It’s March 6th, 2011. When I was a child, about 50 years ago, I saw a two and a half hour movie called “The Alamo” directed by an upstart named John Wayne, who also had one of the lead roles as the legendary Davy Crockett. That movie portrayed a story, a fictionalized version, of course, a story of a small group of about 150 adventurers and idealists who were in temporary possession of a tiny mission outpost at the center of a little village called San Antonio.
This group of men, who would now probably be called “insurgents, ” had seized and fortified this outpost on behalf of a few thousand English-speaking white settlers in territory claimed by Mexico. These settlers called themselves “Americans” or “Texians”. The Texians, under the leadership of a self-styled General, Sam Houston from Tennessee, had only recently declared their own independence from the Spanish-speaking government of Mexico. Not surprisingly, the Mexican government refused to accept that declaration and sent their own general, Santa Anna, to crush the incipient revolution.
On Feb. 25th of 1836, Santa Anna’s army of several thousand showed up and surrounded the Alamo mission and sent a demand for surrender to Col. William Barrett Travis, the commander, who was under orders to delay the Mexican army so that the recently commissioned immigrant from Tennessee, former Senator, and now General Sam Houston, would have more time to assemble a larger group of volunteer soldiers.
In refusing the order to surrender, Travis and his tiny group knew that it was only a matter of time before they would be overcome by the superior force they were facing, but he held out with the hope of massive reinforcement from Sam Houston.
As the story has been told over and over in multiple heroic versions, the tiny group of Texians held out for 10 long days and nights before finally being overrun on Sunday morning, March 6th, 1836. It was only the first notable battle and one of only a couple of actual defeats of the gringo guerrillas in what became the very short war of Texas independence.
Less than two months later, on April 25th, Sam Houston’s superior tactics overcame Santa Anna’s more conventional strategy at the final battle of that war at San Jacinto, on the eastern outskirts of what was later named the town of Houston. But it was said that the real advantage of the Texian insurgents was their motivation, their solidarity in their sense of being “on their own soil”, among comrades who shared their identity in this new land they were claiming against a foreign nation, as they shouted to each other, “Remember the Alamo!” Of course, the facts were actually otherwise: almost all of the Texians were really recent immigrants from a foreign country themselves, but they didn’t see it that way, did they?
This film was a retelling of a story which clearly had the quality of a mythic struggle. To some degree, it provided the underlying basis for the developing identity of the United States, adding to earlier myths like the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, the midnight ride of Paul Revere on April 18, 1775, the winter George Washington’s ragtag army spent at Valley Forge, and the Xmas Eve victory after crossing of the Delaware, and the Civil War battle of Gettysburg. All of which had some elements of fiction AND fact.
In short, these signal moments in war history have been remembered, and through our national and cultural memories, we have developed our national identity.
Those moments in our collective memories of history tell us stories about who we are as a people.
Yesterday afternoon, Nina and I took advantage of the relatively warm and sunny day to walk through our churchyard, the original Kingston Town graveyard, and on down the hill through the adjacent Evergreen cemetery. Many of the inscriptions on the older slate and concrete markers are illegible now, so the identities of those early settlers are physically obliterated. Their roles in the growth and development of this town may or may not be known through documentary means, through birth and death records, official deed records, family Bibles, or other evidence.
But we know that for perhaps a half-dozen generations beginning in 1717 well into the next century, most, if not all, of those people who lived and worked in this town, were OUR people, at least in name. Because this was THE church of Kingston.
It was only later that this NEEDED to be called the FIRST parish, when a tiny group of folks who said, about 1801, that they objected to being taxed to support ANY church, and they went about 100 yards down Main Street and formed The Kingston Baptist church.
THIS church continued to be the church of the establishment, literally, for yet another couple of dozen years, until the Unitarian heresy became an issue. This was when the liberal theology professors at Harvard taught their student ministers that the Bible did not explicitly reveal how Jesus could be elevated to the same status as God the Father. So another group of folks refused to accept that question or its logical inference, and hopscotched down Main Street another 100 yards to build the Mayflower Christian Church to persist in calling their own Minister who agreed with THEM.
But the remaining members of THIS church, the Unitarian one, continued to consider themselves as the TRUE church, even though they insisted on the inclusion of “liberal ideals” from other religious thought, even the transcendentalist perspective about nature as a direct inspiration of God was also important.
But who or what we are was still a question that needed to be asked and answered over and over again. For well over 100 years, our children were taught the catechism that “Unitarian Christianity is devoted to the perfection of man, the religion of Jesus and the worship of God.”
Even 50 years ago, on the eve of merger with the more explicitly Christian Universalist Church of America, leaders of what was then called the American Unitarian Association were debating about the clear differences between them. It seemed that many of the Unitarians who embraced theological diversity on the one hand, also asked for less emphasis on Jesus and more emphasis on Humanism.
“Whose Are We?” My colleague and friend Sarah Lammert, who is now the Director of our UUA Department of Ministry & Professional Leadership, asked that question in a sermon she published to all our clergy last year.
Sarah wrote: “On one occasion, a Roman Catholic priest was telling the story of his career development. He said that his life had been in large measure a failure. He remembered the exciting days of the liberation from dogma represented by the Vatican II conference and the pope’s pronouncement of a new vision for the faith, and how hopeful he and his generation of liberal priests had been that real change was coming to the church he loved so dearly.
”And yet; these many years later he felt that the Catholic church had become hardened and deeply conservative, and his dreams had not been realized.
