This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/4/15. It explores the role beauty can play as an inspirational role model in building a diverse, justice-centered community of hope. This reflection looks at recent events in Baltimore and the ongoing need to remember that BlackLivesMatter.
I was driving home the other day and was stopping a few cards back from a red light; when to my astonishment a mated pair of geese used the red light to cross Route 110 down by the Walgreens. To my even greater astonishment, when the light turned green, and the geese had not yet finished crossing, the Long Island drivers patiently waited – stopping traffic in all directions. Yes – Long Island drivers stopped patiently and waited. You could still tell the geese were New Yorkes though, because when the light changed to green, one of them did a little hop in the air and flared its wings and hiss-croaked at the cars to wait – and it worked.
This really stood out for me. Our local drivers can be some of the least patient people around. I see folks on cell phones; or routinely rolling through stop signs near where I live. I see drivers who are always in a rush to get to wherever they’re going, and often they look unhappy about the destination, even though they’re still in a rush to get there. And there’s often a rudeness around right of way and lights and turns. But you add two geese to the picture, and we become civil human beings again. The natural world somehow reminds us about the preciousness of life in a way fellow humans behind a wheel don’t seem to. We can be very good at dehumanizing those around us when we fail to see them as equally living precious beings.
Why don’t we do that with the geese though? I think there’s something about them being different; they’re not what we expect to find on a road and they snap us out of our humdrum. When we see them in a park making a mess, we may not appreciate them, but when they’re strolling by on the highway, we perk up. Maybe it’s novelty, or newness, but we take note. They remind me of the vase in our story earlier in the service. Sometimes, something that’s beautiful or precious can change how we interact with everything around us. We can add a new vase to a room and want to find it flowers, and clean the windows so the light shines on it better, and maybe redo the paint that we finally notice is chipping because we’ve added just a spot of beauty to a place.
Maybe the geese are like that for the Long Island driver too. “Ooo, maybe I should be my best self right now because the geese are visiting.” It’s certainly true in my household, maybe it’s true in yours; when guests are coming over, the house magically becomes spotless as if we always lived like that. Maybe people can be that for us too – vases that call us to our best selves because they bring attention to what we may have took for granted.
I was reading through a booklet from our archives that Lois Ann brought to my attention. It had a story in it just like this. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.
Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of beauty?” What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them?
We can use a few more new vases here that remind us to be our best selves. We have some projects we need to work on – especially fundraising – which for those who missed our congregational meeting last Sunday – is being led by folks like Ben, and Jenna and Ralph and Barbara. But we can use more. Do you have a vase you can share there? If you missed our welcome this morning, Kim had a generous offer of a one time financial gift to help close our short-term deficit budget. Can you join her in her generosity so that we don’t have to slow down our good and necessary work in the world? I believe our shortfall is an anticipated $500 per household. For some of us that’s impossible, and for others it’s possible. If you can, I would contact (a Board member, or whoever you spoke with on Canvass.)
Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us, as in the case of the intrepid geese on route 110. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building. I have Baltimore in my heart today. I imagine many of us are struggling with the impossibility of the situation; of the pain and the images. The situation is too raw, and we are still short on some facts, while certain news stations do a very shoddy job of reporting. Having colleagues I know serving the communities in Baltimore, I know not all we’re hearing always matches neatly with what actually happened. Time will surely tell us more. But I want to reflect now on the bigger picture, and wonder where beauty may teach us a life-saving message in a time of crisis.
A few days back, wisdom surfaced from the most unexpected of people (a baseball executive) in the most unlikely of places (twitter.) I’ll recap a short part of it, as I read through MotherJones. A few days ago, “when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people’s actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties. [He wrote]….speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”
Strong words, and words that come unexpected from an executive on a baseball team who lives far above the financial reality of the average American. I imagine some of us could argue with some of his points or perspectives. I don’t want to go down that road today. I share his words because however much you may or may not agree with Mr. Angelos, he paints a picture that is all too real for many of us. We have many folks unemployed or underemployed in our congregation. We may have adult children who are struggling with keeping home or job where they live. The shrinking stability of the middle-class is a very real pressure for many of us. And if it’s hard on the middle-class, it’s impossible on the working class. I see my own dad who served in the military and has worked every day of his adult life. He turned 70 last year and will continue to be working full-time for the foreseeable future. It’s very hard on hard-working Americans right now. So let’s remember this when we hear these very hard stories coming out of Baltimore – a city with communities that in some cases face unemployment rates of 30%. Let’s imagine for a moment what that hardship would be like for communities that faced that generation after generation, and then felt the belt tighten even further.
