PEACE, LIBERTY, AND JUSTICE FOR ALL
sermon by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, December 3, 2017
Do you remember the “Seven Principles” song written by my mentor “grandfather,” if you will, the Rev. Tony Larsen? I’ve sung it in each of the two preceding sermons in this series on the principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and I started off too high each time. Remember? I don’t know if I’ll do any better this time, but let’s try. You can sing along with the words on your insert.
Oh I believe in every person’s
worth and dignity
In justice and compassion
I believe in equity
Acceptance of each other
Encouragement to grow
A free and open search for truth
To find the way to go
Affirm the right of conscience
and affirm democracy
The goal of world community
With peace and liberty
Respect the web of nature
Of which we are a part
These are UU Principles
I hold close to my heart
This sermon on the sixth principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association is the third sermon in a series of eight. I’m clearly not taking them in order. I chose this one for the first Sunday of Advent because of how it parallels and tags along with the themes of the season. The official wording of the sixth principle says, “We the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.”
On many a corner, lawn, or park at this time of year, the creche, the Christian nativity scene used as a holiday ornament, calls to the minds of many the strains of the carol “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” in which the traditional verse is sung, “Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King!” or as it appears in our gray hymnal, “Peace on the earth, to all good will, from heaven the news we bring.” This echoes the words of the angels that appeared to the shepherds in the Gospel of Luke. The story requires us to suspend judgment and provisionally accept the unrealistic elements of the story as trying to tell us something the story teller and many people since have held to be important. And it is important. It may seem idealistic, whether it is uttered by angels in the night sky or by Unitarian Universalists and progressive postmoderns protesting injustice and bad laws. It may seem unachievable in a world where the leaders of the US and North Korea utter veiled and not so veiled threats about the strength of their will to annihilate each other if pushed too far. It may seem unachievable in a world where people use their religion as a weapon against others and perceive others’ religions as a weapon that will be used against them. “Peace on the earth, to all good will!” But whether or not we can imagine achieving it, the fact that we can imagine it gives us hope, direction, and purpose, if we let it.
A couple of weeks ago, the Celebration of Holiday Lights opened in Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton. This Fellowship takes part with a display that depicts our beautiful stained glass window with the flaming chalice rooted in the landscape of the Shenandoah Valley overlooked by the Blue Ridge. Our display features the words “Peace – Love – Service – Happy Holidays.” And through the year each year, I occasionally hear from members of the community how much they appreciated our display. Peace. Love. Service. Happy Holidays. Whichever holidays you celebrate.
But this year when the organizations and businesses put up their displays of lights and signs and other ways of showing their holiday spirit, advertising their presence, and supporting the community, one organization that some of you belong to put up a display that some people thought didn’t express enough holiday spirit. Like our Fellowship’s display, it did not use the word Christmas. It also didn’t use the word holiday. And there certainly wasn’t anything that would make us assume the message was essentially Christian. It was the SAW Action activist group’s display that prominently featured the word “Coexist” outlined in lights, with the individual letters formed with religious and other symbols from various traditions. Muslim Crescent. Star of David. Christian Cross. Daoist Yin-Yang. A Peace Sign. And the symbols for man and woman joined into a single, joined symbol. The initial response of the committee that oversees the Celebration of Holiday Lights was to literally pull the plug on this Coexist sign. And when the newspaper came asking questions, a member of the committee said that it was turned off because it didn’t belong in this celebration because it did not have a holiday message.
Think about it. In this holiday season when a large portion of America sings, “Peace on the earth, good will to men!” no matter what they believe about angels making noise in the night sky or about a virgin giving birth… in this holiday season, when the infant laid in the decorative creches is called the Prince of Peace by Christians… in this holiday season a message, “Coexist,” that says that people should strive for that ideal of peace on earth and goodwill between individuals and tribes and nations… “Coexist” alone among the displays in Gypsy Hill Park was arbitrarily determined not to enough about the holidays.
I would say that nothing could be farther from the truth. In a park that honors and delights in neighbors and friends putting up a display that advertises their business, club, or church, the song of the angels condensed to a single word was among the most spiritual, the most directed toward the holiday, perhaps even among the most Christian of all the displays. Especially when you add in the smaller unlighted signs to the side of the lighted Coexist sign, including one reading “Love trumps hate.” Ultimately the committee decided that they could coexist with the Coexist sign but that Love trumps hate had to come down because it was political.
