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Reflecting in his memoir on his early years in ministry, Rev. John Haynes Holmes wrote ‘It would be folly, even actual falsehood, for me to declare that I was not afraid that Sunday morning (April 1, 1917). The truth is I was scared when I opened the door leading into my pulpit, and still more scared when I saw the throng which had gathered to hear me. A goodly proportion of this crowd were my own people- I could see their kindly faces looking up anxiously into mine. Others were curiosity seekers, still others seekers after the latest sensation of the hour.’
And make no mistake, Rev. Holmes was the sensation of the hour that spring morning in Manhattan. The first page headline of the New York Times on Monday, April 2, 1917 reads:
·Holmes Won’t Fight So Offers to Resign; Assails nation in sermon;
·no order of a president can force me to the business of killing;
·Trustees call pacifist pastor an Impractical Idealist, but won’t drop him.
Five days later on April 6, congress voted to declare war on Germany, and the United States entered World War I.
Holmes, as one of the most prominent pacifist voices on the East Coast, was suddenly in a very lonely position in a very uncertain time. Almost immediately there were calls to ban his writing, and while the trustees at New York’s Church of the Messiah did vote to support his ministry, if not his personal beliefs, many pacifists lost their jobs and livelihoods during the war. They were uncertain times for Unitarians, and for our country.
We live in uncertain times. While I do not think it appropriate or helpful to reargue the recent elections from the pulpit, what does seem clear is that we as a country and as a faith are sailing into uncharted waters. Regardless of our party affiliation or who we voted for, there is a lot of uncertainty, anxiety, fear and anger.
In Kalamazoo, Michigan, the GM plant closed in ’99. Sure, there’s a new consortium that owns the old factory, but Midlink Business Park’s distribution center employs a quarter of what GM’s aluminum stamping line used to- and without a pension.
In a generation the town has gone from a place you could get a solid middle class job and support a family with a high school diploma to a town where you can’t afford the taxes on the houses you inherited from your parents. In 1999 there were 5000 people unemployed in the county- ten years later that number was 20,000. And while that number has fallen in the last few years, recovery wasn’t restoration, the rage and worry that grew with it are still there.
Across the state in Dearbourn, 40% of residents are Muslim American. In the ten days between November 8 and 18, there were 30 hate crimes reported in the state- in an average year there are between six and eight. Folks in Dearbourn watched as national news broadcast video of an ‘alt-right’ conference held blocks from the White House, where the keynote session ended with calls of ‘hail victory,’ and a salute not seen often in public since 1945.
It is a time, as Matthew writes, ‘of wars and rumors of war.’ Between the election, the economy, worries about our families, our loved ones, rumors and threats of terrorism, a changing climate, fiscal insecurity, Brexit, health scares, racial tension, schools … it can all feel a little apocalyptic.
With me still? Deep breath.
Here’s what I’m thankful for this year: that I am part of the tradition of Unitarian Universalism. We have been here before, in the uncertainty and anxiety, the fear and rage. And I believe that we, as a faith community, are made for these times. We are at our best when we stand for the values we proclaim. In the midst of job losses and hate crimes we proclaim that all have inherent dignity. In days of intolerance and distrust we proclaim that all are free, and responsible for the meaning they find in life. In times of disconnection and mistrust we proclaim that we are all part of a single interconnected whole.
The more anxious the time, the more these values of dignity, radical hospitality, and deep sense of pluralism need to be proclaimed.
We’ve been at this a long time. This year we at Shelter Rock are celebrating our 75th anniversary, and so there will probably be more historically focused sermons than usual this year. I want to start a bit earlier though- 450 years rather than 75.
In 1568 Unitarianism was a new movement in Eastern Europe. Religious wars through the continent had killed thousands, perhaps millions. By 1568 the counter-reformation was well underway, and one of the few things that Catholic and Protestant leaders were united by was a shared belief that the Unitarians were heretics.
In the midst of all this, the early Unitarian church had the ear of John Sigismund, King of Hungary. Hungary at the time was divided between Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists and Unitarians. Like much of Europe in the 16th century, Hungary was an anxious, uncertain place. With no small prompting by Hungarian Unitarians, the King released an Edict of Toleration in 1568, declaring that
…in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel; each according to his understanding of it [preachers were uniformly men]. And if the congregation like it, [it is] well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.
In the midst of a century of religious wars, Unitarians developed a remarkable document, protecting not just their rights as a religious minority, but those of the other Christian denominations. While the Edict of Toleration was a product of its time—non Christian faiths were not protected—it enshrined religious toleration and pluralism in the story we tell ourselves as Unitarians. In the midst of anxious and violent times, Unitarians proclaimed a different way to be.
We’ve grown in the last 450 years. This morning Ned announced that religious communities across Long Island are joining together to speak with each other and with the authorities to find way of being together, of fighting back against the hatred and divisiveness we’ve seen in the last month.
