Our ministry theme for March is surrender. In reviewing my past sermons on this theme, I notice a tendency in me—and not only in me, but among Unitarian Universalists and liberal religious people in general, among at least some of the American Buddhist and Yoga bloggers, and certainly on self-help bookshelves —a tendency to speak and write about surrender as this wonderful, liberating act that fills you with peace and joy. All you have to do is let go. All you have to do is be present, be in the moment, go with the flow, let what is yearning to emerge emerge, let the world be the world, accept that you don’t have control over outcomes, be soft, be gentle, bow down, bend in the wind, move with the current, yield, remain quiet. It’s all good advice—solid, sound spiritual wisdom. I often ground it in a reference to the ancient Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu, who writes in Chapter 22 of the Tao-te Ching “To yield [i.e, to surrender] is to be preserved whole.” But there’s a risk in offering this advice. The risk, always, is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly easy. The risk is that we provide a kind of false hope. How does one let go when holding on for dear life?
I am thankful to Penny Field for coordinating last week’s service on addiction. To the addict, the advice to just let go, just be present, just accept that you don’t have control over outcomes isn’t wrong, but on one level it’s laughable, because surrender in the context of addiction is so exceedingly difficult. And it’s not just addiction. Surrendering to illness is difficult. Surrendering to loss and grief are difficult. Surrendering to the need to work on a relationship or to accept the reality of a broken relationship: difficult. Surrendering to the need to make major life changes—career changes, retirement, relationship changes, moving to a new community, becoming a parent: difficult. Surrendering to the need to accept and be and proclaim who you really are, even when the people in your life don’t accept you and won’t support you: difficult. The advice is always good—just let go, be present to what is, let what is yearning to emerge, emerge—but the risk is that we make what is exceedingly difficult sound exceedingly simple.
Prior to my mini-sabbatical this past month, Mary Bopp and I were talking about how to address surrender differently, how to speak about surrender in a way that accounts for how difficult it can be. Mary reminded me that engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience is an act of surrender. People who engage in nonviolent civil disobedience have made a decision to accept the consequences of their actions, including—historically and today—harassment, harsh language, having people spit in their face, beatings, firehoses, police dogs, bombings, jail time, death threats and even, at times, death. As they accept the consequences of their actions without retaliating, they are committing acts of surrender. And the hope at the heart of their surrender is that their actions will dramatize the injustice in a particular social, economic or political system, and thereby create conditions that will force that system to change. Change comes as a result of someone—or some ones—engaging in acts of surrender. Hence the title of this sermon, “Surrender: A Path to Power.”
This idea of nonviolent civil disobedience as surrender came home to me a few years ago, when Bishop John Selders, the co-founder of Moral Monday CT—a leading Black Lives Matter organization in our state—and a good friend to this congregation, was talking about why a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience was necessary now. I’m not quoting him exactly, but he essentially pointed out that we all move through our lives and the world in the midst of profound injustice. We can identify a thousand different—though often related—injustices in the wider world when we put our minds to it. It’s not as if we who can identify injustice don’t try to do anything about it. We do. Many of us are quite willing and able to call or write a letter to an elected official, attend a city council meeting, participate in a rally or march, testify at the legislature on an important bill, make a donation, help settle a refugee family, etc. But even when we take these actions, so often their ultimate outcome is much less than we’d hoped for. So often we take our actions in good faith, month after month, year after year, and find ourselves still living in the midst of profound injustice. Bishop Selders was making the point that the way we engage matters. He was noticing that too often we take our actions in such a way that we maintain our own standing in society. We stay respectable. We express our concerns to those in power but we don’t hold them accountable. We don’t create any real tension. We don’t take genuine risks. And nothing really changes. He said—and this is a quote—“I can’t live like that anymore.”
It’s relatively easy to talk to a legislator about a bill. It’s relatively easy to march. We can do these things without too much risk to ourselves or our way of life. It is something else entirely to use one’s body to break a law in order to dramatize an injustice and, as a result, risk physical harm, fines, jail, etc. Moving from a willingness to engage in low-risk actions for social justice to a willingness to engage in high-risk actions for social justice requires surrender. The person who is willing to use their body to conduct nonviolent civil disobedience surrenders their attachment to whatever comfort they have in life, to whatever standing they have in society, and to the possibility that they will suffer violence in retaliation for their actions. That’s essentially what Bishop Selders was saying: I don’t want to live my life in a way that ultimately supports the status quo. I am ready to take bigger risks. I am ready to surrender for the sake of a more just society. And I am trusting the counter-intuitive proposition that through acts of surrender I will gain the power to change society.
I began reading up on people who famously organized nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. As I read, I noticed a common dimension in those campaigns that is rarely discussed when we recount the histories: self purification. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.” When he later described how they conducted self purification as part of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, he says: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community. Mindful of the difficulties involved, we decided to undertake a process of self purification. We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’” He doesn’t indicate that they prayed together or sang together as part of self purification, but I suspect both prayer and song were part of the process.
