This Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/23/17. It explores the role of doubt and faith in light of living into the message of Passover and Easter.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have a lot that go on this time of year – religiously speaking. Passover and Easter meant we were celebrating two, difficult yet ultimately joyous holidays, in quick succession. Saturday night had song, and food, children pantomiming rivers of blood and hosts of frogs. And if you can’t imagine what pantomiming rivers of blood what might mean, don’t worry, no red crepe paper was actually harmed in the celebration of the holy day. And the following morning, our children enjoyed an Easter egg hunt, in our Memorial Garden, in what might have been the most perfect Easter weather I have ever experienced. One of the things I love about our Fellowship is how the community designed a memorial garden that would be warm, lovely and welcoming enough that our kids would enjoy an Easter Egg hunt there – and that our folks would want to craft spaces that were welcoming to all ages.
Being so open to play, being willing to shake the norms, or shake worn expectations, sometimes leads to some odd places. A few years ago, when I was serving another congregation, I think I saw the envelope pushed a little further than I might have been ready for. Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel of a UU church with a very traditional Neo-Gothic style architecture; stain-glassed windows, wooden pews, solid stone walls. I was looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery. I was mentally preparing for the service to begin when our latest guest walked up the aisle and sat in about the 4th row of pews in the front and center just off to the left…. Now I knew the 6 foot tall (counting ears of course) Easter Bunny was coming; but I thought she was going straight to the children’s party downstairs. Now – this is true for us here too, so please try to take it to heart. You see, in the first few years of ministry at a congregation, there are so many wonderful facts like this that get left unmentioned because everyone else kind of knows, so people assume I must too. (Like even this morning, I knew a dragon was coming to the service, but until last week, I didn’t know we even had a dragon that I could call upon. Someone should have told me we had dragons…). So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing the Easter Bunny decide to worship with the UU’s for our then very traditional Easter service. Add in my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was a rather unexpected challenge. (So please hear me, if anyone is getting any rabbit ideas for next year… [shakes head no].)
That famous guest reminded me of my childhood expectant Easters. I more or less got the religious meaning of the holiday at the time as a kid but to be very honest I was just as focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar-induced coma of the sweet-tarts. (Remember when we could eat a punchbowl of candy without getting sick? Oh the good ol’ days.) The deeper appreciation of Holy Week would come later, but I do recall the period of “great waiting” that was the hallmark of this time.
That’s the sugar-coated stories I remember – “The Very Hallmark Easter.” (This might be a little less pronounced for those who were raised Jewish, or maybe not since commercialized Easter knows no bounds in the modern US.) But both the Jewish story of Passover and the Christian story of Easter are coated in blood, not sweetness. They culminate in hope but they are rooted in pain and sorrow. They speak directly to an all too uncomfortable fact of the lives of so many people on this earth. In the U.S. we are very fortunate to not have to live daily under the realized threat of military violence from foreign powers, although many of our people are increasingly feeling unsafe from legal changes and practices. So it may, or may not be difficult, to imagine how just the repercussions were that we hear of in the scriptural stories. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 16 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke, that Exodus speaks of, where God brought the Jewish people out from under.
Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Verse 51 goes on to conclude, “That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.”
The act of sacrifice and covenant culminated with protection for those who were violently oppressed and brutal punishment for those who were guilty of their abuses. But what then? Years of oppression over? Sacrifice followed by hope? No, we pause in the story of Exodus where freedom from bondage is won; but it’s not too long before the people succumb to uncertainty. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, erecting golden calves that promised the certainty of old bondages, rather than the promise of what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt held the people back another 40 years to wander, before the promise was finally realized.
Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story; which is also the human story. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us – whether it’s emotional, or financial; our health, or our heart. We wait for the news, we wait for the resolution, and then the day comes. Sometimes it’s the way through we hoped for, or the message that the promise land is out of reach, for a time, or maybe it seems that it’ll be out of reach always.
I believe the Jewish story of Passover, and what follows after, is a reminder that how we handle what comes before us – is what determines whether we feel like we’ve found our way home, or we’re lost in the desert that is the pit of our despair. Sometimes we may be the source of what causes our suffering, and sometimes the suffering that befalls us would be there regardless of anything that we could do differently. That tragic health prognosis for ourselves, or our loved one, is not our fault, but at some point we need to choose whether in light of it we’ll find our way or we’ll be lost.
In this story, the God of Israel seems to be saying to us that the path ahead is possible, despite it all, if we stay true to our hearts and keep our integrity.
The Christian story is similar. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, now retired, famously said, “The cross would cast no shadow were it not for the light of resurrection morn.” Jesus, a teacher of non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope suffered the cruelest corporeal punishment the Roman Empire executed. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and highwaymen. The saving message of building that beloved community on earth; the message of turning us back to our humanity through these virtues he extolled, is tempered by the painful reminders of worldly suffering. The way forward must ever remember the difficult truths of our world if it can ever be followed. Transformations, and resurrection, have no meaning if they don’t honestly accept the reality of human experience and suffering.
