from a Zoom service of First Parish in Billerica, Massachusetts
January 24, 2021
The opening words are by Pheidippides, the Athenian messenger who ran all the way from the plains of Marathon to the Acropolis. Just before collapsing and dying from exhaustion, he announced the outcome of the battle against the Persian invaders: “Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam!” Victory! Victory! Rejoice!
Imagine that it is a year ago — January 2020. We are gathered in your beautiful, historic sanctuary. I’m standing at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pulpit, when suddenly I am overcome by the spirit of prophesy. And I tell you that one year hence, we will have inaugurated a new president, who will receive a record number of votes and win by more than seven million, even flipping states like Arizona and Georgia. For the first time in American history, a woman of color will be vice president. The new White House will be backed up by majorities in both houses of Congress.
Now imagine that you all believe me. After the service, we go downstairs to share that wonderful spread of food you always assemble. Listen to the room as it burbles with optimism and idealism and we envision all the wonderful things the new administration might accomplish.
“It Matters What We Believe” by Sophia Lyon Fahs
Excerpts from: “A QAnon ‘Digital Soldier’ Marches On, Undeterred by Theory’s Unraveling” by Kevin Roose.
Every morning, Valerie Gilbert, a Harvard-educated writer and actress, wakes up in her Upper East Side apartment; feeds her dog, Milo, and her cats, Marlena and Celeste; brews a cup of coffee; and sits down at her oval dining room table.Then, she opens her laptop and begins fighting the global cabal.
Ms. Gilbert, 57, is a believer in QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory. Like all QAnon faithful, she is convinced that the world is run by a Satanic group of pedophiles that includes top Democrats and Hollywood elites, and that President Trump has spent years leading a top-secret mission to bring these evildoers to justice. ...
These are confusing times for followers of QAnon. They were told that Mr. Trump would be re-elected in a landslide, and that a coming “storm” would expose the global pedophile ring and bring its leaders to justice.
But there have been no mass arrests, and Mr. Trump is leaving office on Wednesday under the cloud of a second impeachment. Many prominent QAnon followers have been arrested for their roles in this month’s deadly mob riot at the U.S. Capitol. They are being barred by the thousands from major social networks for spreading misinformation about voter fraud, and law enforcement agencies are treating the movement as a domestic extremist threat.
These setbacks have left QAnon believers like Ms. Gilbert hoping for a last-minute miracle. Her current theory is that Mr. Trump will not actually leave office on Wednesday, but will instead declare martial law, declassify damning information about the “deep state” and arrest thousands of cabal members, including President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. ...
What attracts Ms. Gilbert and many other people to QAnon isn’t just the content of the conspiracy theory itself. It’s the community and sense of mission it provides. New QAnon believers are invited to chat rooms and group texts, and their posts are showered with likes and retweets. They make friends, and are told that they are not lonely Facebook addicts squinting at zoomed-in paparazzi photos, but patriots gathering “intel” for a righteous revolution. ...
Q, who once sent dozens of updates a day, has essentially vanished from the internet in recent weeks, posting only four times since the November election. ... But Ms. Gilbert isn’t worried. For her, QAnon was always less about Q and more about the crowdsourced search for truth. She loves assembling her own reality in real time, patching together shards of information and connecting them to the core narrative. ... When she solves a new piece of the puzzle, she posts it to Facebook, where her QAnon friends post heart emojis and congratulate her.
This week, when Mr. Biden becomes president and Mr. Trump leaves the White House, it will be a huge blow to QAnon’s core mythology, and it may force some believers to acknowledge that they’ve been lied to. Many will cope by spinning the development as a win, or saying it proves that Mr. Trump is playing the long game. Others will quietly ditch Q and transfer their enthusiasm to a new conspiracy theory. A few might be jolted back to reality.
But Ms. Gilbert is undeterred. She trusts Q’s plan, at least for a little while longer, and she wants [others] to trust it, too.
I want to start by standing up to show you my t-shirt. It says “Democracy & I Survived 2020”. I had it made because in spite of Wednesday’s inauguration, 2020 felt less like a triumph than like something to get through.
The reason I had the meditation take you back to a year ago, and then imagine forward how we might have felt then if we had foreseen this outcome, is that it contrasts so strongly with how I and so many of the people I know actually do feel right now.
