Rising From The Fire, Rev Denis Paul

Start Date

Call to Worship and Chalice Lighting – Rev Denis

Reverend Bill Schulz, former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association writes

This is the Mission of Our Faith: 
To teach the fragile art of hospitality; 
To revere both the critical mind and the generous heart; 
To prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness; 
And to witness to all that we must hold the whole world in our hands.

That is what we are here to do.

And when he says the whole world, he means the whole world, 
No exceptions. 
No matter how contemptible the character, 
No matter how beastly the behavior, 
No matter how obnoxious the offender, 
We are called to uphold the worth and dignity of every person 
Even when it shakes us to our core 
And takes us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.

As we gather this morning, to celebrate the covenant that calls us to action, May we be good accompaniment to one another Becoming stronger, healthier, more humane

Jason, would you do us the honor of lighting the chalice this morning?

These are the words of my favorite theologian, Reverend Joe Cherry:

If we have any hope of transforming 
the world and ourselves, 
we must be 
bold enough to step into our discomfort, 
brave enough to be clumsy there, 
loving enough to forgive ourselves and each other.

As we light this chalice, may we, 
as a people of faith, 
be granted the strength to be 
so bold, 
so brave, 
so loving.

First Reading

“The Camel Driver in Need of a Friend,” a Sufi Tale This morning’s story is an Arab tale called “The Camel Driver In Need of a Friend.”

A man was watching over his orchard when a herd of camels approached. One of the camels reached his neck over the fence and broke off a branch.

The angry owner snatched up a stone and threw it at the camel and unexpectedly killed it. The camel driver saw what happened, got angry, and threw a rock at the orchard owner, killing him instantly. Frightened by his own anger, the camel driver jumped on his swiftest camel and got away, leaving the rest of the herd behind.

Word of this double tragedy spread quickly. The camel driver was chased, caught, and taken before the caliph, who was the ruler and judge. The sons of the dead man were there and demanded that the camel driver be punished with death.

When the camel driver saw that there was nothing he could do to save himself, he began to think of things he wished he had done at home before coming to town. He decided he must make one last request of the Caliph.

“Your Highness, I beg you to give me three days’ time before you end my life. I need to go back to my family and arrange several important matters. I promise you that I will return within three days. Then I’ll be ready to pay the penalty I deserve.”

The Caliph suspected the man of trying to run away. “You must have someone who will stand surety for you while you are gone. Someone here must promise to die in your place if you do not come back in three days. Otherwise I cannot trust you.”

Desperately, the camel driver looked around on the crowd that had gathered, all complete strangers. Why would anyone risk his life for a person he had never seen before?

The officer was already tying the man’s hands behind his back.

Scared, the camel driver called, “Is anyone here noble?” No answer. Again he cried even louder: “Is anyone here noble?”

The crowd moved nervously and grumbled: “He’s looking for a fool!” one said.

“The man he killed was given no second chance,” cried a second.

“I wouldn’t risk an hour’s wages for him,” shouted a third.

“Off with his head!” screamed the crowd.

In the midst of the hubbub, to everyone’s surprise, a man did come forward and stand before the Caliph, the respected teacher, Abu Dhur, the noblest person among them.

“No! No! Don’t do it, Abu Dhur.” Came cries from the crowd. “We need you. Don’t risk your life for this scoundrel!”

But Abu Dhur was committed to his purpose. He said, “Your Highness, let me be surety for this man.”

“Don’t be foolish, Abu Dhur,” said the Caliph. “if this man does not return, you will then have to be punished in his place!”

“I know, Your Highness. But I am ready.”

The camel driver was set free, and started off at a run and was soon out of sight, while Abu Dhur was led off to prison. The crowd scattered nervously.

Three Days passed and the manslayer had not returned. Nobody had really believed that he would. The sons of the dead man gathered, demanding that some life must be taken in payment for the life of their father.

The Caliph was distressed. The Caliph respected him highly and loved him for his goodness. But the Caliph had warned Abu Dhur that he would have to be executed if the slayer did not return, so the Caliph felt he had to keep his word.

Abu Dhur was brought out of his prison and led to the place of execution. But just as the executioner was about to raise his axe, a loud cry came from the back of the crowd: “Stop! Someone is running this way!”

The executioner stopped. When they saw the runner and recognized him as the camel driver a shout of relief rose from the anxious crowd. The runner dropped on his knees before the Caliph and gasped: “Thank god! I am on time!”

“But what a fool you are!” said the Caliph in surprise. “If you had stayed away you would have been free.”

