This sermon was preached on 8/24/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the religious discipline of pilgrimage and reflects on what that means to the contemporary UU. In light of the tragedy in Ferguson, MO, this sermon discusses the role of public witness in how it intersects with spiritual journey.
Pilgrimage isn’t a term that we often think about anymore in most of Western society. For many of us, traveling great distances just involves a commitment to buying a ticket online. We can span the globe in hours if we have the wealth to do so. The oracles at Expedia tell me that if I want to travel to California in the dead of winter, I can book it now for less than the price of one night in many hotels in NYC. What took Lewis and Clark a year and seven months, we can do in 6 hours (plus airport security), and they even had a head start, beginning in St. Louis.
For the modern Westerner, pilgrimages are not usually about time or distance. The quality of sacrifice that once defined such journeys, may only really be felt by those of us who may need to skimp to save the money to buy our tickets, unless we go out of our way to set limits and make the trip more difficult by taking a bike or a car or a bus. But even then, there’s not usually the risk of danger earlier generations of humanity experienced.
Yet there’s a spiritual value to the original manner of pilgrimages. The archetypal hero’s journey teaches us that as we go far and wide, we internalize the lessons when we finally return home. When Moses climbs the mountain to find God, he comes to learn that God has been with, and of, the people all along, they just couldn’t see it. What we’re searching for far and wide, is often right at our finger tips. Pilgrimages take us out of our comfort zone to reveal something about our lives that is always true. The new setting, mixed with the sacrifices along the way, help us to see what’s normally clouded. Familiarity hides what’s before us.
UU’s have a few historic sites of note that are certainly worth visiting and learning about, but we have a slim tradition of making pilgrimages to them – aside from maybe our partner churches in various places throughout the globe. Though even those are more about the relationship with a far away community, than a special value on a place. I have begun to feel our form of making pilgrimages is public social witness in the face of flagrant injustice.
We go somewhere where there’s obvious pain in the world, maybe take time off from work when we’d normally just vacation, and go someplace that’s in need, not someplace that’s fun or relaxing. We sacrifice convenience or comfort so that we can lend our hand, our eyes, or our hearts to easing the suffering of others. When I traveled to Phoenix some years ago to witness against the implementation of SB1070, which essentially turned local police into ICE (immigration agents), we were marching and dancing out in the desert. Singing to immigrants detained in prison camps in 110 degree heat for the crime of trying to become Americans without the right paperwork. (And I always remember that my white great grandparents didn’t need paperwork to enter this country.) Almost 5000 people sung to the prisoners who were immorally detained. It brought awareness to the newspapers, and showed solidarity with local ally groups – it told partner advocacy groups that others cared and were willing to make sacrifices to show up. Ultimately, some of the restrictions of SB1070 were shot down, although much more work must be done.
Many of us have made similar trips over the years for a host of causes. Some of you were in Selma, or it’s anniversary 50 years later. Some of our members have long standing commitments abroad, traveling to schools and conservation zones in Africa to help with illness, education and the environment. If you’re here next Sunday, you can learn in particular about all that we have done to build the library, put in water, and build schools in our partner community in Ethiopia.
Next month, world leaders are coming to New York City for a UN summit on the climate crisis determine what steps the international community will take to cease the current trajectory of climate destruction. The meeting begins Sept 23rd.
“On September 21st, we are expecting a million people to arrive in NYC for the People’s Climate March. UUA President the Rev. Peter Morales called on all UUs to join him on September 21 to march for climate justice beginning 11:30 am at Columbus Circle. Afterwards there will be a UU debrief at Community Church (3:30-5:30) and an interfaith worship service at Saint John the Divine (6pm).” I’ll be here preaching that Sunday, but if you’re called to this shorter more local pilgrimage, I very much welcome you to do so. You’ll be able to learn more about it soon online, (and I believe) in our newsletter as well.
In all of these instances, UU’s may not see ourselves as pilgrims. We tend to find the Holy in and amongst people, even if we may personally believe the earth is a sacred thing – which I personally do. Going to a place, without the relationships tied to it, may not be the focus of our pilgrim goal. But pilgrimages aren’t always just that. The Haj in Islam, ties it’s followers into a community of people that’s spanned the centuries. They travel to a place that is not only sacred, but enter into a stream of people that have done just the same. It’s the journey as much as the place. Their path is a process of integration and witness. Being part of something greater and bearing witness to a sense of reverence along the way.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to see it in one of two ways. Either to speak to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community. Or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. There’s another angle to this we find in some Eastern religious circles that relates here. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
I think in UU circles, we combine all three of these ideas in our religious pilgrimages of social justice. It’s important to witness the pain and suffering in the world while lending our strength and compassion. Where we may have privilege, there is also a responsibility to use that privilege for the common good. If I have a leg up because of the color of my skin, or the scope of my education, I can leverage that for others. But I have to see the problem to know there’s something to be done. And I can’t always see the problem from my couch, however much I might prefer to be sitting there.
That second aspect of Witness, speaking of how our faith, or the Beloved Community, has changed our lives matters here as well. People need to know there’s another way than whatever injustice is going on before us. There are a lot of problems in the world, and sometimes we’re quiet in saying how we’ve seen other ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean imposing your way, or my way of doing things on another community, but it does mean giving voice to more compassionate pathways. Sometimes it means using whatever form of privilege or voice you have in sharing a better way with the oppressors in a situation. Remembering that at different times, we’re all the oppressors, so we ought to use our power with compassion and humility. Doing this work here in the States, with our fellow citizens, should be possible.