Like Hungary 450 years ago we are trying to live together as people of faith and the governments of this world. Unlike 450 years ago it’s more than the the King of Hungary, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Unitarians. Today the religious communities and government agencies of Nassau County are being asked to convene by the Islamic Center of Long Island and Temple Sinai in Rosyln. I will be there Thursday night, and I hope you will join us.
I began this sermon with pacifism, and I want to go back to that. And I’m doing so knowing that arguments around pacifism and war have been going on in Unitarian and Universalist congregations for at least the last century. We are not a Peace Church- it is very possible to be a faithful Unitarian Universalist and not be a pacifist. Several UU ministers serve as chaplains in the armed forces.
Still, I think the question of pacifism is a good example of Unitarians and Universalists taking a moral stand at counterpoint to the culture around them, and there are at least two direct lines from pacifism to this pulpit:
The first is that before “Shelter Rock” it was the Unitarian Society of the North Shore, and 75 years ago what is now UUCSR was the Unitarian Church School for Northern Nassau County. In the fall of 1941, 75 years ago this autumn, the church school hired Norman Blair as its first director. By the summer of 1942, Norman Blair had resigned. He had been drafted, but spent World War II in an alternative service camp for conscientious objectors.
The other connection between pacifism and this pulpit is me. My parents joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation with my sister and me in 2000. The congregation we joined has a long tradition of witnessing for peace. The most formative years of my Unitarian Universalism were spent in the shadow of September 11, and in hearing the stories of peace activists from that congregation.
I got my draft card the year the United States invaded Iraq. Saying that you were against the war in 2003 was… not a popular position. I preached my first sermon that fall on registering as a Conscientious objector, and while I was learning a lot about my faith, I was also learning what if feels like to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable positions in public- and why it is vitally important.
One of the sharpest memories I have of high school is of organizing an antiwar protest in front of my school. As half a dozen of us walked back back forth with signs- ‘no blood for oil’ and ‘not in my name’ –remember those? - the high school baseball team came out in force, stood directly in front of us, and chanted USA! USA! For an hour. This moment we are in now feels a little like that. Voices are raised, people are scared, and we don’t really know what comes next. But we’ve been here before.
Those protests 15 years ago were the first time I heard stories about Unitarians and Universalists standing up for peace as the country went to war. In the year after John Haynes Holmes made front page news, many pacifist ministers lost their jobs, draft protesters went to jail under the espionage and sedition acts, newspapers were temporarily shut down, and the American Unitarian Association formally condemned pacifism. What must it have been like to stand by deeply held beliefs despite a culture that seems to not even hear us? Pacifism was Holmes’ stand: What is it that you will stand up for, regardless of what the culture tells you is right?
Unitarian Universalists have a lot of experience taking unpopular stands. It’s not just peace and war—two members of our congregation in Baltimore sued the state of Maryland for the right to be married (over a decade ago). They knew when they filed the lawsuit that they would not win, but made it all the way to the court of appeals. Some time later, in a much different state of Maryland, they were the first same sex wedding in downtown Baltimore.
In the last few years Unitarian Universalist congregations have begun to hang banners or signs on their property declaring that despite all the ways society disagrees, Black Lives Matter. The only story as ubiquitous as those banners being torn down or vandalized are stories of congregations replacing them, more committed than ever. A suburban congregation I’ve spent some time with is now on their fourth banner since September. The last one was vandalized the morning after the election –someone used white paint to cover up the ‘Black’ of ‘Black Lives Matter. Within a week it was replaced- by a banner signed by every member of the congregation. In the time since I wrote the first draft of this sermon on Monday the sign was torn down again, and the congregation is deciding how- not if- they should replace it.
We live in uncertain, anxious times. But I believe that the lesson of our history as a faith is that it is in moments of uncertainty and anxiety that we can rise to be our best selves. Our faith proclaims human dignity, both individually and collectively. We encourage each to a search for meaning and truth in their lives. We practice the democratic process; we know that our destinies are caught up with those of the whole world in a single interconnected whole. And we have time and again proclaimed those values. We were made for these times. We have the tools, we have the stories, and we have the will to be a force for good in the world.
Setbacks and victories come together. In 1917 John Haynes Holmes became a founding member of what became the ACLU. Church of the Messiah, where he had been afraid of his welcome, eventually moved away from the American Unitarian Association and renamed itself the Community Church of New York. Rev. Holmes served Community Church for over 40 years, helping to found the NAACP and overseeing the construction of a new building for the congregation on east 35th street. And when war came again in 1941, Holmes continued to stand by his convictions, writing:
And now, what shall the pacifists do? The answer is easy. Stand fast by principle and “carry on!” This does not mean opposition to or interference with war activities… But it does mean the exercise of the full freedom established in a democracy to voice honest opinion, to be loyal to fixed conviction, and to advance the eternal cause of peace.
So let us not fear the uncertainties of these times. Let us use them to voice honest opinion, loyal to our convictions to recommit to the essential values of our faith. We will proclaim these values wherever the path leads us. We are made for these times.