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Posted in Small Group Ministry on May 10, 2013
SGM #36: Corner of the Sky
#36 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn - Based on the sermon, “Corner of the Sky” preached by Rev. Jude at First UU on 4/28/13 for our Annual Bridging Service and can be found online here: http://www.fuub.org/home/clergy/sermons/?sermon_id=111
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (For this session’s chalice lighting please light the chalice, sit in silence for 30 seconds.) Then go around the room and each share what your favorite movie is (this is a reference to the sermon this session is based upon.) You can also share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Reading: An excerpt from Rev. Jude’s sermon.
“The beauty of our faith – throughout all our smart-thinking, all our critique and challenge, part of it recognizes that there’s no one way to understand the world that’s absolutely correct. Our neat rows on Sunday morning are filled with folks who each hold a different view from the next. We seek to reflect the breadth of human experience without placing it in a box, catalogued and pinned. Follow Unitarian Universalism far enough down the road, and eventually it asks us (as Ebert described) to surrender more completely to the underlying mystery of the story – of our story. We point to a central awe at the heart of our lives – and we struggle to name it – as best and sometimes as worst as we can. Meditation or Mindfulness can bring us there. A dedication to God can bring us there. Compassion for the simple sake of compassion can bring us there. What we call it, or what discipline we use, matters much less than the openness to a sense of wonder in our lives.”
Share a time when you’ve allowed your “head” to rule your “heart” to your own detriment. Where has your head gotten in the way of your religious path? Our Sixth Source reads: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” Where has our reason created idolatries of the mind, rather than warn us against them? Likewise, where has reason brought us closer to a sense of wonder in our lives?
Closing: (please read aloud ) excerpt from Rev. Jude’s sermon
“Our religion is about the laughter and the tears. It’s about the heart at our center. It’s about how we are in the world, and how we strive to be. It seeks to ground us in the mystery that is our life. All the details will pass; all the facts will someday be forgotten; it will be the laughs and the tears that linger in our hearts. Always make room for them. Always make room for them.”
This sermon was preached on Sunday, April 21st at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island. It wrestles with the tragedy of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
A week has not yet passed since the tragedy in Boston on Monday. Over 170 people injured. Many of whom may never walk again. Four dead – including an 8 year old boy, and later in the week, a 26 year old MIT police officer. An impossible end to a day that is otherwise a marker of human perseverance. Some run for sport. Some run as a sign they have turned their lives around. Some run for countless charities – dedicating their effort for good. The event itself is inspired by the fabled run from Marathon to Athens letting the Greeks know they turned back the invading Persian army. The Greeks would rise to influence the course of Western History – arts, culture, and the roots for modern democracy. They laid part of the path for the political experiment we strive to continue today. The Boston marathon is a modern global improbability – 96 nations represented in this act of peace; this tribute to the human spirit. For the families of those affected – it’s an immense, physical tragedy; one that I cannot fully grasp. It’s enough to lose hope.
And we can do that. We can hold onto the moment captured vividly on TV. The bombs exploding in perfect video capture, over and over. As if they are continuing to detonate into this moment. As if the story stopped right there… and there was nothing more to tell. But that’s not how the story ended. The human story went on to show police running toward the victims to help. The story went on to to hear about marathon runners going the 27th mile to donate blood at hospitals. The story went on tell how a well coordinated medical response saved countless lives – lives that would have ended if there were even minutes of delays – but there weren’t those delays. Our emergency responders were prepared. They were ready to give their time to save the lives of strangers – strangers from 96 different countries. It’s enough to kindle our hope once more.
The successes; the ongoing triumphs of the human spirit do not give us back those three lives. They do not heal the scars of the 170 injured and the countless friends and families who know them. But they do take us away from the stalled journalism that fixates on the moment of the explosion. The triumphs do teach us that our actions matter. They remind us that every story doesn’t end on the worst moment, but begins again – it continues throughout our life. And when our time comes to an end, there is another runner to pick up from where we left off. There is always someone there to say – We are not yet through. There is more that can be done. There are lives worth knowing, loves worth growing, and a depth to our purpose on this earth.
