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Dignity

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Jan 10

Texts: Isaiah 43:1-7 , Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22

As I read through our scriptures for today, I could not help but call to mind the theme of dignity!

Isaiah: But now thus says the LORD, he who created you…God who formed you…Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Dignity!  The dignity that is ours whenever we remember that we are creatures and creations of our God, the dignity that comes with having a name.

Isaiah again: When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  

Dignity!  The dignity that is ours through our ongoing relationship and connectedness with God.

From Isaiah once more --  Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.  And echoed again, through what is accorded to Jesus and so to us, in Luke:  "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Dignity! The dignity that comes from being loved, from knowing that we are loved, deeply, uniquely and preciously.

For some, these basic reminders may be helpful and needed chin-up reminder of self-worth!  For others here today, given our privilege, we may forget our need for these and take for granted our own dignity.  But words like these from scripture are what form the theological basis of our God-given Dignity, as people of faith and as human beings.

I’m indebted to my colleague, the Rev. Ray Hammond, for a deeper understanding of the broader theme of dignity, and also to Donna Hicks, who wrote a terrific book recently called: Dignity: Its Essential Role in Resolving Conflict.  I heard them both speak not long ago at Hebrew College at a conference hosted by our partners at Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries.  

Hicks’ definition is this:  “Dignity is an internal state of peace that comes with recognition and acceptance of the value and vulnerability of every living thing.”  

She goes on to say:  “Dignity is different from respect. Dignity is a birthright. We have little trouble seeing this when a child is born; there is no question about children’s value and worth. If only we could hold onto this truth about human beings as they grow into adults, if only we could continue to feel their value, then it would be so much easier to treat them well and keep them safe from harm. Treating others with dignity, then, becomes the baseline for our interactions. We must treat others as if they matter, as if they are worthy of care and attention.”

It's a fitting theme for a baptism Sunday, don’t you think?  Dignity!  For when we baptize, especially when we baptize a child, there is clearly no question about a child’s value and worth!   When we baptize, whether a child or an adult, there is no question about value and worth because we explicitly honor that God is our maker, that God calls us each by name, that God calls us each beloved! The sacrament, this “visible sign of God’s invisible grace,” teaches us that we ought never take for granted our dignity or the dignity of any other child of God. Each one, special, uniquely gifted and loved.  A favorite translation of the passage from Isaiah, shared with me by a retired Old Testament professor friend, drives the point home. He says the line from Isaiah is better read -- “because you are precious and many-splendored and I love you”.  Don’t you love it?  The old guy gave me that once, those very words on a page, all blown up in a fancy font.  “Because you are precious and many splendored and I love you.” It was his way of saying that he had grown to love me, and the feeling was mutual I assure you.  More deeply, it was his way of honoring and reminding me my God given dignity!  What a profound gift dignity is.  It’s a gift of that invisible grace and no one can ever take it away! At our baptism, this gift is for keeps!  It’s sealed forever, as our liturgy goes!   In baptism, we remind beautiful Stella, and her parents, that she is precious and many splendored and that Gods love her, forever, no if’s, and’s or but’s.

Pushing our theme a bit further, I’m grateful to Pastor Ray for introducing me to two levels of dignity.  Speaking about the role of dignity in racial justice movements, he said:  “One is the recognition of the intrinsic dignity of all people, and especially those whose dignity, even humanity, had been denied because of race. Some scholars, like Pablo Gilabert in his paper, Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Power, call this status-dignity. This is dignity as a birthright.”  But, Pastor Ray, continued:  “Racial justice movements have also focused on dignity as ‘a social condition of persons in which their human rights are fulfilled.’”

Though Ray didn’t say this, I see this dignity as a matter of recognition.  And dignity as a matter of shared responsibility.  Again, the latter is a dignity that comes as  “a social condition of persons in which their human rights are fulfilled.”  

Part of what is so disturbing and heartbreaking about our national discourse of fear and division and othering is that there are way too many if’s ands or buts when we try to remember one another’s dignity!   If we are lucky we may hear some lip-service to status dignity!  It too often comes though with an if or a but..  Yes, as I see the dignity of that person of color, but I wish they would tone down their anger about race in America, or if only they would get a job.  Yes, I see the dignity of that Syrian refugee, but I’m more concerned about my own security. Yes, I see the dignity of that woman, but it's the way of the world that she’s not making what her male counterparts are making.  No! No! No! And here’s where recognizing dignity as a birthright is not enough!  

Dignity is about recognition!  But it’s also about shared responsibility for changing the world, and changing social conditions so there are no if’s or buts!  This is why our baptism would be incomplete without the promises we all make to nurture, love and support beloved Stella and her family!  It’s a commitment to her dignity which is not merely a question of saying it once – you are beloved!   I believe something transcendent, something holy and mysterious and transformative happens in the moment of baptism. That’s God’s work. Yet it also marks a beginning of our work, the work it takes to clear the path for her dignity to be realized, for her rights to be fulfilled, and for unique gifts to flourish!  It means working for a world where there is no wage gap.  For that matter, it means working for a world where she can be free to choose her gender identity, to choose her lovers, a world free of fear of violence, a world where she and her friends can play safely in the streets!