Some say that suffering is redemptive…. I would not be one of those people. Suffering can be crippling, or suffering can be transcended, but any redemption that occurs through suffering is only in light of that suffering, not because of it. The moment of resurrection in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships, brilliantly reflects back like that light of Easter morning. We do not need to suffer to be reborn, but many of us only choose rebirth when it gets too difficult not to…. Even then, it’s not too late.
What of the week after the Resurrection that is central to the Christian story? A woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness Jesus and begin to spread his gospel. His other apostles, the men as it happens, were huddled hidden in a room upstairs – fearful. In the Christian lectionary, the readings that are given a week after Easter are found in, John 20:19-31
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (which I would clarify were their own people), Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the microcosm of the perennial story of liberation and imprisonment. The greatest moment of Christian salvation has occurred and the apostles of that movement are hidden away upstairs with their doors locked. Whether you believe this story is metaphor or fact, imagine for a moment being those apostles. You’re terrified of your own people. You’re scared that the government – the Roman Empire – might be coming for you next because you were part of some fringe movement that was supposed to end with his execution. We’re supposed to be free, but we lock ourselves away, scared of all those people who seemed familiar and safe a moment ago. The story tells us that liberation and resurrection has just occurred, and for the life of us, we can’t see it. We haven’t even gotten word yet.
That’s what we see with the apostle Thomas. Scripture continues, “Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I’ve always found this scene in the story very curious. It seems to be suggesting that those who require proof in order to have faith are less blessed than those who have not seen and yet still believe. Centuries of Christian interpretation can be summed up with the critical phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” The Agnostics and Atheists among us might have cringed at some point in their lives over this imagery – (or maybe they may have been proud of it.) I find this scene curious because a week later, one week after the resurrection moment, the door to the room the apostles were hiding in was still locked. They’ve all seen their risen Lord, and claim to be overjoyed in response to Jesus’ acclamation of peace. They are saved, and are the rock of the church to come. And yet, a week later, the door is still locked.
It leads me to think they’re all still scared, and they don’t yet have that sense of liberation, of redemption, of freedom we’re often led to believe. It’s very human. They’ve been led out of Egypt and yet can’t walk out of their bedroom. So what does this mean for us? We’ve gotten word that the prognosis is good, or that our kids made it home from the war, or we got into the school we really wanted to, but we can’t let go of the fear of what might have been. I remember healing from the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian – I’m coming on that 7-year anniversary in a month. It took me me a while to walk on my own without a cane or splint. But even though I got the seemingly miraculous news that nothing was broken even though I was thrown 10 feet in the air, it would be months before I would believe I could do much with my leg. I was fine in body, considering the seriousness of the accident and the couple of weeks where I really couldn’t walk, but I was literally locked up in my second floor apartment, up a flight of stairs, that I scarcely thought I could climb back down. More than half of that recovery was a matter of the heart not the body. If the prognosis had been bad, any recovery that could of occurred would have been entirely a matter of the heart, not just half of it. What are you locking away in a room up a treacherous flight of steps you can’t seem to find a way back down from? And the teacher and prophet reminds us, “Peace be with you!”
My childhood cravings told me these times of year were coated with sugar and sweet. They led me with great excitement to the moment of celebration, the moment of fun, the moment of beauty in all it’s finery and splendidly colored eggs. There were giant 6 foot tall bunnies aplenty to bring a smile to my face – and I was very glad for it. The hard work though, begins some point after that moment. All the information is in, the facts seem set, and we now have to do something with it. One week after, life continues on, whether or not we’re ready for it. The news can be liberating or mesmerizing or terrifying as we huddle in the corner. When you catch yourself putting the blood on the door in the hopes of the Angel of Death passing over, or you find yourself feeling in your body like you’re truly hanging from the cross – stop. Take a breath. It might be all you feel you can do, so you might as well do it with intention. Come back to that moment. Fill the way forward with intention as often as you can.
Some of us will doubt no matter what; others will say they are overjoyed with their lips, but remain trapped in their hearts; and others will find a way to keep ourselves imprisoned in action, when all signs had pointed toward liberation. But like these scriptural stories, there is always another opportunity to let go, to get out, to accept or to heal, if only in the heart and not the body. Beyond or despite the facts of whatever situation we find ourselves in, what is most crucial is how we deal with the moment, and not what the moment told us. One week after is when the difficult work begins.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/26/17 and looks at how adulthood is defined by the risks we take, and how we own the choices we make.
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague who was lamenting the pain he was feeling from a likely pinched nerve. He basically asked, ‘is this how you know you’ve turned 30?’ I told him that I knew I had turned 30 when older friends starting saying, “Oh, just you wait…”. Then I knew I was 30. I’ll add now that 40 has the same, “just you wait” but the tone these days imply a healthy dose of “welcome to the club.” Adulthood isn’t for the feint of heart. But aging and growing up, aren’t just a range of pains; they are a series of risks that define a life.