The great statesmen of Unitarian Religious Humanism of the early 20th century, the Rev. Curtis Reese, once wrote, “[Humans are] capable of so ordering human relations that life shall be preserved, not destroyed, that justice shall be established, not denied; that love shall be the rule, not the exception. It but remains for religion to place responsibility at the heart of its gospel. When this is done, science and democracy and religion will have formed an alliance of wisdom, vision and power.” Reese asks us to put responsibility at the heart of our religious mission. With all the randomness of life; with all the moments of chaos and pain; he asks us to take responsibility for our responses. He asks us to approach life with a love that is central to our nature, a movement toward justice despite its inconvenience to personal privilege or power, and most of all, that we bring order to a chaos that can overwhelm us. We seek preservation over destruction.
The mission of our liberal faith can be articulated in so many ways, but Reese’s message is central to it. We must center ourselves in a call that cannot be denied – to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice. In the face of tragedies like the bombing in Boston,… or the bombings that continue throughout the middle-east with a frequency we would find numbing should they happen on our own soil,… we can not give into despair or inertia. We have a responsibility to this world, to our people, to our children. We may not be to blame for any one particular thing that happens to us – the 8 year old who died on Monday certainly has no culpability, no blame, for what was done to him – but we have a responsibility to live our lives in such a way that honors the memory of those who no longer have that gift. Will our lives be centered in our principles – promoting justice, equity and compassion in human relations? Will we strive to make sure everyone has a voice; that each life is sacred?
It’s not always a linear connection. Living a life with this type of integrity may reduce the violence in the world. It may inspire others to temper greed, or ego, or violence. Or it may not. For some it surely will inspire, for others it will go completely unnoticed. But it is a worthy ethic to live in response to a world of sometimes random violence. The chaos of terror is antithetical to the compassionate life. We can choose to live our lives centered so, as a form of public witness that there is another way. Those emergency workers running to the injured lived this way. The police whose gut reaction was to turn toward the bombs, not away, lived this way. The runners, running for a cause, or running to give blood – exhausted as they were, lived this way. We can too.
Trying to respond to a particular thing isn’t always easy, or sometimes even possible. It’s further complicated that we don’t have all the information at this time. Perpetrators’ actions could be based upon any number of strained philosophies. With Wednesday’s journalistic debacle where CNN falsely reported a suspect, it’s hard to know what even to trust when information comes out. Or now that we know who the suspects are, we continue to hear from “Chechen experts” that may be going to Wikipedia for their info; or listening to people that confuse the country with the Czech Republic.
And sometimes, we’re responding to sound bytes that are more concerned with personal ideologies than facts. There’s a national tendency to assess the threat of Islam when mass murderers are from Islam. It’s the very definition of White Privilege to know that when a White person commits an atrocity we will not explore the political threats of Whites to the American Way. At this time, we don’t have any clear idea why these two brothers did what they did. By all current accounts, they did not live lives compatible with extremist militant anything. Yet their ethnicity and religion is assumed to be to blame.
“During an appearance on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Wednesday, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) claimed that this week’s bombings of the Boston Marathon should give pause to immigration reform advocates who seek to reform the system….The Tea Party favorite said he feared people entering the country illegally or posing as undocumented Hispanic immigrants could carry out “copycat things.” “We know Al Qaeda has camps on the Mexican border,” he said. “We have people that are trained to act Hispanic when they are radical Islamists.”… On Tuesday, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) also argued that the Boston attacks should slow down the immigration reform effort.” Without giving any credit to the ludicrous “act Hispanic” line, let us remember that the police at this time had no suspects. No suspects. And yet, we’re already talking about a public policy implication that furthers a narrow political agenda of hatred – on the backs of the more than 170 injured, and the four dead. Now that we actually know that the suspects were immigrants from a former Russian provence, some politicians are arguing for more extensive background checks on immigrating children. In other words as one friend of mine put it, “The lesson of the Boston tragedy is that we need stronger background checks for immigrating children in case they someday grow up to perform acts of violence but no background checks for anyone actually purchasing a violent weapon.”
Lest we think these views only come from political extremists, think of the “…twenty-year-old man who had been watching the Boston Marathon (who) had his body torn into by the force of a bomb… he was the only one who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment searched in “a startling show of force,” as his fellow-tenants described it to the Boston Herald, with a “phalanx” of officers and agents and two K9 units….” Why? Apparently, he was originally from Saudi Arabia….