But where does beauty come in, and how can we be a people of beauty in light of these hardships? Our recent national trends of devaluing education, while increasingly funding prisons and for-profit prisons is a marker of the opposite of beauty. Shipping jobs oversees, funneling profits to the few, segregating where folks can live; prioritizing punishment over nurture – are all the opposite of beauty. Diversity, equity, and justice – are what beauty looks like in the public sector. We do well when we raise our people to find beauty in those virtues.
We have those struggles here on Long Island too. Earlier this week I attended a forum put on by the Suffolk County Department of Planning for area clergy. One person there was lamenting the lack of millennials in our area and they said, “We’re losing our millennials because they can’t afford the property tax.”
To which I responded, “We’re losing our millennials because they have $100k in debt from college; they don’t have $100k for a down payment on a house. And we won’t build enough rental stock for them to stay. The same practices we used in Levittown to keep out People of Color are now the same practices that are making your kids unable to stay here.”
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/19/15. It reflects on the spiritual implication of optical illusions.
Remember a few weeks back, I talked briefly about that black and blue dress that was making the news and social media. Or as the other half of us (including myself) see it – the white and gold dress? I want to begin there again today and go a little deeper into what it serves to teach us in our overly polarized world. As a quick refresher, in the lighting we see in this photo, this dress appears differently to different groups of folks. Right now I see white and gold. But if you put that dress in normal lighting, it would look black and blue to me. Apparently, it’s due to the different ways in which we have developed to adjust to night vision, and based on those genetic differences some of us see one color pairing and others see something very different. Or as one congregant asked me, “do you ever wonder if when we say we’re seeing the color red, that we’re actually talking about the same thing?”
We often talk about open mindedness as a virtue that allows us to see new possibilities, or to reduce conflict; to live and let live or to agree to disagree. The spiritual discipline here is in not finding ourselves falling for the trap of over-identifying with our ego as we define ourselves with our stance. When we get worked up over inconsequential things, because the differences feel like they are threatening who we are as a person, we know we’re going down that useless path. It’s a path we all go down often enough to keep it well trod. Those fights that quickly go to “you said” and are followed with “but you said” might be good examples.
But I want to look at openness this week more fully from the perspective of actual, inherent difference. When perception and reality may come up with really different answers. Or when two different perceptions of reality, even when in direct opposition, may both be correct. This type really unnerves us. Like we briefly spoke about a month or so ago, with the blue/black or white/gold dress, in a certain lighting people factually see it differently. Imagine dividing this room up by the blue/black viewers on one side, and the white/gold viewers on the other and requiring us to argue which is right. It would be a fruitless exercise in futility.
I think this particular image was so shocking to so many of us because it’s hard to accept that we may biologically see color or lighting very differently. The challenges to the simple truths in life may be the hardest to accept. There’s nothing complicated about this image, but we come to very different interpretations that are visually irreconcilable.
Often images get translated through the story we bring to the viewing. Just this past week, for those of us on social media, we’ve seen this image of all over the place. The cat begs the question, “is the cat going up the steps or down the steps?” On one level, it’s a cute optical illusion. It’s just lines on paper, or possible a 2D photo of an event. Do we put ourselves at the bottom of the steps looking up, or at the top of the steps looking down? It seems like an innocuous question, but how often is that exactly what we do in life?
Every time we hear or see something that affects our lives, we choose, consciously or unconsciously, how to interpret our relation to it. When adversity or success comes our way, do we view it as if we’re at the top of our proverbial steps, or at the bottom? Our sense of hardship or ease often colors which angle we take, and it’s understandable, but not always helpful or healing. I remember when I was in the start of my ministry, right after seminary, single and heavily indebted by two graduate degrees. I was living in an attic, in a Brooklyn home whose owners were a family with two teenage youth. My room was directly above their teen’s bedroom. I recall being worried at the time that if I didn’t get a wedding officiant job every month, my salary was no going to be enough to pay the rent. For me, at that time, I walked around acting as though I was at the bottom of those steps and looking up at a cat walking down. But I had a roof over my head, food to eat, a ton of friends who lived nearby, and the achievement of having had access to graduate education that allowed me to follow my dreams. For much of the world, folks might have seen all that as living at the top of the steps. It doesn’t change the nature of any challenges we face. Life can be difficult, and we can feel like it’s too much for us to handle, and from another perspective we might also be rather fortunate.