Growing up is a risk. We risk our selves, we risk our comfort, we risk change. Nothing of this we really have a choice about, the river of our lives will keep flowing so long as we are here – but we do have choices over how we respond to it. I think the hardest part of all this is in the lessons we learn for ourselves. We heard a bit about that in our Wisdom story earlier in the service about Nasruddin and the boy who ate too much sugar. How often do we find it easier to tell people how they should live their lives than we do in changing our own behavior? The boy is definitely eating too much sugar, but Nasruddin takes a month to tell him, because he first has to learn to stop eating so much sugar himself. There’s a certain integrity in not giving advice you can’t yourself follow; but if we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely hold back from teaching others what we can’t ourselves do. It’s a sort of projectile-adulting onto others where we can’t ourselves adult. We’ve all seen it, and we’re probably all guilty of it – over and over again.
On Thursday morning of this past week, I attended a collegial breakfast with 20 or so local Huntington area clergy – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith. Imam Mohammad spoke at length about scripture, its messages and the subsequent choices we make from it. There was an overall focus on remembering one of the hardest lessons in life – that doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, is worth it in the long run. For the Imam, if you follow the teachings of Scripture, God will find a way. What I found profoundly true in his words is the notion of risking our values into our lives. We don’t have control over all things, or even sometimes it feels like control over almost anything, but we can make value-based choices that help build the Beloved Community in our corners of the world. We can also make value-based choices that build rancor and hate. Even when we don’t have control over much in our lives, those are our choices we still have to make.
Part of the Imam’s teaching circled around the tragic misappropriation of the Koran’s teachings to foster terrorism. Even though the Koran specifically teaches against suicides, killing outside of self-defense, and generally calls for being accountable to our neighbors, some will take it to fulfill their own cultural worldview. As I spoke at length last week about how our own national American cultural Christianity sometimes subverts the bible to meet their own ends, Islam wrestles with this same challenge.
But it was also heartbreaking to know the Imam needed to clarify this. He even went on to say that Islam needed to own their problem where some are taking the Koran’s teachings in vain. In that spirit, I would say the same for white Christian men in the US. White Christian men cause most of our homegrown terrorist attacks; the evil of the KKK is certainly rooted in a misappropriation of cultural Christianity. This is far more serious than the cute story of sugar-habits we heard earlier but it remains instructive, before we tell others how to fix their problems, we need to own our own. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that as we point out the faults in others, we still need to attend to our own. We can’t continue pointing a finger at other groups without sorting out our own home, or it becomes a tragic distraction from the crises we cause or allow to go unchecked.
This is heavy on my heart this week – owning our own faults – probably the most critical aspect of real adulthood. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have already heard this. I am going to take the liberty to share with you part of a public letter 6 of my colleagues and I crafted this week, that impacts our denomination and our relationship to institutional racism. There has begun a major public conversation around this, and it’s important that our Fellowship’s members are fully aware. Here is an excerpt from that letter.
“It is, once again, time for us to recognize how racism defines our own institutions and to work toward the demolition of this dangerous, debilitating system. It has come to our attention that the hiring practices of our Unitarian Universalist Association favor white people. With the recent hiring of a white, [cis] male minister, the entire Regional Lead staff in the Congregational Life department is white. Of the 11 people on the President’s Leadership Council (consisting of all department heads), 10 are white. The one exception is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness. Of the entire UUA staff, there are currently only two Latinx religious professionals, one of whom is Rev. Peter Morales whose terms ends in June.
The “Ends Monitoring Report” from April 2016 reports that, of the categories of employment within the UUA, people of color were no more than 11% of any group other those considered “Service Workers”. “Service Workers” represent the bottom of the organizational chart and are therefore the lowest paid and represent those with the least power. People of color represent 84% of that particular group. In no other category are white people fewer than 75% of the total.
The practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us. It is imperative for the fulfillment of our faith that we strive for the manifestation of a just society. It is in our communal spiritual path that our faith is powerful and the demonstration of that faith is made known insofar as we are able to realize justice in our own institutions, using that as a mirror for society at large.
The ongoing dismantling of white supremacy in our system is difficult. It requires a reimagining of our own culture and an openness to the myriad ways marginalized peoples will challenge the status quo. But, there is a grace found in our willingness to disassemble generations of assumptions found in white culture. It is in this process we might find our greatest joy and the deepest fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Unmasking white supremacy lurking in our system and within ourselves is a necessary first step toward our shared liberation. Without it, we continue to live in the stagnation of white dominance.
The purpose of this open letter is to call attention to current hiring practices of the UUA (recognizing that our own UUMA is not exempt and that we have not fully considered practices of our other major UU institutions) with the hope that hiring practices will change and a system of monitoring the success of creating a multicultural staff will be part of a public conversation. While members of this group have started a dialogue with UUA staff responsible for hiring, we are hoping this letter will ensure transparency in the process. With regionalization, ministers and congregations are that much more distant from the inner working of the UUA making clear policies around hiring practices all the more necessary. In addition to the policies, we require specific metrics to measure the success of those policies and an accounting at each Ends Statement Report. We call on the UUA Board to reconcile the results of each year’s hiring with the goal of increasing racial diversity on our Association’s staff.”
