If you have ever entered this sanctuary through the doors right behind me, perhaps you have looked left just before passing through. If so, you will have seen a beautiful metal sculpture of the phoenix.
Have you seen it?
I love it because it says three things about who we are. First of all, it reminds us we are not just any congregation but Atlanta’s congregation. The phoenix is not just this congregation’s symbol but the symbol of our great city, burned up in the fires of the Civil War but reborn into even greater beauty than before.
The phoenix also reminds us about a time when this congregation failed the test of justice, and died as a result. It was 1947, and the minister at the time invited an African American to start participating. The minister also preached vehemently against racial discrimination. But that didn’t stop a majority of the congregation to vote to exclude the African American from membership. We failed the test of justice. The congregation came apart. It lost its minister and its building and its way. But out of these ashes came a congregation renewed in its sense of mission. We were reborn as an intentionally racially integrated congregation—the first ever in Atlanta—and that’s when things really took off for us.
As we continue contending with white supremacy—as we go deeper and deeper into our commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism, remember the phoenix. It is central to our history as a congregation.
I love that metal sculpture, which UUCA member Tony Borra crafted with his own hands. It tells us we are Atlanta’s; it reminds us about a key part of our congregational story; and, third, it proclaims a vision of life that is central to Unitarian Universalist theology: that each and every person has worth and dignity no matter what; that tragedy never needs to be the very last word; that no matter how burned-out bad it can get, there’s always still hope.
Spiritual teacher Elizabeth Lesser likes to speak of what she calls the “Phoenix Process,” which is just another name for the transformational journey that every culture on earth has spoken of, at all times: the Odyssey, the Grail Quest, the hero’s journey, and on and on. “All of these names,” she says, “describe the process of surrendering to a time of great difficulty, allowing the pain to break us open and then being reborn—stronger, wiser, kinder.”
But it takes courage. When everything is ashes, it feels horrible. The worship series we are concluding today spoke to several varieties of this: the pressures that youth today face; the insane traffic we have to deal with; the pollution and degradation of our natural world; the information overload that exhausts and demoralizes us. It takes courage to face these ashes of burnout and to believe it can get better.
But this morning, Easter morning, and the morning after our Passover Seder from last night, we renew our courage, we renew our embrace of the Phoenix Process. Freedom in the Promised Land born out of the ashes of all the years of slavery in Egypt. Communities of Christian love born out of the ashes of Jesus’ crucifixion. The beauty of the Flower Celebration born out of the ashes of Norbert Capek’s persecution and death during World War II.
This is all Phoenix Process.
“In my own worst seasons,” says writer Barbra Kingsolver, “I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again. Like a stroke victim retraining new parts of the brain to grasp lost skills, I have taught myself joy, over and over again.”
Did you know that it was the Greek historian Herodotus who, after his travels in Egypt, introduced the legend of the phoenix to Western culture? This was back in the fifth century BCE—that’s 2500 years ago. He tells his readers of the many new, fantastic beasts Egypt introduced him to, including the crocodile, the hippopotamus, and the phoenix. “They have,” he writes, “another sacred bird called the phoenix, which I have never seen, except in pictures. Indeed, it is a great rarity, even in Egypt.” But now listen carefully to what Herodotus says next: “They tell a story of what this bird does, which does not seem to me to be credible.”
Herodotus is not a believer. But we can be believers, even if the phoenix doesn’t literally exist. Because we can teach ourselves joy, over and over again. Because we can do that. Because
people are rebuilding shattered schools and restoring lifeless lakes,
people are knitting reconciliation out of promise and pain,
people are singing to the deathly ill and the newly born,
constitutions are still being written,
and slaves freed, and truces forged.
Because–from out of the ashes, eventually, a tiny worm comes, creeping its way slowly forwards; and then it becomes a chick; and then it becomes the fully reborn phoenix in all its glory.
The bird that was here when the world began and is still living today.
That bird lives in your heart, and in mine.