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.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We pause this morning to take a breath before the changes before us,
both great and small,
for the changes that are stunning, that are obvious,
that bring us excitement, and joy,
and those that stagger us, that carry with them fear, and trembling.
We pause before those changes that come to us unbidden, and unknown.
In every moment the world grows into new directions
that are both clear and hazy.
We recognize that our vision helps us only so far,
that our expectations have but limited relevance,
and that our dreams only frame what is possible.
Gather this community together this hour,
May every candle lit, hold witness to our hopes and silences;
hold witness to the love that is before us,
and the stories that have brought us this far.
Our youth are beginning their next step along the path of life.
May the walking be for gladness, and possibility;
May they know,
whether they remain close, or travel the world,
that they are loved.
This community had a part in helping to form our newest adults,
and our youngest adults, here for a few years, or 18,
had a part in forming this community;
for both these gifts, we are grateful.
May we treat the gift of spending a childhood together,
as the honor that it is;
knowing that these doors remain ever open – to each of us.
This Easter sermon was preached on 4/20/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY.
Easter can be a challenging holiday for some religious progressives. We recognize the horrors perpetrated against Jews by Christians taking the wrong lesson from the Good Friday story. Some of us come from other religious backgrounds, and this story was never our story. Still others wrestle with the message: that the miracle of resurrection is hard to fathom in a modern scientific world. I’ve heard others not wanting the brutality of the crucifixion shared within earshot of children. And some of us, like myself, were raised and steeped in the mysticism of Easter, learning of the violence and the hope in its proper context – and for us – it’s a deeply powerful story with a message that’s still relevant two thousand years later.
The Easter story, beginning with Good Friday’s crucifixion, is a challenging text. Recounting the gospel of Mark, we hear an account where the Roman authority – Pilate – is convinced to kill Jesus by the efforts of the Jewish chief priests. We’re told of a custom where at this festival one prisoner is released through the will of the crowd. This time, the crowd chooses Barabbas, and condemned Jesus to crucifixion. Pilate, who is imperial Rome’s local liaison to the then Jewish vassal state, offers his last words on the ruling to the crowd, “Why, what evil has he done?” And thereby Mark washes Rome’s hands of Jesus’ death.
This text is a difficult one. Written by an author trying to evangelize the Roman world, words get carefully chosen. Words like “they” and “people” – will trick the reader into thinking the Romans were almost blameless, and the Jews were all at fault, or that magically the Jews were all of one mind. Roman soldiers would be referred to just as “soldier” in the text, right after talking about a Jewish crowd, making some think the soldiers were Jewish – which they were not. Imperial Roman complicity gets hidden, and the Jewish people get blamed for things said or done by Rome.
Even the myth of the custom of freeing one prisoner places the blame solely upon the Jews. Besides there being no such Roman or Jewish custom at the time to free a prisoner, the name Barabbas is a way of saying, “son of the father.” Imagine a crowd chanting to free the “son of the father” and what that would mean. .. But later Roman readers would not know that. And here, early Christianity has a seed planted that would pit some Christians against Jews for the next two thousand years.
At 1pm, this past Sunday, according to CNN, “A man with a history of spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric (was) suspected of shooting to death a boy and his grandfather outside a Jewish community center near Kansas City, Kansas, and then a woman at a nearby Jewish assisted living facility.”… “The Anti-Defamation League said it warned last week of the increased possibility of violent attacks against community centers in the coming weeks, “which coincide both with the Passover holiday and Hitler’s birthday on April 20 (today), a day around which, in the United States, has historically been marked by extremist acts of violence and terrorism.” The boy and his grandfather were both Methodist. The woman was Catholic. All three were deeply tied to their religious communities, and took part in community events at the Jewish community center. They were living in peace with their neighbor.