Perception versus reality. Aside from the extreme sources of sorrow in the world, where words fail us utterly, we have some ability to choose to feel like we’re at the top of the stairs. And we often can choose to feel like we’re at the bottom, even when we’re not. Sometimes the difficulty is not quite as deep as we think.
This picture here is another optical illusion, even if a bit cutesy. The artist manages to turn a flat surface into a 3D illusion full of depth and risk.The pedestrian is trapped at the top of a
ledge, with the dynamic duo scaling the walls to save him. We all can find ourselves trapped in this way. Our imaginations can fill in lines to turn solid ground into vertigo-inducing pits.
I think sometimes, we can even find some sense of satisfaction in seeing danger or anxiety where there is none. Like the cute sidewalk chalk drawing, seeing the story the way we are accustomed to has some satisfaction to it, even if we know it’s not really as it seems. It’s another trapping of the ego. When our sense of self becomes identified with whatever difficulty is before us, after time that sense of self can feel at risk if the problem goes away. It’s the classic story of the person lamenting that no one will ever love them, but who passes up every person who’s interested for one reason or another.
I’d guess many of us have been there at some point in our lives. Or remember the even more universal story from our teen years where we thought everyone else around us was secure in their bodies and their lives, everyone but ourselves. Ha! That was some optical illusion we bought into – and the negative story that creates changes how we live into so many of our moments.
We’re creatures of story. (queue hosepipe photo) This photo is another story. We see a bunch of lines on the ground, in color and chalk, and we put ourselves into it. We invent the water, we invent the hose, we pretend the fellow is holding the nozzle and that water is in the air. We do this because we understand the world through story. Humans are meaning makers, and from that truth, we understand the world. It doesn’t mean that life is devoid of actual meaning. I think that by virtue of living, we’ve earned an opinion on what’s going on; so we shouldn’t discredit the stories we come up with. They’re our stories and they have value. But when we live into the fantasies that cause us harm or grief – like the fantasy that as a teen we were the only ones uncomfortable with our bodies, or any adult version of the same – those fantasies never go away right – when we live into those fantasies we allow our gift to find and create meaning to turn into a curse. We take one of our greatest gifts as human beings and make it something foul; and we can choose to do that.
Sometimes we might both be telling the same story, but come to another conclusion. (queue concrete grasshopper). Now look at this young girl. She is clearly overjoyed with the wonder of the image of a giant grasshopper hanging out on the city post. She’s getting into the picture herself and bringing life to a city street where everyone else is blithely walking by from one place to another. (It’s a simple miracle that no one is on a cell phone in the background.) Now, if I ever encountered a grasshopper that was twice my size, a look of wonder and joy would not be found anywhere in the vicinity of my face. But that girl is choosing to take part in another story. And she’s right; it is a bit of wonder and magic amidst the everyday. We can sometimes choose to find it, even in places where we might be a little afraid of its newness or difference.
I’d like to share one last optical illusion. This one is thanks to our music director, Richard. He was telling me a story of a time he was in a FedEx store and talking with an employee who had worked there for 20 years. He asked them if they saw the symbol in the image. They responded, “what symbol?” I confess, when Richard asked me the same, I didn’t see it at first, it took me a moment to find it. Do you see it?… It’s between the letters E and X. FedEx’s professional marketers drew the letters in such a way that there’s a subtle image of an arrow going to the right between the E and the X. You don’t see it at first, but it’s dances around our subconscious; it’s impact on our sense of who FedEx is, runs wild without our conscious awareness. This type of optical illusion is a bit different than the rest. We’re not easily seeing what is hidden before us, but the message still affects us in subtle or sometimes obvious ways.
What stories in our lives surround us, and affect us, whether we’re conscious of them or not? What are the subtle but persistent stories that frame our lives and our choices? Peer pressure, shame for things we may have no control over, systems that direct certain people to certain places, the internal monologues of doubt, and insecurity, and helplessness. Where has someone told us along the way that X was possible and Y was not, and we chose to buy that map? The virtue of trust is something we’re reflecting on all month, and it’s a kind of heart/mind/soul… muscle… that we would do well to flex from time to time, or maybe a muscle to stretch from time to time.