The third aspect, Darsan, of being seen; that might be the most crucial. All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence. When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living room doesn’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
I’m thinking of my clergy colleagues, both within our denomination, and those from other traditions, who have traveled this week to Ferguson, MO. Their pilgrimages to a place in pain right now is a sacred duty. One that we may all be called to do in our lives, again and again – as some of us have already, for so many issues. Politics and media spin aside, another black teen was shot dead in the street, six times, from behind when he had his hands up and held no weapon…. By another white cop. The teen is dead, and the cop is on leave of absence with pay. I’ll add that while we’ve seen two black men killed a week by police in this country, “the Economist (a conservative/centrist news magazine) reported last week, in an article on armed U.S. police, that “last year, in total, British police officers actually fired their weapons three times.” Three times in the past year. Michael Brown, was shot 6 times, while standing unarmed with his hands over his head. We can say that most cops are great. That many precincts have policies that would have prevented this. We have research that shows improved training can correct racial bias in split-second decisions. We can say all those positive things while also lifting up the cultural or systemic differences between our nation and our closes Western culture – Britain. Something’s different here, and it’s not right.
But it didn’t stop there. Then another officer who threatened to kill a demonstrator was removed and suspended after pointing a semi-automatic rifle at a protestor. As of 5am on Friday – about two weeks from the shooting, there still was no police report – as if we can pretend nothing happened. The Wall Street Journal would later cover the release of the heavily redacted police report that finally was released later that Friday, saying it “shed little light on Ferguson shooting.” But lifted up that the St. Louis County detective took 90 minutes to show up on the scene of the crime to investigate the shooting. Mainstream news reporters getting arrested. Police in military gear. Local precincts being relieved of duty and State Troopers taking over. Amnesty International deployed a team to Ferguson, being the first time in its history that it’s sent a team in the US, as the national guard was deployed. The conservative Washington Post even did an article about how foreign newspapers were reporting on Ferguson, and how different it was than our own media. Interestingly, they almost exclusively covered Right-leaning Centrist, to Right Wing papers, and all talked about how bad our race situation has gotten, and that local and state police responses were highly problematic to say it lightly. I admit, I had not expected this from the Washington Post.
But all of this is coming to us second and third hand. I think of my colleagues, and other civically and religiously minded people who have traveled to Ferguson to bear witness, and share the load. To leverage their privilege to ease another’s pain. To hear the people affected, learn from them, and bring their lessons back home, so that the people are still speaking – on that street, in this town, and on and on to the next place and the next place. Bearing witness allows us to help make changes. It also teaches us, and keeps other voices alive for the next problem down the road.
The pilgrim’s journey, like the hero’s journey, isn’t always just about the destination. Our theme for the month, anticipation, speaks to this from both directions. What we anticipate another person’s intentions or actions are, will certainly influence our response. We’ll see things that may not be happening. It would be easy to say the officer, who we know killed Michael Brown, is just a bad person. But we don’t really know that. Split second decisions based on limited information. I think it’s far more likely that our police forces would benefit from more targeted training, like some precincts undergo, that teaches not to anticipate an increased sense of danger from certain races, but to rely on the actual facts that are happening in any particular situation. We’re all guilty of this in our lives from time to time – much like how I spoke about this in my last sermon. We read into the motives of another and create a fantasy world that may be our own nightmare. But in cases like Ferguson, guns and authority are added to the mix. None of this removes the responsibility for this officer’s actions – they are his own – and he and the community must live with the tragic consequences of his decision – whatever the courts may decide. However, we can’t ignore the larger picture either. We can’t ignore the fact that we have an epidemic of these cases. Remember, two black men are fatally shot every week in the US. Michael Brown isn’t the only black man to die last week, or the week before, or the week before.
The other side of anticipation is the expectation of how different the destination will be than our starting point. It’s about bringing the lessons we learn, when we’re away, back home. And in so many of these journeys, like Moses going to the mountain to bring God down, only to find God was there all along – in the people. When we make these trips, maybe to help bear witness to others’ pain, and to affect change, when we bring those lessons home we too realize they are real; they are alive; and those problems are here as well. But changing our scene, going down the road that’s not only less traveled, but may also be a very scary road to walk, gives us a new vantage to see what’s right before us – here. Ferguson isn’t only a place in Missouri. We have work to do at home as well.
 From UUA Announcement
There’s an old joke about the theological difference between Universalists and Unitarians before our merger in 1961. I’m not normally keen on making jokes about our religious heritage, we’re not taken seriously enough in the mainstream (and sometimes not taken seriously enough by ourselves) so I’m not sure we need to take ourselves down a notch in that way, but this joke is pretty theologically revealing. It’s on the nature of Hell. Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to Hell. The Unitarians believed they were too good to be sent to Hell.
It’s based, in a way, on an internalization of the conservative Christian critique of liberal Christianity. Religious conservatives will argue that religious liberals don’t take sin seriously enough in the world, and think faithful liberals are too easy on themselves, that religious progressives think too highly of themselves. I tend to see it differently. For those of us who believe in God, we tend to lean toward a compassionate being, or a creative Force that is life-centered – not punishment centered. And for those religious progressives who are not believers, it’s less about getting what one deserves, and more about living a life that reflects the gift we’ve been given in this singular life. We can choose to squander that gift in greed, or ego or hate, or we can live fully into that gift with openness, mindfulness and a fair bit of reverence for its preciousness. In either case, it’s remembering that sin, or evil, or harm happen in the world, and we have an obligation to address it with responsibility, and sometimes with culpability.
How many folks remember the classic TV show, Mash from the late 70’s to early 80s? It was a great comedic retelling of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine war could be retold comedically in a way that so many folks would love the story, but it was masterfully written. There’s a short scene between two characters I want to briefly quote from between a soldier named Hawkeye and the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, that explores the nature of Hell.
“Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
Good writing. This traditional view of Hell is almost comforting in an odd way. We imagine a place that has neat lines. Where right and wrong are clear. Of course, what’s morally wrong conveniently matches our own views of right and wrong. Theologically, I don’t believe in Hell because I have faith in an all-loving God. Intellectually, I don’t believe in Hell though for that psychological reason; too often it’s wielded as a club to beat down on anyone who have differing social values. I distrust theological arguments that lift up one’s closed view of the world, one’s sense of ego or self, above the worth of others. Loving the Hell out of this world, isn’t about wishing a metaphysical bad place to be gone, it’s about loving this world in such a way that we don’t create hells on earth ourselves.
If the character Hawkeye is right, War is just War. It doesn’t have the clear cut lines of right and wrong we imagine with Hell. There are times when it’s tragically necessary. And there are too often times when it expediently fills the appetites of greed, or hate.
This week is another example of why I try to avoid predicting my sermon topics far in advance. War was not supposed to be the focus. Yet, sadly this past week has seen an insane escalation of violence in Palestine. Syrian’s are still trying to receive aid from what amounts to a genocidal government. And we are recommencing air strikes in Iraq, along with food and water drops, to protect religious minorities in the country from ISIS. War is not Hell, it affects innocent bystanders.
There are aspects of each of these tragedies that appear to require the use of force to protect innocent bystanders. There are aspects that are grounded in a history that has brought us to these horrid places. As a Fellowship that is designated a Peace site, I want to focus us on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s often easy to point at those religious extremists over there with their rage and violence fomenting rhetoric and pretend that it arises in a vacuum. That Hell doesn’t exist, except for how other people make it. It’s comforting to believe that. I’m not sure it’s entirely true. And I don’t say this to exonerate murderous violence. Those that perpetuate such acts, own their responsibility. However, when we think of these horrors as black and white, or us versus them, we only feed their hold on the people in their grasp. Even if we save the victims, we enshrine the world view of Good versus Evil. When we anticipate wrongness in others, perpetually, we create that wrongness.
I’d like to give a couple of examples. Last year there was a twitter post where a white young man wrote, “Am I racist if I feel uncomfortable about a guy with a turban on my plane because this isn’t ok with me.” Just this past week, Asishpal Singh replied, “Ugh I know what you mean, I get really uncomfortable whenever I see a white man walk into a movie theater or elementary school.” Racism, artfully responded to, in 140 characters or less. There are very real problems in the world. International terrorism does happen. Domestic terrorism does happen. But when we neatly and uncritically lay the blame at the feet of certain people, who of course are very different from ourselves, we worsen the problem. At the very least, we’re not allowing our senses to accurately deal with the tragedies before us.
If you think I’m reaching when I say this, there was a report this past June showing that CNN revised its own data to appease gun rights advocates. They initially reported that there were 74 school shootings in the prior 18 months since Newtown. They later revised those numbers down to 15 under pressure from gun rights advocates to “redefine what a school shooting was.” Instead of dealing with the tragic facts of a situation, let’s play word games so that our individual opinion isn’t at stake.
Spiritually, what’s going on? We once again place our ego at the alter of idolatry. We have an opinion that one race or class or gender or sexuality of people is bad, and we maintain our fear so that we don’t need to challenge our views – we don’t need to check our ego. Our precious ego stays safe in its cultural enclave. We also make it impossible to address the problems of the world as they actually are, because in order to address them as they actually are, we would have to refrain from worshiping our sense of rightness.
I read a recent article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Washington Post. She is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke of a time when she was part of a delegation of U.S. faith leaders to Indonesia discussing religious pluralism. The group was welcomed with a poster that indicated how much money this local Muslim Community center had raised for Palestine, “and prayed for the health and safety of all Muslims . . . and for an end to “the Zionist entity.” Her article goes on to report how one attendee asked during the Q&A, “‘I have a question for the rabbi,’…“Why do Jews kill Muslim children?”’
The Rabbi replies, “Heart pounding, I stood up. I spoke of my pain at the loss of life among Gazan civilians, tragically including so many children. And then I took a deep breath. “I noticed the poster in the entranceway,” I began. I praised the group for raising money for humanitarian relief. But, I continued, “When you call for an end to the Zionist entity, I want you to know that you’re talking about my family and my friends and my people.” [The Rabbi] spoke of [her] own commitments to Israel, of the significance of Israel to the Jewish people, and of [her] firm belief that a two-state solution will allow both peoples to live securely and peacefully.”
The Rabbi ended her recounting with this, “To [her] shock, the audience applauded. Afterwards, many of those present told [her] that they had never before thought about who might live in Israel. That they had never thought a two-state solution to be possible. That they had believed that Jews wanted only to kill Muslims. And they crossed out the final line of the poster.”
…Religiously speaking, we are not likely to be the people that broker peace in the Middle East, or end our own nation’s cycles of perpetuating war. However, we do have control over how we view, react and respond to our assumptions and our experience in the world. I belief managing our own views begins to process of changing a nation’s culture. We always must begin with the one person we actually have control over their views and actions – and that person is ourself.
All the Rabbi accomplished, which is amazing in itself, is two-fold. Firstly, she showed compassion for the violence that has affected innocent bystanders in the world while admitting that violence is wrong. And then helping people realize the world is more complex than us versus them. That there are families on every side imaginable. That each side is not monolithic. Life is not a game of Risk where it’s the yellow pieces versus the Red pieces.
Just last month, 100 Imams in the UK issued a joint statement. “In the open letter released to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, they said: “As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.
“Ramadan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.”
One Imam responded to the BBC saying, “”I think a lot of work needs to be done and it is not only the responsibility of the Muslim community or the imams.
