© Jeremy D. Nickel 2013. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
January 20, 2013

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Revolutions are never easy. Even after all the hard work, at the end of the struggle when the public squares are full of bodies and change appears absolutely inevitable, it is not easy. For as Martin Luther King Jr. said, the oppressor never gives up power willingly. Even when the tyrant is surrounded at all sides, hands covered in his own people's blood, he still believes in himself. And it is in those moments when history is truly made. When everything hangs in the balance, the question becomes: who grits their teeth, who digs their feet deep into the ground, and finds the place within themselves that enables them to stand up and make the difference. It is the person that answers that call that can make history tilt in one direction, or another.

In one such square in November of 1989, nothing was clear. This was Wenceslas Square in Prague, then within communist Czechoslovakia. All around Eastern Europe, the communist grip on power was crumbling. The Berlin Wall separating East and West Germany had fallen just over a week earlier. Much like last year's Arab Spring, revolution was in the air and real change was happening.

But to the men and women who had filled the square over the past week, nothing yet was certain. Each day that week the numbers in the square had increased, from 200,000 on Monday, to 500,000 on Wednesday to this day, Friday, over 800,000 bodies, pressed cheek to jowl. But the question now shooting around the crowd was: what next? How would this standoff end? The unspoken, and sometimes spoken subtext was: will this revolution remain peaceful, or will we soon storm the government buildings and take the blood that stands between us and freedom?

As the story goes, during a particular lull in chanting, as the energy of the crowd continued to cast about for a plan, for an action, for a decision to whether they would stay a peaceful protest or morph into an angry mob, one man took his keys out of his pocket and began to shake them. Those standing around him immediately felt the energy of this action align with their need to make one final peaceful statement. And they too removed the keys from their pockets and purses and bags and backpacks and began to shake them. Quickly it spread throughout the entire crowd of almost a million people, all silently locked in solidarity, pressed against each other and shaking their keys in a deafening roar that wordlessly spoke more than any chant could: it was the sound of a people who would overcome any obstacle that stood between them and freedom.

Later that evening, along with his entire cabinet, Milos Jakes, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, resigned. He would later cite the eerie sound of 800,000 people simultaneously shaking their keys as the moment he knew the end had come.

The fact that one person can make the difference in such a moment has been shown again and again. The Arab spring was a fire lit by one man, a poor Tunisian street vendor who literally set the blaze by dousing himself in gasoline and, in the most desperate of protest acts, set himself on fire, symbolizing the utter impotence of his situation all too perfectly. And from his one act, the Arab world has been forever transformed.

Within our own tradition, we have the story of Martha and Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian couple that was the thirteenth choice of the Unitarian Service Committee to go to Prague in a very different moment in history to see what the truth was of the scary reports of the Nazi party they had been receiving. This one couple created an underground railroad assembled completely of regular people like themselves: visa clerks, ship captains, hotel operators, restaurant owners, who all conspired to smuggle thousands of Jewish children out of harms way and to safety in the United States.

No, the fact that one ordinary person can truly affect the course of human history for the better is no longer in dispute as far as I am concerned. In fact, as I see it, the painful truth is that rather than being a universe lacking in opportunities to make a difference, it is actually one that is uncomfortably over-full of such opportunities. If anything, it is the immensity of the opportunities that can feel intimidating.

So what is it that enables some people to say yes to that moment? What led Rev. Waitstill and his social-worker wife Martha Sharp to say yes to an invitation that had already been made to over a dozen other Unitarian ministers who had the good sense to turn it down? What led that poor man in Tunisia to light himself on fire, and empowered that man in Wenceslas Square to grab his keys and shake them in the air?

The thread that seems to connect all of these moments is a letting go of fear. What kept the harsh policies of Russian Communism in place for so many decades was fear. Fear of pain, fear of losing more rights, fear of having less food. Fear is an extremely powerful motivator. As I have mentioned, it led 12 Unitarian Ministers, good men who all had long track records of good work, to say no to traveling into Nazi-controlled Europe on a quasi-spy mission. But as history has shown us, if someone is able to cast off his or her fear, that bold action is contagious and can spread faster than the flu.

