Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sermon for January 15, 2012

Introduction to Today’s Service

On the cover of your bulletin, you will see four pictures. On the bottom right is a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. He is in his late 30s, close to the age when he was killed. At the bottom of the page is a younger Martin Luther King Jr. with his family. He was a student then, studying to become a minister. He was a Christian who wanted to follow Jesus' teaching that if someone hits us we should not hit back, that we should in fact love our enemy. But King also was angry at how white people and our government treated African Americans in our country and he wondered how he could change that. He wondered if following Jesus teachings meant accepting unfair treatment.

As a student, King went to church and heard an older minister talk about a recent visit to the land of India. The minister was Mordecai Johnson, President of Howard University. In that sermon the minister talked about what he'd learned of the teachings of a Hindu Sage. He’s pictured at the top of the bulletin. His name is Mohandes Gandhi. The top right picture is Gandhi as an older man. Like Martin Luther King, Gandhi was killed, but he was 79, not 39. The sermon electrified King. He picked up dozens of books about Gandhi, and concluded, "True pacifism is not unrealistic submission to evil power. ... It is rather a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love, in the faith that it is better to be the recipient violence than the inflicter of it . . .” Through Gandhi, King got the courage, not to be bitter. He got the power, when he needed it most.

The picture on the top left is Gandhi as a young lawyer. For most of Gandhi’ life, India was ruled by England. Gandhi's earliest thoughts about how to respond to the British Occupation of India came from reading a mystical poem called the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi learned that love could be forceful without being violent. He learned lead marches, endure beatings, to stay in jail and refuse to eat to embarrass the English into letting the Indians rule their own country. Because of Gandhi's contact with The West, he learned about Jesus how Jesus' teachings about love were similar to what he had learned from the Bhagavad Gita.

When Martin Luther King first learned the teachings of Gandhi, Gandhi had been dead for three years. King kept a photo of Gandhi in his office. Martin Luther King's power to lift his people, power aroused through Gandhi's life and teachings was first given to him during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, less than a decade after Gandhi's death

Today we take time, in our prayers, songs and words, to listen to Martin, Mohandas, and others as they call us to non-violent confrontation with all that keeps humanity from fulfilling our call to love.

Q. Wherein lies the chief significance of the doctrine of non−resistance?
A. In the fact that it alone allows of the possibility of eradicating evil from one's own heart, and also from one's neighbor's. This doctrine forbids doing that whereby evil has endured for ages and multiplied in the world. He who attacks another and injures him, kindles in the other a feeling of hatred, the root of every evil. To injure another because he has injured us, even with the aim of overcoming evil, is doubling the harm for him and for oneself; it is begetting, or at least setting free and inciting, that evil spirit which we should wish to drive out. Satan can never be driven out by Satan. Error can never be corrected by error, and evil cannot be vanquished by evil. True non−resistance is the only real resistance to evil. It is crushing the serpent's head. It destroys and, in the end, extirpates the evil feeling.
From “A Catechism of Non-Violence” by Adin Ballou

My religion is based on truth and non-violence. Truth is my God. Non-violence is the means of realising Him. Non-violence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our being.
Quotes from Mahatma Gandhi

Sermon: Principles of Spiritual Activism: Satyagraha

I came up with the idea for this sermon series at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Last November I was offered a chance to see an opera called “Satyagraha” by Philip Glass. After a busy week, I almost didn’t go. The music is a tonal repetitive poem and it’s close to four hours long. I was worried I would fall asleep. But, as often happens, when you are least expecting it, you get swept away into something which is transformative and unforgettable: so special that you long to hold onto the experience and repeat it and live it long after you have left.

Yes, the music was repetitive but repetitive in the way a heart’s beat is repetitive, repetitive like breathing in and breathing out, repetitive like waves of the sea smoothing pebbles and shaping drift wood. The music and images entered into the audience’s very blood stream. We were breathing it, growing with it, like a prayer or meditation. It was hauntingly beautiful. I left feeling hopeful. I left feeling transformed.

And, I left thinking about a series of sermons I want to preach: Principles of Spiritual Activism. So here we are . . . Today we begin to think about what it takes to be spiritual activists. To some of you, it may sound like a strange combination – pairing spirituality and activism. Spirituality has a reputation for being interior and individual-centered. Activism, on the other hand, is other-focused as it brings communities together around issues of social justice. When we put the two concepts together, spiritual activism becomes love in motion. Spiritual activism is prayer made visible. Spiritual activists believe we need to take action in the world to create positive change. If we really want to continue to create Dr. King’s beloved community, if we really want to live in more compassionate and humane world, we need to become more compassionate and more humane ourselves. We act out of our deepest spiritual convictions. Our prayers are motivated by God’s invitation to do justice.

My critique of the United Church of Christ is that we sometimes fail to pair spirituality and activism. For years, the UCC has preached that the way to renewal is through works of justice. But there are a lot of churches who are very engaged in hands-on social justice issues that aren't being renewed. I think it’s because we forget that social justice needs to be linked with contemplation. When we do one without the other, we lack balance.

The painful reality is that we are taught to believe think, “My way is right, therefore your way is wrong.” Thinking like this is endemic in our society, which has become increasingly polarized. I believe there must be another way to live, a way that marries action with mindfulness a way that says you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right.

One way to find integration is to become a spiritual activist. And the first quality of spiritual activism is Satyagraha. Satyagraha is a word invented by Mahatma Gandhi and his followers. It’s a synthesis of two words: the word satya means truth founded in love, and the word agraha means firmness, insistence and force. Satyagraha means a force and a power born in truth and love. It was the word Gandhi used for non-violent resistance to bring about change. Gandhi sometimes called it “love force” or “soul force.”