The camel driver rose to his feet and said, “Your Highness, I have come back in order to prove that not only are there still in the world those who are noble, but that there are still in the world those who are truthful.”

“Then why did you go away at all?” asked the Caliph.

“Your Highness, I asked for three days’ stay of my sentence because I was needed at home. Some time ago, a poor widow came to me and entrusted some articles of value to my keeping. Since I had to leave on business, I took her things and hid them under a great rock in a spot which no one but myself could find. Then this dreadful thing happened to me. If you had not spared my life for three days, I should have died with a heavy heart, knowing that my friend the widow would lose all her treasure. She would have cursed my children because of their father, and they could have done nothing to right the wrong. Now, however, I have given the precious things back to the widow and I have arranged my own family’s affairs as best I could. Now I can die in peace.”

On hearing the man’s strange story, the Caliph turned to Abu Dhur and said: “Is this man a friend of yours?”

“No,” replied Abu Dhur. “I never saw him until three days ago. I risked my life for the sake of the camel driver so that he would know that there are still those who can be noble and who ask no reward.”

The Caliph said nothing. The executioner unbound Abu Dhur and walked over to the camel driver and began binding his hands behind his back.

The Caliph turned to the camel driver and said, “I pardon you!”

“Why?” shouted the crowd in protest.

The Caliph answered, “I pardon this man because I see now that there are still in the world those who are noble, those who are truthful, those who carry their responsibilities. It remains for me to show that there are those who can be forgiving. I, therefore, pardon this man who in anger killed another. I myself shall pay the fine to the dead man’s relatives.”

Sermon “Rising from the Fire,” -Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

The cage was about 4 feet by 6 feet, and Bill and I were sitting facing each other, knee to knee. We were at San Quentin Prison, surrounded by ten or so other cages with ten feet between them, each with one condemned man and one visitor.

Bill began by asking me if we could pray together, so we took hands and bowed our heads. As I opened my mouth to speak, Bill started before I could, a role-reversal. I was the minister in training, and he was the murderer, but he prayed reverently beginning with a list of things for which he was grateful, like my presence, and the microwaved burritos I’d bought from the visiting room vending machines; ending with a request that our time together be meaningful, challenging, and loving. Amen.

Bill was the fiance of a friend of a co-worker. I’d been an anti-death penalty activist for twenty years at that point, and had walked 25 miles in protest on the eve of nearly every execution since I’d been in California. When my co-worker saw me on the news, she cornered me at work the next day, and whispered to me the story of her friend from church, who had fallen in love with a man she visited in a church-sponsored visiting program. Eventually, they got Bill and me together, beginning with letters.

In those letters, which came at a rate I couldn’t keep up with, we talked about every theological concept you can think of: sin and atonement, forgiveness and salvation, the trinity, transcendence. Grace. A bit embarrassed, he admitted that he had a very big problem with the fact that I was a gay man. The Bible, after all, condemned my so-called “lifestyle.” So, we talked about what the Bible really says, agreeing that Jesus spoke much against violence and murder, but not at all about homosexuality. We spoke about judgment.

He started to believe that neither of us was going to hell, that I was okay with Jesus. He’d accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and savior, so he was good. I figure neither of us is going to hell because God is to good to condemn anyone eternally.

Bill’s crimes were horrific. In the late 70’s, and he was a tall, handsome white man from a wealthy Southern California family that had set him up well. On two separate occasions, he met a young single mother at a bar, got her to invite him home, then killed her and her daughter. He murdered two women and two little girls, and never denied that he had done so. And there I was sitting in a cage with him.

Bill had changed a lot in the 25 years he’d lived on death row. He went from rationalizing his actions as being righteous and moral, to finally understanding that his rage was fed by his unjustified sense of entitlement, which reached an inexcusable end. He’d sought forgiveness from the families of his victims, and wasn’t surprised that they were unwilling to give him the satisfaction. Broken, he worked on himself, and became a teacher, a mentor, and a calm presence on death row. I have to admit I liked him.

Would I want Bill released back into the general population? No. It scares me to think what he could do again. But I’m not willing to call him evil.

To me, evil is something big, really big, bigger than any single human being. Evil is the conglomeration of a multitude of sins, the countless ways in which we miss the mark in dealing with one another. Evil is the effect of millions of sins of commission and millions of sins of omission, committed by many, many people.

The classic example is the Holocaust.

Adolf Hitler was a frightened man with a scary sense of entitlement, not unlike Bill’s. He thought he was doing the right thing, protecting Germany from people he labeled evil: Jews, Gyspsies, witches and homosexuals. He was sinful. Very, very sinful. But the evil was in the system that allowed him to rise to power, kill millions and start a war. His sins were made greater by those who helped him carry out his plans, those who saw the wrong in what he was doing, but said nothing, those in countries across the world who watched without response, and the leaders who didn’t lead. Not one individual was evil, but put together all those sins, those millions of sins, and you’ve got an evil system.