What do we place our trust in? Do we place our trust in the well-crafted subtle or hidden messages that tug and pull on our minds and choices? Do we place trust in the meaning we choose to create for ourselves? Are we open to possibility, or do we maintain our sense of openness solely to that which has come before – good or bad? Do we find all the optical illusions before us (metaphorical or literal) and focus on how they can trick us? Do we focus on how they can open up a sense of wonder? Or do we learn to trust in our capacity to perceive, judge and direct our sense of what’s before us; owning the places where we do have control, and being gentle with the places where our senses slip from edge to depth?
There are countless angles to approach whatever is before us, and often the way we come upon something new or different is just as critically affected by the eyes we bring to it. My faith as a Unitarian Universalist is grounded in open mindedness because we often know, but we don’t always know, and sometimes knowing is only part of the matter at the center of our hearts.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Trust
As Winter finally gives way to Spring,
may we pause before another turning of the wheel.
Some of us are wrestling with hardship after hardship,
illness, loss of work, loved ones gone from our lives.
Teach us ways to trust in the possibility and the newness of hope;
may the lessons of the living world show us a path toward a new day,
with the ice and the frost – in our past – not forgotten –
but not in control of our path.
Some of us have allowed the Spring to make us gardeners of our spirit,
planting seeds beneath the surface,
like little moments of grace for passersby,
who have done nothing themselves to earn such a small gift of beauty, of life.
May we all be stewards of such hope,
and aware of the gifts that spring up unbidden, and uncontrolled,
where-ever odd and sudden place they may so come.
Mother of Trust, remind us in the fallow times,
that we have come this far, and deep down,
we know everything we need to know,
to move through the times of unease.
Change happens suddenly, and often,
event though breath to breath may feel like eternity.
When the crush of pressure and stress feels too much to bear alone,
teach us to lean on others in our life,
for to each of us comes such time.
And when we have the strength to spare,
may we give, what was once given to us, freely and fully,
These homilies were preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Easter Sunday, 4/5/15. They look at the meaning of the open door in Passover and the meaning of Holy Week in light of discrimination posing in the guise of religious freedom.
The Open Door
Growing up in my one-half Italian house-hold, we had an annual tradition of opening our front and back doors to our home on New Year’s Eve. My mom would say we were doing it to let out the bad and let in the good. I hear traditionally, you’re supposed to open all the windows and doors all day so that the draft can wipe away the bad spirits, and the open doors would welcome in the new spirits. In the middle of winter, that’s a bit much for my family, so we would just run from one end of the house to the other side at midnight and open them for a short time. I’ve had a good life, so maybe it worked. But growing up, it sure was fun.
Jewish tradition has something similar this time of year, but for a more profound reason. During the Passover Seder – like the one we celebrated last night – a door is left open to welcome the Prophet Elijah (who our choir just sang about) to the Seder meal. But imagine what else that means. Passover remembers a time when the Jewish people were enslaved by the Pharaoh. The story tells us that there were plagues and locusts that had raged throughout the land as a punishment for the oppression of the Jewish people. Whatever we believe was happening, we can agree that it must have been a terrifying time to go outside. And it’s in this time of uncertainty and fear, that the Jewish people open up their doors and welcome in the Prophet Elijah, someone we may have heard of, but certainly have never met.
The open door is a tradition steeped in a deep sense of trust in God, in the Holy; trust in a sense of knowing one is safe even surrounded by trouble and danger. The prophet Elijah is a herald of God, a teacher, and someone who is believed will return some day to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the Christian tradition the Messiah is believed to be Jesus, a savior of souls. But in the ancient Jewish tradition, the Messiah is believed to be someone who will liberate the Jewish people and bring the world to a place of wholeness.
So if we put ourselves into the Passover story, we’re surrounded by challenge after threat, and we unlock our doors and leave them wide open. This time of year reminds us that there is a religious truth to the practice of hope; to trusting that a sense of wholeness, peace and justice are within our reach, even if we feel surrounded by all the woes of the world. The woes sometimes are very real, but they don’t need to change the nature of our character, of who we are. We can still choose to celebrate, with family and friends, the people and places we cherish and have worth in our hearts.
