First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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Hope in the Hard Times

December 17, 2017
Rev. Sandra Fees

Sooner or later all of us come to realize that life comes with its share of chaos, disorder, struggle, and pain. To be able to live well means coming into some understanding of how to approach our lives and the world during the hard times. How can we continue to embrace hope and resist the temptation to sink into despair?

Let me share a story. It is the tale of a young man who is wrestling with his understanding of life. He comes to see a woman baker. Many people bring their questions and concerns to her. She has acquired a reputation as a wise woman.

The young man explains to the wise baker woman that he wants to believe in God but he just doesn’t understand God. “How can there be a God when so many terrible things happen to innocent people?” asks the young man. The baker agrees with him that understanding God is challenging and that she doesn’t really understand God either. But she adds: “Just because there is great sadness in life does not mean God doesn’t exist. I choose hope over despair.”

The young man isn’t very satisfied with this answer. He wants proof. He asks the baker, “Can you prove there’s a God?” And the baker says to him: “Most of us find what we are looking for.” Then she invites the young man to walk with her. They walk along together. And then the baker stops. She asks her companion to find a tree they can plant.

The young man becomes incredulous. “A tree?” he says. “If we plant a tree here by the road, someone else will certainly come along and chop it down.” The baker says, “Okay. I hear you. I will plant the tree.” To that the young man responds, “But what shall I do?” The wise baker woman looks upward toward the sky. She sees clouds circling inevitably toward rain. She replies, “Oh, you? You will find somebody to chop down the tree.” (adapted from “Arriving at our Expectations,” Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World, Noah benShea).

I don’t know about you but I have found myself on both sides of that situation. I have been that wise woman. I have planted trees, metaphorically speaking, many times. Literally too. And I have encouraged others to get involved and to remain hopeful.

I went to a march in Washington to protest the Iraq war after the decision to go to war had just been made and war was imminent. I knew the protest would not stop the war. For much of the war, I regularly went to peace protests locally. I have been part of environmental justice efforts. When I lived in Harrisburg I was part of a group that tirelessly week after week protested a waste incinerator that was trying to locate in a low income neighborhood. Our group brought consistent negative attention to the situation, enough to ultimately deter the company from locating the incinerator there.

In the past few years, like so many of you, I have been involved in immigration justice efforts and specifically with the efforts to free and bring justice for the asylum-seeking women and children at the Berks Detention Center. That work has had its share of ups and downs. There have been some silver linings, some families who have been released but sadly others who have been deported. Turn-around times for processing families have improved. Yet the work continues.

When I was asked to lead a vigil at the Berks Detention Center in November, I questioned what good it would do. I found myself on the other side of that scenario, a little more like the young man than the wise woman. “Help me understand why we are still doing these vigils,” I asked. I wondered whether we have gone as far as we can with this work and what else is worth hoping for. I was beginning to lose hope that more progress could be made.

Responding to my question about the vigils, our stalwart immigration justice advocates in this congregation reminded me that there is still the larger goal to shut down the facility. And there is the ongoing danger that when public attention shifts away from the Center that they will resume some of their more heinous practices, such as lengthy detainment. So despite any misgivings, despite any doubts about whether being there would make a difference, I went.

It turned out to be a brutally cold day. Afterward, I went home and said to my partner Chris, “you know, I went today because I had made a commitment to lead the vigil. But most of the other people came because of their passion for justice. There were people who even showed up there for the first time.” I described to him my amazement that 30 or so people showed up and how the network of people committed to immigration justice keeps growing. I needed reassurances and encouragement from others. I needed to be reminded about why we do this work and that our consistent presence really does matter, that hope resides in doing what is right in the face of the difficulties.

Historian and political scientist Howard Zinn says:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think humans beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us in itself a marvelous victory.

When living in difficult, unjust, and uncivil times, hope resides in our ability to carry on. Hope lives in our belief that change is possible, that we can impact events, and that what we do and think matters. As Howard Zinn says, we have “to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.”

Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist and abolitionist, offers a related perspective on hope. He insisted that the universe is inclined toward justice. That is indeed a hopeful perspective. He described the moral arc of the universe as bending toward justice. His words have often been misattributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Parker expressed the idea this way:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the good. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Parker believed the universe curves toward the good. I do too. I also believe it is our role and responsibility to give God and the universe an assist in bending the universe toward the good, to, as Zinn said, act in defiance of the bad that is around us. We need to be on that arc, moving that trajectory of history and justice along as best we can.

As another Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. Jay Wolin, says:

Hope comes from looking back and knowing we are on that arc . . . . Hope comes from looking forward and knowing we can harness the collective power of [the community around us] . . . . Hope comes from looking [deeply] and knowing we can change, and grow.

While I believe the future lies open and that there is hope for a better world, there are, nevertheless, times when I desperately want some concrete assurances that the efforts to build the common good can and will succeed. I find myself looking for hope, hope that things in our country are going to improve. I need to see some change.

I want to end my sermon this morning by lifting up an example of hope that is harnessing the power of community and the divine to bend the arc, to create change.

This hope is emerging from the #MeToo movement. This movement is a disruptive force that is seeking “to upend a system . . . to root out a systematic problem.” It started a decade ago when Harlem activist Tarana Burke launched the movement to aid underprivileged women of color affected by sexual abuse. It resurfaced in October when actor Alyssa Milano used her twitter account to encourage women who had been sexually assaulted or harassed to tweet #MeToo. Within the first 24 hours it had been tweeted about half a million times.

Ashwini Tambe, who is Editorial Director of the Journal Feminist Studies and Associate Professor in the department of women’s studies at the University of Maryland, has written about the disruptive power of the #MeToo movement. She says:

I see sexual harassment victims as disruptors because they use social media platforms to circumvent legal channels for pursuing justice. The current sea change began with little-known individuals using Twitter and Facebook to share personal stories, echoing the “survivor speak-out” model long championed by feminists of the anti-violence movement.

The scale of the viral #MeToo hastag led journalists to investigate and publicize victims’ stories. . . . #MeToo has titled public sympathy and power in favor of accusers by showing how widespread sexual coercion is. Taking accusers more seriously than those accused is a reversal of the principle of legal due process. Yet because those who are victimized have been so ill-served by legal burdens of proof, they are using the most effective alternative available. (http://theconversation.com/alabama-and-metoos-disruptive-force-89110)

This movement is powerful, healing, and hopeful. What we are witnessing is a groundswell that is altering public opinion and swaying the course of history. This transcends party politics. The number of women coming forward giving voice to their truth about sexual assault and harassment is staggering. This truth-telling offers a hopeful example of what is possible.

The wise woman baker in the story of planting a tree said, “Just because there is great sadness in life does not mean God doesn’t exist. I choose hope over despair.” She chose to plant a tree.

May we too choose hope over despair. May we continue to choose to plant trees. And may we live as we think human beings should live in defiance of what is broken in our world. Let us bend the arc of justice and bring hope and light into the world.

Amen. Blessed be.