First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church • 330 First Parish Rd, Scituate MA 02066

For Such a Time as This - March 12, 2017

     A modern comedian, an ancient Persian queen, and a Kenyan environmentalist walk into a bar – not quite, but my sources for this morning’s sermon do sound like the beginning of a joke.  What else could bring together Maggie Rowe, actress, comedy writer, and author of the new spiritual memoir Sin Bravely: My Great Escape from Evangelical Hell; Esther, one of only two women to have a book of the Bible named for her and the hero of the Purim story for saving her people; and Wangari Maathei, winner of the Nobel Peace prize for her work in the Green Belt Movement in Kenya?

     I guess the punchline is “Ubuntu.”  Last week I began a Lenten sermon series – something I’ve never tried before – reflecting on this concept and what it might mean for us today.  Ubuntu is a Bantu word meaning “humanity” and sums up African philosophy that a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity or as the Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defined it: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

     Ubuntu offers a contrast to our customary western focus on the individual.  Individualism tells us that meaning is found in my own life; Ubuntu says that we find meaning together.  The concept of Ubuntu is present in all religions, just not often emphasized.  Maggie Rowe’s memoir shows the downside of individualized religion.  The story of Esther and the real life actions of Wangari Maathei show the power of Ubuntu.  “I am because we are, and because we are, I am.” 

      Maggie Rowe’s memoir opens with her at age 19 checking into a Christian psychiatric center.  After a dozen years of living with the terror that she was going to go to hell, she’d had a breakdown.  When she was six years old her Sunday school teacher told the class that

 “if we denied Jesus we would be condemned to an eternity in hell; that God would say to unbelievers on Judgement day, Depart from me.  I do not know you, and then toss them into a fiery pit, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth forevermore…..
[Then] Miss Trimly, satisfied that she had sufficiently spooked her charges, assured our trembling group we didn’t’ need to be afraid because God had also given us an unconditional gift.  A gift called grace.  The only string was we had to accept it by saying the Sinner’s Prayer:  Dear Jesus, I believe in You and accept You into my heart as my personal savior.  Please forgive my sins and cleanse me from all unrighteousness.
I said the prayer.  Of course I did.
But what if I didn’t really mean it? 
So I concentrated and said it again.
And again.
But my mind wouldn’t rest.  Maybe I’d gotten it wrong.  I’d been wrong before.  Plenty of times.  Like in math class, when I was sure that five minus four was nine so I wrote down nine on the test.  But I was wrong.  I had confused subtraction with addition.  What if the same type of thing was happening now?”

     She talked to her parents and her pastor but no one could reassure her that she was truly saved.  Over and over she imagined what an eternity of torment without anyone she loved would be like.  A breakdown in her sophomore year of college leads her to Grace Point Psychiatric Institute where at last a psychiatrist helps her to understand and accept the boundlessness of God’s love. 

     As I read the book though, I kept thinking what a waste all her angst was.  Nothing in the sermons or teachings she gives us highlights the deep Christian message of caring for the least among us or loving our neighbor as oneself.  In fact one of the counselors at the institute actively interferes when the patients try to support one another in their group therapy sessions.  What if she had learned this understanding of her religion?  How might this devout comedian have used her faith to make the world better as, say, Stephen Colbert uses his Roman Catholicism to point out discrepancies in our society?  What might she have learned from the story of Esther?

     Esther was sitting pretty.  She was the favorite wife of the king.  She had a beautiful Persian name – Esther means star – hiding her Hebrew name of Hadassah.  No one knew she was one of the Jews, and even if Haman’s plot hadn’t been foiled it’s likely that she could have kept her secret and survived the massacre or pleaded mercy from the king if her identity had been revealed.  So from the short-term point of view of Esther’s individual life, trying to save the people was not in her interest.  Instead of under the radar, she put herself into the king’s presence – that act alone could have meant her death, since the king hadn’t asked her to come in. And then she aligned herself with her people – so that if the king didn’t overturn his decree she was now sure to be part of the punishment.  And why did she do this?  Ubuntu.  Or in more appropriate words, because she understood herself as part of the people of Israel.  Judaism is not about the individual; it is about being part of a people.  In Judaism, the people have a covenant with God.  In Christianity, the understanding has shifted to see the covenant as between God and the individual.  So for Esther, if the people perished, she would perish whether her body lived or not.  She was because they were; they were because she was.

