Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
October 3, 2021 • Rev. Michael Livingston
We are the earth’s last best hope. And, to paraphrase Aaron Burr in Hamilton, “We’re the damn fools who killed it.” There are no extra-terrestrial civilizations coming to cure what ails our earth, the carbon dioxide polluting our air, the melting ice caps from temperatures that will keep rising as the ice melts and the sea level encroaches upon coast lines round all the continents of the earth. We keep drilling and fracking for oil, mining for coal, dumping toxic wastes into river beds and urban neighborhoods. The beauty of the universe, of the earth is unspeakable. The Hubble satellite is no more but the new James Webb satellite will be launched on December 18th. The pictures it will take will make the images Hubble gave us seem like black and whites from the early days of still photography. We’ll see that new “earth-like planets may be forming” as our own degenerates from our negligence and refusal to move soon enough and aggressive enough to make a difference.
“ ‘Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,’ [Greta Thunberg] said in a speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday. ‘This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.’”
Are we worthy?
RJ Reynolds knew cigarettes caused cancer and they aggressively marketed them to teenagers. The National Rifle Association knows that guns kill people but there’s no money in gun control so they buy politicians to protect their interests. Republicans know their voting rights bills target people of color, not voter fraud, that’s their design. We know that infant mortality rates, maternal survival rates are appalling for children and women of color and decade by decade through centuries it doesn’t change. Income gaps between the wealthy and the rest, the boss and worker grow wider every decade and we do nothing. Right now, the democrats can’t agree on legislation to fix our infrastructure and feed children, improve and create decent public housing, welcome people fleeing persecution to our land while the Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling.
Are we worthy?
We know the south lost the Civil War; Biden and Harris won the election, January 6th was an insurrection and yet we keep treating, as worth debate, inquiry, outright lies about not just our first century but something that happened in real time to sitting legislators in our Capitol while we watched in horror on television.
Are we worthy?
I went to Beirut in 2006 after 30 days of bombing of the southern half of the city and the by U.S. funded weaponry wielded by Israel…I sat with Palestinian Christians who were not frightened by the relentless bombing, accustomed to the nation being decimated by war. That was frightening to me. “It’s happened before, many times,” they said. “We’ll rebuild.” I walked among the ruins of scores of buildings, some leveled, reduced to broken stones, others—rooms without floors, windows without glass, space without definition. Farther south fields of olives were just past smoldering, economies reduced to ashes, at least for the season. The current Israeli strategy is to “Shrink the conflict.” No peace talks, no Palestinian State, no halt to new building in the West Bank; rather an attempt to improve the quality of life for Palestinians. Is it a new day? Or re-branding?
Boko Haram is no more, they’ve given up the fight and now live among the people they terrorized, walled in and waiting to learn their fate. But stronger even more deadly versions have been spawned. 9/11 was an unspeakable horror, no less so than the terrible war we waged against former “friends” made convenient enemies.
Are we worthy?
“What are human beings that you are mindful of [us], mortals that you care for [us]? Yet you have made [us] a little lower than God, and crowned us with glory and honor. You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under [our] feet…”
Did God make a slight miscalculation in the DNA? An outright mistake? Maybe the trees should have been given dominion. Or the forest, a model ecosystem, a dance of delicate equilibrium…a community governed by rustling whispers, underground railroads, breezes that are delivery systems for good breeding, earthly harmony and well-being.
We have done some amazing things…look at us: the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the Panama Canal. Flight. Electricity. Heart transplants. Penicillin. And in culture and arts, sports even; look at us—Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin, my God; Chang Rae Lee, Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Beloved! August Wilson, pick your decade. Some of you have already seen Terrance Blanchard’s opera, “Fire Shut Up in My Bones”—I’m so jealous. The world would be impoverished without Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Brahms 4th, without Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Yo-Yo Ma’s exquisite music making?; without “A Love Supreme,” do I even have to say his name? We can look at a Renoir, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Georgia O’Keefe, or a Charles White, Faith Ringold, and be transported, educated, awed.
We can still listen any time to the departed virtuosos: Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills, Aretha Franklin, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. I can’t wait to see the Splash Brothers back on the court October 19th at 10pm to play my Lakers. I have no idea how Russell Westbrook will mesh with LeBron James. The game is on my calendar. Don’t call me at that hour.
