Where were you? Where were you when it happened? This is one of the questions that can define a generation. One that holds so many stories for so many of us, stories of where people were when something happened that changed the world, or at least changed our world, forever.
Today celebrates 100 years since the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, when peace broke out in the world, when in France, after a battle in the woods, an armistice meant to start the process of rebuilding a hurting, warring, world was signed. The War to End All Wars, The Great War was won.
I was not there. I was not alive. I will not here pretend to know the enormity of that experience. Like so many of the “where were you when” experiences, it’s one that is hard to forget, hard to ignore. Yet, for many it was even harder to remember.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
Too soon, too soon, did these young men die. Before seeing peace in their time, they were buried on the battlefield with these words said at their service. They are words by John McCrae. John was not a chaplain in the Canadian service. He was an officer, yes. So when he became the highest-ranking officer remaining in his regiment during the Great War, hen all of the lower ranking officers were killed, along with his best friend, his men came to him and asked him to preside over the burial. He was actually their doctor, a physician, so this field surgeon who fashioned bandages for his friends in life, fashioned these words for his friends in death, giving voice one final time to all who lay In Flanders fields, a voice the world would try to heed.
McCrae himself succumbed to pneumonia a few months before the end of the Great War, and so did not see or hear the celebrations, on that day a century past when so many the world over would remember where they were when.
Our lives, our very consciousness, the way we mark time, for so many of us, have as guideposts, those experiences we know from our own lives, alongside those world-wide experiences shared by all, that remind you and ask you: Where were you when? It is one of the ways that groups, that nations, remember together.
And we gather today in the sprit of remembering together. We come together again this Sunday, to look once more at what this community tells itself, tells the world, about itself. We are looking together at our mission, to boldly grow compassion, justice, and joy. Last week we talked about boldly growing compassion. And today we look at that second leaf in our Kalo plant: boldly growing justice. So let’s get right down to it.
We are Unitarian Universalists. We are all about justice. We’ve got this one licked. Right? As a faith tradition, we are all about responding to calls to action. Unitarian Universalists know what it means to speak truth to power. We let politicians know when they’re doing something we think is dangerous, whether through letter writing campaigns, or filing amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in strategic cases. You can count on Unitarian Universalists to show up to parades, protests, and days of action. We are all about justice. We are steeped in justice. Remembering acts of seeking justice are part of our shared worship and our spaces almost anywhere we gather.
We worship in the light of a flaming chalice. As many of us know, the chalice was a symbol used by the Unitarian Service Committee to help Jewish members of our human family to escape the Nazi regime and resettle here in the United States. Yes, justice is never far from our minds, but in this place it is never far from our bodies either, which is exactly where it should be. Because so many of the ways we identify justice and what constitutes justice work arises when something terrifying, unbelievable, or shocking is happening to someone else, and very often when something is happening to someone else physically. Shootings that harm the body, separations between parents and children, men attacking the sanctity and privacy of a woman’s body—these are just some of the most painful examples from the news of the past few weeks. But responses to these matters, and so many more matters, are what we think of when we think of justice, when we think of the work of justice making in this world, when we think of boldly growing justice. But these actions are very often one particular kind of justice work. They are responses to injustice? They are responses seeking justice for others or ourselves.
I have been spending some time with the folks on the picket lines in Waikiki. For those of you who don’t know, about 2700 employees of two of the largest owners of hotels on this island are striking in Waikiki. Through this congregation’s connection with Faith Action, my colleagues in ministry are providing spiritual care and support to folks who are now more than a month into a strike. And I see in the faces of those receiving communion, and I see in the bowed heads, nodding to the perfect, divinely inspired words of Dr. King we read together, and I see in the mass of bodies there assembled, that the toll of the pain of daily, daily protest, of going without the pay they so justly deserve, is taking its toll. I see that their spirits are aching, yearning for a just end to this dispute. Yes, I’ve been there. Yes, I’ve seen them. Yes, I’ve even heard them.
But I don’t. I can’t. I won’t. I will not pretend for an instant to knowwhat it’s like to be on the line, to put my body on that line. I’m a tourist on that line. I get in my car and come back here. I finish here and go home. I spend too much money on cafeteria food at Whole Foods, a non-union supermarket, something I’m only now giving a lot more thought to. And I do all of these things…because I can.
All over the country this week people took to the streets in protest of…well, frankly, it wasn’t entirely clear what some of the protests were about from the coverage of them that I saw. It seemed like people needed to be doing something in response to election night, to the injustices they felt still were present. And I tell you, if there was ever a week to want to respond to injustices it was this one.
An administration circulating doctored video to support suppression of First Amendment Rights.
Watching gerrymandered voting districts leverage power against populations of color throughout this country so that one political party can hold on to power it so cravenly covets.
And maybe one of the worst stories of injustice I have heard in a while: when a survivor of the Las Vegas shootings during the outdoor music festival was killed this week in another mass shooting in a bar in California where he was socializing with friends. What?
Responding outwardly, in the streets, with signs, and with other organizations to all the manifold, all the manifest injustice that stalks so many, so often…makes so much sense I know. But it also has the inconvenient reality of being impossible. We can’t respond in the streets to every injustice everywhere. And that’s OK. In that impossibility there lies a deeper message about justice work. When something is impossible today, this day, we must look at what is not only possible today, this day, but what can be done today, this day, this day when it feels like we are faced with so many tragedies that might beg the question of so many times before, “Where were you when?”