It is very close to the Spirit of our Christian Gospel, though sadly not lived often enough. Satyagraha means clinging to truth, no matter what. Under no circumstances can a spiritual activist hide or keep truth from an opponent. The spiritual activist is obligated to be honest, open, and direct in dealings with opponents. No matter the cost, one must follow the truth, even as he or she endeavors to be truthful.

On one level Satyagraha is the means to eradicating injustice through the use of Soul Force, rather than through violence or physical force. A spiritual activist is not out to conquer but to convert, not to prevail, but to persuade. She has infinite patience and all humility. She does not bulldoze others, but takes the way of self-suffering. Gandhi believed that the spiritual activist derives her power from God. Dependence on God will help the disciple of nonviolence to develop the courage and fearlessness needed both to stay the course and to wear down opponents in the social struggle through the use of love.

For Gandhi, Jesus was the supreme non-violent resistor. Martin Luther King Jr. noticed the same thing. Through Satyagraha, King found a new way to affirm the teachings of Jesus, which spoke well to his people in his time and to some of us beyond. But, in a world which grows ever more interrelated, more geographically together, the voice of no one tradition can speak the truth in a way we can cling to. We need to hear and to know all the ancient human voices, to see truth in all its facets, as Gandhi did, and not be imprisoned by any one view.

What can we make of all this? What do we do with the non-violence of Adin Ballou that we read during our service? What do we do with ideas like the Soul Force of Gandhi and the political resistance of King? What do we do with love and nonviolence in a country where power politics reign supreme in our institutions, including religious ones? What do we do when many of our institutions marginalize or silence the voice of dissent to protect the status quo? Of what relevance is Satyagraha at a time when only select, handpicked social crises tend to shock the moral sensibility of political, civic, business, educational and religious leaders?

Think about those who have been deeply wounded by life. Think of those who have suffered most terribly, those who flee their homes in the face of violence and brutality, those who feel like outcasts because of the violence of betrayal, suspicion and hatred. This sense of shame and duplicity is true of so many people who have lived lives where tragedy, violence and fear have robbed them of self-esteem. As we know violence is all too common within the homes in this country fed by a diet of vicious entertainment and dysfunctional relationships. And how much lasting peace has a war on terror achieved? How many have been converted by violence?

Victor Frankl, who chronicled his experiences as a Jew and prisoner in a concentration camp observed three psychological reactions experienced to some extent by all those who were the victims of violence.
  1. An overwhelming sense of trauma and inability to come to terms with the horror.
  2. A sense of apathy and despair that nothing can be done and nothing will ever change.
  3. Lastly and often later, reactions of moral deformity, hatred, bitterness, disillusionment, blame and an inability to relate or trust in humanity again.
As Spiritual Activists, we say no more! This is not what God intends for the world. Violence leads to more violence. Spiritual activism is liberation, it is freedom. It is the choice to participate in the suffering of God for the world. It is suffering love.

In a sermon about Gandhi, King pointed out that every evening, Gandhi had a prayer meeting where hundreds of people came, and he prayed with them. One afternoon, when he was in Delhi, he walked out to his evening prayer meeting. And on his way out there that afternoon, one of his fellow Hindus shot him. And here was a man of nonviolence, falling at the hand of a man of violence. Here was a man of love falling at the hands of a man of hate. It’s what happened to King. It’s what happened to Christ. This is the story of history. It’s what happens when people attempt to heal the wounds of divided nations though love. When President Abraham Lincoln was shot, Secretary Stanton stood by the body of this leader and said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” And that same thing can be said about Mahatma Gandhi Martin Luther King. They belong to the ages, and they belong especially to this age, an age drifting once more to its doom. And they remind us that we must learn to go another way.

In a day guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere and remote operated drones attack out of nowhere, no nation can win a war. We no longer have a choice between violence and nonviolence; it is either nonviolence or nonexistence. The lives of Gandhi and King and Christ still issue an invitation, and that invitation is always in the form of a warning: “Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”

Who today will follow Jesus so much that we’ll be able to do greater things even than he did because we will be able to bring about the peace of the world and mobilize God’s people to follow the way Satryagraha, the way of non-violence?

All is not hopeless. We pray, God, give us power to the lift the people. Justice will be done, evil will be beaten, and God will set all things right through our prayers and through our actions.
When people are discouraged, God, give us power to the lift the people.
When those who have been victimized can’t fathom the horror of life, God, give us power to the lift the people.

When those who have been thrown away and marginalized can only respond with apathy and resignation, God, give us power to the lift the people .

When victims of oppression take the blame for oppression and lose their trust in humanity, God, give us power to the lift the people.

For those crying for justice, God, give us power to the lift the people

For those yearning some peace in a fallen world, God, give us power to the lift the people.
For those who believe still has something wonderful to do in our lives and in our world, God, give us power to the lift the people.

Spiritual Activists, new life begins today. O God, give us power to lift the people. O God, give us power because we need it.

For those who think that justice means injuring those who injure us, that error can be corrected by error, that evil can be vanquished by evil, God, give us power to the lift the people.

God give us more power to tear down the walls that keep us from one another, as Christ and Gandhi and Martin began to do. God give us strength to lift the people.

God, move humanity with humanity for the protection of good

Thrust back the evil of violence and set virtue on her seat again (Bhagavad Gita)


  • “Christian Spirituality” by T.V. Philip,
  • You Don’t Have to be Wrong for Me to be Right by Brad Hirschfield
  • “Satyagraha” by Fritz Hudson,
  • “Spiritual Activism,”
  • “Hope,”
  • Palm Sunday Sermon on Mohandas K. Gandhi, Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (March 22, 1959),

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