“It is law enforcement, (and) intelligence services who all need to work together to make sure young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.”
That last response is so relevant for us here in the States as well, regardless of individual religious persuasion. We need to work together to make sure our people are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.
The major religions of the world, that have stood the test of time, may have some very different theological beliefs or assumptions. But each has at their core a deep valuing of mercy, compassion, and community building. When one faith strips another of their ties to mercy, compassion and community building, it’s a clear sign that the perpetrators are worshiping their own ego’s as small gods unto themselves. When adherents of those same faiths do it themselves to their own religion, likewise, they are worshipping something other than what their scriptures indicate. We conflate our importance, our need to be right, our need to lift up own own selves above others – and we do so by calling for the opposite of mercy, compassion or community building. We are guilty of inverting the cornerstones of faith.
And we do it by anticipating the worst. Our theme for the month is this very word – anticipation. It can be positive or negative. Today we hear it in it’s negative form. I know how that other side is going to think, or act, or believe. I know what their real motivations are. I know they’re going to be really different from me which means we can’t find common ground. Holding onto that stance makes it nearly impossible to love the Hell out of this world. Though it becomes increasingly easy to sow the seeds of discord, violence and hate – the very foundation of what we imagine Hell to be about.
Let’s take this down a notch to the everyday. We live in a country where certain kinds of violence are exceedingly rare, and other kinds are all too common. We live in a nation that extolls the virtues of the American Dream, including a history of immigrants making it here, yet we have at least one Governor who will send the National Guard to block children from fleeing rape and gangs because those kids seeking asylum don’t have the right paperwork – right paperwork I might add that my own great-grandparents never needed when they came here from White nations of origin. And just a few weeks ago we had another form of religious terrorism happen to one of our congregations in New Orleans. During a regular Sunday service, while the congregation was sharing a moment of silence for a beloved long time member, a baptist congregation sent protestors into the service to disrupt them because our denomination supports a women’s right to control her own body. Some may say that’s not really religious terrorism. Though I imagine if we had our memorial or prayer time interrupted when we were honoring a beloved deceased friend, we’d feel very invaded. It’s not the time or place for such protests or news grabbing.
The LA Times reports, “On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city’s Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.
The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza. That’s when the shouting started.”
The Rachel Maddow Show goes into more detail with an interview with the minister, Rev. Vandiver, who described how during this moment of silence, the radical anti-abortion protestors unbuttoned their shirts and revealed their group affiliations shouting malice and hate. It’s unbelievable to think, right? The youth, who just finished a week long training in religious leadership, got up, invited the members to join in hands and begun singing. The protestors were welcomed in if they could be respectful, or out if they could not be. In the face of hate, the youth led the congregation in song. They loved the Hell right out of that sanctuary.
Later the protestors begun shouting and waving signs – again unbelievable – outside the window of the nursery room to the babies inside. The youth that were there caring for the babies, picked up the children and brought them to the inside of the building away from the windows (leaving notes for parents of where they went.)
As we close, and prepare for another week ahead, I’d like us to take the courageous actions of the youth in New Orleans as a life lesson to reflect upon. How we respond in any given moment reflects the character of our faith. Ours is not to war, or shout back, or hate. Part of loving the world, means that when folks around us act in ways that are hateful, we may sometimes need to pick up our kids and bring them to a safer place for sure. But their behavior does not need to change our character. Loving this world means not giving into the hate in others; remaining our best selves in the face of other people’s worst selves. Things, behaviors, attitudes and actions surely must change or adapt, but our character does not. We can continue to show compassion and mercy in the building of community, whether it’s here, or across the globe.
Spirit of Hope, God of Many Names, and one transforming and abundant love,
May we pause before the quiet of the hour,
taking in another week past,
preparing ourselves for the week to come,
and remembering to remain present to the moment before us,
even amidst the busyness, and the turmoil, and the anticipation that all surrounds us.
We come seeking wells of nourishment,
friendship in a world that’s sometimes cold,
and joy from friends old and new.
Teach us to accept love and care when we are in need,
and patience when we are not.
And in our times of long ease,
shake us from complacency,
for our world needs our care,
out attention, and our hands.
We pray for the peoples of Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Israel this hour.
We grieve the horror and pain,
from generational cycles of violence and hate,
that subject innocent people to grievous harm and rampant fear.
May a way be found for people of differing faiths,
and differing politics,
to live together in peace;
and find the common threads in their lives
to be more important than their differences.
This sermon was preached on July 6th, 2014 in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Hobby Lobby/Eden Soy cases.
When our nation’s founders colonized this land, their predecessors from Europe were largely seeking a world free from religious or social persecution. Tragically, our succeeding waves of colonizers would commit the same acts of persecution – this time to the Native Americans – who were here first. They would also persecute, or banish, other Europeans now living in our colonies who had different religious views from their own. Our colonies would become a mishmash of religious practice, segregated in the name of religious freedom. With little sense of the irony of each religious persecution, towns like Pocassett and Providence, Rhode Island, would form when Puritans exiled other Puritans on the basis of religious grounds.
Roger Williams, one of those exiles who built the city of Providence (where our denomination just held its annual General Assembly last week that 7 of us from the Fellowship attended) would be the first Puritan leader to advocate for the separation of church and state. Rhode Island would become of the first places in the Christian world to recognize freedom of religion.
At our start, religious freedom didn’t mean the right to segregate communities or for secular authorities to dictate religious practice. It meant, the freedom to live someplace with the same autonomy as everyone else, regardless of what religion one held. Since then, US courts have upheld that this also meant regardless of whether one even had a religion.
