Risk

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
March 26, 2017

RISK

By David Herndon

26 March 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

“The risk I took was a calculated risk,” said some unknown person. “Unfortunately, I am very bad at math.”

On Saturday, March 4, I had the joyous experience of representing First Unitarian Church at the ordination and installation of our former intern minister, who is now the Reverend Dave Dunn.  The service took place at noon at the church that Dave serves, Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North.

Affectionately known as U-MAN, Unitarian Universalist Metro Atlanta North reports a membership of one hundred and ninety-one adults and seventy-eight children and youth.  The church building sits on a five-acre lot along a well-traveled road in the bucolic and prosperous suburban town of Roswell, Georgia, on the far north side of Atlanta.U-MAN has one hundred and six households, or pledge units.

Here is the particularly remarkable thing about this congregation:  The church was organized in 1991.  Prior to that, U-MAN did not even exist.  So everything that they have done and all that they have achieved has taken place just in the last twenty-six years.  In twenty-six years they went from zero members to one hundred and ninety-one members.  In twenty-six years they went from no building to a very attractive building in a wonderful location.  From what I can tell, Reverend Dave Dunn is a good match for this congregation, and we can all look forward to hearing more about their ongoing development in years to come.

About fifteen of Rev. Dave’s Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues attended the ordination and installation service.  They came from the greater Atlanta area and from several other towns and cities in Georgia.  Dave’s family was present, including his wife Tammy and all four of their children.  And most of the congregation was present as well.  It was a celebrative and festive occasion.

My assignment was to offer the Hand of Collegiality, which symbolically marked Dave’s welcome into the company of his ministerial colleagues.  As you know, Dave had an outstanding internship with us.  He learned a lot and he contributed at lot.Nevertheless, I began my remarks by saying, “Back in Pittsburgh, we did the very best we could with Dave.  But you all will have to take over from here.”

I would like to mention just one other detail, which is that the congregation presented Dave with a beautiful stole, a symbol of ordination.  Someone in the church had made it specifically for Dave to present to him on this particular occasion, and the colors in the stole matched the colors one can see through the huge glass clear windows at the front of the Sanctuary which look out onto trees and sky.

Here at First Unitarian Church, we can take a great deal of pride in our contribution to Rev. Dave’s development as a Unitarian Universalist minister and our contribution to the health and progress of our entire Unitarian Universalist community.

After the ordination and installation service, there was a reception, and photographs, and congratulations all around.  As my hosts were taking me back to their home, we talked about what to do next.  I ventured that I would appreciate an opportunity to visit Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center on the edge of Downtown Atlanta.  Once we arrived back at their home, my hosts thoughtfully provided me with a map and then dropped me off at the very northern end of the light rail line, which was a fifteen-minute drive south from their home.  I rode the train to the center of Atlanta, changed to another train, and got off at the stop that said “King Center.”  It was a ten-minute walk from there, but eventually I arrived at the old Ebenezer Baptist Church.  This was the church where Dr. King grew up.  His father was the pastor there, and his maternal grandfather had also been the pastor there.  His mother directed the church choir.  Nowadays the old Ebenezer Baptist Church is part of the National Park System.  I arrived at ten minutes until five o’clock, but the National Park Service Ranger assured me that I was welcome to look around until the church closed at five o’clock.  It was truly a sacred space, not only for the faith tradition that had been celebrated there, but as a civic sacred space for all Americans where Dr. King first dreamed his dreams of justice and freedom and equality, dreams that later inspired collective action that transformed our nation.

Across the street from the old Ebenezer Baptist Church is the new Ebenezer Baptist Church, a huge modern structure with seating for a thousand or more.  At least that is what I guessed from peeking in the windows, for the church itself was not open to the public at that hour.  I walked a little further and came to the National Park Service Visitor Center, which also had closed at five o’clock.  I was surprised to see a larger-than-life sculpture of Mahatma Gandhi outside the Visitor Center, but then quickly recalled that Dr. King had brought Gandhi’s ideals of non-violent social change to the United States and that those non-violent ideals were part of the foundation of Dr. King’s leadership of the civil rights movement.  Crossing back over Auburn Avenue, I came to the pool, fed by waterfalls, which surrounds the somber tombs where Martin and Coretta rest in peace.  And finally, I walked one more block along Auburn Avenue to the home where Dr. King was born on January 15, 1929.

This was one religious pilgrimage I simply could not pass up.

“To act is to be committed,” said James Baldwin, the fiery and profoundly prophetic African-American writer, “and to be committed is to be in danger.”

Why did I talk for such a long time about my visit to the King Center in Atlanta?  Because of what James Baldwin said:  “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”  Because Dr. King was committed.  Because Dr. King lived much of his life in danger.  Because Dr. King’s life shows us so much about our spiritual theme for this morning, which is Risk.

March can be a painful month for those who know and love our Unitarian Universalist history.  As you know, March 7, 1965, became known as Bloody Sunday because that is when the civil rights protestors attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and were met on the other side by state troopers who violently attacked and dispersed the marchers.  On Monday, March 8, Dr. King issued a call to clergy of all faiths to join him in Selma.  Among the one hundred or so Unitarian Universalist ministers who traveled to Selma was Rev. James Reeb.  Unfortunately, he was attacked and beaten by four white men on Tuesday, March 9, and he died from his injuries on Thursday, March 11.Reeb was thirty-nine years old.  Viola Liuzzo was another Unitarian Universalist who answered the call and traveled to Selma.  She participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery.  On March 25, 1965, while engaged in the process of shuttling marchers back to Selma from Montgomery, four Klansmen pulled up beside her car and fatally shot Viola Liuzzo twice in the head.  Liuzzo was thirty-eight years old.