There is a sector in our population that equates violence and power with personal freedom…. It’s an addiction to privilege that is affronted by diversity. It replaces community and solidarity with a strict devotion to the self over others. Watch-groups are able to predict that violence will occur in the name of Hitler. This particular gunman even invoked Hitler’s name when he was apprehended at a local elementary school. Seeking to cause harm to Jews, his hatred fomented his rage, and random people became victims.
Good Friday reminds us that horrors happen in the world, and we must pay attention. Jesus on the Cross is an indictment of power and rage in a world where Caesar rules – whether Caesar be in office with worldly power, or Caesar resides in the common heart – terrified by the threats of humanity’s common bonds. The death on the Cross is about a life that refused to submit to the will to power or the force of rage. In death, a life well lived reflected integrity and conscience. We are called to live with such integrity, and to strive to prevent such harm in the world. That is our devotion.
But we are not called to glorify this death or any other. Good Friday reminds us that life is sacred, worth living, and occasionally worth dying for. It’s also a reminder that humanity fails from time to time. We craft evil – when it’s easier to be kind. It is our role, as witnesses, to build a different world. As religious progressives, we can fixate so much on our inherent goodness, and forget our propensity for evil.
Good Friday reminds us that humanity has the capacity for both, which makes our actions, and our choices, all the more vital. Our goodness hangs upon the cross this hour. And we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline is not to move past it too fast – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. Redemption in the Easter story comes later – but first it marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose.
What is this death? The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. When we bear witness to the child or the teen shot dead because of the wrong time, or the wrong place, or the wrong color, or the wrong class. The Cross is there when society looks on in fascination or horror and stands paralyzed to act – only enabling the crime to occur again and again. There is no hope when we see this – but we can pray for purpose.
The Cross returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity.
The story of the Cross is not a myth to ease our fears of the afterlife. It is not solely a tale of someone making a sacrifice for our good – or our ease – for our comfort. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world. The lynching trees of our history and our present can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods. There is a cross that hangs on the corner of the street – on so many streets.
Inertia. Apathy. Numbness. They can plague us sometimes. With the barrage of so many stories of grief, of loss – we can succumb to hopelessness. We can ignore them all, by throwing up our hands, and saying, “Not one more thing. Not me. I can’t fix it all. So I won’t begin anywhere.” That’s the warning of the cross. You won’t be able to fix it all. … That’s the truth. The Christian message doesn’t say we can fix it all. It says we have to act where we can. It says – “On this day – Don’t look away. You need to see this. There is something that can be done for the person before you. For the Cross on this street corner.” You can choose to be the soldiers dicing over the garments of the man on the Cross, or you can be the onlookers gaping in mute horror, or you can be the women at his feet who care for the body and quietly resolve to change the world as best they can – to live their life in memory of a man killed by worldly powers and worldly privilege.
This is why we commemorate the life and death of Jesus. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.
Spiritually, we can also look at it as a testament to the audacity of life in the face of power. Christian theologian Delores Williams writes, “”Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather… the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life – to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between the body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit.” I feel this is the spirit of the Christian path that most strongly lives on in our Unitarian Universalist communities. How do we live a life of meaning, amidst all the world’s struggles around wealth, authority, and consumption? How do we build up communities when nations sometimes seek to divide and control? Which traditions hold us up and which traditions hold us back? Does a life of spirit have meaning to us any longer, and what does it feel like if it does?
The world of the bible is in some ways very similar to ours. It speaks of a people trying to survive within radically changing times. We are blessed here not to suffer under an imperial power, but many around us know the curse of poverty, or the imbalance in a stratifying economy, or the lack of equitable access to opportunities. Religion is changing, family structures are changing, how we view security, safety and information are all matters in flux. And today we focus in on the life of a prophet who reminded us there was a right way to live. In fact, his students were known as “followers of the way.” In this path, we’re asked not only to love our neighbor as our self. Not only to forgive 70 times 70. But to lift up the poor, to steer away from worldly power – and yes again – that some things in life are not only worth dying for,… but they are worth living for too.