That’s started to change in our country. This week, when a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled to enact a practice that allowed corporations to have religious beliefs, thereby placing one’s boss in between one’s body and one’s doctor. The all male, all Roman Catholic majority, would rule that a craft store (Hobby Lobby) could refuse offering certain forms of contraceptives to employees through normal health insurance on the basis of religious grounds. Not to paint too broad a swath on religious identity, one Roman Catholic woman and one Jewish man would join two Jewish women in the dissent of the ruling. Despite the court originally saying this would be narrowly applied to specific contraceptives that were believed to be tied to abortions, the court two days later would clarify that there would be no restrictions on reviewing lower court cases tied to all forms of contraceptives. This is so egregiously different than what the majority said two days earlier, that Justice Sotomayer would add to her dissent, “Those who are bound by our decisions usually believe they can take us at our word, not so today.” She would go onto say, “…the justices’ decision in [this] separate contraceptive case “‘undermines confidence in this institution.’”
Interestingly, the contraceptives cited in the Hobby Lobby case were not in fact actually tied to abortions. Apparently, medicine, science and facts no longer have a place in our highest court, as well as the original meaning of the phrase religious freedom. Hobby Lobby claims it won’t offer contraceptives that might be tied to abortions (but remember factually aren’t actually tied to abortions) to its employees, but it’s very willing to invest in the companies that produce such contraceptives because they have good returns for their retirement plan investments (401k’s.) They won’t care for their employees who may need contraceptives for a whole host of medical reasons on so-called “moral grounds”, but are fully willing to profit from contraceptives on wholly financial grounds. That is not the picture of religious freedom I was taught around the 4th of July.
When I hear of our hallowed worship of the ideals of independence and freedom, I have begun to feel like we’re in the story of the fire-starter – the folk tale I told earlier this service. The fire-starter is a teacher who becomes beloved by the people for teaching them how to build fires on their own – granting safety, invention and food. The powers-that-be have the teacher killed and train the populace to revere the idea of the now dead teacher in rituals, and statuary and in celebrations. In the more modern-day take on the classic story of Prometheus, the people no longer know how to do all these things. The people revere only what they no longer understand or can no longer live. I’m concerned that we as a people only revere the ideas of independence and freedom, and we’ve forgotten how to live them in community, with care and common sense. I’m concerned that power and privilege now trump all else.
Our nation was founded partially through objecting to the monarchy. The idea that any one individual was sovereign on the basis of birth and luck, was anathema to our founding fathers. They were opposed to forcing citizens (or maybe I should say subjects) to share the same faith as their sovereign king or queen. Or that any one individual was above the law based upon their stature or position. Being sovereign is the very image of privilege without repercussions, or power without sacrifice. Both qualities are dead ends for our spiritual lives. Our principles begin and end in diametric opposition to privilege without repercussions or power without sacrifice. If we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every individual while recognizing that were are part of an interdependent existence, as our 1st and 7th principles state, then our use of power and privilege must keep the virtues of worth and interdependence in mind.
This is particularly challenged by the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, perversely adapting the freedom of speech to corporations’ ability to buy elections. This is where we first hear the phrase, “corporations are persons.” Our national heritage, our nation’s founding documents, and our own faith perspective shout loudly that this idea is a lie! We lose each of our individual freedoms to voice and influence democracy when we trade voter transparency for practices of oligarchy where the top 1/10 of 1% get to secretly buy elections, transmute news into propaganda and to confuse facts for simply more partisan noise.
What we’ve created is a world where corporations are persons – except we can’t throw them in jail for criminal behavior, punitive fines often have no teeth, individual members of a corporate Board are often not liable for the debts or liabilities of the corporation they profit from, and there has been little accountability for public malfeasance throughout very visible scandals tied to the collapse of Wall Street and the bailing out of the banks while the individual perpetrators received six figure bonuses for their failure of leadership.
We can certainly reasonably argue for the governmental efforts spent to keep the banks working and our economy from a complete collapse, but there has been no lasting or meaningful repercussions for privilege or sense of shared sacrifice by those corporations. Corporations are not in community with anyone, so they can’t be citizens, yet we’re giving them privilege over people.
If we return to the beginning, looking back at what our founders fled from in Europe and eventually rebelled against England for, we see that we may have repeated familiar ground. “Persons” who are not subject to the same laws as the rest of us, who are able to force their employees to follow the same religious restriction they hold, who can control elections without accountability or transparency, and who can act with impunity – sound awfully like the monarchs of old. Corporations are not persons, but we’ve allowed them to become sovereign. On this holiday weekend, we are worshiping the idea of freedom and independence, but we’ve forgotten how to govern with freedom and independence.
When I moved to Huntington last August I was surprised one day when the lawn in front of what I think is the Town Hall became overrun with US flags. It looked like the photo on our screen today. Every two feet another large flag. It took patriotism to the comedic level. As if all we had to do was fill every other cubic foot with a flag and our patriotism would shine forth. I have no idea the reason for the invasion of flags, nor any sense of who made that call, and who decided one day to take them down – so I’ll not read into their motives or character. But it’s become emblematic to me of a blustery sense of patriotism – all show and little depth. We’re strident with our visible symbols of freedom filling our lawn, but there’s no room to walk there anymore for all the flags.
True patriotism is working toward the ideals of our nation; that all people are created equal. That one’s personal beliefs should not impinge on another – especially not to the detriment of their health, well-being or reasonable exercise of the pursuit of happiness. Placing one’s boss in between a woman and her doctor is not patriotic. Forcing an employee to check in with their manager to determine what religion they now are, is not patriotic. Ensconcing corporations as people, with the same rights as citizens, but with none of the accountability the rest of us must maintain, is not patriotic. Willfully being ignorant to the science and medicine that clearly indicates birth control practices that manage a women’s period to prevent pregnancy is not an abortion technique, and then changing the law of the land based upon your willful ignorance, is not patriotic.