If I’d convinced you of that prophecy a year ago I think we really would have buzzed with excitement. But to be honest, I’m not doing a lot of buzzing and burbling these days. Because I didn’t get to jump straight from last January to this one. Like everybody else, I had to make that journey one day at a time, and it wore me down. Maybe it wore you down too.
All the unnecessary death. All the senseless partisan conflict about basic public-health practices like masks and social distancing. All the things we had to give up: restaurants, travel, concerts, aimless shopping, hanging around reading in coffee shops and libraries. Deb and I missed the funeral of my brother-in-law in Tennessee, and broke a decades-long tradition of spending Christmas with our friends.
I’m sure each of you has your own list of missed events and broken habits -- habits that probably turned out to mean more to you than you had ever realized. Worse, maybe the virus took someone close to you. Maybe you had a rough time with your own health. Maybe you lost your job or had to close your business. Or maybe you kept your job because you are an essential worker who has to deal with the public, but every day you wonder whether some customer or client is going to infect you.
This has also been a hard year to live through politically. It started and ended with an impeachment. George Floyd was murdered, touching off weeks of protests both peaceful and violent.
The big question in the election turned out not to be who the voters would choose, but whether our choice would even matter. After he lost, the president did everything he could to hang onto power, and every time the issue seemed to be settled, it wasn’t. There was always one more thing he could try, one more weak spot in the system that he could push on, all the way up to gathering a mob and inciting it to attack Congress as it counted the electoral votes. Not until the inauguration Wednesday could we really be sure that democracy had held.
So rather than bursting with optimism and excitement, I think many of us arrive at this moment feeling as exhausted as that Athenian messenger. Nike! Nike! Nenikekiam! 2021! The Biden administration! We made it; now we can collapse.
But if there’s one message I want you to take away from this morning, it’s that this is not the time to collapse. And I’m directing that message as much at myself as at the rest of you. What I would like to have offered you this morning is a visionary, energizing message about all the possibilities of this moment. I would like to have sparked that classic Unitarian optimism you can hear in the hymns. “These Things Shall Be” — the Future is coming, and won’t it be wonderful.
Instead, what I can find it in myself to tell you is that the Future needs us. It needs us active, it needs us engaged. Because if we pull back now, if we say, “I voted. Now let Joe do it” then all that Wednesday will mean is that we inaugurated a man. But we will not have inaugurated the new era our country needs.
The old president may be gone, but simply replacing the people in power does not produce real change in a democracy. Because real change doesn’t come from the top down. Democracies only transform when those at the top respond to a genuine hunger for change that bubbles up from the People. Without that popular demand, even well-intentioned government loses momentum. The big financial interests, the people who benefit from the status quo — they never go away.They never stop asking for what they want. They never tire of spreading disinformation and corruption.
If those are the only voices our leaders hear, it won’t matter how many good intentions they had when they took office. Eventually, they’ll once again end up explaining to us how they want the same good things we do, but it’s just not possible. Change is never possible unless the People demand it.
But if the Future needs our engagement as citizens, I think it needs even more our participation as Unitarian Universalists. Because I believe that Unitarian Universalism has something very special to offer this nation and the world at this moment in history.
It’s not hard to make a list of the challenges we face: not just the pandemic and the economic problems it has caused, but also the less immediate but far less tractable challenge of climate change. The long history of systemic racism demands our attention. Growing economic inequality. The rise of authoritarianism around the world. The millions of people who are here without legal status and the millions of others who would like to come. Working out a world order that finds a place for China, but is not dominated by it. I could go on.
But no matter which of those challenges you feel called to address, you’re going to run into the same obstacle: Our society, our culture, is losing its respect for Truth. More and more all the time, our national conversation is corrupted by the idea that if you don’t want believe something, you don’t have to. We’ve lost sight of the fact that there is a Reality out there that can only be denied for so long.
Look at the pandemic. For nearly a year, our recently departed president tried everything he could think of to conjure it away. He told us the virus wouldn’t come here, that it would fade away by magic, that it would be gone when the weather got warm, that it was just the flu, the common cold, it wasn’t serious, people weren’t really dying, the numbers were exaggerated, and on and on. Wednesday morning, before he boarded Air Force One for the last time, he spoke of the pandemic in the past tense, as if hadn’t been at its peak at that very moment. But all that denial, all that distraction, couldn’t make it go away.