The practice of the open door is also a way in which we build community. When we share our stories of struggle, of which there are many in our world, in our congregation and in our individual lives, do we share them from only a place of pain? Or do we share them, as friend to friend, or family to family, over a meal, with a sense of trust, that the joys before us will clarify the times of adversity and not be overshadowed by the hardship.
The Once Welcome Stranger
Our reading this afternoon, was a contemporary retelling of the Palm Sunday story. In the bible, the week before Jesus is killed, he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, welcomed by the people who are waving palm fronds. By some, he’s believed to be a leader who will free the Jews from Roman rule. By others, he’s seen as a great spiritual teacher and healer. The poem reminds us of the Christian belief that we find Christ in the stranger, in each other, in people we know and love and in people who are distant and unknown.
It also reminds us that in mainstream society we often hear folks fixate on the powerful, kingly Jesus who will come in glory and power. But, that’s the not the Jesus in the story. We can make a mistake by loving the idea of the powerful messiah more, than the humble Jesus who gave up power – or used his power – to help the weak and the forgotten. His ministry was to humanity at it’s most vulnerable.
Shortly after he arrives to goes to the temple to pray and finds that there are money-changers in the temple profiting off the changing of Roman coin to Jewish coin. The tradition was to sacrifice two doves at the temple, and because it was too hard to travel with live doves from the outer reaches of Judea, there was a strong local business of selling doves once pilgrims arrived at the temple. And the money changers were needed because the Roman’s only allowed Roman coin to be used for payments in Jerusalem, but the Jewish law required the sacrifice to made in shekels (what the Jews coined themselves.) It may not seem like a big deal to us today, but historically this wound up taking advantage of the poor and the downtrodden through costs of high fees. Jesus winds up flipping over the tables of the money changers in anger for their abuse of the poor.
Jesus is confronted about this outburst the next day, and through a series of events throughout the week, where Jesus challenges the systems of oppression under Roman rule, is charged with treason and killed. In the Christian faith, his death and later resurrection, are signs of God’s Grace and forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in most progressive Christian churches, it is also important to remember why Jesus was killed – because he chose to side with the weak, the poor, and the outcast, against the Roman government.
I remember this when I hear stories in the news, like the ones coming out of Indiana this week. Where a law was passed that legalized bigotry under the guise of Religious Freedom. This law says that any person, or any business, can refuse service to LGBT people because of the business owner’s religious convictions. There are a lot of people in our country that are confusing the freedom to worship as your conscience tells you with the freedom to discriminate against people because you feel like it. Religious freedom isn’t the freedom to persecute others, it’s the freedom not to be persecuted against. And I believe it’s against the religion they are claiming they’re acting in line with.
How does trust in the power of an ancient story, bring support, focus, clarity and meaning today, to a contemporary challenge like the one I just shared? It’s in this light that I want to con-temporize the Easter and Holy Week story, much like the reading we heard earlier retelling the story of Palm Sunday as if it were happening today…
They thought they saw Jesus in Indiana a short time ago. Entering the capitol with fanfare and accolades. They thought they saw him in the governor’s office; all smiles and handshakes as discrimination was written into public policy. But instead, they waved palm branches for Caesar this year. We gave unto Caesar what was God’s. We climbed out of the colosseums, and took hold of the lions’ reins.
They thought Jesus was seen in the pizza parlor in Indiana this week; martyred for religious freedom, as a store was “forced” to close after speaking words of hate in the guise of freedom. They were right. Jesus was there. He was flipping the tables and the trays crying out against the money changers of this day, who will cry religion but mean GoFundMe. The owner of the pizza parlor that said they hypothetically wouldn’t cater a gay wedding should they ever actually be asked to, has since raised over $800,000 from people defending their bigotry under the guise of religious freedom.
They were right. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week. He hung from a cross alongside the poor, the downtrodden, those who are rejected from society. He sees the lives of LGBT Americans, who are not protected by the law against being fired from their jobs. Jesus sees Trans folk who go homeless due to persecution, and remembers a time when his parents were forced to sleep in the night in a manger. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week; and we hung him from the Cross once more.
And the temple was torn in two once more. From top to bottom, the politics of bigotry shook and the rock of national silence split. Many who have fallen asleep from indifference were raised. Numerous states, corporations, celebrities, and even denominations (those on the left, the center and the right) have spoken against this fake religious freedom law, and some have begun boycotting the state.We have given to Caesar what was God’s; making religion subject to the laws of the state; pretending the money-makers, the businesses and corporations are houses of worship. Caesar may be forced to do the right thing this time from the harm to what he truly loves (as the boycotts harm the production of money.) When will God’s people bear witness for God’s sake, and not Caesar’s? When will we act with love, and not merely sound as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal?
