February 20, 2019
Dr. Lorna Duphiney Edmundson ~ Sermon on February 17, 2019
AWAKENING THE SOUL OF THE CITIZEN by Dr. Lorna Duphiney Edmundson
Sunday Sermon, February 17, 2019, Salisbury Congregational Church
Religion and politics. There’s a tricky topic; both important, but wisdom has it that they should never mix.
We usually consider religion more of a private matter; politics only works well if citizens actually show up in public.
Could spiritual and civic life meld together, and if so where? Perhaps in the soul? The soul of the citizen? If there is such a thing as a citizen soul, how would we awaken, nurture and guide it?
So many questions; so early in the morning. Let’s see where they lead us in the confines of what I promise to be a brief sermon.
In answer to the first question about religion being private and politics public, we have only to look to the nature and power of Jesus’ deeply spiritual and civic-minded three-year public ministry. His sermons on the Mount offer both comfort and challenge, as he exhorts us to be our best spiritual and civic selves. Today’s gospel touched on this; Matthew has more to say in Chapter 5, The Beatitudes.
Jesus assured us repeatedly that it is possible to live lives of purpose, simultaneously seeking religious salvation and reaching out to create peace and equity for all people. He set the bar high for becoming exemplary citizens – citizens with strong moral compasses; citizens who bring their very souls to their work. He certainly did so, even though he knew that working to create a better world that includes the poor, despised and disenfranchised would be a treacherous path to follow. He told us so, ….and reassured us:
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Can we find even a smidgeon of the courage he had to speak and advocate for those who can’t do so for themselves? Are we willing to risk being targets of anger and threats? Or will we tuck ourselves away safely at home?
I can imagine some of you may be thinking – as I caught myself doing recently, “I’ve already done my part and have earned a rest. It’s the next generation’s turn.”
Hmmm. Perhaps. It certainly is inspiring to see the recent flood of young people into political life, but shouldn’t we elders stay close by to help?
Many of the inspiring readings required of college youth today, build directly on the essence of Jesus’ teachings – as relevant today as they were centuries ago. Among my favorites are:
o The Quickening of America;
o Learning for the Common Good;
o Common Fire
o Global Intentions/Local Results.
I especially recommend reading, Soul of the Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time, by Paul Rogat Loeb. Loeb’s book won these words of high praise from Marian Wright Edelman, American activist for the rights of children: “Soul of a Citizen helps us find the faith we need to act on our deepest beliefs – and to keep on”.
I’ve come to believe we not only can – but must – be grounded in our souls before taking our integrated spiritual and civic selves into the glare of the public forum. If we don’t stand firmly in the center of our ethical and moral core, how will we have the strength and courage to create the extravagantly welcoming kingdom on earth that Jesus envisioned?
On the other hand, putting our souls to work, doesn’t give us license to bludgeon others with our beliefs. Our souls should center and sustain us for the critical work of listening deeply, seeking to understand rather than be understood, and staying the course in the face of inevitable opposition and set-backs.
Let’s get personal for a minute. I’ve been thinking that I can’t use my age as an excuse to sit my citizen’s soul on the sidelines, especially given current events. How about you? What kind of change are you in the best position to make? Might you take a small step forward to right a wrong in your family, add your talents during our congregation’s transition, work on behalf of better lives for all people? If you’ve already made such commitments, could you redouble your efforts?
Ones’ circumstances, resources, health, and time of life will surely shape what is possible, but even the tiniest of pebbles tossed into a pond have broad, rippling effects. In the words of Arthur Ashe, “Start where you are; use what you have; do what you can.”
Assuming there is such a thing as the soul of a citizen, what will awaken, guide, and nurture it over time? I suggest this can happen through thought, word and deed:
o Thought that springs from and is refreshed by daily meditation.
o Thought that awakens our minds and spirits and expands our souls.
o Thought that is enriched through frequent contact with the natural world, fine and performing arts, music, and other forms of human creativity;
o Thought that is liberated from prejudice and intentionally seeks new, meaningful, discourse with people from many different cultures.
Word is also powerful.
o Word that is sacred – to us as Christians and to people of all faiths. The Bible, Koran, Torah, Bhagavad Gita or other holy writings;
o Word that inspires – “rises up toward ideas – rather than being exhausted upon the particular or the external”, as Alfred North Whitehead once said.
o Word that informs.
o Word that begins or ends as prayer, alone or with others.
o Words to live by.