Now, this priest was someone who was valued among his colleagues, and they were somewhat stunned by his revelation. And yet; one colleague noted, despite the severity of his words, his demeanor seemed quite peaceful and content. “How can you claim that 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.”’
Whose are we? Whose are we, we who claim so many diverse approaches to what is of ultimate truth, and yet gather as a unified one? Whose are we?
What or who do we serve, beyond the narrow interests of ourselves? What transcends our small individual being, connecting us to the pulsing life of the universe we are a part of? Is it energy, is it God, is it Love or Justice, is it the people who surround us, the cloud of witnesses whose lives passed before us? Whose are we?
This question became a major thread in the continuing conversation among our ministers about the future education of our ministers as well as our lay leaders.
More from my friend Sarah, and others: “It is easy to lose sight of the fact that we belong to something beyond ourselves.” “There is something larger than us (or something which both transcends and includes us), yet we find that this is difficult to express.”
“Yes,” agreed a colleague, “and sometimes it is something that congregations find difficult to hear. The language that we use to express some of the experiences and concepts (and how we understand our own theology) can be frightening, trigger baggage, AND invoke reactivity in our congregations. Unitarian Universalists love diversity,” “it’s difference we have trouble with.” Many of us have difficulty with the use of words and traditions that have great power and meaning to others.
We deny the need for baptism, because most of us don’t believe in original sin, or the concept of Hell.
Many of us have trouble with both the symbols and meanings of communion because it has been given so much importance as a literal ingestion of the body and blood of a Christ, as a physical connection to a paternal God that we don’t all believe in.
So we avoid the practice, even though we might participate in bringing Prasad, holy gifts of food blessed by a priest, to a shrine we visit in India or Thailand, knowing that it is entirely symbolic to US.
We put up with the celebration of a virgin birth at Xmas as a cultural phenomenon even though many of us can’t believe that it was literally true.
We avoid the practices of Lent because of the supposed mystical connection with the idea of the sacrifice of that Christ and his mythical story of Resurrection in a physical form after death.
But we may joyfully join in the excitement and revelry of Mardi Gras, knowing that it signals that the next day begins Ash Wednesday and the start of 40 days of Lenten sacrifice.
We could, charitably, at least be called a little inconsistent about such things. But what IS our identity?
Victoria Safford, another one of my colleagues serving in Minnesota, follows this up when she asked another interesting set of ultimate questions. She wrote: the ancient question, “What am I?” inevitably leads to a deeper one, “Whose am I?” – because there is no identity outside of relationships. You can’t be a [whole] person by yourself.
To ask “Whose Am I?” is to extend the questions far beyond the little self-absorbed self, and wonder: Who needs you? Who loves you? To whom are you accountable?
To whom do you answer? Whose life is altered by your choices?
With whose life, whose lives, is your own all bound up, inextricably, in obvious or invisible ways?
Whose are we? Each of us comes from such different roots, each with such different stories. Some of us resonate deeply with Judaism, carry the bones of the Torah inside of our DNA. Others, like me, can still recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory although we have left behind the Christian story as central to our spiritual lives. Still others among us were schooled in Hinduism, Islam, Humanism, or an amalgam of traditions and beliefs. Whose are we, and what draws us together?
So, whose are we? Whose are we as we dream, as we fail, as we dream anew? Whose are we as we grow, as we live our daily lives, as we encounter grave challenges of health and fiscal well being, as we wonder what the future will bring?
Whose are we as we raise our children, as we release them into the world, as we mourn those we love who die, as we ourselves face the fact of our own mortality?
Whose are we in a world that seems upside down, filled with violence and depravation and oppression?
Whose are we in world that is at the same time brimming with beauty, potential, freedom, and love? Some of us look to nature like Thoreau or Emerson.
Some of us imagine that service brings us to the Divine, like Clara Barton or Mother Teresa. “When we all serve one another, then our heaven is begun.” Some of us look to humankind for greater meaning. What puts us in touch with the best side of ourselves?
And some of us lose ourselves in music, in the arts, in silent meditation, finding there the larger tapestry of which we ourselves are merely a strand. However we name the transcendent, however we speak to this great presence, however we honor it or envision it, kneel humbly in its presence or stand tall, holding out our hand, our lives are contained in something larger – something that comes through us, lives with us, and connects us to a greater whole.
If we cannot make ourselves vulnerable enough to speak of such things, if we muffle one another’s expression of the holy, or of that which stirs us and moves us to want to love more fully, we do damage to one another as whole human beings. If we ignore the transcendent, never pausing long enough to fill the cup of our being, we do damage to ourselves as whole human beings.
Whose are we? Ponder such things in your heart. Serve what is good. Love what is true.
Take time for your own spiritual practice, whatever feeds your soul.
Do justice, like Clark Olson and James Reeb when they responded to Martin Luther King’s call to join him in Selma on March 7th, 1965. James Reeb lost his life that week when he and Clark and another Unitarian Universalist minister were beaten after their participation in the next march. And even when you cannot pray, Remember, we ARE All One. Benediction: a poem by Georgy
“Always remember to forget The things that made you sad.
But never forget to remember The things that made you glad.
Always remember to forget The friends that proved untrue.
But never forget to remember Those that have stuck by you.
Always remember to forget The troubles that passed away.
But never forget to remember The blessings that come each day.”
AND NEVER FORGET to remember whose you are.
Go in peace and find the path which will make you proud of your tribe. Amen, and May WE be Blessed.