In our denominational election year, this has already become a national conversation- and our group cited above – are only one of many groups of people working to draw attention to the crisis. I am glad that all three of our candidates for UUA President, have already weighed in on action steps they would take – to varying degrees of specificity. The groups and individuals working concurrently to address this issue appear to all hope for open communication. I’ll be encouraging our own Board and Social Justice team to reflect on this. As part of our religious commitment to democratic values, our Fifth Principle, our congregations can weigh in, and communicate concerns to our denominational Board (email@example.com) which will be discussing this issue at length at their April 21st Board meeting.
I’m also mentioning this in relation to our own work toward unlearning racism in our community and our nation. We need to fix our own denomination if we’re going to try to fix the world. Otherwise we come across as strident and pedantic, not transformative. In our own Fellowship, I’m working with our Sunday Programs team to intentionally bring in more preachers who are women and people of color. Too many years we’ve had mostly white men speaking from our pulpit – and our team is working together to change that this year, and in the years to come.
I want to close by telling you a folk tale that I probably shared once before during our wondering portion of the service – maybe about 2 years ago – but address it at length this time from an adult perspective.
(Tell story of The Stream.)
When I talk about this story with kids, it’s a way of approaching change, and trust. But today, we’ve looked at the harder part of the risks in adulthood – owning our own shortcomings, fixing the world around us by starting with ourselves. And that remains as true for ourselves as it does our Fellowship; as it does our denomination, or our nation. But reflecting on adulthood, for me, resonates with an odd sense of looking to what came before, and wondering about what will come next. As we grow up and mature, so many stages in life feel so different than the last. Try to remember back to leaving elementary school and entering into junior high for the first time. Maybe you felt so big, or maybe you felt at such a loss. But there probably weren’t going to be the simple boxes of milk for snack time any more. The world was different. It only got even more complicated as we graduated, maybe we married, or had kids. The aches and pains come as we age, but adulthood is less about growing older, than it is about adjusting to new challenges, tougher risks, and different landscape after different landscape.
The stream remembered a wind that it could trust. Each new stage in life that comes knocking on our hearts, echoes a truth we heard some time in the past. The lessons and memories that came before, we carry with us past every desert, and over every mountain. What may come, surely might not be easy, but we’ve seen newness before; we’ve overcome hardship; we’ve been the new kid in the classroom. Life is a series of landing on distant shores, after so much that changes our visible life – we age, we mature, we weaken, we grow stronger, we break. But the essence of the stream stays true through it all – even if we feel defeated and torn down – our eternal stream runs through it all. Life that has walked, and crawled, and flew through millennia on this planet, is the life that beats in us today. That life can learn to remember, once again, a wind that it can trust, through all the dry times of our lives, until we can run free again, after the next challenge, and the next.
 Rev. Peggy Clark, Rev. Dawn Fortune, Rev. Jude Geiger, Aisha Hauser, Rev. Robin Tanner, Rev. Julie Taylor, Rev. Erik Wikstrom
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/19/17. It explores what the “Alice in Wonderland” story can teach us about a world that’s turned upside down–and how we can turn ourselves right-side up again.
I had originally planned to preach a lighter sermon this week, after several heavier weeks in the pulpit. With the turning toward Spring, we hoped for a more airy service; but in light of our national news this week, that would feel too tone deaf. But we decided to keep with our originally planned story earlier in the service around Alice in Wonderland – specifically about the March Hare – because the mad antics of this most famous children’s story remains relevant despite it all. We heard earlier about the light-hearted origins of the “mad as a March hare” reference that led to the famous storybook character, the March Hare. The Tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland would have been a shocking vignette for Victorian England; propriety mixed with mad-hatted rudeness. The recklessness of this tea-party inverted all the social norms for the day. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time. Hold that image in your mind as I speak today. We’ll come back to it soon enough.
Several years ago, my husband and I were driving from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR; but maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianty doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment where I lamented, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.” (Yes, this is exactly what car trips are like when you’re married to a minister.) Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
This sermon has become largely about how our nation has gone astray from the basics of religion – with the aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, that’s how I always was taught to understand what it would mean to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelation. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent. Too often, it’s leveraged to further partisan aims or issues over actual scriptural truths.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or more likely some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, and that false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said; that we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up. I get very worried we’ve lost our way when we’re discussing cutting support for school lunches for hungry kids, or food delivered to seniors who can’t get out on their own – programs that have bedrocks of our safety nets for generations.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. One of the major Baptist news feeds this seek, just called out the national desire to spend more on ways to kill people with our military while cutting back at feeding our elders. I would say that this shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind a partisan smokescreen; the Baptist press simply called it “sin.”
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the partisan politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Anyone remember that 1975 classic movie called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward. The reality of the 1970s white flight would come to vividly impact housing choices out here in Long Island – to this day.
The movie “Network,” had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe this all needs to start with anger. I believed that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger. Nowadays, I’m less certain. Anger is a real emotion that speaks to the injustice in the world; it’s telling us something. But we can’t stay in anger. When we dwell in anger, it’s a warning sign. Dwelling turns into that sort of up-is-down version of Christianity — don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. That’s a false teaching.