Living by the Word is actually the title of a book of essays by acclaimed author Alice Walker. In this book, she describes how she came to understand prayer to be the active affirmation in the physical world of our inseparableness from the divine. Let me say that again: “Prayer is the active affirmation in the physical world of our inseparableness from the divine”. We had Alice Walker as a guest in our home in Vermont, and I can affirm that her humble, authentic self is truly as inspiring as her writings.
Listen now to one of her prayerful poems in Living by the Word:
“War will stop when we no longer praise it or give any attention to it at all; Peace will come wherever it is sincerely invited; Love will overflow every sanctuary given it; Truth will grow where the fertilizer that nourished it is also truthful; Faith will be its own reward.”
Thought, Word, and finally, Deed.
o Deeds that are consistent with our values and possible to fulfill.
o Deeds that address real, pressing issues – not manufactured emergencies.
o Deeds that improve the lives of those who cannot advocate effectively for themselves.
o Deeds which are performed with others to create the greatest possible impact.
o Deeds in which we become increasingly proficient with the help of our mentors and friends.
In the early 1970’s, the life and work of my graduate school mentor, distinguished African-American Psychologist, Dr. Edmund Wyatt Gordon, taught me much about bringing soul to public life and “keeping on” when things get tough. Dr. Gordon, an ordained minister and holder of endowed professorial chairs at both Yale and Columbia Universities, is now in his mid-90s. He continues to speak, publish, and create positive change for poor, underserved students as he has for five decades.
Just Google his name and up will pop a recent You Tube interview in which he describes his current innovative ideas about using assessment to develop intelligence, not just to measure it. His work has great potential for maximizing learning for all, ensuring academic success among many poor students from underserved communities whose intelligence is not captured by standardized tests.
What an inspiration Ed Gordon has been to me. How can I sit my citizen soul on the sidelines when he’s still going in his mid-90’s? Who have been your mentors? What would they hope from you today?
And today, what a world we live in! The authors of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World see it this way:
o “We are all ambivalent inhabitants of a new global commons, simultaneously fragmented into a variety of loose and shifting association – yet drawn more closely into a large web of life.
o We are thrust into a large sphere of responsibility, one calling for a keener recognition of the diversity, complexity, and ambiguity – the very warp and woof of the common life we share.
o We must align ourselves with the whole ….and work on its behalf, finding the strength that is needed for the practice of citizenship.
o When we shrink from the world, our souls shrink too.”
A shrinking soul. What a concept.
Catholic theologian Thomas Merton gives some surprising advice on how to handle a shrinking soul: “Souls are like athletes who need opponents worthy of them if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” Merton’s lesson: Welcome the opposition – don’t demonize it or avoid debate!
I feel deeply fortunate to be a small part of this congregation. I know that for many, I’m preaching to the choir. You already live lives of spiritual and civic commitment. But it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that, by coming together in common purpose – even if not always in agreement – we can leverage our talents, awaken and nurture each other’s souls, ensure that we thrive as a congregation, and create a better world for others.
It’s hard during these frigid days of winter to imagine leaving our warm hearths, finding our voices, and forging out with renewed purpose. But spring is coming; Easter is coming; the promise of new and eternal life is coming. Pastor Diane helped us get off to a fine start by adopting our Welcome Statement and Covenant Prayer.
Let peace begin, and let it begin here, with us, this morning. Amen.
Please stand, if you are able, and join me in reading our Covenant Prayer.
Dear God, as we gather to discern your will,
Let our church be a place where we learn about love and practice it, in keeping with our Covenant;
Where we envision peach and work through open and honest communication to build it.
Where we strive to find harmony and uphold the dignity of all, while benefitting from our differences.
May we listen without judgment, use words with care and exercise patience as we deliberate.
May your spirit grant us the courage, power and grace we need to make decisions for the good of all.
It is in Christ’s name that we pray. Amen
Bibliography for Sermon: Awakening the Soul of the Citizen
Association of American Colleges, Learning for the Common Good, (Washington, D.C.: AAC, 1991)
Astin, A., Astin, H., & Lindholm, J., Cultivating the Spirit: How College can Enhance Students’ Inner Lives (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011)
Daloz, C Keen, J. Keen, & Parks, Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1996
Koehl, William, P., Global Intentions, Local Results: How Colleges can Create Intentional International Communities (Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg College, 2008)
Loeb, Paul Rogat, Soul of a Citizen: Living with Conviction in a Cynical Time (New York: St. Mark’s Griffin, 1999)
Merton, Thomas, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith (New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1999)
Walker, Alice, Living by the Word: Essays (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Mariner Books, 1989)
Whitehead, Albert North, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 1957)