Sin is particular, pertaining to the individual. Evil is general, pertaining to the collective.

Philosopher and essayist Susan Neiman has said that when Germans focus on genocide as a universal phenomenon, it is a way of avoiding responsibility. When Jews do the same, it is a way of assuming responsibility. In other words, when Germans talk about the ways in which genocides have happened around the world, they minimize their own responsibility for the rise of the Nazis and the deaths of millions. They are just another group that has perpetrated violence against an enemy in the long history of humanity, violence which will continue long into the future.

But when Jews talk about how genocides continue to this day, they emphasize their responsibility to make sure it never happens again.

Taking responsibility for our own sins, taking responsibility for our actions and inactions, helps begin to remove us from systems of evil.

In 2002, I was walking with a very small group – only seven of us – to protest the execution of a man who had 22 years earlier broken into the home of a sleeping 81-year old piano teacher and shot her in her bed at point blank range. Police apprehended him after he had gone down to her kitchen, fixed himself a bowl of noodles, and sat down to watch television.

As we were in the middle of that lonely walk 20-plus years after the crime, I heard a car skid to a stop, and saw a woman running toward our group carrying signs.

She spit in our faces as she screamed repeatedly, “how could you defend a monster like that! He doesn’t deserve to live!”

We stood there, dumbfounded, as she hurled the most painful accusation. It was more of an indictment. “I bet you don’t even know her name!”

Her name was Elizabeth Lyman, and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know that. I knew the name of the man about to be executed, but in my rush to correct something I believed to be an evil perpetrated by the state in my name, I committed a sin. I fell short of my best intentions for myself in not knowing the name of the victim.

Sister Helen Prejean had to face the same sin in herself years earlier. You may know her from her book Dead Man Walking, which was fictionalized as a film staring Susan Sarandon. Prejean is a Roman Catholic nun who was asked by a friend to visit a family member in jail, a man condemned for murder. She met a man in pain, a man whose professed innocence she believed, a man who was sinful, but not guilty of that particular crime. She set out to defend him. Eventually she met the family of the victim, Faith Hathaway. They were horrified, offended that Sister Helen would help the man convicted of Faith’s murder without talking to her surviving family first.

To Sister Helen, the justice system that set out to kill a man labeled murderer only perpetuated evil, in a chain of events that began with an abusive childhood, glorification of violence, and mistaking vengeance for justice. It’s a system where race, place and poverty have more impact on outcomes than do the needs of the victims. The poor and people of color get death, while the rich and the white get life, unless the murder is really grotesque, as Bill’s was. Sentences seem capricious, varying wildly from one jurisdiction to the next.

Sister Helen’s goal for Willie was to help him atone for his passive role in the murder, and all of his other sins. Her goal for herself was to assume responsibility for her own role in the system of evil, and the Hathaway family taught her how to address the whole system. When that woman spit in my face, I learned the same lesson. The names of the murderers matter to me, but now? The names I remember are the names of the victims.

I have to say here that this is a place where I disagree with Sister Helen. I’m not concerned with the atonement of others, nor am I concerned about whether or not they find peace, or a place in their version of a Heaven I’m not sure I believe in. What I’m concerned with is that we all…as a collective, as a nation, as a faith community…live into the promise of what we can be, our most compassionate selves, that we may become a world that sees justice as making the victim whole again as much as possible, that allows for forgiveness and nobility.

My hope is to be like the teacher in this morning’s service, Abu Dhur. I’m not sure that I would ever risk my own freedom for a complete stranger. I wouldn’t even risk my own freedom for Bill. But one thing I know is that in trying to live my life as publicly as I can within my own values, I can be the calm presence that invites each of us to see our own effect on social structures that seem to be so prone to escalating sins into evil.

My job is the same job Martin Luther King Jr had: to develop and maintain the capacity to forgive; to recognize that the terrible deeds of an enemy never quite express all that he is; and to win the friendship and trust of my enemies. In the tradition of Ghandi, King sought --and I seek --to end oppression by de-escalating the cycles of violence that make it possible: the violence of dehumanizing the other, the violence of racism, violence against women and children, the violence of economic systems in which the unimaginably wealthy are allowed to exploit the devastatingly poor. My job is to find the good where no good seems to exist.