This brings me to another contemporary issue that I’d be remiss not mention at the end of this week.  First, speaking of recognition, finally this week, President Obama stepped up and used the power of his office, not merely to pastor the country in moments of heartache and grief following mass shootings.  His tears this week were clearly a sign of his recognition of the birthright dignity of every child, youth, adult and family member impacted by the scourge of gun violence in our country.  This week, however, he also took steps towards shared responsibility to change the social conditions that allow for human rights to be fulfilled.  I’m talking about the right to live past the first grade!  The right to walk out your door with a feeling of safety, to go to a movie or to go school without fear of being shot.  I’m talking about the right to even go to a school that is worthy of the name, the right to decent healthcare and mental healthcare, the right to get a job, all of which if realized in our urban centers and elsewhere could statistically decrease the currently 33,000 lives that are lost to gun-related suicides and homicides in our country.

Finally, Obama took action, and I would also be remiss if I did not recognize our part in calling him to that shared responsibility.  Through our work with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, and its umbrella group MetroIAF,  I have been leading a gun violence prevention team and working with colleagues across the country on a campaign called Do Not Stand Idly By (from the line in Leviticus – Do not Stand Idly by the Blood of your neighbors.) At our recent gun violence forum after church, many of your heard about this campaign in which we have worked for nearly two years to bring local, state and federal government and law enforcement to the table to leverage their enormous buying power when it comes to guns. We’ve done our work locally to get Mayor Walsh, Attorney General Healey and 7 others local police chiefs and mayors to sign on to this campaign.  And, for months, with other leads in DC, Baltimore, New Jersey, New York and Chicago, we’ve been pressing the Whitehouse as well, the big fish which doles out huge contracts to the gun industry.  This week was a major breakthrough for us when Obama began speaking about pressuring the industry to do research and development on life-saving technology, technology that could ensure that guns are only used by their rightful owner, as opposed to by those who would steal them, or children who would use them and fire them accidentally.  That was our pressure at work.  We know this from allies in the Senate working behind the scenes and we know this because two of our leaders from DC were at the town hall meeting on Thursday! And it’s only just beginning!  Think of it how long it took to get the auto industry to adapt the life saving technology of seatbelts!

As with Dignity, when it comes to making real and lasting systemic change happen, the first step is recognition!  One needs to be recognized, known by name, and invited to the table (like we do at our Friday Café!).  And then, amazing things can be begin to happen when we engage in shared responsibility for one another’s well-being.

But I want to press this issue and its connection to dignity even deeper.  Can we, just for a moment I wonder, imagine dignity as the basis of a conversation with a gun-owning NRA member? Can we, as relatively liberal congregation with a strong witness for gun control and against gun violence, imagine honoring the dignity of a gun-owning NRA member who is hell bent on resisting everything the President just said.  Can we imagine for a moment that this person values the dignity of all humanity, as I believe many NRA members fully believe that they do.  Can we imagine that this person grieves as much as we did after Newtown or this past Thursday as we read the names of those killed by gun violence in our city this year, as I believe many NRA members do.  I wonder too, if can we imagine with compassion, that this person sees gun control measures as a threat to their dignity, a threat because, rightly or wrongly, they hold the 2nd Amendment as a fundamental human right. A threat, because they fear their dignity will not be honored as a result of the social condition of gun control.  Before y’all boo me out the pulpit, I’m just saying that in this country, in the midst of such divisive rhetoric and other-ing, whether about Mexican immigrants, or Muslims, or the NRA, it behooves us, especially when we think or know we are right on a given issue, to not lose sight of that birthright and socially conditioned dignity of everyone!  This is the hard work of the gospel, friends. This is what can distinguish our church’s witness and mission from the shrill voices on the right or the left that are not listening to each other because there seems to be no basic recognition of one another’s dignity, no effort even to do what Jesus calls us to do and to love our enemies.  

It behooves us to model what we learn here at our baptisms – that dignity is both a recognition of our God given belovedness and of our responsibility to every other child of God.   Even Wayne LaPierre, the head of the NRA, even Gaston Glock, Ugo Berretta, James Debney, the CEO’s of Glock, Beretta, and Smith and Wesson respectively.  As inhuman as these figures may appear to some, they too are God’s children, in need of God’s redemptive love just like the rest of us.  

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Jesus’s very next move after his baptism in the gospels is to face the devil (for over 40 days in the wilderness) before he begins his public ministry in the Galilee. But it is at that baptism, where he learns his God given dignity, his belovedness, that he finds his deepest conviction that he needs to remember the dignity of every person, even the one who would betray him, even the one who would sentence him, even those who would crucify.  He never forgot the lessons of his baptism, and neither can we.

Because God is with you through the waters and fires!
Because you are precious, and many splendored and God loves you!  
Because you are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased!  

May these words bring inner peace to our souls, and may they agitate our shared responsibility. May it be so for Stella. May it be so for each of us. May it be so for all of God’s Creation. Amen.

Hicks, Donna (2011-09-06). Dignity: The Essential Role It Plays in Resolving Conflict (p. 4). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

Pablo Gilabert. “Human Rights, Human Dignity, and Power” DRAFT. The final version appeared in The Philosophical Foundations of Human Rights, eds. R. Cruft, M. Liao, M. Renzo (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) I’m quoting from the draft version at file:///C:/Users/Ray/Downloads/Human-Rights-Human-Dignity-and-Power-OUP-volume-draft-revised-to-share.pdf. Found 17-Nov-15

Ibid. p. 1

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