Sermons: “Disembodied Dreams”
Let me take you back to Thursday, April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The late Dr. King’s body has been taken away. But for his close colleagues returning from the hospital, there is a grim reminder of his having been here: a pool of blood on the balcony floor. Jesse Jackson approaches and sinks to his knees before the puddle. He places both of his hands, palms downward, into the blood of his friend. He then stands and wipes the front of his turtleneck shirt with his hands, taking the blood of Martin onto himself.
Dr. King was murdered as he was about to join the efforts of striking garbage workers in Memphis. It was a somewhat unplanned initial step on what was to be the most ambitious endeavor of King’s career; the Poor People’s Campaign. This effort was envisioned to culminate in a multiracial army of the poor descending on Washington D.C. until Congress enacted a Poor People’s Bill of Rights, which would include a massive government jobs program.
Having learned a little bit about the levers of power in our nation while he fought for desegregation and equal rights, and then while he spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, Dr. King was determined to hit at the root of exploitation in the Poor People’s Campaign. This carried him well beyond the field of race politics and into the much more dangerous field of economics. In Selma and Washington D.C., King was trying to change the way people in and out of power thought about race. What he was about to do was change the way people in and out of power thought about power.
His inner circle thought this too diffuse and a departure from the work they had all been doing up until then. They began to fracture and he was loosing patience with them. And when the invitation came for him to go to Memphis, King was counseled that it was too paltry an affair in addition to being part of a venture his associates weren’t entirely on board with. But it was neither insignificant to King, nor was it anything less than exactly the kind of systematic sin he was hoping to root out of America. And so he went.
The day before his assassination he assured an audience that has subsequently grown to include the whole world that he had been to the mountaintop, that he had seen the promised land. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
I think King was wrong. If there is a place to get to, I think he will get there with us. He was murdered. But he was not ended. His action lives on in his disciples and in the trajectory upon which he set this nation. And what are we if not our action?
There is no end there. Just more means to further means, action birthing action, character in mitosis.
You see, when Reverend Jackson knelt down and dipped his palms in King’s blood, he was physically enacting a kind of resurrection. After all, the great work hadn’t got done. So Jackson was, in a sense, taking onto himself the properties of his friend. But he wasn’t just taking them onto himself alone. Because we see it—we’ve seen pictures in the past or we see it in our mind’s eye today—because we see it and understand it’s history and significance, we know that the properties of Martin, in transferring to Jesse, have also been transferred to us. For while Jackson remained focused primarily on racial questions, there were other people and organizations that took up the post-racial agenda that King had begun. Nonetheless, on that night in Memphis, it was Jackson who embodied a transference that unwittingly would take root in many of us and pave the winding way to this Tuesday’s inauguration.
It turns out, evidentally, that blood is both medically and poetically a rampant vehicle for the transference of properties from one person to another. And because were using the poetic sense here, properties means the character of or the meaning of that blood. What Jesse did was only what mankind has been doing for millennia. It’s either hard wired into our DNA or the vestige of humanity’s hero myths, but there seems to be a repeated practice among our species of taking on some properties of a beloved martyr through the martyr’s blood. An obvious example of this is the Christian Eucharist, wherein the blood of Christ is swallowed.
While we understand the Eucharistic blood of Christ is symbolic, in Jesse’s case, the blood was both symbolic and all too physical. When he dipped his hands into that blood, he took part in an impromptu ritual that ratcheted him, and ourselves as well, to the continuing action of Dr. King. So, Jesse still has blood on his hands. Barak Obama has blood on his hands. And the blood is still on our hands. It reminds us of the guilt in which our history implicates us. But that historical indictment is only worthwhile if it also reminds us that we continue—all of us, regardless of our heritage, skin color or economic status - to participate, to varying degrees, in a vast system of repression and exploitation that pollutes our character by a lack of awareness and a lack of intentionality. The good news is there are things we can do about that. Yes we can.
So, on one hand the purpose of the blood is to remind us of our transgressions. And on the other hand, is the transferred properties, a reminder of hope, and heroism, of faith in humankind, a reminder of fallibility, forgiveness and true power, and the life and work of Martin Luthor King Jr. That blood has become ours. It is our heritage. If we don’t want it, that blood becomes only an indictment.
And yet, if we accept it, if we take it in, if you let it seep into our imagination and into our heart, that blood becomes, not only an indictment but it also becomes a force in our own veins, a meaning in our own life. For that is the blood in which the murdered prophet still lives. And we are worthy of it. And we are guilty of it. As worthy and as guilty as the prophet himself. So, if we accept it, if we accept that blood, if we accept this story, then we can hold up our own bloody hands and see death (hold up left hand) and life (hold up right hand), guilt and hope, and change these disparities from a posture of the convicted, to a posture of conviction (clasp hands in prayer).