I found the story of Easter to be powerful and transformative. I believe it has a depth of meaning that can point us back on the right path when we trip up. There’s the the challenge of Palm Sunday to remember a time when we have spoken or acted with fanfare for his message of compassion, forgiveness and charity, but we forget that – when in our daily lives – it’s hard to deal with the needs of the world. Or the flipping of the tables, and Jesus’ alignment with those who are most in need. In a world where a lot of people allow greed to win over compassion, it’s life-saving to have a message that teaches otherwise. Oppression, discrimination, bigotry, are always on the wrong side of history, and they are always on the wrong side of the gospel message.
But Easter is not solely this social justice message; it’s not solely the spiritual message of salvation and grace. Easter is also a story that lays the bedrock for community. Communities are built upon lessons of compassion and concern. Communities are well-founded when power and privilege don’t become the rule of law. And the virtue of forgiveness is critical, if we ever hope to enter back into community after another wrong is committed. Religions make central these teachings, because these truths are central to life. They must be told again and again. Happy Easter. May this day remind us of the commitments we have faithfully made, and help bring about a world that is worthy of the trust we have been given.
Check out my latests Huffington Post blog here: http://huff.to/1D2nEAg
This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It explores the role of doubt during the winter times of our spirit. It was part of our monthly Multigenerational family friendly service.
Happy first weekend of Spring everyone. (snowscape photo) It’s been a rough long winter for many of us. We’ve had a lot of strong snowstorms in quick succession this year, and it can feel really overwhelming, even if they might have been fun to play in or watch over cocoa at first. Over time, you can get sick of the dirt and the rock salt, and the wiper blade that at some point just decided to stop cleaning the bottom left third of your driver-side window (or maybe that last bit is just me.) And we just want it to be Spring already – how long do we have to live through this?
I know I felt that way Friday night when I realized we weren’t getting a dusting, but something I was going to have to shovel through one more time. I know when Brian got home from the train at 11pm at night, and saw 6 inches of snow on top of the car in the Huntington Station parking lot, and thick ice on the windows, without any gloves, that he let out a primal scream – a primal scream. Were there any other primal screams this weekend? (just slowly nod if you don’t want to raise your hand…)
And for some of us, this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; and a neighboring congregation, that many of us have attended year after year to start out the week of the Fahs Summer camp, burned down last weekend. One more thing can feel like just too much.
But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long.
I went for a walk to a brunch spot Saturday morning. I put on my winter coat, gloves, long scarf, hat, and snow boots. It was still freezing; snow was everywhere; and there was a fair bit of ice. I had to dodge at least one neighbor who didn’t see me as his snowblower was grinding up the layers in his driveway. The sky was gray and cloudy and I was wondering it I should have brought an umbrella too. In fact, the weather reports said rain in the morning. But the rain didn’t come. On my way home, the sky had turned sunny. I saw the color blue up there again – it’s a great color that I feel like we haven’t seen in awhile. All the snow melted fast, and my winter clothes started to be come too much. Gloves came off, scarf untied, the hat went and finally I was walking with my coat open. But for the first bit, I didn’t trust it. “Oh, a wind will come.” “It’s not that warm.” Not until, “ok, now I’m sweating” came along before I changed my actions to fit the world around me.
Whereas a friend of mine in NJ had the mantra, “I’m planning to hold off shoveling till Mother Nature does it for me.” And he was right, it melted before he had to do anything. Inside, he already moved into Spring, and I needed a lot of convincing to find my way there too.
A month or so ago I got new glasses. I had gone to the eye doctor for a check-up and realized that after years of my eye-sight being constant, it was time for a new prescription. I’ve worn contacts since I was in college because they’ve always given me better eyesight than glasses. But recently, science has improved on the technology around eye-glasses and they can now better adjust for what my eyes need than contacts can. But somewhere along the way, I got used to seeing things just a little blurry. It’s small at first, but over time, those small bits can add up to a lot. One day this Winter, it dawned on me that I haven’t been seeing the craters in the moon, or the fine edges of stars in the night sky for what has probably been more than 10 years. I know it might seem foolish to miss that change, but sometimes things happen so gradually, that you simply don’t notice.