Now, I’m pretty sure none of you remembers where you were on February 12, 1900. If you do, I’d like to speak to you after the service. But it was on that day, in Jacksonville, Florida, when five hundred school children gave voice, lifting this world a little higher than it was before, to James Weldon Johnson’s poem entitled “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”It would be another five years before John, James Weldon Johnson’s brother, would set his brother’s words to the stirring music we all heard from our gifted and generous Spirits. And it is fitting, if not divinely ordained, to celebrate gifts and generosity when speaking of James Weldon Johnson. Here’s the thing about James Weldon Johnson. And I keep saying his name because it’s one to remember, friends. A lot of people could write a poem that good and call themselves a poet, but if they use Johnson as a model, someone to emulate, they’d be selling themselves really short.
See, Johnson had skills. Mad skills.
He was a diplomat to Venezuela under Truman. He was a lawyer, the first lawyer of color admitted to the Florida bar after reconstruction, as a matter of fact.He was the first person of color to lead the NAACP as Executive Secretary. He wrote poems counted among some of the best examples from the world-shifting work being produced during the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote novels and spirituals, too. And then he became the first person of color to be a professor at New York University before he chose to take his talents to Fisk University, where he helped to shape the minds of the coming generations at one of the nation’s Historic Black Colleges. So I hope we can agree that James Weldon Johnson knew a lot. But when those scores of children took the stage for the recitation of his poem, he didn’t know, he couldn’t know, he wasn’t there, when the life of the man they celebrated that February 12, the life of Abraham Lincoln, ended with a coward’s bullet. Certainly the news of Lincoln’s assassination was a moment for millions to recall where they were when.
But just imagine, five hundred young voices, speaking about lifting every voice to sing, speaking of the weary feet they knew too well, speaking of the stony way they trod, yet arriving in the end at the ultimate truth, whom the poem calls God, and then claiming this place, this nation, as their native land. Their land of birth. Where they want to grow.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
There is a difference between the prayer of a man prayed over the bodies of those who fought and died for peace, for justice in this world and a prayer written by a black man in Florida in 1900 and prayed by five hundred children, that those children might know a world, a life, a moment of justice in this world. The first is a prayer of redemptive death and meaning. And the second is a prayer that says the time for suffering should be passed—that hope, that peace, that justice must reign. And in this difference, lies the most important distinction in how we talk about justice.
We honor one another, we honor our dead, we honor those for whom this chalice lit the way to new life, when we remember that war and its horrors hold for history to count, generations and generations lost to attempts by empires, to respond to injustice. But remaking broken relationships, rebuilding broken neighborhoods, rethinking the broken ways we teach new generations to talk about the world, today, and every day, that is growing justice. And as it was so incisively stated by Rev. Blackmon who visited with us this weekend, stopping, ending, killing the causes of deadly division between the children of this world, today, and every day: that is boldly growing justice.
Last week we talked a little about the power of theater. We talked about its influence on the church, yes. But mostly we talked about it as an institution that centers on the idea, of taking on, of getting inside, another identity. And really, the greatest actors of our age, of any age, are heralded, most often, for the tireless work they put in to do this, to really become someone else. But theater has lessons for us about justice, too.
As we also mentioned last week, the Sprits are leading us these weeks in some songs from the musical Godspell. Throughout the script the actor playing the Jesus character asks questions. And in one of the stories in the show he does just that and gets at the heart of one of the most important messages in the Christian scriptures. It’s not love your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. This is a beautiful commandment, but frankly, in the hands of humans, it’s left open to a lotof interpretation. No, it’s the moment in the play and in the Gospel attributed to Matthew when the righteous people find out that they’re going to heaven.
Jesus says to them you’re all set…“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”Heaven is right this way.And then, those righteous few, who are bound for heaven, do what?They have questions…for God.If you think for a second there weren’t Unitarian Universalists around in Jesus’s time you’re nuts.Who else would get a ticket to heaven, and then question how they’re getting there?But they do, they ask the questions.
“[W]hen was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And underneath these many questions you can almost imagine a people asking that deeper question. Where were you, God? Where were you when this was all happening? People were thirsting, hungry, naked, alone, and suffering in prison. Where were you when guns tore lives apart, when the freedom so many fight and suffer to provide is perverted by cowardice, avarice, and greed? Where were you when? And I know what Jesus said. He said that what you did to the least of my family, you did to me. And I know what meaning those words hold for so many, but one of the reasons I am a Unitarian Universalist is because, frankly, that’s not good enough. We have two millennia dominated by a culture steeped in, informed by, built upon, the teachings of the Christian testament, to at least raise one more question for God, “Is that good enough, Jesus?”
But here is the truth, friends. If we want to boldly grow justice, it takes harder questions than these. And we won’t only be asking them of the Universe or some ultimate reality. And we won’t only be asking them of those amazing, awe inspiring leaders you have for ADORE at this church. We will be asking them of ourselves.And we will wait in joyful hope of the day,working together, every day,gathered here around this flame,until we start to get some answers.
Where were you, when ‘tween the crosses, row by row, the poppies in Flanders field did blow, and silence fell up on the guns below?
Where were you, when every voice lifted and sang, till the earth and heaven rang, rang with the harmony of Liberty?
Where were you, when the words of Dr. King rang finally and blessedly true: “justice is love in action.”
Well wherever you are, may we all be there together.
And may it always be so.
Blessed be and Amen.
See the website located at http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/explore/black-authors-spoken-word-poetry/lift-every-voice-and-sing/. Last accessed November 10, 2018.
See the website located at http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/johnson/life.htmfor more information. Last accessed November 9, 2018.