Syrian refugees. But what she shared with me was her humanity. She told me that after Wednesday’s shooting she was fearful and had second thoughts about even going out to this event. That’s another piece of this reality for too many people.
From the fragmented world we come together. This getting connected and reconnected is what is needed to bridge our separations. It is what is needed in times of tragedy, struggle, and uncertainty – as well as during times of joy and celebration. Mostly they show up hand in hand. The response of gathering is a faithful one, an ethical one, a hopeful one. “Where two or three are gathered” there is the church. There is the holy.
Gathering proclaims and affirms unity and wholeness for all humanity. It declares that we “cherish our oneness with those around us and the countless generations that have gone before us” - and who will come after us. We come together so that someone else can keep the flame of hope alive for us when we can’t and so we can keep the flame of hope alive for someone else when they can’t. We come together to reconnect to another way of being.
These are days in which we are being called to lean in, to step into community, and to connect and reconnect in order to illumine the way forward. The more time we spend gathered amid our differences, the more we will discover the common ties - even with people who seem so far apart from us in their demographics, their language, and their life experiences.
This holiday season I invite you into the spirit of the holiday and the spirit of religion: to get reconnected – to family, to friends, to your own spirit, to the holy, to rituals of meaning, and to your faith community. Through these connections comes the assurance that the light will return. The days will grow longer.
Through these connections comes the promise that God and joy and meaning will show up – does emerge, does reside - even amid the messiness and harsher realities of life. “From the fragmented world of our everyday lives we gather together in search of wholeness.” Indeed, from the fragmented world, we gather, we mourn, we pray. And from the fragmented world, we build and rebuild the land “where justice shall roll down like waters, and peace like an ever flowing stream.”
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.