The Shape of Things

In this Sunday’s service we hear the inspirational words of Maya Angelou and we also talk about Peeps. There’ll be music to soothe your heart and poetry to challenge your soul. Join us to answer the questions: What does it mean to be a resilient people in times of distress?

The Shape of Things
Written for and Delivered to
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland
Sunday, February 23, 2020
© The Rev. Joseph M Cherry

Resilience is a word I often see on Facebook, and on poster board protest signs. It’s not usually just resilience, but RESILIENCE!

It’s a word that we think means to be tough, to hold fast, to not back down from a fight, even when the fight is long, hard and though we tend to believe in moral arc of the universe bending toward justice, we may be wrong.

Not wrong about the arc of the universe, that famous quote from the 19th Century Radical Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, later adopted and adapted and made famous int eh 20th century by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I fully believe what Parker wrote:

“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 experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”[1]

The conundrum this morning is about the meaning of resilience.

We, especially those deeply and frequently engaged in social justice work, love the world resilience, but a look at the dictionary says that we may be using it incorrectly.

The dictionary defines resilience as: the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.[2]

I will admit, when I read this definition I was a little troubled. I began to think of a thing that is resilient as a thing that is immutable, a thing that will return to it’s original form. Immediately what came to mind was the image of pyrite, more commonly known as Fool’s Gold. I know it’s not a perfect parallel, but in my mind pyrite is a complex crystalline structure, that has many sharp edges and these edges could and do stand easily up to the rushing water.

It was the power of the original form that brought this image to mind. Everyone knows that in a battle between stone and water, water will eventually win. Because the stone will change it’s shape, it will be changed.

But not the pyrite.

All of this got me to thinking, is resilience really the thing we ought to be aiming for?

A couple of weeks ago the Strategic Planning Team reported back to us what their findings were from dozens of dozens of interviews with the congregation and our neighbors. One message that came out loud and clear was our desire to grow.

Our need to grow as a congregation.

Back to the definition of resilience: the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; elasticity.[3]

If we are resilient, if we have and celebrate our ability to return to our original form, are we actually poised and ready to grow?

Because in order to grow, we must be willing to abandon our current form, position, etc, because growth will not fit within that form.

You can’t put 2 cups of water into a 1 cup Pyrex measuring cup. I know, because I’ve tried. In fact, in a 1 cup Pyrex cup, you can at most squeeze 1.75 cups, and that’s if you fill it all the way to the tippy, tippy top.

I know this because for purposes of this illustration in this sermon, I did a little experiment. In our house we have the 1 cupper, the 2 cupper and the 4 cupper by Pyrex.

In order to grow as a congregation, we must be willing to embrace change, we need a larger container. I don’t really mean physically, rather I mean that more metaphorically.

Often I sit in meetings with lay leaders, on the Board, in the Worship Team, as part of the Racial Justice Leadership Team, and others, and I hear the congregation talk about wanting to have a larger impact in our part of the world.

I hear the desire to share deeper connections among and between us.

I hear people speak about growth.

And all of these things are wonderful, obtainable, but they don’t require resilience.

They require malleability. Definition, #2 which is adaptability, not Definition #1 which is  capable of being shaped, as by hammering or pressing[4]

Let’s keep the hammering and pressing to a minimum folks, shall we?

In order for this congregation to achieve its own clearly stated and dearly held goal of growing this congregation, we are going to have to embrace a spirit of exploration and expansive thinking.

We’re going to have to ask ourselves and each other more questions that begin with “Why not try…?” and less statements of “I’m not comfortable with….”

We cannot allow ourselves to be molded in the manner of that little boy in Regina, Saskatchewan, so that we become square inside, and stiff, just so that we can make others comfortable.

We must instead heed the advice of the great poet Maya Angelou, now of beloved memory, and rise. If you’ll  allow me to paraphse Dr. Angelou,

We must leave behind nights of terror and fear
To rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
We can rise.

I know that our nation is tired from the trauma of a dramatic presidency. A presidency that seems designed to wear us down, and teach us the hard and unhelpful lesson of learned helplessness. This we must resist, but not remain resilient.

As proud members of the religious left, we have a job to do. We have to demonstrate to the world that love is more powerful than bigotry. That even when we are tired, we have enough energy to grow, to change, to allow our beautiful theology of the worth of every person shine into every corner where doubts is sewn and resides.

This year, as a counter to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Logo, a cable channel originally created by and for the BGLTQ+ community, released a video of Pose Star Billy Porter offering their speech “State of the LGBTQ+ Nation.” 

In their speech Porter touted the many accomplishments and advances the queer community has made around world in spite of growing fascist regimes around the world.

At the end of Porter’s speech, are the words I wish to use today to close my sermon.

…Every act of kindness is a blow against cruelty
Every act of empathy is a blow against bigotry
Every act of courage is a blow against cowardly self interest
And every act of love is a blow against hate.
We may have a tough fight against us, but I know we can win it.
We have no other choice than to win it.
Remember that we have far more that connects us
Than sets us apart.That we are all responsible for the country and world in which we want to live
And therefor we are all responsible for each other.
So, Love one another
Take care of one another
And let’s secure the future for those who will inherit it.

In the words of the Great James Baldwin:
Not everything that is faced can be changed,
But nothing can be changed if it is not faced.

Let’s face the challenges of this new year
And this new decade together.[5]

Benediction

In the face of challenges, in the face of those who would have us constrict for their comfort, let us refuse to remain the shape we used to be.

Let us refuse to be polite when interruption is needed.
Let us refuse to be silent for the comfort of those who harm others.
Let us refuse to accept the things that we can change.
Let us face to future together
With love in our hands
With determination in our hearts
With gentleness in our minds.


[1] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-smith-obama-king_n_5a5903e0e4b04f3c55a252a4

[2] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/resilience

[3] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/resilience

[4] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/pressing

[5] https://www.washingtonblade.com/2019/02/05/watch-billy-porter-delivers-state-of-the-union-for-lgbt-community/