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This Land is Our Land

Rev. Kristen Rohm, Minister
SouthWest UU Church, North Royalton, Ohio

July 3, 2016

It was one of the first flights out of Cleveland after September 11, 2001. For a week the skies were empty of all but military aircraft. A symbol of freedom was taken away. On this day, people were taking to the skies again. As I sat drinking my coffee and waiting for the announcement to board, my ears picked up various conversations. There were soft voices around me conveying concern and fear and recalling the horrendous experience our nation and the world observed just days before.

When four middle-eastern men, wearing keffiyehs, sat down to board the same flight, a hush came over the waiting passengers. Whispers and head-turning began. These men began to feel awkward as they perceived the other waiting passengers’ looks and whispers. Some passengers got up and requested to be moved to another flight. I sipped my coffee and observed, not so much as myself, but perhaps as a separate spirit looking down over the situation. I watched as unknown and false perceptions began to produce an uncomfortable dark cloud. I caught sight of one of the men and with our eyes meeting, I greeted him with an accepting smile and nodded. This allowed me to reassure them I was also aware of what was unfolding. I added my open and accepting smile to relieve the tension. He nodded in return.

We boarded and the powerful engines took us up into the blue skies over the cities, suburbs, small towns, rivers, and the patterns of farm fields. As usual I had my window seat with my atlas on my lap. I have a need to know where I am and love to follow along with my eyes going back and forth from my map to the ground below and perceiving where the invisible state lines exist. I could see the baseball diamonds far below, the diamonds that exist in nearly every town in the United States.  I was so glad to be living in a country that has a wide variety of views and cultures blending into one human spirit of freedom and equality. 

By Ken Ellis, SWUU Worship Associate.

Thank you Ken for this story, it reminds me of what is wonderful and hopeful about America. Our ability as individuals to make a difference by doing the right thing in small ways and to nurture what is good in all of us. And the land itself, the glorious, amazing land that is our land.  I needed to be reminded for I have been wrestling with my dismay about what’s happening in our country.

Maybe you too are concerned about political polarization, hate-filled rhetoric and the breakdown of meaningful dialogue in the public square. Maybe you too are heartsick with mass shootings, violence and injustice for people of color and immigrants. And yet, maybe you too love this country, this magnificent land of ours. Maybe you too love being an American and believe in the grand ideals this country was founded on. Maybe you too are sometimes stuck in the middle of all this.

After a nice walk out with the trees and the breeze, something shifted, got unstuck for me. I remembered that just last week at General Assembly, the national gathering of Unitarian Universalists, two great speakers, Rev. John Dorhauer, of United Church of Christ and Krista Tippett of National Public Radio shared their thoughts about our world.  They both said that we are living through a time of enormous change, when old established ways of being in the world and rules and assumptions for understanding the world are breaking down and no longer make sense. A new way of understanding our world is not yet clear, we are creating it as we go. This leaves all of us in enormous uncertainty. This anxiety and uncertainty often shows up in public as anger and fear.

This morning we explore how our country and our faith may be a crucible for creating this new way of being in the world. Our democracy, this grand and glorious experiment of living into equality and diversity may be taking on new strength and possibility in the midst of all this strife and strain.

In the summer of 1776, a small committee of descendants of immigrants, for none were indigenous to this continent, wrote these words that launched a country:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These words are full of hope and promise. They were radical in their time and they can be stretched for these new times. We have, as a nation, already re-interpreted ‘all men’ to mean ‘all people’.  Now our work is to notice and to name that this promise has yet to be fulfilled for all in our country. Two hundred forty years later, American people of color still have a far higher poverty rate, poorer schools, less chance of success and a far higher chance of being incarcerated. The time is now to change this piece of our country’s history. It is for our generation to make certain that these promises ring true for all Americans.

We must stretch the promise of our democracy, this country built on declarations of freedom and equality for the world we are becoming.  This matters to us as a Unitarian Universalists, for this is our first principle, to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. And our second and sixth principles speak of justice and equality for all. Our shared principles demand that we work to ensure that this land is made for you and me. And I believe that is part of why John Dorhauer and Krista Tippett came to talk with us. They see what we have to offer a country lost in a sea of uncertainty, diversity and change.

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We can offer hope and possibility — because we Unitarian Universalists have long been practicing how to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. For generations we have been a faith free from creeds or statements of belief. We have long been creating beloved communities out of individuals with a range of beliefs, across differences. We know how to honor diversity and keep our grounding through ambiguity while also working toward justice and equality. We know how to work with others across faiths and cultures.