I looked for examples of self purification in the nonviolent campaigns of Mahatma Gandhi. I haven’t yet found instances of Gandhi using that term specifically, but he clearly engaged in disciplined spiritual preparation before taking action. In a book entitled Prophets of a Just Society, the historian and political scientist, Jake C. Miller says about Gandhi’s movement that “while there were many who gave lip-service to the doctrine of nonviolence, fewer were willing to undergo the suffering that was involved in its implementation. Although it was easy to talk about replacing hatred with love, some protestors were not able to meet the challenge when they came face to face with grave provocation. Thus, in order to ensure the success of civil disobedience as a weapon, it was necessary to prepare would-be-protesters for the difficult role they were expected to play. Self purification was regarded as essential in this process. Fasting, meditating and praying were essential components in Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolent resistance. He perceived fasting and similar acts of discipline as a means of self-restraint, but he insisted that if physical fasting is not accompanied by mental fasting, it is bound to end in hypocrisy and disaster.”
Self purification—this preparation, this getting ready, this praying, fasting, meditating, singing, studying, this fortifying oneself, steeling oneself, bracing oneself, grounding oneself—this is not itself an act of surrender. Self purification is prelude to successful surrender. Self purification produces surrender that is more likely to result in change, more likely to have power in the world.
I wonder: in our various discussions of all the other ways we need to surrender at certain times in our lives, do we speak of a distinct self purification component? I usually don’t. But how radically would it alter the typical spiritual advice on surrender if we spoke first of self purification? Instead of the usual catch-alls—“just let go” or “just go with the flow” or “just be present to whatever happens”—how different would it sound and feel if the spiritual advice focused on practices of self purification before acts of surrender? Mindful that letting go, going with the flow, being present can be enormously painful, frightening, overwhelming, might we more effectively approach that real pain and fear and stress by engaging in self purification first—by praying some kind of sacred prayer, making some kind of sacred vow, bathing in some sacred waters, singing some sacred song, dancing some sacred dance, sitting in some sacred silence first? We surrender old ways so that we may take on new ways—new ways of living, thinking, feeling, being. We surrender not for petty reasons but because we desperately need to make a change. So instead of the catch-alls, which, the more I contemplate them just sound trite and platitudinous, what if the person seeking surrender were advised to perform a ritual of self purification, a symbolic emptying out of the old and a welcoming in of the new, an enactment of the transition to a new reality as a precursor to actual surrender?
I read to you earlier from the Buddhacarita, the chronicles of the life of the Buddha written by the first century Indian priest, Ashyaghosha. I read the passage in which Siddhārtha Gautama sits beneath the Bodhi tree with the goal of attaining enlightenment. In this passage he is on the verge of a deeply profound act of surrender. He is surrendering his attachment to his experience of having a self. He is letting go of his self, literally going with the flow. What stood out to me reading the passage this time is that he didn’t just sit down and surrender. He sat down and made a vow. He fortified himself before his actual surrender. This vow feels to me like an act of self purification. And looking at it through that lens, there’s also a resonance with the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights movement, especially the practice of the sit-in. Ashyaghosha writes “He then adopted the cross-legged posture, which is the best of all, because so immovable…. And he said to himself: ‘I shall not change … my position so long as I have not done what I set out to do!’”
I am also mindful of Jesus, on the night before his crucifixion, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions and his ministry, wracked with fear and anxiety, preparing to surrender not just to the authorities but to his death on the cross. What does he do? He prays. Matthew 26: 39 in the Christian New Testament says, “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.’” This prayer is not the act of surrender; it is self purification prior to surrender.
In the Hebrew scriptures, Exodus 3, Moses encounters a burning bush in the desert, and notices the flames do not consume the bush. He wants to look more closely. If you know the story, you know God is about to call him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites from bondage. Moses eventually surrenders to this call. But the burning bush is prelude to surrender. And what does he do? He takes off his shoes because this is holy ground. For me, this is an image of self purification prior to an act of surrender.
When you find you can no longer “live that way,” whether we’re talking about no longer living a life that tacitly supports injustice, no longer living a life mired in addiction, no longer living a life that is unsustainable in some way, a life that needs to move in some way, a life that needs to grieve, to accept some hard truth, to stop fighting whatever it is you’ve been fighting for so long, a life that is too rigid, too controlling, too in charge; when you can no longer live that way and it’s time to surrender, be wary of advisors who urge you with platitudes to let go without first guiding you in the ways of self purification. Our lives are too short for going through motions that leave us essentially unchanged. Purify first. Pray, fast, meditate, sing, dance, take off your shoes, study, make a vow. Self purification comes first. Then, and only then, attempt to sit in that immoveable way. Then and only then, surrender, and change your life. Then and only then, surrender, and change the world.
Amen and blessed be.
 This list is quoted from my March 2, 2014 sermon, “Surrender: In Search of the Present Moment,” delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT.
 Wing-Tsit Chan, tr., Lao Tzu, Chapter 22, The Way of Lao Tzu (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1963) p. 139.
 King, Jr., Martin Luther, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963. Read the text at https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
 Miller, Jake C., Prophets of a Just Society (Nova Publishers, 2001) p. 35.
 Ashyaghosha, “The Buddhacarita,” in Conze, Edward, Buddhist Scriptures (London: Penguin Books, 1959) p. 48.