In his eulogy for Rev. James Reeb, Dr. King said the following, which could just as easily have been said for Viola Liuzzo or Jimmie Lee Jackson or many others who risked and lost much in the service of their ideals:

Naturally, we are compelled to ask the question, Who killed James Reeb?  The answer is simple and rather limited, when we think of the who.  He was murdered by a few sick, demented, and misguided men who have the strange notion that you express dissent through murder.  There is another haunting, poignant, desperate question we are forced to ask this afternoon, that I asked a few days ago when we funeralized James Jackson.  It is the question, What killed James Reeb?  When we move from the who to the what, the blame is wide and the responsibility grows.

James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows.  He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice.  He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism.  He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law.  He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights.  Yes, he was even murdered by every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice.

So in his death, James Reeb says something to each of us, black and white alike – says that we must substitute courage for caution, says that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.  His death says to us that we must work passionately, unrelentingly, to make the American dream a reality, so he did not die in vain.

One way to think about risk is to think about danger.  As James Baldwin said, “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger.”  But another way to think about risk is to think about what is important to you.  These words from an unknown source appear at the top of your order of service:

The important question about risk (and about life) is not “Are you willing to jump off?” but “Are you willing to jump in?”  Not “Are you willing to put yourself in danger?” but “Are you willing to give yourself to something bigger?”  Not “Will you be daring?” but “Will you stay true?”

The folks at Dave Dunn’s congregation in Roswell, Georgia, probably did not risk their lives over the years as they created their new congregation.  But they did risk their time, their finances, their emotions, and their tremendous cooperative effort.  They did not jump off, but they certainly jumped in.  They did not put themselves in danger, but they were certainly willing to give themselves to something larger than themselves.  They did not try to be daring, but they certainly did try to stay true to their vision and their values.  And the remarkable result is that over twenty-five years they created a two-hundred-member church from scratch.  And I might add, a progressive two-hundred-member church in a congressional district represented for many years by Newt Gingrich and more recently by Tom Price, the new Health and Human Services Secretary.

Of course, the story might have turned out very differently for the folks at Dave Dunn’s congregation in Rowell, Georgia.  The enterprise might have collapsed after five years.  They might not have been able to raise the money they needed for their new building.  Membership might have gotten stuck at sixty people.  Conflict about music or social action or the color of the paint in the social hall might have derailed them.  The result might have been disappointment, disenchantment, discouragement.  So much commitment down the drain.  So little to show for so much effort and love.

But isn’t that part of our common human condition?  To care is to risk.  To begin is to risk.  To contribute is to risk.  To love is to risk.  There is promise in life but there is no guarantee.  The British writer C. S. Lewis said:  “To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements.  Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.  To love is to be vulnerable.”

Here at First Unitarian Church, we are called to risk, to care, to be vulnerable.  It takes a lot of love to keep a church healthy and generous and focused on its mission.  We have to invest something of our lives in the life of our church.  But we may disagree with one another.  We may have preferences that are different from the preferences of other church members.  We may be pulled out of our comfort zones from time to time.  We may be challenged by change or by new ideas.  And inevitably we will disappoint one another, for we are human, every single one of us.

But on the other hand, we may experience grace, and inspiration, and new life, and renewed purpose.  We may grow in ways that we never thought possible as a result of our involvement with a religious community.

Therefore, whenever we invest something of our lives in our church community, we act without really knowing the outcome of our actions  .The same could be said about other parts of our lives: when we invest in our marriages, or our families, or our friends, or our work, or our communities, or our vision and our values, we act without really knowing the outcome of our actions.

For me, this is the definition of faith:  acting without really knowing the outcome of our actions.  Dr. King put it this way:“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  One might add that faith is also taking the second step and the third step even when you don’t see the whole staircase, or just taking the next step even though you don’t see the whole staircase.

Arthur Gish lived and worked for a number of years in the city of Hebron in the Occupied West Bank as part of the Christian Peacemaker Team.  His mission was to promote peaceful solutions to stop the violence that was directed against the indigenous Palestinians residents.  Arthur Gish spoke at our church in the fall of 2008 as part of a conference on peacemaking.  In his book Hebron Journal, he wrote movingly about the dangers associated with his work with the Christian Peacemaker Team:  “I recognize that there is a danger.  I accept that I might be killed.  That is okay.  I am sixty-one years old, have lived a good life, have experienced love.”  And then he continued with this sentiment:  “We need the faith that leads us into the heart of [unjust] situations, both to expose the [injustice] and [to] plant a seed of new life and hope.  This is not to argue for stupidity, for irresponsibility, for seeking martyrdom, but [rather] to be open to respond [with] love in any situation.”

Most of us will not find ourselves following in the footsteps of Arthur Gish.  Nevertheless, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, we can seek to be open to respond with love in any situation.  We may not be able to see the whole staircase, but we can take the next step and the next step after that and the next step after that with as much love and integrity and compassion as we can.  We need not jump off, but we can accept the challenge of jumping in.  We need not put ourselves in danger, but we can accept the challenge of giving ourselves to something larger than ourselves.  We need not be daring, but we can accept the challenge of staying true to our vision and our values.  Nothing more is asked of us than simply to take the next step in faith, in hope, and with love.

© 2017 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 621-8008     Map and directions
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Sunday
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