These new glasses, thankfully, fix that. My vision was 20/20 all this time, but I was missing the fine lines of things. I remember for the first few weeks, I was walking around a bit stunned by the world. The harbor at the dog walk at Coindre Hall had neat, clean edges again. The leaves had fine details again. Nothing was really blurry before, they just lacked distinction. Now everything had a crispness to it again. I must have lived for 10 or 15 years missing all that and not knowing.
We all do that from time to time. Especially, when the Winters of our spirit go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …
For the past two years, Brian and I have hung large pots of Mums from our back patio to add some color in the Autumn when the other flowers are mostly gone. Sometime around December, they pretty much lose all hope to survive and I want to take them down. Brian insists on keeping them hanging. He thinks the now dead plants “still look nice” – in their own special way. Well, now two years in a row, sometime in February a family of doves moves into one of the dead hanging plants and builds a nest. (show slide of dove family) This next slide shows a photo of the family taken last Spring. It doesn’t look like our mom and dad will raise any birds this year, but they have used the plants as a safe haven on some nasty Winter days. So it looks like I’ve clearly lost that battle with the dead hanging mums for next Winter for sure. But I mention this because it’s important to remember in the times of the Winters of our spirit, that when we’re dried up and useless or exhausted, that maybe life can find new ways of being born; ways we might not have ever expected.
All of these stories have something in common. The biggest changes – the biggest surprises – all happen on their own. We may need to do the best we can sometimes when life gets cold or crazed, but the seasons of difficulty often go away as suddenly as they arrived. They often become moments of grace, where things ease up through no credit of our own. We sometimes need to remember that very much. What has been, will some day ease, and offer something new.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 29th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma.
A few weeks back, while I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act, we had a Sunday service here reflecting back on the justice work of 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Williams, reflected on her own memories of that time and being there. Her words should be on-line already or will be shortly and I encourage those who missed her talk, to read it when you have a moment.
I’ve heard other Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory. One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was a story I’ve briefly shared with our Fellowship before, but it takes on new qualities for me in light of my own trip to Selma earlier this month, so I want to share it with you again, and fill in some spots that are less blurry now.
A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Earlier this month, Joyce spoke at length about him and a few others. But briefly, Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings.
Ok, that’s the recap part I felt was important to lay the groundwork for today’s sermon. While in Selma this month, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. Why would the church risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma. We think of the issue being so clear cut, but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.
We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I think of Ferguson, and Staten Island most recently centered in the media’s view. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years? I wonder how soon we can forget the role institutions and authority had in the violent deaths around Selma of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, those 4 young girls in the church, and Viola Liuzzo. I recall Rev. Dick Leonard, one of the final 300 marchers who finished the 4 day march in Selma across the bridge tell his story of the National Guard being present to protect the marchers. But he relates that for several days the National Guard were facing the marchers as if they were protecting Alabama from the peaceful protestors. They would eventually be convinced to turn around and face the trees with their Spanish Moss and Ivy – where snipers would easily be concealed, but that’s not what they were inclined to do at first.
And those roads were dangerous. Viola Liuzzo, the young Unitarian white woman from Detroit, was chased down – car to car and shot dead. This happened after the march, after she had dropped some protestors off, when everything was already over. She was just helping out, and was chased down, and gunned down, on our roadways.
We remember the images of our own institutions turning water hoses on peaceful protestors, and local State authorities ignoring Federal rules. And I think of Ferguson, MO, where a court recently had to intervene and tell local police officers that, no, in fact they could not reasonably use tear gas on people who were standing in their own yard. Apparently the courts had to intervene because peaceful protests, including prayer rallies, were being interrupted with no warning and dispersed with tear gas. And the worse part of it, there were cases where there were no points of egress, and they were still gassed. Whatever your feelings may be about the initial case regarding the death of Michael Brown, and the officer who was found to have done no wrong-doing, I think we can safely say that our American institutions should not be using tear gas on prayer rallies or people’s front lawns. But I hear those stories, and I see those images, and I remember the water hoses, and wonder where do we find Selma today? How often do we look back at the civil rights movement and become guilty of thinking it ended 50 years ago, of doubting it’s still a current crisis?
