All Souls Kansas City

March 1: “Good Investment” with Rev. Kendyl Gibbons

Click here to start at the sermon.

“The interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” We say that like it’s a good thing, right? But can you say “Dow Jones Industrial average”? Can you say “International supply chain”? Can you say “World travel industry”? Can you say “Pandemic”? All of these things are manifestations of that same exact interdependent web – the way in which everything is connected to everything else. The way in which there is no ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’; no ‘here’ as opposed to ‘there’. There is no such place as ‘away’ to throw our trash, or quarantine our viruses. No such thing as ‘religion’ without ‘politics’; no such thing as ‘community’ without ‘money’.

Let’s start with the pandemic – I’ll get back around to the money in a minute. To respect the interdependent web is to acknowledge what we know, and prepare what we can, in the light of reason and science, without panic. Most of you can read the internet (another manifestation of that pesky web) as well as I can, and probably you already know the most significant personal precautions. First and foremost, respect the web of contagion – do not work sick, do not school sick, do not church sick. The world will not stop turning because
you are out of commission for a couple of weeks, and while you may bounce back fine after you are infected, the others that you go on to infect might not. Don’t hesitate to stay home yourself if you are not well, and be grateful rather than annoyed when others do the same. You don’t have to share the president’s conviction that this will all disappear ”like a miracle” to understand that the shadow of the pandemic will pass at some point – maybe after a lot of death and suffering, maybe after not so much; from what I read, we really don’t know yet. But it will surely be better to pick up the loose ends and unfinished tasks at that time, rather than contribute to more death and suffering by trying to carry on as if it wasn’t happening.

One corollary of this principle is try not to shop sick either. Update your stock of basics – don’t panic buy, and don’t hoard – just enough that you could stay home for two weeks, either because you yourself are ill, or to care for an ill family member, without becoming a carrier. If it turns out that you do need something, swallow your pride, and ask someone who is out anyway to pick it up for you. Or, if you must go out, that is the time to wear a nose and mouth mask, which is not very useful to prevent you from catching the virus, but can help you not to spread it to others once you have it.

Second thing that we already know – wash your hands, often, with soap, friction, and running water. Sing the Alphabet song, or Spirit of Life, to make sure you are scrubbing long enough. Use the air dryer or clean towels, but don’t wipe your washed, damp hands on clothing. Use hand sanitizer if washing isn’t feasible. See how long you can go without touching your face; this is how the virus often travels from your hands to your body’s inner system.

Avoid large gatherings of other people, and look for alternatives to physical contact of bare skin for greetings. We have been seeing elbow bumps, like this:
Or, for the more agile, feet bumps:
Now, nobody is saying that we shouldn’t be shaking hands or hugging here in KC just yet, so if you want a hug today, it’s still yours. But if you would like to practice a new move, just to get ready, you can try it out with me at the door after the service. The interdependent web is a network of ideas as well as physical forces, and this is how new social norms spread in response to changing circumstances.

Also here at All Souls, our staff is each upgrading our own home technology set ups so that we are able to work from home in case that becomes advisable. We are training our Sunday technology assistants to produce online worship programming so that we can have virtual church if necessary. If you feel that it is beyond your current ability to access an online gathering, we have volunteers who would be happy to set it up on your computer and show you – and we could use a couple more of those, too. We urge everyone to make sure that you have given us your emergency contact information, and we are identifying members who live alone or have risk factors that suggest we should be checking on them. Our congregation is its own segment of the larger web, and we want our part to be as strong and solid as possible.

While we are on the subject, the prospect of a pandemic infection is a powerful reminder of why making sure that everyone in our society has access to competent healthcare is not a softhearted liberal rainbow pie in the sky, but rather as realistic, hard-headed, and self-serving a goal as you will ever find. As Anand Giriharadas has posted, “Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along. Your health is only as safe as the worst-insured, worst-cared for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling.” A vaccine that is available just to the wealthy will not protect even those who receive it from the dangerous disruptions of a global disease and economic turmoil. This is the nature of the interdependent web; it is only by creating the safety of others that we ensure our own.

Finally, it is up to all of us to support and advocate for the role of government in sponsoring scientific research and international cooperation to prepare for and identify these kinds of emerging crises. Science at its best is another manifestation of the interdependent web. Basic insights discovered, treatments developed, best practices learned, and new threats identified can all be disseminated with a few keystrokes when worldwide networks of investigation work together – especially without the secrecy engendered by the expectation of exorbitant financial profit.

Which neatly brings us to the other aspect of the interdependent web that I would invite us to explore this morning, which is how, and why, we participate in funding this congregation.

Just as there is much to be learned from the history of previous international influenza and other pandemic events, it has been impossible over the last several months, for me at least, not to contemplate the lessons of past eruptions of fascism. Indeed, it seems to me that the two are not entirely unrelated – the public willingness to tolerate unwholesome leaders exercising arbitrary power and government by force, is like a collective virus. It somehow short-circuits our normal immune responses to invasive, parasitic life forms, and propagates itself until the host system either dies, or gathers the strength to throw it off. These kind of opportunistic political infections have taken place in Africa, in Asia, in the Near East, and South America – indeed, are taking place, even as we speak. But the history that I know best, not surprisingly, is that of Europe, and so my thoughts turn to one of the most virulent outbreaks of the recent past, the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party.