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now at the tail end of a recession, where not everyone has returned to employment. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us, and the subsequent return to living the values we already know. What are our golden calves in 2017?
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? Would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. If you came early this service, you saw pictures of our Grow to Give Garden. If you haven’t taken part yet, I encourage you to reach out to Beth Feldman who leads our warm-weather food ministry here.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 10 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming to an end, this shelter closes till the end of the year though.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up. Our pastoral care associate, Gerri Farrell, and I are beginning to work with LI-CAN on Long Island to explore how we can make headway against the opioid and heroin epidemic. If you’re interested in helping, please do reach out. And others are helping with undocumented people who are being called to court – to walk and witness with them during that scary time. If you’re interested in being trained to be such a witness – reach out to our social justice co-chairs, Diana Weaving or Steve Burby. There is much to do locally.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In light of recent US Budget proposals, I worry around some of our national choices, and how far afield we’ve gone. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
I’ll close with the words of the poet Marge Piercy who we heard earlier this service. She responds to this madness with, “It goes one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say No. It starts when you say We and know who you mean; and each day you mean one more.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/12/17. It asks the questions, how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Always an avid reader, I’m finding myself drawn more and more lately, to folklore, fantasy, and like I spoke about last week –Science Fiction – to help me sort through the challenges we as a people are facing. So many cultural and ethical norms seem to be at risk these days. In some ways, reading can be a form of escapism – to explore another person or another world’s problems – while getting to forget about our own for a few hours at a time. But good literature can have the opposite effect – bringing fresh light to our worldly challenges as we approach them from a new angle.
I want to thank Cathi Zillmann, who “won” this sermon topic at our annual services auction. We’ll begin talking about what it means to be caught between two worlds first through this idea of ‘story’, and then we’ll find our way to what that means in our own lives. Two central questions: how do we stay true to ourselves when being true means more than one thing? What do we risk with each choice?
Probably the most classic folk story about being caught between two worlds, is the tale of Rip Van Winkle. If I were talk about the parts of it that I remember from childhood telling’s, it’s a sort of fairy tale story where the male character gets drawn toward music from some strange musicians, only to wake 20 years in the future, his kids grown, his wife long deceased. I remember some versions of the story as a kid placing Rip Van Winkle lost in faerie land, but the original story was about a guy during pre-revolutionary America coming awake after the Revolutionary War was over. He left the world a loyal subject supporting King George, only to awaken to a new nation – one he wasn’t expecting the night before. I know it’s a feeling some of us are wrestling with these days, as so many cultural and ethical norms seem challenged to some of us. What world did we leave behind; what world did we awake to?
But that’s just the cleaner, less sexist version of the story. Rip Van Winkle was a Dutch villager who was beloved by all, except he always tried to avoid hard work, and the story tells of his “nagging wife” who never relented. This ultimately led him to getting lost listening to the music at the foot of the Catskills. The Washington Irving short story even went so far as to say that when he returned those 20 years later to learn that his wife had died, he wasn’t saddened by the news. The other “henpecked husbands” often wished they could get a sip of Van Winkle’s elixir so they too could disappear. It’s yet another folk tale that makes me wonder, why do we tell these stories to kids.
As we continue this month reflecting on Women’s History, it’s important to remember all the messages we raise our children with. They create the world we live in, again and again – for good or for ill. Even as the generally progressive people we strive to be, we too dip our feet into two worlds – creating equity in some places, and contributing to misogyny in others. Just being open to the possibility that we’re missing how we each contribute to these harmful messages, can be the first step in undoing the harm. Learning to name them, begins the practice of unlearning the negative story.
On the spiritual level though, this folk tale is pointing toward something else. Rip Van Winkle is beloved by the community. He’s good with kids, fun, and kind to the people around him (except for his wife.) He’s known in the tavern, and a good storyteller in some versions of the folk tale. But he’s unhappy because he doesn’t want to work hard around the house – I’m guessing it’s a farming community. Maybe he’s just lazy; or maybe Rip Van Winkle is caught between two worlds in his daily living. I think most of us can relate; working jobs that are unsatisfying, but we need to make ends meet. You make due as best as you can, but you don’t feel like you’re really living until the workday is over.
As we heard Mary Oliver’s words earlier, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Now Rip Van Winkle’s falling down into the grass turns out to take away 20 years from his one wild and precious life. Though he did know how to be idle, he probably never really felt blessed.
Feeling caught between two worlds – living for our mundane needs, while striving for some deeper meaning that’s central to our story – is the bedrock to every mid-life crisis. It’s also essentially the story of our whole lives. How do we live into our full selves while we struggle with making ends meet, or being “a success” in our careers? What success means for each of us will be different, but we all probably share in a common anxiety over these life-long challenges. The Rip Van Winkle story is a sort of 1820s version of quitting your job, buying a red sports car and taking a cross-country road trip with the rock band. When you come back, your family’s probably not going to be waiting – as least not as you once knew it.
