“The Hounds of Hell” by Sandra Miller

Top, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, 1495-98. Bottom, doctors at a hospital in Paris performing a tableau vivant of the painting.

August 30, 2020

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

In K-12 schools of the Onondaga people, every day starts with a prayer of thanksgiving, which begins:

Today we have gathered and when we look upon the faces around us we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now let us bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as People. Now our minds are one.

And I offer this as well: Let us pray that the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be of value to you, Holy One, ground of our being who opens the path to our personal and communal salvation.  Amen

Each time I preach, I say to myself afterwards, “that’s the last time.” Yet, sometimes the call is also felt as a need. Each in our various ways must raise our voices in response to the times we find ourselves in, to speak truth to power just as Jesus did. The sermon you are about to hear is not the sermon I had in mind when I said yes to the opportunity, as both the call and the inner need changed, day by day, if not minute by minute.

Preaching is a chance to tell a story, and the opportunity to invite conversation. Where do our stories intersect and share commonalities? Where do they diverge and add elements of engagement that lead to knowing each other better, more deeply? And maybe most importantly, where do our stories diametrically oppose another’s story? Do our mindsets and heartsets, have us opening the door to the stranger, or are we more likely to slam the door shut, make sure the locks are secure, and wish for God’s retribution to smite our opponents? Thanks to yesterday’s Inward/Outward post by Kip Dooley, I was reminded that Jesus did resort to rant sometimes, and even verbally abused those in power. (As an aside, I ask in advance that you forgive my ranting, and I promise to try not to shout.)

That said, you are invited to recenter with me by closing your eyes, and listening as deeply as you are able, to the words of Howard Thurman that opened our service:

The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker [Jesus] appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became, through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and the dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. … Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.

My confession, my vulnerability, is that I do feel the threat of the three hounds of hell nipping at my heels all the time, and downright taking chunks out of my calves and heart too much of the time in light of our social, political, and actual climate. The Holy One through Jesus calls us all, ALL OF HUMANITY, whether oppressed people, recovering oppressors, or those recovering from apathy or blindness, to gather our courage, gather together, conquer our fear, ignore the urge to respond in kind, and to rise to the occasion. We are even commanded to invite the currently blind, or those standing on the side of what I/we perceive as injustice, to the table to be fed and find their own salvation. There is a reason why the late Rep. John Lewis said:

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

For me, that is a relevant reframing of what the Holy One invites us to, whether in the teachings of the Old or New Testament. Not just as we face the inequities in the United States, but how, as a nation with a lot of power, we need to address inequities worldwide by fostering international relationships, not as braggard and leader, but as empathetic partner to ensure that the world, and indeed the earth, not only survive the current crises, but shape what the future looks like for generations to come. What can/should any person of any faith do to bring about the kindom of God?

How do I, how do we, humble servants of the Holy One, rise to the occasion when there are so many loud voices shouting words of division? Including some of mine! How do we discern, actually sift through all that we see and hear, and separate what is true and right for us as individuals and community? Personally, how do I find compassion and forgiveness for people who perpetrate violent acts of antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and on and on?

In my mind, these last few days have felt like a call to membership in the KKK and other hate groups by too many speakers at the Republican National Convention, aimed at those who are afraid in a very different way than I am. I have nightmares about the speech given by the McCloskeys, and I tremble and cry each time it plays in my head. And every time a speaker of color claims that the historic acts of anti-racism by the Republican Party continue to this day, I am screaming at them, though they cannot, nor do they want to hear, that they don’t know or acknowledge the historical shift in the parties that started in 1912 – that the party of Lincoln and Douglas is not the Republican party of today. Douglas and Lincoln, and others cited must be turning crazed somersaults in their graves. My grandmother taught me to put others first, and that voting was privilege, right and responsibility. She, and the founders of the United States, though slaveowners that they were, would be incensed as Tennessee tries to make peaceful protestors ineligible to vote. As I center myself in my garden and take joy in the wildlife and plants it supports, or walk the trails of beautiful Greenbelt, I can’t stop the bile from rising in my throat in response to the piece by piece dismantlement of environmental protection acts by the current administration. The refusal to acknowledge science, and the devastating effects of the climate crisis, even with hurricanes like Laura of unprecedented strength, and my home state of California on fire, are seemingly unimportant to those who put power and wealth above all else.  How do I come even close to eliminating the voice in my head that the actions and blatant nonactions taken by those in the Trump cabal have a carefully crafted plan to literally kill the opposition? Worldwide.

I celebrated Obama’s Stay of Execution of the federal death penalty incarcerated persons in this country, and now I cry every time this country murders another human being now that the death penalty has been reinstituted by a government that does not value human life. And don’t get me started about how I feel about the state of our criminal injustice system, and the militarization of our police.  I haven’t even mentioned guns. Guns in the hands of people who would happily kill me and my loved ones of every ethnic origin, because they are people who hate, yet often profess to be Christian. How do we have a thoughtful consideration of gun control when it is legal to buy a gun once a month in states like Virginia? And “Ghost Guns” proliferate? How can I not weep when a man shot by the police 7 times in the back, while fighting for his life, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is shackled to his hospital bed until his bail is paid? How was Jacob Blake a flight risk? What about the inexcusable inaction of the administration in the face of the coronavirus that falls hardest on impoverished people and people of color? Or the state of rampantly escalating autocracies around the world? I am afraid.

The Jewish Center at the University of Delaware was torched by an arsonist the other day. I am a Jew, and I am very afraid. I am seeing the bush burning, and it is being consumed. The sacred ground has been trampled.

