Mary Beth Writes

Our congregation is United Unitarian Universalist in Waukesha, WI. I only preach a couple times a year; it is the one of the hardest things it is my privilege to do. 

Sunday I preached to my congregation. The topic evolved as I was working on it during the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, and as we learned more about the life and gentleness of George Floyd.

Here is my sermon in two forms. 

This is the service on YouTube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fmul8-f7sZI 

Here is the written document I preached from:

It was the middle of the night and I was sleeping. Suddenly our heaviest cat jumped on me and began to push my legs to the side - and my half-asleep self wasn’t having it. I kicked, hard, under the covers that she was on top of. I kicked hard enough to shove her off the bed and then I heard an awful thunk as she fell to the floor. I turned on the light but couldn’t see her, she’d run out of the room.

My heart was pounding. Am I this cruel? When I’m surprised and don’t have time to arrange my responses to life – is this what’s inside me?

What happened was not, by any stretch of the imagination, close to the police brutality we have witnessed in the past few years, weeks, and days.

But for me, it was an uncomfortable experience to kick my cat that hard. Viscerally, it felt like my link to being capable of violence.

What is this cruelty? Where does it come from? How do we struggle against it in others and in ourselves?

As most of you know, I worked in a jail 10 years, running an employability skills program for some inmates and through those years I worked with dozens of deputies and correctional officers. Every time I hear of another awful incident now, I think of those women and men I knew then.

Some were fine and even wonderful. Those officers paid attention and kept inmates safe and the jail running. I liked working with them. This was their job, and they did it.

But there were the others who were so clearly using their job to work out their issues and anger. You could see it in their demeanor, hear it in their voices, feel it in the air. They were patronizing to me and verbally abusive to inmates. They called inmates disrespectful names.

These officers wouldn’t tell new inmates the rules but then berated and excoriated guys who broke those rules. Getting too close to windows, not lining up promptly enough. Inmate uniforms were stiff cotton short-sleeved uniforms but parts of the jail were cold so inmates would tuck their arms inside the tops or wrap their blankets around their shoulders. This wasn’t allowed. There was some sense in that rule – it’s important for inmates to not be able to hide things, but the bully CO’s would yell or write the inmate up.

Why? Why are humans so awful to each other? It’s not helpful. It builds resentment. It doesn’t look for solutions to problems, like fixing the temperature in the jail, or issuing warmer clothes. Threats and violence don’t make jail, or families, or communities safer. We all know this.

There is a permission we give ourselves to be cruel and dismissive and arrogant. We have occasional moments when we are surprised or angry – when my cat jumped on me. Or we become full time professional bullies – abusive cops. What’s crazy dangerous, and yet oh so common, is that professional bullies pat themselves on the back for awful behavior, as if intimidating others proves they are qualified to be in charge.

This power slips in so easily where people decide that they have enough experience to know who is guilty and who is innocent.

We all play this dangerous game somewhat. We all have ways of judging, so quickly, who is innocent and worthy – and who isn’t.

We revere the innocent schoolmarm that John Wayne will ride in and protect. Just don’t let teacher unions strike for better pay and conditions. We are in favor of children who are cute. Just don’t make me deal with an acting-out child. We are fine with people who have cognition issues as long as those issues make them adorable and vulnerable – not angry or loud.

Black leaders are fine as long as they don’t challenge white status quo. Mariachi bands and taco trucks are great. Immigrants who expect an immigrant nation to accept immigrants … must be gangsters.

These categories are familiar to us – and they are toxic.

How many of us have experienced withering comments from “tough” people who say we don’t know bad or dangerous people? We haven’t been to war. We haven’t seen what they see. We are just coddled people playing at things we don’t understand. That we don’t know the world the way they understand the world. Kindness is for innocent people. We all know this attitude that belittles and demeans anyone who is not as toxic as they are.

Arrogance gives them power. Power allows them to ride roughshod over the rights and needs of others.

And here we are.

I am going to use two texts today. There are many writings and scriptures that address cruelty, arrogance, and violence. I am going to use two of them.

The first is a Bible verse I was taught as a kid that floats in my mind like a fishing bobber. It’s Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

My other “text” this morning will be… 101 Dalmatians. I’m telling you that now so you can hold on through Romans.

A lot of people are skeptical about the writings of Paul in the New Testament of the Bible. He’s the guy so-called ‘family-values” evangelicals quote – out of context – to tell us how everyone else should act.

The trick to reading Pauline literature is to have a smart translation of the Bible and read the notes. Or to look at Wikipedia. Learn who he is talking to and what problems he is addressing. Often, he’s trying to stake out a place for leadership of folks never before welcomed as leaders. 

Paul addresses that many Jesus-following people are Jewish and at the same time, many new converts are not. How should people with a lot of religious background mesh together to become a strong congregation with people who have very little religious background? There, the early church just got familiar, didn’t it?  Plus, of course, everyone has to live under civil law that protects the already rich and powerful.

I would like you to consider that this phrase “The wages of sin” is not what we automatically think.  We think he’s saying the payment for disobeying is punishment.  

But Paul is addressing the philosophy, the ethos and culture of entrenched of laws and rules that is always around us. He’s saying modern life – in his time and ours – is held together with assumptions we don’t often question. We live by the game plan given us to go to school, learn to obey, get and keep jobs, work hard, be loyal in relationships, obey the system and hope the system allows us to survive.  There is nothing wrong with this other than we are cogs in it, not beings of spirituality and light. 