Most of us probably will, or already have, faced many versions of the classic mid-life crisis. Feeling like we’re caught between two worlds is at the core of that crisis. The existential question, “Is this all there is?” leads to radical changes – changes that may not actually solve our emotional crisis.
There’s an early John Mayer song that came out about 15 years ago that has a line in it where he’s singing about his “Quarter-Life Crisis.” It’s basically “the new mid-life crisis” for Generation X, and later the Millennial generation, who would both feel it’s sting. For the early Boomers, mid-life crisis was something like how I described it before, or maybe it was some natural expression around being an Empty Nester, or being the age of an Empty Nester and never having had kids. How you’ve lived for a long time, doesn’t exactly work any longer, and you’re left wondering how do you stay true to yourself, when “being true” means more than one thing. Retirement, especially for those whose life revolved around one singular career, is a major shock to our sense of self. We might be eager to take a long-well deserved break from a lifetime of work, but one of the largest ways we’ve spent our lives has come to an end, and we sometimes can struggle through rebuilding our sense of self. The more we identified with our career, the more painful this may be.
The Quarter-life crisis is something different. There’s still the same sense of crisis of identity, but the world’s pressures are different. My generation and the one following me, are highly unlikely to stay in the same career for 30 years, or retire before we’re 70. Retiring at 65 is already almost impossible for the late-Boomer generation. My Dad worked till he was 70, and forced into retirement, or he would have probably chosen to work till he was 75. But after his time in the Navy, he worked in the same career (telecommunications) for just shy of 50 years. I’m not sure that’s possible for young adults going into the work world today – certainly not likely for staying in the same company. My husband has been working at the same not-for-profit for almost 20 years, and when our friends hear that, their eyes bug out like they’re looking at a unicorn. There are outliers, but our world is forming a new normal.
For the upcoming generation – being 25 seems to ask the question – “What will I do next?” It’s the natural response to uncertainty, lack of stability, and a future that appears to confuse all of us these days. Do we risk doing what we’ve done again and again, or do we risk starting over, not knowing what may come? Maybe that’s a challenge for all of us, at all stages of our lives.
For Rip Van Winkle, it was a fantasy solution of running off to hear the music and drink the night away. Fast forward 20 years and it’s all better. In reality, living with our feet in two worlds, takes a lot of work to make the transition. For me, it took about 7 years of serious effort, from the point where I knew I was going to leave Information Technology, to when I was finally able to go into the ministry. Maybe we make fun of the mid-life crisis in TV, and movies, because it’s a sort of running away – we laugh at what is tragic. I think we laugh at the Quarter-life crisis, because ‘those kids don’t know how hard it’s going to get.” When in reality, it’s a life-change that has us running toward something, rather than away from. Different life stages, different challenges – all something we all will likely face to some degree or another if we are fortunate enough to get the chance to face our struggles with options.
The Russian Nestling dolls we heard about in our story earlier in the service, remind me of one of the lessons I carry with me from seminary psychology graduate work. “We are all the ages we have ever been.” I’ll go into this in much more detail at the end of the month when I preach on “Adulthood” (if I still I have anything to say on the topic! So maybe expect a new topic at the end of the month, the more I think about it.) Maybe childhood, in a way, is a smaller doll nestled within a larger doll. Each developmental stage we (hopefully) mature in to, is a larger compartment for what came before. For each of us, there will come adversity, that will return us to our helpless childhood. Likewise, there will be moments of wonder and newness that we’ll have to face with our child-like mind, in order to appreciate and properly face them with awe and joy. The lessons of adulthood are not always the appropriate way to face all things; just like the innocence of childhood sometimes sets us back. From a human development standpoint, we are all living in multiple worlds – far more than two – the older we get and (or so long as) the more we mature. As we age, or as we mature, or maybe both, we grow with more and more dolls nestled within our sense of self. Sometimes we live this way unaware; sometimes we knowingly can take out another doll for each thing we come across. What Russian nestling doll do you take out to face your kid being born? Which do you turn to when you lose your career, or get the horrible medical news? Which one do you show at the family reunion, or the retirement party?
In some ways, they get formed after or through every major life change. I have a story that’s vivid in my mind the first time I drove a car on my own; when I moved away from my childhood home; when I rented my first house, and ended my first long term partnership. Each person that’s died in my life has left another nestled doll in my spirit, and each major success has built another.
The story of a lifetime, how we balance our internal life with the needs of our external world, is our great challenge. We all live in two worlds: How things are, and how they might be; Our deepest yearnings, and our worldly needs; Our professional masks, with all their requirements and needs, and what we choose to do on a lazy Sunday afternoon (for those, of course, that don’t work on Sundays.) We experience great pain, when our inner and external lives are not in sync. When our spiritual life is sacrificed for worldly gain; or when worldly needs are so strong that we seem to need to sacrifice the questions of the spirit.