     Wangari Maathai considered herself a Roman Catholic; she was taught by nuns in her native Kenya and was always grateful for the education they gave her.  But her earliest spirituality came from her mother who taught her about the connections with the ancestors and the earth and that the connection was embodied in the fig tree which was sacred to her people.  She was taught not to take the wood of the fig tree, not to cut it down, or to burn it.  Later, after attending college and graduate school in the United States, where she earned a masters degree in biology, she returned to Kenya and found that the injunction against chopping down the fig tree carried environmental as well as spiritual wisdom.  For she came back to find that with Kenya’s independence in 1964, farming practices had shifted from small self-sufficient family plots to large farms focused on export crops.  As corporations took over the land, trees were cut down to create more fields.  Wangari Maathai wrote in her autobiography, she now learned that "[t]he trees [had] prevented soil erosion, and when this traditional wisdom was no longer taught, when the idea of the holiness of trees and the biodiversity of the environment was lost, the people suffered. Women especially suffered. Forests were burned to make space for cash crops-coffee and tea. Trees that were not native to Kenya were planted because they grew faster, but they did not have a beneficial effect on the environment."  Women now had to walk long distances to collect firewood.  With crops focused on growing coffee for export, children now were malnourished.  Soil erosion led to muddy streams and scarce clean water which led to illness. 

     Wangari Maathei began to think about what she could do to make things better for her people, though as a professor at the Veterinary College in Nairobi, none of these conditions affected her or her children.  But again, thanks to Ubuntu, she saw herself as part of the people, part of the land.  So she began planting seedlings and sharing them.  She worked with others to start the Green Belt Movement which paid women to plant the trees and share the seeds with others, thus empowering women and reforesting the earth.  Because of her work, she was jailed, beaten, her life threatened.  At times she moved from safe house to safe house.  Her husband left her because she was “too strong-minded for a woman.”  But she persisted.  Belts of trees began to recover the land.  Nutrition improved.  So did women’s lives and their ability to participate in all areas of civic life.  In 2004 she received a call from the Nobel committee telling her that they had chosen her to receive the Peace Prize that year for her work.  And how did she respond?  She wept, rejoiced with friends, and planted another tree.   The work went on.        
     Usually the stories of Esther and Wangari Maathai are told as the stories of courageous individuals.  Esther, queen “for such a time as this” as Mordecai tells her; Wangari Maathai, with her combination of biological studies, a sense of freedom and possibility from her time in America, and a rootedness in the traditions of her people also was uniquely able to meet the needs of her people.  But that “great woman” approach to history simplifies their stories.  Before Esther went in to meet the king her people prayed and fasted with her for three days.  She needed their strength to have her own.  Wangari Maathai didn’t plant all those trees on her own; the strength of the Green Belt Movement lay in its ability to bring in women across the country to plant trees and share seeds with their neighbors so they could plant trees.   Understanding themselves as part of a people didn’t just give them the vision for what they needed to do; they were able to do what they did only because of the support of their communities.  We need one another. 

      As we look at how we are called to heal and to work in our world, their stories remind us that these questions come to us as a community, not as individuals, and that the response will come from all of us together.  We are not alone.   Each of us was born “for such a time as this.”  And while that gives us the responsibility of acting for the good of all, Ubuntu also lightens the burden that responsibility can be.  For we do not have to do the work by ourselves.  We share it.  Not each of us is called to be an Esther or a Wangari Maathai.  We save the world by praying and fasting, by planting trees and sharing the seeds and joining others to block those who would bulldoze the trees.  Think of our new ministry, the Blue Boat Coffeehouse, which uses music to bring people of all ages together in a safe, sober space and raises money to support community organizations.  You don’t have to run the Coffeehouse to be part of its good work.  Musicians and ticket takers, bakers and publicists, and members of the audience all play their part in its success.  Because each of us is there, the coffeehouse happens.  How can this outlook encourage us as we look at the issues confronting the world today?

     As we look for instance at the defunding of crucial programs in the Environmental Protection Agency, the issues can seem overwhelming.  How can we save the Great Lakes, the Energy Star program, and programs which clean up already polluted sites?  We can start by singing our hopes and our fears together this afternoon, reminding ourselves in that physical way that no one of us carries the song alone; we can fill out postcards which will be there for an action; and then we can connect over coffee and cookies with other south shore Unitarian Universalists to find out what they are doing and how we can work together.  We are not alone. 

     Only misplaced nostalgia leads us to think that we are facing more difficult challenges than people before us faced.  The people who sat in these pews before we were born faced wars, slavery, influenza and polio epidemics; they lived through assassinations of national leaders, hurricanes, and the Great Depression.  Together, they not only supported one another through those times, but they joined with larger circles to work for equal rights for all and for laws protecting those rights; for clean water and air and the laws to protect the earth; for peace and for justice.  We draw on their strength and example, on the strength and example of Esther, of Wangari Maathai, of women and men throughout the ages and across the world who are working still that all may live and thrive.  What will we do that those who come after us will draw on 50 years or 500 years from now?  How will we live our good news that there is no hell to fear in another world? How will we take up our work, the work of humankind, the work of making real the realm of love here and now among us?

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