The ‘wages of sin’ allows me, half asleep, to kick a small animal who is cold and just wants a warm place to sleep. My arrogance says that bed is all about me and that’s the wages of sin – writ small.

The ‘wages of sin’ is Huber dorm correctional officers screaming at inmates because they can’t change out of their work clothes into a uniform in under one minute. It is a CO ignoring a woman in agony through the night because she is having a miscarriage – and even though all the women on that pod are yelling that she needs help- the CO ignores them, and the preemie baby dies. Yeah, that happened. That CO later lost their job but not for that tragedy.

But the gift of God is eternal life. Eternal life does not start after we die. We are in it now when we regard fellow humans as fellow spiritual beings. If, as Ram Dass says, we understand we are just walking each other home.  We become free from the life sucking system when the person next to us is a person whom we will never disrespect or hate. Sure, we have to be practical as we take care of our families and ourselves – but we are free from having opinions about other humans’ worthiness to be the children of a holy universe and the neighbors of us. A great weight is lifted. We are all here and life is short, and we can and ought to be as generous and creative and kind as we can stand to be. We have the gift of eternal life and we live in it now.

That’s Paul talking. Here we are. Living with respect, love, and humor. Bullies can end our life, but they can’t vanquish our spirit.

I was moved listening to witnesses explaining who George Floyd was in their community.  A gentle giant.  A man who couldn’t cook but who wouldn’t allow you to go hungry, he would always find a snack to give you.  His partner said she met him when she was visiting a person at a shelter and that encounter made her cry.  George Floyd was working there, saw her grief, came over and asked what was wrong and would she like him to pray with her? 

He was killed by Derek Chauvin - but who’s spirit shines now? When we choose to act with love and respect, we are in eternal life with George Floyd. Now.

The original story of 101 Dalmatians was written in 1956 by a woman named Dodie Smith. Smith and her husband loved dogs; at one point they had nine dalmatians and one was named Pongo. Smith had the idea for the novel when one of her friends observed a group her dalmatians and said, "Those dogs would make a lovely fur coat."

The story begins when Pongo looks for love for Roger and for himself, sees lovely Anita and Perdita walking to the park, and the next thing you know it’s a year later. Roger and Anita, Pongo and Perdita are at home – when Cruella De Ville sails in. Money, power, entitlement, fancy car, one fur coat with a greed for more.

You know the plot; the puppies are stolen by Cruella’s henchmen. What can two pups do against a system of so much privilege, power, and cruelty?

Pay attention because even though this is a cute kids’ story, the answers are right here.

First, they use media. Pongo instigates the Twilight Bark. Puppies are missing. Love is at risk. Who can help?

A London Great Dane (I’m sort of seeing him as an older urban UU)) hears and responds. “Message received. Will do all I can do to help spread the word.”

The message travels through the city and into the countryside. Colonel the sleepy sheepdog and Sergeant Tibs the alert cat hear the news. Hey, they’ve heard a lot of barking puppies just lately. They will investigate.

The puppies are discovered. The Colonel and Sergeant Tibs and many other dogs help the Dalmatians escape evil back to London and Anita and Roger.

Here is the message.
1. Love is where the story begins.

2. Communicate. Use whatever media one can to spread the truth. A twilight bark. Cellphone video, thank you 17-year-old Darnella Frazier.

3. Show up. Be part of the solidarity and energy of allies. The power of love amplified by the wits, cooperation, and bravery of so many others. Do and be your part.

4. Love is where the story ends. And love is eternal life.

Look at this past year.  Black Lives Matter is now a mainstream movement. Many candidates of color have run for, won, or been appointed to political power. There are now legitimate talks about reparations and about re-imagining public safety and defunding the militarization of police. New laws have been legislated (often without enough enforcement) specifically addressing injustice against people of color by law enforcement.  

The people we hear in the media are no longer all white. Last year there was one black person nominated for an Oscar. This year nominees are Black, Asian, a Muslim actor, two women in the director categories.  Sometimes we don’t see the sea of change we are part of, and we are in. And do not doubt, one of the ways you can show up as an ally now is to stream new movies by and about minority people.  Where the money goes, institutions will follow.

We can CHOOSE, no matter how overwhelming the injustice around us appears, we can CHOOSE to show up in our families, neighborhoods, communities – with kindness, love, respect, and a faith that is our eternal life now. This is how we choose. This is how we act. This is who we are.

 

 

 

Comments

I just went to church. Thank you, Mary Beth for this wonderful work. You spent a good deal of time and inspiration on it, I'm sure of that. The final result was a well written, captivating story of our humanity intersecting with our aim for spiritual growth. Thanks for this wonderful reflection. Well done.
Mary Beth's picture

Thank you...

I am struggling with the Paul stuff, but loved the way you used the 101 story to illustrate your point. I have to share that 101 Dalmatians was serialized in a women's magazine in the 1950s and that was where I first read it. For something like six months I eagerly awaited each new issue to get my puppy fix. It is one of the prominent memories of my childhood. Thank you for stirring that memory and for distilling a message of love from the story.
Mary Beth's picture

There was some drama when I realized - Disney has a LOCK on what it owns. Couldn't do any Disney music as a postlude. Couldn't read the story in the Time for All Ages. Disney has sued churches and individuals who have used their materials without permission. I didn't know 101 dalmatians started as a serialized story!

I think I told you before how powerfully the Twilight Barking part of Dorie Smith’s story of 101 Dalmatians has always affected me, from childhood until now. Your take on it gave me goosebumps, too. Interesting to note that the Disney version is pretty different from the original. Pengo was married to Missus, and Perdita was a young unwed mother.

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