True patriotism is living up to our ideals. It’s also accepting the fact as a community, we’re not all going to see the world the same way. And the answer is not to fight to win the world to our view. Patriotism is leaving room for difference. Patriotism allows diversity of view to have a say – and doesn’t silence it through the force of millions of political dollars. Patriotism is being more concerned with being accountable for one’s own actions than trying to become sovereign over the will’s of others.
In our faith tradition, this sense of patriotism reflects our principles. How are we guilty of forcing our will upon others in our own lives? When does our privilege or power, command the room? Even here, in our Fellowship, are we each ever guilty of the same sorts of things on a much, much, smaller level. When do we have to have things exactly our way, to the detriment or disagreement of many others? How does it feel to be on one end or the other? When we exercise power without accountability, when we demand our way without personal sacrifice, it taxes the spirit. We disconnect our sense of self from the interdependent truth of our existence, and we all walk away a bit bruised for it.
Our nation is feeling a bit bruised right now – to say the least. For far too long, women’s rights have been the battle ground for an ideological debate that is deeply rooted in power, agency, and differing sexual morales hidden behind the facade of biblical text. I say the facade of biblical text, because any serious reader of Christian or Jewish scripture will know that the story teaches us life began at breath. “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. Gen 2:7” One would think that was clear enough for anyone reading scripture literally or figuratively. It’s strange to pretend these scriptures say anything else.
And I can imagine that for many women, the battle ground doesn’t feel like something over their rights, but over their personhood. I saw a meme (a photo shared in social media) recently that was showing the “We the people” text from the Constitution with three pictures. A corporation with the word person written over it. The second was a church with the word person. The third was a picture of a woman that instead had the word meh written over her. The highest court of our nation just said meh to half our population, and it was said by 5 men deciding the health and future of these women and their families. Power without accountability or personal sacrifice.
It’s tough to end with a call to action. The highest court of our land ruled. In our system of checks and balances, we’re left with trying to influence the legislature of our 50 states to make an amendment to the Constitution. Apparently we need a 28th amendment that places an asterisk next to “We the People.” “*And by the word people, we mean actual – individual – people.” I believe there is already a movement to this effect. I hope it gains more traction in light of this farcical court ruling. In the interim, before such a legislative miracle occurs, we can educate ourselves about the corporations, schools, and businesses that are the most egregious abusers of this new ruling – and spend our money elsewhere. We can also lobby for a single payer health plan run by the government, like every other developed Western nations does, so that no citizen will ever have to rely on the faith of their boss to care for their personal health and the health of their family.
And to those of us who feel real bruised right now. I’m sorry we’ve gotten to this difficult place. Know that your individual worth, and your importance to our community and our nation is not reflected in this decision. Power and privilege will win out some times, but it doesn’t diminish your soul. Power and privilege diminishes the perpetrator, not the victim.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and one transforming and abundant love,
May we enter into a time of reflection this holiday weekend.
Taking stock of the meaning of freedom and independence,
in a country that was founded, as always, with complex motives and practices.
We are a nation that strives toward the fulfillment of democracy,
rooted in an ethic of morality;
yet our history is marred with slavery of millions,
and the genocide of indigenous nations.
Teach us to be humble where we are strident,
to be active when we become complacent to oppression,
and hopeful when we find ourselves held back,
or held down,
by the greed or fear of others.
The discipline of democracy is a spiritual one,
Remind us to practice it daily,
in our communities,
and in our families.
May we not become silent before another’s power,
and may we not, in turn, silence another through our own will.
For faith, and freedom, and independence,
are not just for ourselves alone;
they are lived in community.
We know their blessings come along with
disciplines of accountability,
and of living and letting others live as well.
We hold in our hearts this hour all the women in our nation who are now subject to the religious whims of their secular bosses. May our nation not go too far down this road. We pray that our leaders learn to lead and govern once more, so that our country will not stray from the path it was founded upon. May we not confuse religious freedom with Christian Theocracy.
May we spark in our minds this hour,
imagination to see the world afresh,
open our hearts to the newness of each moment,
find humor where we are too serious,
and joy when we have forgotten ourselves.
This updated sermon explores the intersection of gender, gender identity, discrimination and violence. Primarily focused on Transgender Rights, it also talks about the shootings in Santa Barbara this week and how society’s construction of gender leads to suffering. It also explains why New Yorkers should support GENDA the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act currently stalled in Albany.
It’s be less than 2 and a half years since I had the true joy of officiating a double wedding of two same-sex couples who had been together for 29 and 39 years. These two couples witnessed one another’s wedding, both couples had been friends for with one another for decades. They shared the same readings; they had their own vows; and they were pronounced in joyful succession. I’ve had the honor before of officiating over another gay male couple and a lesbian couple’s wedding, and several times since, but that was the first time that I could add the words, “By the power vested in me by the State of New York.”
Following the ceremony we brought out the marriage licenses. We pulled out the black pen required by NYC law and set to signing them. I love the new forms. Instead of reading “bride” on one line and “groom” on another – they now read, “Bride/Groom/Spouse” and “Bride/Groom/Spouse.” Every option is covered, and they don’t bother with flipping the order of Bride and Groom. Our couples can now imagine themselves Bride and Bride, or Groom and Groom, or Spouse and Spouse. It seems like a small privilege, but considering our history around marriage, dowries, gender and bodies – I think it’s a really huge step forward.
Apparently, my subconscious had been playing with this last point about gender for some time. I had been reading Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaws” and rereading Emilie Townes “Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil” when one night I dreamt that I was leading a school trip to the 1950s. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you’re having that dream as well, or maybe you were around in the 1950’s and can just remember it.