Let us pray.
We come hear today to be nurtured by one another,
with hopes of hearing a healing word, of singing a song that helps us, of celebrating, of walking back into beauty.
Our lives are fraught with trouble, and actions that miss the mark and cause damage to ourselves or to others.
But our being here confesses our awareness of our imperfection and hopes that such an awareness must necessarily understand and thus forgive the failings of others as well as of ourselves.
Just as our joy is a beacon, so to can our sorrow be a guide.
Let this awareness be the seed of empathy then, and this fellowship be the soil to nurture that empathy, so that its fruit can feed many.
I saw a bumper sticker the other day. It displayed an image of Obama in red, white and blue, above the words, “Yes, we did.” Now, I know this person was just slapping a celebratory flag on their car. I know they were just feeling proud, feeling good. And they should. Yet, I confess that I was somewhat troubled by that bumper sticker. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the layers of significance that an Obama presidency promises. I most certainly do. I have high hopes and deep gratitude.
It’s just that, “Yes, we did,” suggests that the work is over when, really, the work is just beginning. The phrase… is, “Yes we can,” not “Yes, we did.” And therein is a message of both political and spiritual consequence. The work is not yesterday. The work, the joy, the pain is always and ever arising. If I can hearken back to King for a moment the view from the mountaintop of equal rights is of the mountain of unscrupulous warfare. The view from the mountaintop of unscrupulous warfare is of the mountain of economic exploitation. The mountains get bigger. The work is never over.
The difficulty is that once you start down the path of justice, it is easy to be overwhelmed by where that path leads you. You start in a soup kitchen and you wind up waving a defiant ladle at the World Bank. It seems like an impossible task. But then we also know, as our soon-to-be President has reminded us, that, “nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.” And what do you know? It works. At least its working to shift the face of the power structure in Washington. But the real work, as we know all too well—as we witness Palestine unraveling, as Pakistan and Mexico stand on the brink of collapse, as our own economy teeters on the precipice of national terror and a crisis of character—the real work has only just begun.
So, not, “Yes we did.” “Yes we can.” And maybe that implies, “Yes we are,” right now, right here. If the work the joy and pain is ever arising, then it is arising now, right here, as you sit.
After all, being here is an action. And what are we if not our action? Being here has an effect; on you, on the people next to you, on the world you encounter away from here. Being here is an action. But the question we must ask ourselves, as participants in this corporate body—sitting here, are we active enough? What does being here do? More to the point, what are we doing here?
So, when I go to church I know that most of the time I’m there I’m sitting and listening. Right? You’re listening, aren’t you? Okay. That’s a start. I know that my listening is reinforced by my standing to sing and by my singing (apologies to those within earshot). So, that’s also a step. I watch candles be kindled and light some of my own. That’s good. But in a religion that has no central text, in a religion whose cosmology, ontology, theology is intentionally vague, in a religion that is essentially new—despite the braided histories we claim—and lacks a rich tradition - is listening enough? Are these actions enough to embody our purpose? Or do they leave us entirely without “a tradition, an ontology and a rich understanding of the human condition, its malaise and its cure,” as has been suggested.
The way I see it, the problem is not that we do not have an ontology and a rich understanding of the human condition, its malaise and its cure. The problem is that our understanding comes from such a broad spectrum of sources that it is all too easy to miss the forest of consensus for the trees of our variety. Maybe because of that, our understanding has not been taken into our bodies in any kind of communal, central ritual. And so it is that our religion has been damned to a mere haunting, all too often remaining in the realm of ideas, a dream without a body to be in.
In short, we’re a religion without any religious experience because we are a religion of disembodied dreams. T.S. Eliot comes to mind. “We are the hollow men. Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass… Shape without form, shade without colour, Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” I don’t think Eliot was talking about us, but he sure could have been. Emerson, however, was definitely talking about us when he called Unitarianism “corpse cold.” But we can change that. We can live into the dream of our forebears and we can and must do this together. Oh, yes we can. In fact, we will.
Some of you may know, I am currently studying for the ministry at Austin Seminary. This past semester, a small group of my colleagues began meeting once a week to create some sacred space in our lives. We would gather, splash our hands and faces with water (a practice borrowed from Islam), do some physical action which we often drew from yoga. We would then sing—to clear away the ego. And finally, we would relax in silence for a half an hour, ala a Quaker meeting. This was followed by the sharing of snacks and some discussion. I can assure you, our theologies all varied radically from one another. And yet we could create that space together. It was a deeply enriching experience each and every week.