What does it mean to be a people of risk? Life is defined by risk; risks taken, and risks avoided. Each choice, even to stay on the “safe path”, is another risk. We can only be a people of risk, but we may not always realize it. The pain at the center of feeling like we’re living in two worlds, is the confusion that any of us ever live any other way. Yearning and satisfaction – are the perennial human struggle. What came before, and what may yet be – are possibly the two most terrifying yet poignant questions of any life. We each face them, day by day. There are moments that we feel those burning questions all the more, but they linger in the corners of our hearts silently everyday – left unacknowledged – they jump out when we’re catching our breaths.
As Mary Oliver asked, “Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass…”. Who made this human, the one who had flung herself into the next stage of life, and the next challenge, and the next pain, and the next joy? I am uneasy, or I am satisfied, by all that has come and all that will be. I am moving into the next world of this one wild and precious life, step by step, fear by joy, uncertainly with risk and cautious abandon. We do so uneasy – caught between two worlds – when we think of our lives this way; always drawing our stories as tales of what was, and what will be, sleeping away twenty years to strange music and stranger drink. Or we risk our lives moving into the next moment; jostling all of our internal nestled dolls, knowing that our life may be welcoming one more layer to our souls.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/5/17. As the Christian world enters the season of Lent, we will reflect on what choices we make that open our spirits through vulnerability. This service also opens our reflections for Women’s History Month.
In the Christian calendar, we’ve entered into the season of Lent. For some of us, Tuesday night was a night of celebration, before 40 days of fasting. For my own Lenten practice, I’ve given up excesses. I’m eating less, going to bed sooner, very limited alcohol – those sorts of changes. I’m reflecting a lot on mortality, sacrifice, purpose and meaning. Ash Wednesday is the most humanist practice in the Christian liturgy; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It’s a time to reflect on the vulnerability of life. There’s a sense of atonement to the sacrament, but one where it’s more about returning to right perspective rather than seeking forgiveness.
This past Wednesday, had an odd end to it for me. A week or so ago, we came upon a pair of tickets to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway, when a friend wasn’t going to be able to go to see it after all. The audience clearly found it riveting, enjoyable and fully engaging. Maybe seeing the musical on Ash Wednesday itself, affected how I saw it, but I found the story of an aging starlet re-living her bygone days of fame, thoroughly horrifying. There’s a classic dialogue that sums it up, “You heard him. I’m a star.” “Norma, you’re a woman of 50, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being 50, not unless you try to be 25.” “The greatest star of them all.”
Now, for the record, I forgot that the Norma Desmond character was only 50 years old – I may have gasped out loud when her age was given. At 41, I can’t imagine feeling like she does in less than a decade from now. She becomes a metaphor for the worst excesses and demands we place upon women; and she in return tragically becomes a caricature of herself. It’s not a story of hope; but one of mortality, lost purpose, and misguided sacrifice – sacrifice that only serves to lift up another’s ego. It’s a cautionary tale, and a critique against our culture of excess, of idealizing youth. It tries to teach us not to box in women, with our impossible standards.
Norma Desmond, despite being known as “the greatest star of them all” in yesteryear, she was a star in the days of the silent screen. She was beautiful, she was captivating, she was young, but she never got to speak a word. Brené Brown, an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, has her own words that seem to speak directly to this. “Even to me the issue of “stay small, sweet, quiet, and modest” sounds like an outdated problem, but the truth is that women still run into those demands whenever we find and [risk using] our voices.”
…Risk using our voices… All this month we are reflecting on what it means to be a people of Risk. Our children and youth have risked putting their art on display in our galleries, where I hope they will learn the lesson of stretching into their talent, and I hope our adults share their compliments with our artists whose names are on our walls. Not to be quiet, sweet or small, but big, and present, and central to the life of our community. Being a people of risk, means creating spaces for each of us to grow, and to challenge ourselves. It’s the central message behind our third principle where covenant to accept each another and encourage on another toward growth.
Religiously speaking though, how does risk – how does vulnerability -open our spirits to newness, to life? Love and loss – two sides to the sometimes hard lessons of risk in our lives; to love something or someone, knowing that some day we will all face grievous loss. As the poet Anne Sexton’s words we heard earlier in the service, “when you face old age and its natural conclusion, your courage will still be shown in the little ways… and at the last moment when death opens the back door you’ll put on your carpet slippers and stride out.” Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust; but what comes in between birth and death is worth fully living, without our focus lost on what may come, or what once was.
History is vital, sometimes life-saving, and crucial to our cultural heritage. But when history turns into Norma Desmond’s grieving yesteryear, it ceases to be history; it becomes a prison of the spirit. Sometimes we are faced with loss, powerful and hard. And sometimes our grief is more ‘50 wanting to be 25’; (as if we were actually fully happy all the time at 25.) To return to other words from Brene Brown, “I’ve found what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults.” Now 25 isn’t childhood, but at any point in our lives this statement can be true. What makes us happy doesn’t always prepare us to be courageous and engaged. Love and loss – come hand in hand onto life’s stage – and ask us to live while we can with all the pain, and the joy. Hiding from the ashes in our lives, sometimes is a seemingly necessary coping mechanism… and Lent invites us to face what we might otherwise not be ready for, with humility, with sacrifice; for purpose, with meaning.