Twentieth Century Unitarian Universalist theologian, James Luther Adams, once wrote, “In our day we confront also the impersonal forces of a mass society with its technological devices for producing stereotyped opinion. In this mass society the individual is always in danger of becoming lost in the ‘lonely crowd.’ One is attacked by a stream of prepared ‘ideas’ and ‘facts’ that issue from the endless transmission belts of radio, movie and press. These ‘opinion industries’ provide a poor substitute for a community of faith. Insofar as they provide a community at all, it is for the most part the community of support for special interests – the interests of nationalism, racism, and business as usual. In large measure this ‘community’ is an instrument manipulated and supported by central power groups. In short, it is a form of authoritarianism.” Adams crafts an odd explanation. Our freedom to say, or do, or think whatever we want with modern notions of secular liberty, have led us down a path where we’ve become indoctrinated by secular idols. Nationalism for the sake of nationalism; racism for the sake of small egos and addiction to privilege; consumerism, money and power as an end to itself – an end that goes nowhere. His words seem to speak directly to our times, yet he wrote this in 1953.
I saw a political cartoon this week that had a newscaster frantically crying, “What can we do to lessen the grip of fear from terrorism?” In the following panel we see a person at home turning off his TV and smiling. There’s an urge to silence the sensationalism. We want to know what’s going on, but we don’t need to see a bomb repeating over and over with our kids potentially in earshot. That’s not journalism. It doesn’t inform us beyond the most simplistic – “this tragic thing happened.” It doesn’t educate a new generation on how to build a community centered in justice, equity and compassion. This is left for us to do. This is our task.
In the coming year, our congregation will review its mission and vision. This isn’t a bureaucratic task of paper pushing and language games. It’s a chance to reflect on our purpose; to identify what is utmost in importance; and speak why we do what we do. It’s a chance to ground ourselves so that when the horrors of the world repeat … we know who we are, why we are here, and how we will respond as a community of faith. Reflecting on this every five to the ten years is a healthy thing, and should come up from the congregation itself. It reminds us that we are not just a community that is everything to everybody, but a congregation that has a compass at its center that ever calls us, over and over, to transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice.
And this is not easy work. It is spirited work. It asks us to live our lives in such a way that it’s obvious to the world around us that we are here for something. We are here for the common good. There is meaning and value that transcends our individual egos. What goes on in the world may not be about us, but we must be ready to be about the world; to be relevant to the needs of our community. This is what a spirited life is about. It’s finding our compass and following it; even when the going isn’t easy – especially when it brings about little inconveniences. We continue to be blessed with life, knowing full well that others have lost their lives this week, and every week. We can not bring them back, but we can live with the knowledge that this life is precious, and should not be dragged down by the little boredoms, the small problems, the quaint naggings that sometimes attempt to steal our focus.
In the words of our offertory, “We are the flickers of yet unseen times. Life in its glory rushes on-ward. Longing itself into ever new forms. Finding the courage to burst from darkness.” We are what we have been, and what we will become. Life does not rest in the moment of pain, or loss. It draws us unceasingly forward; longing for new forms and new ways. May we be the stewards of our lives; caring for each moment with love as our guide.
 “American Religious Humanism”, by Mason Olds, p. 118. Revised Edition.
 The Essential JLA, p. 172-173. George Kimmich Beach
This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington, Long Island as part of my Candidating Week there for the position of Minister. It looks at how we choose to be together religiously – namely how we covenant with one another – and how that affects how we live our lives. Sci-Fiction fans will really grock it too.
I was sitting around a large banquet table up at the UUA Headquarters this past week- in Eliot and Pickett – our denomination’s Bed and Breakfast. A group of 11 of us were meeting together for a few days on a council that deals with staffing and finances. Think health insurance, retirement, and hiring practices for UU congregations. We’re going around the table introducing ourselves in the most boring way possible – Name, What Group We Represent, Where We Serve. After a few descriptions in, one member of the council jumps in and asks, “What’s your favorite movie?!” A blank look creeps on the person’s face as they are immediately thrown out of their dry rote, and it shifts into the warmth of the person inside. We’re out of our head, and re-living a moment of joy, or depth, or humor. Various answers – Lincoln, Chinatown, Arsenic and Old Lace – I finally went with -… The Empire Strikes Back.
There were a few more odd looks around the table as everyone’s faces went back to their memories of the movie. The cartoon thought bubbles popped over their heads, “Well that’s Sci-Fi.” “It’s not great theater – well not in the classic sense.” “!One of the lead roles is a muppet!” And then faces started to slowly nod. “The movie does stand the test of time.” “It does define a generation with its scope of wonder.” “Deep down we all want the Force to be with us.”
