First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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A Post-Election Sermon

November 13, 2016
Rev. Sandra Fees

I want to begin my sermon this morning by telling you a little about Louis Untermeyer. He wrote the words to our opening hymn. Louis Untermeyer was a United States jewelry manufacturer. He was also a poet and editor of poetry anthologies. His poem, Prayer for This House, is the first hymn in our gray hymnal. We now know it as May Nothing Evil Cross This Door. I have to admit, I prefer Untermeyer’s original title, Prayer for This House. His prayer names the swirl of emotions we are experiencing following the election.

Knowing Untermeyer’s personal story serves to deepen the impact his words have on us. Untermeyer had left-wing political views. He was poetry editor of the Marxist journal, The Masses. Those working on this journal opposed US involvement in WWI, and after the US entered the war, the government forced The Masses to stop publication. Untermeyer and his friends then went on to publish a very similar journal, The Liberator.

In 1923, Untermeyer resigned from his father’s jewelry business where he was vice president. He wanted to devote himself full-time to writing. He was actually quite well-known. In 1950, he became a panelist on the TV show What’s My Line? On What's My Line? celebrity panelists would ask contestants questions and try to guess their occupation. During this time, Untermeyer was still active in left-wing causes. He was active so much so that the FBI was keeping a file on him. His name also got mentioned in investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee. As a result, he, like so many others, was blacklisted by the entertainment industry. He was forced from the TV quiz show What’s My Line? He was the victim of McCarthyism and its efforts to quell dissent and root out political criticism.

In his autobiography, the playwright Arthur Miller wrote this about Untermeyer’s victimization:

Louis went back to his apartment. Normally we ran into each other in the street once or twice a week or kept in touch every month or so, but I no longer saw him in the neighborhood or heard from him. Louis didn't leave his apartment for almost a year and a half. An overwhelming and paralyzing fear had risen in him. More than a political fear, it was really that he had witnessed the tenuousness of human connection and it had left him in terror. He had always loved a lot and been loved, especially on the TV program where his quips were vastly appreciated, and suddenly, he had been thrown into the street, abolished. (http://spartacus-educational.com/USAuntermeyer.htm)

This week and in the months leading up to the election, we have witnessed the tenuousness of human connection. Yet, like Untermeyer, our urgent desire is to love a lot and be loved. When we experience that love being thrown into the street and abolished, we too feel disconnected, disillusioned, and even left in terror.   

To many of us, it seems that in the election, love did not win out. Somehow in our nation there has been a failure “to keep hate out and hold love in.” It certainly isn’t purely a matter of who won and who lost the election. This divide began long before election day. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and islamophobia became exposed in ways that distressed and perplexed us. It isn’t that we didn’t know any of it existed. But many of us are finding it hard to reconcile what seems like a validation in this election of this persistent and perniciousness insult, indignity, and hate. Our religious values seem absent and undermined.

This congregation, our larger UU community, and our interfaith and secular partners are all coming to terms with this harsh reality. My colleague Rev. Meg Riley says of Unitarian Universalism:

We are a diverse community in all ways, and that includes the ways that we vote (or don't). We are a global congregation. We do not do partisan political work.

And yet a large majority of our membership is reeling from [the] election …. We are broken-hearted that a man has been elected who in no way embodies respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people that is the first principle of Unitarian Universalism. 

I am broken-hearted. I know many of you are too. My concern is for all those who feel afraid and vulnerable and who have been negatively targeted in the course of this election. My concern is for myself as a woman and for all women and girls.

The implications for differently abled people, Latinx people, LGBTQ people, Muslim-identified people, African Americans, and others who have endured insults and trauma at the hands of the next President are deeply troubling. The fate of the women and children in the Berks Detention Center and other immigrants weighs heavy on my heart. My concern is for the earth.

So much work already remained to ensure reproductive, environmental, and economic justice. And now we know that renewed and redoubled efforts will be needed just to hold the line on protecting these causes and values, much less advancing them.

As we begin to come to terms with the prospect of the next administration, none of us knows for sure what these next months and years will bring. What we do know is that our voices and our faith are needed as much or more than ever. I believe that we will need to be more strategic, more mindful, and more big-hearted than we may now know how to be.