Or think about global warming. The reality is simple: Burning fossil fuels increases the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas; it reflects back to Earth infrared radiation that otherwise would escape into space. So the planet gets warmer.
It would be nice if that weren’t true. I see the attraction of a world where we all keep driving, keep flying, keep drilling, keep mining, keep living the way we feel entitled to live — and nothing bad happens. So I understand the temptation to say "It’s all a hoax." "It isn’t that bad." "God controls the weather, not us." "The climate is always changing." And so on.
But there’s a real Earth out there, and it really does keep getting hotter. All the denial in the world isn’t going to stop that process.
Our former president didn’t like the fact that he lost the election, so he said he didn’t lose. He said it loud, he said it often. He got other people to say it with him, because they also didn’t like the truth about the election. Some of them came together in a violent mob and invaded our Capitol. People died. If events had played out just a little differently, some of our elected representatives might also have died. But there are real ballots with real marks on them, and when you total them up, he did lose.
Whatever challenge you choose to take on, you’re going to have to battle that plague of wishful thinking. Like: "Racism ended in the 60s." "Evolution is just a theory." "People wouldn’t have to be poor if they just worked harder." "Sexual orientation is a choice." "Whatever the problem, we won’t have to make any hard choices because technology will save us."
If there’s one thing that the world needs right now across the board, it’s a rededication to Truth. Not even just a reluctant resignation to dismal facts, but an active fascination with what is real, the pursuit of Truth with passion, with a religious fervor. At its best, that’s what Unitarian Universalism offers.
All religions talk about Truth, but what most of them really want is to convince themselves and others that the beliefs they already have are true. Unitarianism is one of the few traditions on Earth that is committed to following the Truth wherever it leads. If you look back at the pillars of that tradition through the generations: Channing, Emerson, Theodore Parker, James Freeman Clarke, John Dietrich, James Luther Adams, Thandeka — you won’t find much consistency in the specifics of their theologies.
William Ellery Channing’s Christianity sounds quaint to me when I read it now. But what rings as clearly today as it did in the 1820s, what shines through in the work of that whole succession of giants I just listed, is a commitment to use the full power of their minds and all the knowledge available in their eras to follow the Truth wherever it leads. That’s the kind of commitment the world needs right now. It doesn’t just need you as a person, or a citizen, or a political partisan. The world needs you as a Unitarian Universalist.
I say the world needs you particularly now. But of course, wishful thinking is not new. It’s a very human trait; we are all tempted by it. But there’s something different in this current era of social media. Today, if there’s something about reality you don’t want to believe, you can easily find an entire community of people who also don’t want to believe it. And then you can support each other in saying that it’s not true. You can make up the most outrageous fantasies and believe in them together. (That’s why I included that QAnon reading.)
Today, if you want to believe something badly enough, you can. You don’t have to do it by yourself. You can find thousands and thousands of people to believe it with you. Your belief won’t stop Reality from being what it is, but by joining together with others, you can remain comfortable in your denial for a long, long time.
And that temptation, I think, is the biggest problem in the world right now. All our other problems are harder, because so many people believe that they can just imagine a different reality and live there instead of here. If we can’t come to terms with that temptation, I think it’s going to get us all killed someday.
Some people may find it amusing that I offer Unitarian Universalism as an antidote to the problem of people believing whatever they want to believe. Because that’s usually what people say about us. We aren’t bound to follow a leader, a creed, a catechism, or a holy book. That’s the free part of our free and responsible search for truth and meaning. So outsiders imagine our freedom must mean that we all just believe whatever we want.
But people who make that criticism have missed the “responsible” part of the free and responsible search. Because not having an external authority over us also means that there is no authority for us to hide behind. We are responsible for what we believe. If our beliefs, or the actions that we take based on those beliefs, hurt other people, or promote injustice, or bring about an environmental catastrophe, that’s on us. We can’t blame those consequences on our church or on God.