Kathleen Norris is one of my favorite spiritual writers. She’s a poet. She has an English degree, not a theological degree, but the essays in her book Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith bring to life theological concepts that religious liberals often find challenging. She writes, “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed, and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.”

Let me repeat that: “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed, and take us places where we didn’t know we didn’t want to go.”

Grace exists in the dark and scary places of the world. Grace is deepening relationships with each other by going into murky and scary conflict, instead of avoiding it. Grace is being plunged into the fire of despair and rising up stronger.

My friend Cathy found grace in the most horrific way you can imagine. Cathy is a UU minister, a colleague I know from seminary and from our work in the streets of San Francisco. Two months into her first settled ministry and just two weeks before her ordination, Cathy’s 26-year old daughter Leslie was brutally murdered. Leslie was an amazing young woman, a brilliant beauty queen with a bright future, ended by the boyfriend of her roommate.

Cathy, as you can imagine, was devastated. She writes, “When you lose a child it’s like a nuclear bomb has dropped. Your world becomes a barren landscape where nothing grows. It’s as if all your landmarks are gone and you don’t know where you are anymore.”

Those of us who knew her were afraid that Cathy wouldn’t survive the devastation. At first, her sons begged her not to protest the death penalty, while the media portrayed Leslie as having invited her own murder. Cathy did the one thing she could think to do, and that was to contact Sr. Helen Prejean, who suggested she write Leslie’s story. The writing helped Cathy, as she imaged how horrible it must have been to be the murderer’s mother. When the two women finally met, they were so shocked by how much they looked alike, they embraced and wept.

Though the path has been hard, Cathy has found new life, dedicating herself and her ministry to campaigning for a fairer judicial system, one that puts the needs of the victims first, one that allows space for forgiveness and healing, rather focusing on a moment of vengeance in the form of an execution.

I’ve spoken to Cathy at length about her process of healing, but not about this thought, so I don’t want to ascribe to her notions that may not ring true. But it seems to me that in Cathy’s work, there is an element here related to Susan Neiman’s idea about Jews and genocide, and it’s this: the survivor of a violent crime reflecting on the universality of her situation. She lost one of the three people she loved most in the world, and saw herself in the mother of the murderer.

She faced the evil created by the multiple and multi-faceted sins of glorifying violence, ignoring the needs of the mentally ill, and blaming female victims. Though she may never be able to forgive Leslie’s murderer, she found a wellspring of compassion for him and his family, enough that she and her sons advocated for him to get two consecutive life sentences without chance for parole, thereby avoiding a trial and execution.

Through all of this, Cathy has had the opportunity to delve into the criminal justice system, one that Michelle Alexander describes as the New Jim Crow, a system in which men of color are disproportionately imprisoned for minor drug crimes, creating a lost generation in the name of safety.

Last weekend, at UU Justice Ohio’s annual assembly, Terry Collins, former director of the Ohio Department of Rehabillitation and Corrections, a man who has escorted dozens of men to their executions, talked about how he changed his stance on the death penalty. He saw innocent men released, sometimes days before their executions, and he saw how sentences depended more on race, place and poverty than anything else. But mostly, he changed his stance because he saw how the death penalty creates a second set of victims: the families of the dead, all of whom are promised closure and release, which never come.

Cathy’s devastating pain has allowed her to see her own complicity in a broken judicial system – a complicity each of us shares when we are inactive in addressing the brokenness. The loss of her daughter, and seeing herself in the mother of the man who took her daughter away, has forced into seeing herself in the shortcomings of others. 
That’s the great thing about being here in community together. As we engage in an exchange of ideas, rooted in the belief in the dignity of all people, we are challenged to rise up from the conflagration of sin, that fire of evil systems, and create change. We can look at the incredible capacity for forgiveness in people like Cathy, and begin the process of finding it in ourselves, and for each other.

That’s the thing about organizations of humans. We make mistakes, mistakes we can’t see until long after we make them. We all behave badly when we don’t know any other way to behave, and sometimes, we go along with things that just don’t feel right, because we don’t know what else to do. And so, we hurt each other.

Quite a few people in the last three months have said to me, “I know we pledge ourselves every Sunday to not think alike but to walk together. But I don’t know what that means.”

This is what it means: you’re never going to agree about everything with everyone. Just like I know there are people sitting here right now who are still very strongly in support of capital punishment. And that’s okay. The important thing is that we are in conversation, respectful of each other’s stories, and engaged in the conversation that allows each of us to grow, making space for more.

Our pledge is about commitment to inclusion and diversity. We may not have a lot of ethnic diversity here, but we have diversity of opinions and experience, and we can learn from that. If we show up, and stick together.

May it be so.

Event type
Worship Service