That crowd in Wenceslas Square is an incredible example of not just the precariousness of history, but also of how one brave act can have such an enormous and inspirational impact. All those people in the square were so full of hope, their numbers were so enormous and powerful, yet they remained afraid, still not quite willing to believe that another way was possible. It's a moment so full of possibility, when one word, one action, can push the entire crowd in so many different directions. If fear takes over, a crowd quickly becomes a violent mob. Once that primal impulse to protect oneself kicks in and starts spreading like wildfire, history burns down a city, and people die.

But if one person can let go of their fear in the right moment, and model that for others, it can truly make all the difference.

In the video of Rev. Dr. King we used in the Invocation, he says that we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. This is one of my favorite King quotes for a number of reasons. The first is that it is not actually a King quote originally but is a paraphrase from the famous Unitarian Minister and abolitionist Rev. Theodore Parker, whom King had studied and greatly admired.

King first discovered Parker's idea that history bends towards justice in an 1857 sermon of his, which read in part:

"Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice."

What I love about this original quote, and also the more concise version that King has made so famous, is that it so perfectly provides a visual for such an abstract concept. When I hear these words, they summon in my mind's eye a rainbow arcing not just through the sky and over the earth, but through time itself; its races and its bend is not pulled towards justice by some cosmic force like gravity, but rather by the actions of you and me and everyone throughout time that has in those delicate moments of history let go of their fear and reached into the void and, with all their might, pulled that arc a little closer to reality. I see bodies hanging all over that arc, clinging to it with tense fingers dug deep into its form, straining with all the energy of their body to bend it down our way.

The picture I chose for the cover of today's order of service shows a man surrounded by a crowd giving the Nazi salute, while he refuses. I think what is remarkable about this man is not simply that he is refusing to give in to the hate all around him, but the look of his whole being, his posture, his face. It is not simply defiance I see, but the look of a person who has let go of fear, who is pulling that moral arc down towards earth into a moment that clearly lacked it.

This image was posted on Mission Peak UU's Facebook page a few days ago, as all order of service images are, and as a result two things happened that I found very interesting. The first was that our Facebook page got more likes in a day than it normally gets in a week. And that particular image got more shares than we normally get, well, ever. This image really spoke to people. I think it is because in our hearts we all want to be this guy. We all want to believe that if we were in this same situation, living in Eastern Europe during World War II when the Nazis came to power in our area that we would resist, that we would answer yes to the invitation of that moment and refuse to give in to the evil growing around us. That we would model a different possible response for our community.

But then there was the other thing that happened in response to this image, and its challenge to "be this guy." It was one comment, and it simply read: "Be sent to a labor camp? Be dead?"

I think that the tension between these two different responses: that we each hope we would take this action, and that we know in reality it would likely lead to our death if we did, is the reason we do not always rise to the occasion. Because we simply can't always risk our life even if that is where our heart is.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was explicit in his ministry that the choices he was asking people to make came with real risk involved and that to actually "be the one" required a letting go of the fear of what could happen to you in the struggle. Whatever they throw at us, he said, "we shall overcome." Water cannons, dogs, jail cells, we shall overcome. Not even death can put us off our task.

But we can't be that person every moment, every day. This is what I want to remind you of this morning, of our power both as individuals and as a collected group. That moral arc is weighted towards justice because not just one body clings to it, but a community of bodies through time. Because the truth is that, although it takes individual sacrifice and effort to change the world, lasting change, change that bends that arc towards progress only comes through our collected efforts. So we remind ourselves here today that together we have nothing to fear, that we can let go and pledge to continue to unfold new ways to lend our weight to all those bodies clinging to that arc that soars invisibly overhead. We will be the one, and we will do it together.

May it be so. Ashe.

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