So something you should know about me right now, I’m a big Sci-Fi/Fantasy geek. Our lives are so serious. There are so many challenges and struggles in the world. I take it all to heart, and sometimes get very immersed with my work, my ministry…. Give me a muppet with a light-saber any day to balance that out.
Apparently, I’m not alone in the preference. The recently late, great, Roger Ebert agrees with me. He writes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is the best of three Star Wars films, and the most thought-provoking. After the space opera cheerfulness of the original film, this one plunges into darkness and even despair, and surrenders more completely to the underlying mystery of the story. It is because of the emotions stirred in “Empire” that the entire series takes on a mythic quality that resonates back to the first and ahead to the third. This is the heart.”
Listen to Ebert – we can encounter the range of human emotions from cheerfulness and joy to darkness and despair, until we eventually surrender to the mystery of the story. I have to wonder if he was just trying to write a critique of the film, or was he secretly throwing in a working definition of the role of religion in our lives. As Unitarian Universalists, we’re never going to agree on all things theological – especially if we try to think of theology in terms of beliefs to follow. That’s not going to work for us easily or well. Our faith is more focused on our shared commitments and convictions. At its best … at our best … religion helps us to appreciate the times of joy when they come; make sense of the despair that will find its way into our lives from time to time… while knowing we’re never truly left alone to deal with it.
And the beauty of our faith – throughout all our intellectualism, all our critique and challenge, part of it recognizes that there’s no one way to understand the world that’s absolutely correct. Our neat rows on Sunday morning are filled with folks who each hold a different view from the next. We seek to reflect the breadth of human experience without placing it in a box, catalogued and pinned. Follow Unitarian Universalism far enough down the road, and eventually it asks us (as Ebert described) to surrender more completely to the underlying mystery of the story – of our story. We point to a central awe at the heart of our lives – and we struggle to name it – as best and sometimes as worst as we can. Meditation or Mindfulness can bring us there. A dedication to God can bring us there. Compassion for the simple sake of compassion can bring us there. What we call it, or what discipline we use, matters much less than the openness to a sense of wonder in our lives.
Ebert’s review went onto say, “In the glory days of science fiction, critics wrote about the “sense of wonder.” That’s what “The Empire Strikes Back” creates in us. Like a lot of traditional science fiction, it isn’t psychologically complex… That’s because the characters are not themselves–they are us. We are looking out through their eyes, instead of into them, as we would in more serious drama. We are on a quest, on a journey, on a mythological expedition…. we’re in a receptive state like that of a child–our eyes and ears are open, we’re paying attention, and we are amazed.”
It’s this sense that I try to keep in mind when we talk about some of our principles. Take the fourth for example, where we covenant to affirm and promote the responsible search for truth and meaning. What does a responsible search even mean? Intellectually honest? Kindness in our speech – especially when we disagree? It also means we’re open-minded, we’re paying attention, that we allow ourselves to be amazed by life – a life that we did nothing of our own to be born into. When we move the center of our search, of our quest, …back to a place of wonder and respect,… it can feel a little humbling, right?
I really have to marvel at how all of this came out of a committee meeting round-table introduction…. It’s funny how the little insertion of humanity can turn the droll into something engaging. The questions of Who, What, Where – gave us all the facts and details we needed for basic intro’s, but left us dry. Bringing us instead to questions of passion, or preference, of joy – changed the nature of our meeting and it changed the quality of our interactions. People I have worked with time and time again – people who I thought were otherwise nice but I never made a real connection with them – finally clicked. By the end of the few days we started sharing more and more of our lives together after the work hours were done.
It’s in this sense that I hope we can root our shared ministry together in the years to come. A wise teacher once told me that it’s best to “Start as you mean to continue.” That practice has saved me heartache time and time again in the work world and in my personal life. Whatever negative practices we begin now will stay with us for the long haul.
Well, I’d like us to flip that. Let’s start a good habit together. Let us be open to a sense of curiosity for our differing views. Let us craft spaces for people to feel at home here whether they believe in God, or they do not believe in God, or they aren’t particularly moved one way or the other. Despite all our knowledge – mystery is at the very core of life – we don’t really know. But the journey, and how we handle ourselves on the road, matters very deeply. Silencing one perspective is just as bad as silencing the other. We are stronger together for our diversity.