I find that challenge with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Selma, we heard from Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of that movement. We hear folks around us, and sometimes it’s ourselves, confuse the message of #BlackLivesMatter to mean other lives aren’t as important, or it’s an indictment against all police. But in light of the reality of Selma then, we know that all of us aren’t treated equally. It’s message is to remind us that our nation isn’t acting as if Black lives matter. It’s message is to remind us that Selma wasn’t only 50 years ago. We still see disparity between the wealth and freedom of many people of color and whites. We still see concerted efforts to restrict the rights of minorities to vote, as evidenced by the rapid response in some states of restricting voter access the very day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. One recent statistic pointed out that we currently have more black citizens in prison than were enslaved prior to the Civil War, often over non-violent crimes. Something is morally broken, and we need to stop pretending that it’s not a blazing crisis today. We can look at any one incident the media makes a flashpoint of and say, well it’s not really that cut and dry, and I think often the critic may be right. But those incidents where polarizations distort fact, don’t change the reality of the broader picture of our prisons, and our jobs and our access to voting, and the deaths on the street.
Our model of journalism has shifted over at least my lifetime to fixate on opposing views, while watching them duke it out as if there was no room for nuance or complexity. And then we try to change our world from the perspective that there are only two positions – one being right and the other wrong. That hasn’t worked for us. Whatever our opinions of the judicial rulings concerning the tragic deaths of so many men and women of color every week and every month in our country – yes every week and every month – a fact that should shock us into action – they are one tragic side of the civil rights crisis. Even if we doubt blame in these rulings, we still have voter suppression, we still have a system of imprisonment, we still have unequal access to education, and jobs, and services. These were all tied to the Selma struggle, and I see Selma still today.
It is with this lens that I challenge us to engage, reengage or renergize our work toward justice. Following the service, Diana Weaving will host a visioning meeting for our Journey Toward Wholeness group here in the Main Hall at 12:15pm. Please come, and lend your vision, and your commitment. At the end of this month, I’ll be attending a talk at Stony Brook to hear once more Rev. William Barber speak about the pressing present needs in the on-going civil rights movement. He is a founding force for the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and several of my colleagues hope this will be inspire the start of the Moral Mondays movement here in Long Island.
I heard Rev. Barber speak in Selma and he’s a powerful speaker. If you’re available to attend on April 28th at 7pm at Stony Brook University, I would love for you to join me. He eloquently reminds us that our movement for social justice isn’t a political movement. It’s not republicans or democrats. It’s a moral movement.
The platform of this new wave of the ongoing civil rights movement is as follows:
1. EQUAL JUSTICE: Equal Protection Under the Law — Justice Without Regard to Race, Religious Beliefs, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation, Immigration Status or Physical Disability.
2. ECONOMIC JUSTICE: Policies that support our labor force, including a living wage, access to healthcare, the right of all workers to organize and bargain collectively for pay, benefits and workplace rights.
3. EDUCATION EQUALITY: Provide a well-funded quality public education for all.
4. HEALTHCARE FOR ALL: Safeguard the health and quality of life for all.
5. VOTING RIGHTS: Protect and expand voting rights and ensure equal access for all voters to improve voter participation.
6. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE & SUSTAINABILITY: Policies that provide clean water, air and food and ensure green spaces, and promote sustainability for all communities.
Selma is today. Most of these 6 talking points were part of the movement led by Martin Luther King 50 years ago. It’s not new. It may be even more inclusive, but it’s beyond political; it’s ethical. The language Rev. Barber would use is the language of sin. Although as UU’s we don’t believe in the concept of original sin, we certainly recognize humanity has imagined countless ways to act from greed, hatred, and indifference. Whether the word sin speaks to you, or not, what it points to is very important. There are things in life that are right and wrong. That’s not just politics. Those six talking points around justice: broader equality, economic, educational, health, democracy and environmental – are issues that neither of our country’s two big parties gets right all the time or maybe at all. We can pretend that it’s just an intellectual game of politics or we can recognize that there are ways in which we as a people are complicit in harm on each other and on our planet. And we can respond with faith, conscience and integrity.
Each succession of the civil rights struggle has echoes of its predecessors. But each turn toward justice is developed upon the efforts of countless unnamed individuals. Look for your place in the history and future of this work, because it truly takes all of us to make this possible. Some of us will be called to travel our country to stand witness, and others will need to stay behind to do the work in the corners of the world in which we choose to dwell – everyday. What corner can you inhabit?