We see this in the wider living world too. I’ll speak of this in more detail later in the month when I’ll devote a whole service to the Recklessness of Spring; but I’m thinking of gardens as we are seeing a disturbingly early Spring. As Beth Feldman and her team get our community garden ready to grow food for the town’s food pantry, I’m doing work on my own home garden. We had a lot of wild grasses in flowerbeds outside our windows that although browned over the winter, remained whole through March. I didn’t really want to cut them back; they are beautiful in their own way, and helped to keep my spirits up during the winter months that are so hard on many of us. But if they’re left whole, a strong rain can force the soil to sort of get bogged down like a swamp. It’s best for the plant to cut it back, and have it grow anew come Spring – otherwise it risks rotting from the inside and dying. I miss how my windows look, even though I know they’ll come back again soon. But to everything, there is a season, and that is as true for us, as it is true for the rest of the natural world. We are no different.
Change – the hardest spiritual truth. When communities slowly adjust to the times, we can get in the habit of critiquing anything different by labeling it “change” – as if that in itself makes it bad or wrong – even if the change is slow coming, well thought out, and well discussed. It’s the universal buzzword to end all debate – the worst 4 letter word.
As some of you know, I’m an avid sci-fi and fantasy reader. I’ll find a new author and work through all their works before moving onto the next. Octavia Butler is my latest find. Somehow, I’ve missed her work till this year, but she’s increasingly being covered in English Literature classes. I’m reading through her “Parable of the Sower” right now. She’s a prominent author, and one of the few Black sci-fi writers to break into the genre, and she’s clearly one of the best writers I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Her writing is as much theology as it is sci-fi. Without ruining the plot, especially since I am still working my way through her writing, I want to share a little of her theology that I find translates universally to be true. Here are 4 short points, that I’ll share, and then I’ll talk a little more about them: 1) “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” 2) “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” 3)“We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is Change. Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” 4) “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers”
The first quote: “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth, is Change. God is Change.” Some of us are most familiar with this teaching in the Buddhist context, where our attachment to things not changing only leads to suffering since all things change, and attachment to what can not be – is painful. The Serenity Prayer is a more modern version of this spiritual lesson: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” There are things we can change, things we can affect in our lives, and there are many things that we cannot. Love and Loss – to face each as they come is one of the hardest lessons.
But for Octavia Butler, she’s looking at this message a little differently. Change for her is sometimes like a rock banging against an object. All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” The rock can break another rock, or a window, or maybe a door; but the rock will probably also break at least a little itself, as it comes up against what it changes. Change always happens in relationship – it’s never isolated. That’s probably part of the reason that is feels so difficult in community, because all the relationships are even more pronounced and obvious – it can feel like the change is compounding upon itself. And during this season of Lent, we’re reminded in even more vivid ways, that every little change can begin to point us toward the biggest of changes in life – ashes to ashes. We all feel that worry at some time in our lives.
The next two theological quotes speak for themselves: “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” And “We’ll adapt. We’ll have to. God is change.” But Butler poignantly teaches us that, “Strange how much it helps me to remember that.” We can catch ourselves always focused on the worst, or on the end that changes bring, but there’s a deeper spirituality found in the practice of remembering that change is at the very foundation of our being. We can forget that we come into this world in an act of tremendous change – that all that is and will ever be – comes from change. Change is also our birthright, and there is a solace we can find in that when we open ourselves to that truth. (maybe tell the short Buddhist parable of the drop of water in the wave.)
Lastly, “Drowning people sometimes die fighting their rescuers.” The novel “The Parable of the Sower” is a spiritual novel, but it’s also a political one. I’ll let you read that part of it on your own, but there’s a line that’s meant to be political during a time of crisis, that I also read it as spiritual. People will find “a tyrant we fear or a leader we follow.” Leaving the politics aside, Change can be either. In our seasons of love and loss, we can see Change as a tyrant to fear, or a leader to follow. How we accept the changes before us, how we open our hearts to vulnerability, determines where our spirits will lead us. Will we see Change as always and forever a tyrant – and experience more suffering for it, or will we understand Change to be a leader that we can learn from as we live into a new day? Love and loss: For Butler, “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” On some days we may wish it otherwise for the grief that it brings us, but self-awareness also allows us to experience love in our life; the spiritual truth that they come hand in hand.
Change is in a way, the great rescuer, even if we find ourselves flailing to keep it from taking us where it is going to take us. The great losses – of life and health – are the things we have no power over – we can only grieve and hope some day to heal our hearts enough to carry on. But so often, we take the small losses and confuse them as the great ones – and we lessen ourselves for it – we risk drowning in the water while we fight our rescuers.
I’ll close with the words of a former minister of mine, Rev. Forrest Church, who frequently taught that religion is the awareness of the dual nature of being born, and knowing that will some day die. As we begin our road to Easter, we do so in ashes. “We are the life that perceives itself changing.” May we hold a fondness for that which we love, that which once was, and may we leave our spirits open for what may yet still come. The act of living is to be vulnerable; may we all so live.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.