At first our biggest problem was not too unlike our usual challenges around field trips. The kids wanted to take photos of everything with their cell phones. In hindsight we should have confiscated them ahead of time, not merely so that they would hold better attention, but so that the locals didn’t realize we were outsiders from the future. I think all my science fiction television watching was intuitively warning me not to mess too much with the timeline by revealing anachronisms. But electronics aside, we were doomed to stand out, because we didn’t think to require a strict dress code.
It was kind of a huge oversight on our part. Try to get into the mindset of the 1950s. Less than half of us in this room were alive in 1950, well maybe half now that our children and youth are in their classes, and certainly only a handful of us were adults then at that time. You’d be in your 80s now if you were an adult then. For those of you who were, I would love to hear your take on my imagination about it later. Our boys were in loose jeans and baggy t-shirts, and our girls were in tight jeans and even tighter t-shirts. Some girls had baseball caps, and some boys – like myself – had satchels.
We simply stuck out. Our attire was gendered for our modern sensibilities. The guys wanted to keep their clothes as loose as possible because tight clothes on a guy is often code for being gay. And our girls were eager to make sure they were well noticed. The boys and girls, the men and women of 1950, were dressed in TV’s black and white of the time. The men were in slacks – or jeans if they were doing manual labor. The women were in long skirts. At 50 feet away you could easily tell which sex you were looking at by the cut of the fabric. We were alien. We were confusing. We were radical.
I imagine that for most of us it seems like a cute or funny or small detail. The clothes we choose to wear in my dream reflect our style, not our identity, not our gender or sex. It’s become acceptable for women to dress like men; although it’s not yet acceptable for men to dress like women. Not counting the dress-like robe that I’m in now; could you imagine what your face would look like should I show up to work in a dress skirt and blouse? What would your guttural reaction be? As progressive as you might be about equal rights, civil rights, gay rights – would you have a negative impulse toward me should I do that? For those who were here for our last ministry, if our Interim Minister Rev. Nancy, should show up in jeans on a weekday would you have the same negative reaction? Likely not. What’s the difference? Why does it matter?
A women in jeans, her sleeves, rolled up is the marker of self-confidence and success. A man in a skirt is a marker of humor, vulnerability and sometimes disgust. I believe that somewhere along the way, the emancipation of women became acceptable, in at least part, because we could all understand why a woman would want to have all the rights of a man, or freedom of a man, or the composure of a man, or the style of a man. But we’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure or style of a woman. And for some, this is so threatening, that it warrants violence against the offending cross-dresser. Why does it get so far?
Some of it starts with simple awkwardness. Julia Serano, an Oakland based Trans-activist writes that, “…if there’s one thing that all of us should be able to agree on, it’s that gender is a confusing and complicated mess. It’s like a junior high school mixer, where our bodies and our internal desires awkwardly dance with one another, and with all the external expectations that other people place on us.”
But some of it is a lifetime of education. As the academic, CT Whitley writes, “It is widely understood that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are constructed well before birth, which means that by the time a person enters the workforce he or she has had twenty to thirty years of standard gender construction and reinforcement woven into every fiber of the individual’s life. This becomes a huge disadvantage for women. Women who are strong, determined, and free-willed are labeled ‘lesbians’ or other words I won’t say from the pulpit, (‘bitches,’) rejected for promotion because (of) their deviation…”
And as the tragic events of this past week in Santa Barbara show, sometimes when women are strong and well-differentiated, some men are provoked to violence for not getting the sexual attentions they want from those women. The Californian male 20-year old shooter’s parents even saw the signs of a young man on the edge. They reported him to the police, who then visited him, and later heard from the police that he was just a normal, frustrated guy. According to the Daily News, the “cops said he was fine.” What’s warning signs to some, is just seen as normal male behavior to others.
I have preached about gun violence, gun control, and women’s rights much – and will certainly continue to do so, but this service is about Gender Identity and Transgender equality. But I mention this tragedy – both because I can’t imagine not speaking to the pain many of us feel this week – but also because it’s so clear that the way in which society prepares boys to act as men, directly impacts all our lives. We construct gender expression as a society. What we think “normal male behavior is” or “acceptable” male behavior, determines identity, expression and safety. When we blithely talk about “the guy getting the girl” in romantic dramas, we set up a story that says women are things to be obtained, men are in control and have the power, and the story is really just about the guy – just the guy. And many of us will usually hear that phrase, “the guy gets the girl” as sweet and endearing. We’re not trained to see the other side of it – what it implies.
In my dream of 1950, the local people were the proverbial fish swimming in a bowl of water completely unaware of the water they were living in. We often talk about this phenomenon regarding racism or white privilege, but it also applies to gender privilege. Gender identity, roles, and expectations were so pervasive and so fixed that folks couldn’t readily imagine something different until an outsider comes along and points out the water to them. In our case, the kids dressing all sorts of ways. Something’s different now and it’s making everyone feel uncomfortable. Friends – we’re still swimming in that same water. It’s a lot more free for most of us, but still as dangerous for some of us. …We’ve yet to comprehend why a man might ever want the rights, freedom, composure, style, and life of a woman.
Struggles around gender roles and gender identity are more than issues around clothing, but clothing is often the easiest marker for people’s reactions against those who push the boundaries. For many people it’s a life matter that’s rooted as deep in their bodies and DNA. One out of a thousand babies are born with ambiguous genitalia. One out of a thousand! Surgical decisions may be made for those babies with or without their parents’ consent. They are certainly made without the infants’ consent.