One major way religion does harm in the world today is when it shields people from responsibility for their beliefs. Don’t blame me for these beliefs, religious people say, because I got them from my minister, from my church, from our holy book, from God. So I have nothing against gays and lesbians, but my church teaches that they are sinners, and that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. I’m not trying to keep women in their place, but the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands. 1 Timothy 2:12 says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” That's the Word of God.
Very often, if you push on those statements, you’ll discover that people are not so much submitting to authority as finding an authority to excuse them for believing and doing what they want. Consider this analogy: Maybe you remember how, during the Iraq War, President Bush would claim that he was following the advice of his generals. But if a general gave him advice he didn’t like, he’d fire that general and get another one. So who’s advice was he really following?
Well, something similar goes on with churches. Sometimes, if you question people who simply claim to be following the teachings of their church, you’ll discover that they used to belong to some other church, but left it because it liberalized, and began to tolerate things they didn’t like. When it stopped justifying their particular bigotry, they traded it in for the church they attend now. So who is really responsible there?
Many people who claim to follow the Bible have found ways to get around its inconvenient passages. Matthew 19:21 says “sell all you own and give to the poor”. Who does that?
Leviticus 19:34 says: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Quote that to a fundamentalist who wants to deport all the undocumented immigrants, and he will uncork a whole bottle of interpretation to explain why that passage doesn’t mean what it so obviously does mean. Because that’s how the game is played: When the Bible tells you what you want to hear, then it is the Word of God and must be followed no matter what. But when it tells you something you don’t want to hear, it needs interpretation. Who takes responsibility for that?
Unitarian Universalists don’t play those games. We are responsible for what we believe. We are responsible for what we do. Not our ministers, not our theologians, not the books we read, not even God. We are responsible.
If you take it seriously, that kind of responsibility can be a hard thing to shoulder. And that’s why we do it together. While others may choose a community that supports them in believing what they want to believe, we have chosen a community that keeps us honest. We help each other to carry our responsibility, not to make excuses for putting it down.
And so, if from time to time you fool yourself into forgetting or discounting the crises I listed, or any of the other aspects of Reality it would be pleasant to ignore, count on someone here to remind you before too much time goes by. If you start living inside a self-serving fantasy that harms others and excuses your sense of entitlement and privilege, you can hope to find the kinds of friends here who will call you on it.
After the recent Capitol riot, the UU minister Kristin Grassel Schmidt wrote: “Here’s a deep truth: it is only through real, sometimes very tough accountability that some people will understand that they’ve lost their way. Being held accountable has helped me to learn, and to be and do better, so why would I hold that blessing back from others? Sometimes helping people find their way to truth, love, and justice means insisting that truth is truth — even if it isn’t polite; even if it leads to argument. We may even need to say ‘I love you, but I will never agree to disagree on this. Truth is too important to set aside just because it challenges and upset you’.”
That’s how we roll.
At this particular moment, there’s something else that we need from each other, something I wish I could have brought to you this morning: a sense of the wonder and possibility of this moment. I’m afraid I have painted Reality only as harsh and demanding, because that’s how I’ve been experiencing it recently. But I think that’s more of a symptom than an observation. My reason tells me that Emerson was right long ago when he wrote: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”
Reality can be harsh and demanding sometimes, but it also has a depth and complexity that gives it a beauty no fantasy can match. In the long run, time and effort spent trying to grasp and deal with what is really going on — in personal life, in a laboratory, or on the world stage — is always more rewarding than arranging the components of a fantasy to get the outcome you want. There are unexpected dangers and disappointments, but also unexpected opportunities.
And the kind of betrayal that QAnon followers are experiencing now — Reality doesn’t do that to you. You have to meet Reality on its own terms, but it is always there for you.
And finally, I want to point out that if you do have an appreciation of the wonder and possibilities of this moment, then you have special gift to offer. You have something that is in short supply right now, and I encourage you to be generous with it.
But even if, like me, you are feeling tired and worn down these days … Yes, you should take care of yourself. You should do whatever you need to do to stay healthy, both mentally and physically. But at the same time I hope you remember that the world needs Unitarian Universalists right now. It needs us maybe more than it ever has.
The closing words were written by Pascal in the 17th century: “Truth is so obscured nowadays and lies so well established that unless we love the truth we shall never recognize it.”