We’ve inherited a faith tradition that is both transcendent and eminent…and old. It was formed by a beleaguered people, foreigners, whose experience of enslavement and freedom drew them tightly together and who yet told remarkable stories of inclusion and the embrace of others, struggling against their own sense of the cohesion they believed survival demanded. That’s a heritage that welcomes World Communion Sunday. Despite the lack of communion in the world we know, we dare to hope that what we know is still in its infancy, that we are is still being transformed, that better days are ahead.
Our inheritance is grounded in an incarnate God, a human being whose life was so extraordinary it was believed that he defeated death, rose, and lived. Forget the foolishness of critics like Bill Maher who ridicules what he doesn’t begin to understand. The deep metaphors, the logic, the good news at the heart of our faith are true: we are one people; we can begin again at any moment; no one is a stranger; justice is for all; grace is given, not earned; love is unconditional.
We’ve seen so much death these last 19 months. The pandemic increasing the normal toll exponentially, here and around the world. In the U.S. we’ve passed 700,000 deaths. One day we’ll all be gone. My life will be over. Yours too. Will that last breath be easy? A satisfied exhale after a life well lived, given the best we could offer under the precise circumstances set before us? The basic work is done, our incarnate God, Jesus, is the turning point for us in the Christian community. God is with us, in us…there is nothing to earn. We have been given, life. We have to be fully human, as Jesus was. That’s good enough for me. I am filled with hope because of the lives we can lead.
Greta Thunberg was a child when she first captured our imagination with her stunning honesty and directness. At eight she learned about climate change and couldn’t understand why nothing serious was being done about it. By eleven she stopped speaking and eating and lost 22 lbs. in two months. I’ll take some of that—but I don’t have to have to be depressed to make it happen. She has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. She calls it her Superpower. She has an obsessive-compulsive disorder, OCD, and selective mutism—she says that means she speaks only when necessary. More of us should catch that. She is going to be remembered as a central catalyst for saving the earth. If we save the earth. And ourselves along with it. Or she’ll be remembered for warning us about our demise, as long as memory lasts.
Pauli Murray is being discovered. She’s been given full appreciation for her remarkable life and accomplishments. Labor activist, lawyer, professor, writer, poet, priest. She refused to go to the back of the bus in 1940, 15 years before Rosa Parks in Montgomery. She led a student demonstration that broke segregation in restaurants in Washington DC in 1944. She wrote a paper as a law student at Howard University that her classmates and professor laughed at. Ten years later, her professor pulled out that paper and the legal strategy she proposed was the basis for the landmark decision of the Supreme Court in the 1954 Brown v Board of Education case that made segregation in education illegal.
In 1965, she devised the legal strategy that for the ACLU that broke the all-white-all-male juries in Alabama. The 14th Amendment guaranteed rights for women she argued, not just people of color. Ruth Baden Ginsburg credits her work in 1971 as building upon the framework Murray developed. Professor Brittany Cooper at Rutgers University says that “…we literally live in an architecture of the world that Pauli Murray built…There are some scholars who now argue that you cannot teach American history without teaching about Pauli Murray.” Chase Strangio, an ACLU attorney has said, “Pauli conceptualized so much of what the legal architecture has been for challenging systems of discrimination. We can’t comprehend legal movements for justice without understanding Pauli’s role in them.”
She never wrote about it in her published works, she never talked about it, Pauli Murray was born a “girl” but understood herself to be a “boy.” She was gender non-conforming. In these very human lives, all of us the same, all of us different, all over the world, we have all need to live in full communion with one another; we have all we need to save the earth and ourselves with it.
I began with a quote from Greta Thunberg. I’ll close with two poems by Pauli Murray.
“To The Oppressors: Now you are strong and we are but grapes aching with ripeness. Crush us. Squeeze from us all the brave life contained in these full skins. But ours is a subtle strength, potent with centuries of yearning. We shall endure to steal your senses in that lonely twilight of your winters grief.”
And: Walk with the majesty of the first woman. The stars are your beacons, earth your inheritance. Surrender to none the fire of your soul.” Amen.