There are some serious questions we need to reflect on together as people of faith. We need to consider our top priorities as a community of faith. How do we help our children make sense of this new reality? What are we willing to do and not willing to do? How can we best utilize our resources – our money, our volunteer hours, our staff. We need to work together more effectively and collectively than ever to answer and address these questions and to protect the values and principles we hold dear.

The work this congregation has been doing for the past few years has been extraordinary. There has been a sea-change in our ability to work together for justice on many fronts. This election feels like a setback to that work.

But I have to tell you, I am profoundly, profoundly aware that the work we have done has been, without our knowing it, preparation for these difficult times. It has not been for naught. We have been building our muscle, our fortitude, our faith, and our collective wisdom. And it will be needed. We will be needed.

The work we have already done on changing our own hearts and minds will be foundational to our ability “to withstand the battering of the storm.” Our work to understand white privilege, immigration rights, economic injustice, climate change – this work is foundational to what is needed right now and to what it will take for “ev’ry casual corner [to bloom] into a shrine.” The work we have done and are doing and will continue to do will be foundational to our ongoing ability to once again let “laughter drown the raucous shout.” It gives me hope.

The core principles of Unitarian Universalism also give me hope. These principles provide a foundation for remaining hopeful even while refusing to deny the serious and damaging consequences of the choice our country has made. Our principles teach us to refuse to sink into a depression that keeps us home for a year and a half.

There will surely be days when none of us will want to leave the house. There will be times when it is better for our spirits to turn off the TV, the radio, and to stay away from social media. But I refuse to cede my values, my convictions, my country, and my planet to those who would destroy it and to those who would destroy the very people most in need of care and solidarity. I beseech you to make the same refusal.

Our principles teach us to refuse to return hate for hate. I refuse to stop listening even to what I can hardly bear to hear. I refuse to reject friends and neighbors who have voted differently from me or not at all. I also refuse to blame other people of good will. Analysis, strategy, and understanding are useful tools. Blaming is a recipe for failure.

Our principles teach us to reach out across the great divide that seems to be separating us and to try to understand the pain other people are experiencing. Those who are socially liberal are not the only ones to feel the pain of being left out, of being marginalized, and of having their values ignored. Our faith calls on us to listen more carefully and more openly, even when it would seem safer to shut the door.

Our principles teach us to refuse to be silent even when words and actions will discomfort and disrupt our lives. To be a person of faith is not merely a matter of having the right beliefs. It is also a matter of keeping alive ethical values and moral dreams and living a life of conviction, one that is built on love and connection.  

Untermeyer wrote that “by faith made strong, the rafters will withstand the battering of the storm.” This is what it means to be resilient, to be hopeful, when there doesn’t seem to be much to be hopeful about. To hold onto the conviction that people, all people, have worth and dignity, and that we are all connected is challenging in this current environment. Yet this is what our UU faith asks of us.

There will be days we will question these principles and be sorely tested. But without them, who will we become? Without them, we are in danger of becoming rigid, despairing, and hate-filled. Without them, we are in danger of abandoning our human connection. My prayer for this house is my prayer for our human family and for our planet. It is Untermeyer’s prayer:

May nothing evil cross this door,
and may ill fortune never pry
about these windows;
may the roar and rain go by.
 
By faith made strong, the rafters will
withstand the battering of the storm.
This hearth, though all the world grow chill,
will keep you warm.
 
Peace shall walk softly through these rooms,
touching our lips with holy wine;
till ev’ry casual corner blooms
into a shrine.
 
With laughter drown the raucous shout,
and, though these sheltering walls are thin,
may they be strong to keep hate out
and hold love in.

Let us be made strong by faith. Let us hold love in – in ourselves, in this congregation, in this country, and in the world. And let us extend love out. In the days ahead, we will surely be asked to stand on the side of love, to walk on the side of love, to sit on the side of love, to sing on the side of love. We will be asked to be love in the face of hate. The work we have been doing has prepared us to be love.

This loving business is no small feat. It will demand something of us. It is demanding something of us. My prayer is that we answer the call to love with conviction. My prayer for this house and for all of us is that we stay connected, that we take care of ourselves, and each other. This community is and will continue to be a sanctuary as well as a voice for justice.

My prayer is that we hold fast to love, that we stand on the side of love. My prayer is that our prayer be heard.

May it be so. Amen.