The cover of our order of service has a quote from UU Folk Singer, Pete Seeger, “There’s a river of my people and its flow is swift and strong.” He’s an American icon – an American tradition all on his own. And his music is so often about building a world of justice and equity. It matches well Huntington’s own philanthropic commitments to peace, liberty and justice. Our strength as a people rests in the onward movement of our work together. That river is leading us to a world where the “Beloved Community”, so often spoken of by prophets like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – is a reality – even if we never see it in our lifetimes. Even so, it matters that we keep moving toward it. The strength of the river doesn’t rely on where the individual rivulets break away, the strength of the river relies on where all those rivulets come together. Building a world founded in compassion requires all of us working together with a shared purpose centered in love and respect. That very practice is a spiritual discipline – one that is much easier to say than to do. If you don’t think it’s that hard, try to remember the last time you were running late and stuck on a very long line at the grocery store, and someone was paying with a check in front of you. (It’s usually enough to kill my Zen.)
I’d like to take a lesson here from our Religious Education classes. Most of them have a practice that’s incredibly helpful that our adults could benefit from following. They begin every year by building a covenant together. They come up with promises they make to one another – not rules to follow, but practices to honor. They figure out as a group how to start in a way that they mean to continue. When one of us falls out of covenant, the class, the community, can kindly bring them back into right relationship. It’s something that’s a lot easier to do when the promises are hanging from the wall in magic marker. Everyone knows what’s expected. People aren’t surprised by cultural secrets, or in-house cliques.
It can seem like a small thing, but it’s probably our most universal spiritual practice. Something that our children and youth tend to excel at better than the rest of us – and it’s something we can learn from. This practice is at our heart, it’s our core. We are not a creedal faith. There’s no litmus test to define the right responses for factual questions of belief – rote or otherwise. In this religious home there is room for searching. Rather, we are a covenantal faith. We are defined by our relationships, by our commitments, by the promises we make with one another. Our principles themselves are all relational.
Here’s an example: our third principle calls us to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. Now I can’t think of a more dangerous principle to live by. If I tried to apply this back home with my parents – forget about it. Encouragement to spiritual growth… I love my my Italian Catholic Mom…but if she tried to encourage me in her way…we might not be talking for a month. But that’s the very discipline our religion tries to nurture and develop. We just need to center the practice in ground-rules – in promises kept – in covenant – so that when we go too far, or stall on the road, we have each other to hold us back or lift us up. And we’re not surprised by the outreach.
Your ministerial search committee gave me a beautiful glimpse into your congregation. Over and over again I heard, warm, caring, supportive. (And I will hold you all to it.) I also heard that the Fellowship has a strong commitment to the practice of shared ministry. In some ways it means how the ordained clergy shares leadership with our lay members. It definitely means that. It also means this practice of covenant. The ways in which we care and work together as a community is how we best share our ministry with one another.
I know Huntington’s Board is reflecting on the meaning of covenant now, and I’m grateful they already had that on their plate. I imagine we’ll have opportunities in the months ahead to reflect on this, but I encourage committees to begin their years by creating a working covenant for each group if they haven’t already. We can hold our meetings and do our work focusing just on the What and Where – something so common when we are busy studying for school, or immersed in our careers, or raising our kids alone. Or we can leave room to learn what our favorite movies are. We can craft space for our humanity to shine in between our tasks and projects. The work we do here is always secondary to the people we are building deeper connections with. All the details will pass; all the facts will someday be forgotten; it will be the laughs and the tears that linger in our hearts. Always make room for them. Always make room for them.
Our religion is about the laughter and the tears. It’s about the heart at our center. It’s about how we are in the world, and how we strive to be. It seeks to ground us in the mystery that is our life. It teaches that there is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for the forgetting of our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world.
I look forward to getting to know all of you in the weeks and hopefully years to come. “There’s a river of my people and its flow is swift and strong.”
Posted in Prayer on May 5, 2013
Spirit of Renewal, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We gather this hour in community;
A sanctuary of friends, of strangers, of family;
Some seeking an hour of peace,
Some wanting to be challenged,
To be uplifted,
Others hoping for an end to grief,
A commiseration for a sense of loss,
Of loved ones gone.
Each of us know pain and joy in our lives,
Each carry these in our hearts,
turn them over with our minds,
again and again.
May this be a place where we make space
for the burdens our neighbor carries;
celebrate our successes when they have come,
and ease one another’s journey as best we can.
May a Spirit of Newness enter our lives;
Teach us to respect our own grief, and pain,
Give it its due,
And learn to let go, when it is time to let go.
So too, teach us to feel joy when there is cause for celebration,
Allow it to touch our hearts, and enter our lives,
And may we not let it go before its time;
Let us not readily and perpetually sacrifice our joy,
before the idols of work,
Or school, or duty, or even loss.