Now I could have, and have, done something like this on my own, alone. But the fellowship was important. The fellowship elevated the experience. Fellowship taps into love and that’s why we’re here this morning, right?
So ritual embodiment creates space. It also articulates faith. After all, what is Islam without Mecca-facing prayers in prostration? What is Christianity without the Eucharist? What is Buddhism without meditation? What is Unitarian Universalism without... um… We claim these traditions as sources. There is wisdom in the fact that they ALL ritualize their bodies in order to reinforce and articulate interpretations of the world.
The Buddhist author Jack Kornfield writes, “Spiritual transformation … doesn't happen by accident. We need a repeated discipline, a genuine training, in order to let go of our old habits of mind and to find and sustain a new way of seeing.” In other words, we have to practice cosmology. We have to practice ontology and theology. We will neither grow, nor be effective, nor, in my opinion, even survive as a religion without also thriving as a religious practice.
Now, I’m not just going to whine at you. I want to try and find a solution. So what kind of ritual embodies our values and beliefs and theological liberality? How shall we practice? The Buddhist teacher Achaan Chah described the commitment to practice as "taking the one seat." He said, "Just go into a room and put one chair in the center… open the doors and the windows, sit in the chair, and see who comes to visit. You will witness all kinds of scenes and actors, all kinds of temptations and stories, everything imaginable. Your only job is to stay in your seat. You will see it all arise and pass, and out of this, wisdom and understanding will come."
So we will take our cue here, with a few minor changes. I’m actually going to ask you to move a bit. Indulge me. Let’s see how this goes. So, as you are able, shift in your pews toward the center aisles, so that you are seated close to each other, right next to each other. Thank you.
So… we are going to do a ritual, a ritual that embodies our theological and ontological openness, our social vision, our scientific grounding and our spiritual aspirations.
Now if you would, hold out both of your hands, palm up. This is a gesture of openness, of asking and receiving. If this next gesture makes you uncomfortable, it’s okay. Ritual, principles and honest religion often, in integrity, take us out of our comfort zone. So, see if you can come in to this next step. If you would, keep your left hand open. But with your right hand, place two or more fingers on the wrist of the neighbor to your right. Try to find a pulse, over here on the side a little and under the thumb. If you’re unable to find a pulse, it is enough to know that it is there. If you are on an aisle or sitting by yourself, place your free fingers on your own neck.
You may close your eyes or not. However you are comfortable. Now I’ll ask you to breath in and exhale slowly, as if you were meditating. And keeping that breath intentional, consider how this gesture recalls our principles, how touch affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person and compassion in human relations.
Consider how touch embodies acceptance of one another and is a first step towards the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Consider that through your fingerprints, you can feel the pulse of your neighbor, through your singularity, you touch the life force.
Consider how this reveals our fragility, just as it reveals the miracle of the human machine.
Finally, take a few breath cycles on your own, increasing your sensitivity to your neighbors life force. See if you can syncopate your breathing with the rhythm of their heart and let that syncopation expand in your imagination to include the rhythms of everyone here and then onward so that your thoughts turn at last to the interdependent web of all existence and the sum that is greater than all these parts. Listen now to breath and blood and life. At one time, be grounded, be here, transcend.
I hope that gave you an idea of what I am talking about. Actually doing it hopefully made the idea more clear than if we had just left it at talk. And that is precisely the point. I hope it is an idea we can build on. It doesn’t need to be the ritual we performed today, but I would encourage some kind of exercise that embodies our faith to become a regular part of our service, our related board and committee functions and your personal practice. I’ll submit it to the worship committee for some deliberation. Consider today the first line of a conversation. But it must not only be a conversation.
Allowing our thoughts only to be in our mind and allowing our minds to be only in our brains does each component, as well as their sum—namely our lives and the gods in which we live them—a great penalty. Meanwhile, using our bodies to express our consciousness in ritual will lead to using our bodies to express our consciousness to each other and to the larger world. This can help in troubled times. And as a church and as a nation, these are troubled times. We can start healing without a word. We can take that wisdom and apply it to ourselves and our world. We can live this dream of Unitarian Universalism. We can heal this nation. We can repair this world. Yes we can.
Copyright: The author has given Unitarian Universalist Association member congregations permission to reprint this piece for use in public worship. Any reprints must acknowledge the name of the author.
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Last updated on Monday, March 25, 2013.
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