Here at SouthWest Church we join with Greater Cleveland Congregations, with 40 other Temples and Churches to make the justice system in Cuyahoga County truly just for all, regardless of the color of our skin. Together, as an interfaith community, we demand that our elected officials do their job in an equitable, compassionate and accountable fashion for all our citizens. We are also working to improve the schools and to curb gun violence in our city. And let me say, I know you are all busy. No one can do it all, please do not feel you must work on every issue. I suggest choosing one issue to engage with, the one that calls most deeply to you. In times of stress and uncertainty, it is also important to take time to rest and rejuvenate.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,
that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I believe it is time to re-interpret another piece of this founding statement, to stretch it for the new world we are living into. We need to recognize that ‘pursuit of happiness’ now occurs within the interconnected or interdependent web of existence of which we are a part – our seventh UU principle. Our country, indeed the world, is crowded and connected. Each of us lives and moves within the fabric of community. My happiness is connected to your happiness and to the survival of the trees and to the refugees from the Middle East. My individual rights and freedoms are inexorably twined around yours.

This is not a new thought for the 21st Century, here is a thread of truth that transcends all the changes we are experiencing. More than two thousand years ago Jesus said, “what you do to the least of you, you do to me.”   We are all connected. We can no longer ignore this spiritual reality.  Our own Unitarian William Ellery Channing said in the mid 1800’s “Others are affected by what I am, and say, and do. So that a single act of mine may spread and spread in widening circles, through a nation or humanity.”

Image: Bob Voors, Pete Seeger’s Banjo at MerleFest 2006 (Flickr). The lettering on the top reads: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” Pete Seeger (1919-2014) was a Unitarian Universalist and lifelong activist for social justice .

So how do we conduct ourselves when our lives ripple out to affect others? We acknowledge our connections. We take care of our precious part of the planet. We speak up on issues that matter to us and share what we know. This is hard in these political times. And yet, we must not allow ourselves to be silenced by loud, angry or fearful voices. We must, as people of faith, raise our voices, calmly and with compassion, to remind the nation that all human lives have worth and dignity. That the problems we face are complicated and require communication, compromise, patience and nuanced solutions.  We reclaim some ground in the public square for meaningful and respectful dialogue.  Each of us
can help to make a difference in this way. Let us practice by joining our voices with the last verses of the song we have been singing this morning…

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

 This land is your land, this land is my land.
From California to the New York Islands,
From the redwood forests, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

What I love the most about our country is the magnificent beauty of the land. No matter where I go, it is beautiful. Having recently driven across the country, I found each place from Maine to Texas has something unique and gorgeous and compelling about it. From Bryce Canyon in Utah to the Tetons in Wyoming to the Everglades in Florida to our own wooded hills and rivers, this land of ours is magnificent. This land is irreplaceable. We all need to recycle, reuse and reduce our footprint so that care for the earth.

When I am tired, overwhelmed, undone by the rigors of life, as the Hebrew Psalmist says, “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come.”  I look to the land, this land of ours, to the beauty and majesty of nature. It comforts me. It fuels my resolve. And I am not alone in this. So many of us find comfort in the hills and the trees and the waters – do we not? For centuries, we Unitarian Universalists have looked to nature for direct experience with the divine, for rejuvenation. Many of you have told me, I go for a walk in nature when things get bad. Science now tells us what we have long known, that being out in nature is good for our brains and good for our health. We seek a balm for our anxiety, our aching hearts, our anger in the beauty of nature – for the overwhelming grandeur is larger than our concerns.

Here is what I know. All our differences, all the perceived differences that are pulling at our country and the world pale in comparison to the reality of all we share. All of us live on and through the bounty of this land. All of us want to be loved, to be seen and known for who we are. All of us want safety, opportunity and happiness for our children.  All of us want our lives to have purpose. All of us hunger to stand in the presence of the holy.

What we Unitarian Universalists have to offer this anxious world is our lived experience with finding common ground across differences. We have our message of divine love that is universal, that we are all beloved children of the universe, children of god. We have our enduring commitment to justice and to care for the earth. What we as Americans have to offer the world reeling from change is our imperfect yet sturdy democracy, our founding principles of freedom and equality for all. We haven’t yet fulfilled this promise, but we are persistent, and creative and we never give up. We will get there.

I also know that underneath despair about gun violence and hatred, underneath anxiousness about our earth’s future, underneath sadness at our failure to treat persons of color with equality and dignity… Underneath all this lies something else. Something….tender and fierce and precious.

Hope.
Love.
Resilience.

My friends, let our spiritually grounded voices, speak out with quiet authority, ringing with the truth:

It is American to protect the earth.
It is American to insist on freedom, equality and justice for all.
It is American to find a new way of being in the world.

May it ever be so.

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Credits:

“This Land is Our Land” music and lyrics by Woodie Guthrie.
Photos in the public domain available at pixabay.com
American flag: UU stock photos, flickr.com

Photos edited by Joan Rizzo, Content Coordinator for SouthWest UU, swwu.org.
Posted on November 8, 2016.