Posted in Small Group Ministry on April 9, 2013
#35 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn - Based on the sermon, “Resurrection for the Rest of Us” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on Easter 3/31/13. This session explores the meaning of resurrection in our own lives.
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) An excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“Death and taxes are supposed to be life’s two inevitabilities and in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus weighed in on both. Taxes, he agreed, are a given. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he said. Death, however, he contested.”
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: An excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“It’s a truism that death is part of life. Parts of ourselves die every day. The process of entering adulthood necessitates the death of part of our childhood. We lose the comfort of breastfeeding or lose our fascination with dinosaurs or our childhood best friend drifts away. Relationships die, identities die, beliefs die, dreams die.
Most of these deaths happen to us, we are passive; we have no control over them. But the wisdom of this season suggests that for resurrection to occur, to awaken into new life, we need to be active participants in letting a part of ourselves die. Painful as it may be, we have to be accomplices to the killing.
We all cling to our selves as they have been. We cling to our fears, cling to our feelings, cling to our rationalizations for why our lives have to be as they are. Letting parts of ourselves die is one of the hardest things in the world. And actually collaborating, actively participating in the death of parts of ourselves is even harder. This is what the Phoenix does when it builds its own funeral pyre and this is what Jesus did when he carried his own cross on his back and this is what the earth does when it blows cold wind and snow onto its own back every winter, killing the grass and leaves and sending all creatures into hiding.”
Discussion Questions: Reflect on the many endings and beginnings in your own life. Which stand out the most as major turning points in your life where rebirth happened? It’s often easier to focus on the endings that brought us difficulty and regret. Were there times that seemed impossible in the moment, but healthy and transformative in hindsight? What grew from them in your life?
After this session, consider writing up a short version of this to share with Rev. Ana. She is seeking to collect these stories all month to be an on-going discussion in our community.
Closing: (please read aloud ) excerpt from Rev. Ana’s sermon
“The teaching of this season is that there is a force in the universe that makes resurrection possible for all of us – for those of us struggling, feeling stuck, feeling powerless, feeling alone – there is a force in the universe that makes it possible for us to be reborn into freedom, empowerment, and love. We are given little deaths if we are willing to die them and then we awaken.”
Posted in Sermon on April 7, 2013
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on April 7th. It deals with the difficult topic of gender, violence and public discourse.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. We heard a moving rendition by Melissa Paul this morning as our anthem. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.
There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.
I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep, this week, this month, this year seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.
A case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last month, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.
Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.
Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.
In my Good Friday homily last week, I reflected on how that day was the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. I want to return briefly to part of it because the message of Good Friday is important here – and as I was reflecting on the Passover week, stories like Steubenville were center in my mind. “On Good Friday, 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 of that day, is not to move past it – 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. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose. The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. What is this death? It 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 own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. They 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.”
“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going
I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.
Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.
“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.
Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.
Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.
“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.
Posted in Sermon on March 29, 2013
This homily was preached on Good Friday, March 29th at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn.
This is the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. 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 of this day, is not to move past it – 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. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day 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, or for loving the wrong person. 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 own 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 too 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 this day. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.
Posted in Prayer on March 10, 2013
Source of Love, God of Many Names, bring us back to ourselves.
With the closing of the Winter,
Help us to reflect on the places in our hearts where we have hunkered down,
Where we have closed ourselves to the bitterness around us.
May we let go of the biting comments of the past,
So they not fester in our minds.
May we make room for the coming Spring,
And for the seeds of the spirit –
that are striving to bud,
If only we would care for them.
Mother of All, bring us to your living water,
May we drink in your possibility.
The seasons remind us that all things are temporary.
All pains have a way of passing,
With new joys only a grasping hand away.
Let us not fixate on what is past,
Making it ever and always in our present.
Rather teach us to learn what is to be learned,
Mourn for what is gone,
To live brightly and sharply from those lessons,
And craft new stories for our lives.
Posted in Call to Worship on March 10, 2013
Gather this hour,
With peace in our hearts,
Warmth in our eyes,
And care in our words.
May we end one week,
And begin another,
Centered in our spirit,
Open to a renewal in our lives,
And focused on the path before us.
Posted in Sermon on March 10, 2013
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.
(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)
When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.
…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)
The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.
Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.
With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.
Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.
Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.
The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.
We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts. We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.” He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.
Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.” Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.
“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.
All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.” Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.
Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)