Think about it, “Love trumps hate” is political and cannot be tolerated. Love being greater than hate is an objectionable message. Political, not a holiday message. Well, on the one hand, you can’t win every struggle, even when you are on the side of right and good. And yes, the message is political. But it is political in the same way that all action to better the lot of humanity is political.
Love trumps hate. Love is the only message that can defeat racists and misogynists and anti-Semites and homophobes and transphobes. Love came down at Christmas, romantic poet Christina Rosetti wrote in words that were made into a carol. “Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, Love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign.” And what was the purpose of love in this seasonal story? It certainly wasn’t to sell cards and merchandise. The story of love that the season of Advent prepares for and the Celebration of Holiday Lights gets the community ready for is not to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder and bolster the economy. At least not per se. The story that these weeks and the flurry of activity was established to put people in a frame of mind to do something positive about was all about conquering hate.
Affirm and promote the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Love trumps hate. Coexist.
There are nuances that may come across differently at different times of year or when different things are happening in Washington DC. But this message is one of seven core concepts, seven baseline principles that the member congregations of our association promised each other we would put our back into. You can believe something and just be too dang busy to do anything about it. But a covenant is about action. By joining the Unitarian Universalist Association and remaining a member congregation, this Fellowship has promised all other Unitarian Universalist congregations that we will do something to further the goals of world community, deep and abiding peace, liberty for all, and universal justice.
In the Qur’an, it is written: “O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.” But this idealized vision of how humanity should coexist in community, knowing each other, never turns away from knowing the truth that there are enemies who may attack and changes that people must make to bring peace into the world.
The Universalist minister Clarence Skinner wrote, a century ago:
The fight for freedom is never won… Each generation must win for itself the right to emancipate itself from its own tyrannies, which are ever unprecedented… Therefore those who have been reared in freedom, bear a tremendous responsibility to the world to win an ever larger and more important liberty.
Indeed, insect ecologist and UU writer Jeffrey Lockwood has compared peacemaking, the building of peace, liberty and justice, to the mythological work of Sisyphus, who forever rolls his stone to the top of the mountain, only to have to fall back to the bottom to be pushed again. Lockwood writes:
Maybe Sisyphus will never recover the graces of the gods; maybe the hill will never be worn down. But if he—if we—can authentically and deeply engage in our labors, if we roll the boulder of peace because it is what we are called to do, if the measure of our work is its capacity to shape who we are, we can go on pushing. …To know what we can do, to understand what the world needs of us, we must look into the eyes of the frightened soldier and the terrified child. But to sustain our work, we must look inside ourselves. There we shall find the understanding that the endless labor of life is not about changing the world but about creating ourselves.
Comparing the work that our Fellowship has covenanted to do to the work of Sisyphus runs the risk of being disheartening. Indeed, in times like ours, simply turning on the news can feel disheartening. And yet, there is a pairing, as in the song, of the struggle and the power. The nature of life is that we go through cycles of repetition, sometimes in practice, occasionally with meaningful transformation, and always changing ourselves through the pattern and commitments of our struggle to nudge the world in the direction of peace and coexistence, with love trumping hate, and with liberty and justice for all.
In the Talmud, Rabbi Tarfon said, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” The work of this season, the work we have covenanted to do as a Unitarian Universalist congregation, does not demand of us that we alone be responsible for it or even that all of us together succeed, alone, or in our brief time on earth. We are part of a great world community that is covenanted to nudge, to urge the world to an evolving greater love. Love trumps hate because, together with Martin Luther King, Jr., and 19th-Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, we trust that the moral arc of the universe can be bended toward justice. It is a long game, and it is one that defines us.
Amen and Blessed Be.
 The Essential Clarence Skinner: A Brief Introduction to His Life and Writings, by Clarence Russell Skinner, ed by Charles A. Howe. (Skinner House Books, 2005, p. 45).
 “A Guest of the World: Meditations” by Jeffrey Lockwood. Skinner House, 2006.
 (Avot 2:21)
© 2017 by Rev. Paul Oakley