And then there are those of us who are born with a hormonal mix that doesn’t neatly match our sex presentation. In these cases, the choice of pink or blue might be wrong. For others the question of only pink or blue is entirely missing the point – they might need purple or some other color entirely. When we spell out the Queer alphabet LGBT and get to the letter I (for intersex) and snicker or smirk – we’re snickering at the people who are born with this challenge. We are snickering at the people, who when at their infant weakest, had major changes done to their bodies.
When all our kids grow up and go to school, they’re further taught that life is either/or. The both/and option isn’t discussed. We line up in twos and so often boys hold the hands of boys and girls hold the hands of girls. One friend of mine shared his frustration around this on my Facebook wall by saying that all teachers everywhere should stop using ‘boys and girls’ as a way to address the whole of their students.” I’m becoming more and more aware that with Feminism’s successes in reminding people to always mention “Men and Women” when we’re speaking about more than just men, that we’re also coding our world to leave enough space for only those two options – men and women. What are we saying to those of us who can’t carve out room for themselves in that sentence?
Some of us right now might be feeling like this is taking the situation too far. That most of us have clear sexes, so we can have clear genders. That clothing is one thing, and bodies are another. That people undergoing these sorts of physical changes are dealing more with psychological problems than hormonal. I will say to that that I have heard all of it before referring to gay and lesbian men and women. I have been told that my hormones are not the real issue – that my love for another man is a psychological problem. So I’m inclined to respond – go a little deeper.
Every generation has seen the gender divide and gender line blur and break a little more. It is my hope and prayer that we’ve pushed against it hard enough that not only have glass ceilings started to crack, but that our children are starting to grow up knowing that their gender or sex need not determine the scope of their dreams; that their sex and gender need not determine the scope of their lives and loves and hopes. That maybe, we’ve finally reached a point where our own actions and responses and inclinations have ceased to place limits on one another. But that’s simply not true. Not yet. You’re not going to see me show up in a skirt and blouse. Not only because it’s not my style – but because, according to society, it would signal that somehow I’m less, somehow I’m a freak, that someone I’ve lost power. My ego couldn’t handle it; our identity would feel shaken, and most of us still believe women’s clothing diminishes men in a way that men’s clothing doesn’t harm women but lifts them up. It’s a shallow marker but a clear one for the malady that continues to plague us.
My odd time-traveling dream had another dimension to it. At a certain point we were witness to one of the night club raids that started to happen en masse following President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Executive order in 1953. His order mandated that all lesbians and gays could not hold federal jobs. It apparently had a side effect that encouraged local police forces to be more bold in their harassment of LGBT establishments. For some it meant jail time. For the drag kings and queens and the butch women it meant physical abuse or rape. The legacy that would be planted in this time was one of power over the body. Stark physical repercussions for the worst transgressions of the gender norm. Imagine living in a reality where your hormones and body don’t match the status quo knowing that the outcome will mean violence.
Here’s where our Fellowship can be life-saving. Every time we see someone that’s pushing this boundary or that – we can stop ourselves when we have that thought. You know the thought – “why do they have to be so severe or flamboyant or different?” The one where we secretly imagine that they’re trying too hard, or hiding something or just a broken person. We can change our attitude to see it as a marker that we might be the only, or one of the rare few people, willing to reach out and to love. We can see it as a moment to carve out a little more space in a world that’s not as caring as often as it could be for difference. We can enter this liminal space between what we know and where they are. We can seek to learn how to dance and move and breathe in it; knowing that others before us entered other terrifying vistas that allowed all of us the freedom to move and to breathe and be ourselves as we now know it. Having a woman as a board president, or a minister, would have seemed as far out, as crazy, as radical then as someone now who’s looking to live outside the gender binary. And people would have been as negative to that then, as we often are to gender benders today. I believe it’s a direct correlation emotionally.
It’s for us now to push the space a bit farther. With so many young LGBT teens killing themselves over it, it’s for us to be more open, so that people may remain alive. With so many of our homeless youth in NYC – over 40% identifying as LGBT – it’s for us to let down our tight sense of how people must look so that our kids may have a home again. Then we can enter a dialogue. Then we can rebuild lives. Then we can create a real, more full, sense of community. Even if we may not be the source of the societal pressure, when we remain silent in the face of it, we are complicit to the injury.
I mentioned before that to do this we need to learn to enter those liminal spaces between what we’re comfortable with and what is new. Anthropologically, liminality is, “…the term is used to ‘refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes’”
What can we do? We can continue to support groups that seek to nurture and heal and support and empower the lives of Transgender and Gender Queer people. We can also work to get GENDA passed. GENDA is the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA) that has languished far too long in Albany. I wrote my senator this week to encourage him to support it. The bill would outlaw transgender discrimination in housing, employment, credit and public accommodations, which would also expand the state’s hate crimes law to explicitly include crimes against transgender New Yorkers. The Empire State Pride agenda reports that 74% of transgender New Yorkers experienced harassment or mistreatment on the job and roughly 1/3 of transgender New Yorkers have been homeless at one time.
We must educate ourselves, self-reflect, and to seek to make a difference. Our goal being that dislocation of established structures of oppression. Our goal being the reversal of hierarchies and most certainly patriarchies. It’s that world of dislocation of oppression, of reversal of hierarchies, that our closing hymn speaks to. In the great African American folk tradition, our song “I’m On My Way” sings of a freedom land. It sings of a land where bodily abuse, or rape, of limitation based on form, is done away with. It’s a world that we have yet to fully know or yet birth into. It’s a world we must all be mid-wives for. When we sing this song I’m going to ask you to keep this in mind. Whether you’re singing it because it speaks directly to your personal experience or not – sing it knowing that you hold the key to helping another find it. Sing it knowing that you are another set of hands along the way that can make a reality a world that is safe for all our children, for all our people – not just our boys and girls. So sing it with joy and with hope because that is exactly what we need so much more of.