And then The March on Washington happened, and Yolanda Renee King and her father, Martin Luther King Jr, III spoke, and God whispered in my ear that hope still lives. And God steps in and reminds me of my own self-righteousness. The truth that stares me in the face is that I am as deeply opinionated and flawed as those I have come to see as the enemy in our midst. How can I increase my resilience for living in this time and place? How can I foster an infinite source of kindness and empathy for “the other”? How can I possibly live up to the teachings of Jesus, and the Seekers Commitment Statement that I know literally in and by heart, in the face of the destruction of all that is decent and right in humanity and creation, to my way of thinking?

If you think I have the answer, or even a hint of any possible answer, you are sadly mistaken. Offering you the Word as I have heard it couldn’t possibly be the answer. These words have arrived in my head and heart as a confusion of thoughts, a rant. They present a challenge to look deeply inside myself, examine the paths I have explored or taken, in response to the challenges of attempting to do my individual part, and remain, despite my best attempts, as continuing consternation, sense of abandonment, and confusion. I struggle, even now that this sermon is written and I am offering it to you, my beloved community, to know very much at all. (I give you permission to laugh, as I can easily be identified as a “know it all.”)

I watch faith based and nonprofit webinar after webinar looking for a hint. I participate in several justice-seeking action groups with ordained faith leaders and deeply committed lay people, doing our best to do some of the work we identify as necessary. Heck, I even helped write a policy paper (not nearly as radical as I would have liked in the final version), with the theme of inclusion, sent to both campaigns, and which has made it to the consideration stage by the Democrats. And yet…

For balance and heart connection, I also watch, listen, and participate in workshops, webinars, and conversations about art. And I read Braiding Sweetgrass. In my good moments I feel like I am contributing to the work I identify as mine in any particular moment, feel that I can raise my voice and it matters, and engage in finding good trouble. In my worst moments, I can barely get out of bed and face my empathetic and personal fear, and continue whatever it is I think I am doing.

Where can I find solace? Where can our collective solace be found? The answer to that must be in my/our faith. In Exodus, WE are Moses, set afloat in a basket on the turbulent waters of our time, waiting to be saved, and waiting to save others. Our misery has been observed, our cries have been heard, our sufferings are known, and deliverance is coming, if only we will come to God. Like Moses, we ask who are we to bring us out of the land of iniquities. The holy and unfathomable I AM, assures us that we are not alone, and will be accompanied on this perilous mission. We are reminded in Psalm 105 that the Holy One has performed wonderful works, which we are to make known. God’s strength can be our strength if we but internalize our trust into our hearts as food for the journey.

Romans 12:9-21 is the playlist by which to live our lives, and following these invitations, maybe we can actually discern the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. I hope to greatly improve my behavior over the course of my remaining days, in accord with these actions. I could say much about the passage from Matthew as well, yet I believe it is sufficient to say, as Kip Dooley pointed out, verse 16:24 tells us that to be followers of Jesus we must pick up our own crosses. I acknowledge that my own cross is heavy indeed, and plenty to bear.

Believe or not, I am running out of words. Well, my own words. PEN America sent an email on Wednesday, just as I was struggling to find a way to say what I wanted to say.

How can we be better when this nightmare is over? That was the question Dave Eggers and I [Wajahat Ali] asked, as we emailed back and forth in April before George Floyd’s murder. We had the admittedly audacious hope that we could come out of the coronavirus crisis as a better people. We arrived at the phrase “We Will Emerge” and asked writers and thinkers to use that as a springboard.

They received hundreds of responses which they parsed out into categories: Action, Awareness, Community and Unity, Gratitude and Empathy, and Liberation. You are invited to read what they have posted with the link provided:


I will share just one with you from Andrew Zimmern (a Jewish-American culinary expert, chef, restaurateur, television personality, and though not my favorite person, his piece stood out):

We will emerge and be more empathetic.

In enduring great tragedies, human beings can rise up and out from their ordeal with an increased capacity for expressing more patience, kindness, and care for each other. After racing to grocery stores to get food for our children, will we see refugees abroad seeking better lives for their own children the same way ever again?

After many of us wait in lines for basic social services in the COVID-19 era, who among us can ignore our brothers and sisters for whom that’s always been a part of life? After this terrible viral crisis abates, how can we continue to ignore our broken and inequitable food system that works so well for one America and fails the second one so completely? After struggling to find quality care for our own loved ones or standard protective equipment for frontline responders, who could tolerate a society that doesn’t provide our best for, well, everyone?

Turns out, in America, even the coronavirus wasn’t colorblind.

And then the police in my city killed George Floyd.

There are two Americas. For everything. We can’t tolerate that, ignore it, or wish it away any longer. So if you were waiting for your moment, I think this is it. As a friend told me last week, “If you actually care, act like it.”

I know nothing will change until I do. So I’m showing up for a long, hard fight. And I am going to keep showing up. I want us to emerge from this horrific place we are in right now today. I want a more empathetic world for my child to grow up in. As my friend reminded me, “You’re always on the right side of history if you’re fighting for people to have basic human rights.”

So why am I optimistic after 400 years of proof to the contrary? Because I don’t believe the glass is half full or half empty.

The glass is refillable. And now is the time.

“Rebecca Solnit reminds us, “Inside the word emergency is ‘emerge.’”

Back to me.

The work now is to embrace God’s love, to believe that if not in our time, in God’s time. The tag line in my emails is from the Talmud. It reminds me every day, many times a day, that if I put one foot in front of the other, on the path that God has chosen for me, to the best of my ability, the world will keep turning.

 Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let us pray with the final words of the Onondaga prayer of Thanksgiving:

We now turn our thought to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator. Now our minds are one.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email
"Commitment as a Compass through Chaos" by Peter Bankson
"The Scariest Line in the Bible" by Deborah Sokolove