Specifically, I have been pondering the role of the churches in responding to Hitler’s evolving regime. What we know from history is that the German state church embraced the promise of a racially purified and re-empowered nationalism – does that remind us of any aspect of our current situation? And the Catholic church, in which the future Fuhrer was raised as a child – headquartered, let it be remembered, in Italy, which was itself succumbing to the fascist virus – accommodated the Reich by agreeing to turn a blind eye to its aggressions and oppressions. The Jewish community was suppressed before the magnitude of the disease was apparent, and received little support from the larger European or global powers. The only notable religious resistance came from the so-called ‘confessing’ churches. These were the separatist Protestant congregations, heirs of the radical, Anabaptist reformation rather than the Institutional Lutherans, who affirmed, or ‘confessed’, no loyalty to any civil government, but only to the message and authority of Jesus. Their pastors, like the famous Dietrich Bonhoeffer, continued to preach, write, and speak out against Hitler’s personal tyranny, and against the lies, wars, and corruption of the entire Nazi structure. Their members, of course, fell along a spectrum of complicity, but they were encouraged by their religious communities to withhold their consent and their cooperation from the regime.

What we conclude from the perspective of hindsight is that it was the confessing churches that got it right. They were functioning immune cells, serving the agenda of systemic moral health, even though they created great discomfort for everyone at the time, and were frequently attacked and destroyed by the invasive forces of despotism and cruelty. I can’t speak for all of you, of course, but I will tell you: that is the kind of minister I hope to be, and the kind of congregation I want to serve. Not, as you probably understand, because of my commitment to the message and authority of Jesus specifically; no. But I want my commitment to the message and authority of the values of this faith to have that kind of priority in my own life and choices, and I want to advocate that priority with and to this community.

The confessing churches got it right in an historical context of great danger and confusion, because they knew clearly where their loyalties were – not with the state, or with popular leaders, but with what they said they believed in all along. Not because these commitments were guaranteed to keep them safe or make them successful, but rather even if it meant they were likely to suffer persecution, and perhaps be obliterated. My colleague Jon Luopo recalls a story along the same lines about an individual. He writes:

A Roman Catholic priest was invited to share his life odyssey with an interfaith clergy organization. In it, he described his life as having been largely a failure. He remembered the days of Vatican II and the hope he and his generation of liberal priests had had that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly. Yet, many years later he felt the church had if anything become hardened and more conservative. His dreams had not been realized. This priest was respected and valued among his colleagues, who were hurt and surprised by what he said. Yet, one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed peaceful and content. “How can you claim your life was a failure, and yet appear so calm and serene? “I know whose I am,” replied the priest. “I know whose I am.”

Several years ago, that story inspired many of our UU clergy chapters to ask ourselves the question, Do we know whose we are? A few of us found it easy to answer, and a few found the question simply meaningless, but most of us, including me, struggled with it. I knew for myself that, unlike the priest, the answer was not any self-aware being, like god or Jesus; it had to be larger than that. And I also knew that I was not content to say that I belong to no one, or to nothing but myself; it had to be larger than that, as well. I think if whose you are is not large enough, you will not be a strong immune cell when the cancer of malignant power hits your community; we need a loyalty that is stronger than the fear, confusion, and hatred that fascism brings. It took some time, but eventually I realized that my deepest loyalty is two-fold; I am the truth’s, and the future’s. If I have served the truth and the future to the best of my ability, then I will have nothing to regret. Of course I do not always succeed in this at every moment, but I trust this aspiration to bring me out on the right side of history, if anything can. And of course I know that for each one of you, there may be a different answer than mine, but I also know that I can’t live out that loyalty all alone – and neither can you.

I believe that once we know whose we are, or even while we are trying to figure it out, we need community. We can’t just sit around in isolation, pondering and admiring our ideals; we have to give them flesh in the world, put them into practice on the ground, and that means coming together with others. The confessing church in Nazi Germany was more than a random collection of individual resisters; it was a community of mutual courage and clarity amidst the fog of tyranny, and that is what we must have again now, today. A single immune cell is helpless against the invasion of mutating parasites, but a network of them – an interdependent web, working together in loyalty to health and thriving – that’s a different story.

Over the next couple of weeks, the diligent servants on our board of trustees and on our staff are preparing a budget for this congregation for the coming year. We are still trying to get our immigrant employees paid an equitable wage. We are trying to fund music for our children. We are trying to keep up with advances in the technology expectations of emerging generations. If we were to do everything that it could be argued was ‘responsible’ for us to fund in the coming year, it would cost around $45 thousand. It’s probable we won’t be able to do all of that in a balanced budget, so we will have to make hard decisions, like all the other institutions and families around us. But if everyone who believes that this community is a good investment of our time, and energy, and love will dig a little deeper, we could do a lot. We could make sure that this community is here not just for us, but for the long haul – for the days when the pandemic is over, and even the reign of ignorance, cruelty and corruption finally falls to pieces. When they gather in whatever is left of integrity, on whatever is left of the planet, let it be here. Let them say of us, “These folks didn’t give up on truth, or reason, or facts. They didn’t give up on compassion or human decency. They didn’t give up on each other, or on the future. How can we be like them?”

Let’s be that community, dear ones. Let’s build the thing that is left standing, or at least still worth believing in, because we did not surrender to either complicity or despair. It has always seemed to me that that is the best investment any of us could possibly make.