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…”.
This sermon was preached on 1/29/17 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It calls out the immoral actions of our government for banning refugees and Muslims.
I grew up in Central Jersey in the 70s and 80s. The family stories get told a little differently every time, as family stories often do, but each of my grand-parents were either the only sibling who was born in the States, or they were an immigrant themselves. Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, Sicily (yes, it wasn’t just Italy, it was specifically Sicily) and my other grandfather I never knew – but my one Grandmother remarried a Spanish-speaking man who sadly died before I was born. My mom grew up speaking a smattering of Italian, Spanish and English. That’s mostly gone now. Many Italian immigrants back then felt pressured to lose their cultural identity to survive or thrive in the States. On my Dad’s side, I come from Pennsylvania coal-miner stock.
Before I was 5, we were renting an apartment in a multi-family tenement on the outskirts of Perth Amboy, a mostly Latino city. Our downstairs neighbors were Egyptian. When I was turning 5, my parents bought a house in another part of Jersey, Woodbridge township. It was a working class black neighborhood made up of mostly multi-generational households. Across the street from our new home, was the lone Jewish family in our neighborhood – and I was the only white child in my neighborhood (The Jewish family across the street didn’t have kids.) Like everyone else around, I grew up with my grandmother and my uncle living with us. The schools drew from a wider area, so I was lucky to grow up knowing kids from every background. I remember one of my mom’s closer friends during my childhood; she was an African woman who was seeking citizenship in the States while her children were raised back home with her husband and mother. It would take her 20 years to legally bring her family over to the U.S. Twenty years to do it legally.
This is my America. German, Slovak, Italian, Egyptian, Latino, Black, Immigrant, African, Jewish, Catholic – and that was just my experience by maybe the age of 8. In grade school we learned about the Statue of Liberty – it was almost a religious sense of patriotism – about what was right and true in the world – what was our story and our birthright. The Lady in our NY harbor said, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
After this weekend, I’m not sure we deserve her any longer, but we can find our way back still. This past Friday, January 27, 2017, on the 75th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day, while failing to include Jewish people in his statement of remembrance, our sitting President signed an executive order banning all Syrian Refugees and citizens from several Muslim states. (We’ll surely learn soon that those nations will ban our people from visiting them in return.) On Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump banned refugees who are fleeing a genocidal government from seeking sanctuary on our shores. This sickens me. This is so far past partisan divides now. If you’re for this horror, you’re ignoring America’s heritage and story and the American Dream. We need to be better than this. Lady Liberty is weeping.
And this doesn’t stop neatly with who gets banned from our shores. There’s a fear that sets in when we begin down this road. One friend of mine, Farah said, “The trickle-down effect is that I and those who look like me will have to start carrying our papers everywhere. It means that I will be hassled at every border. It means that my family will be hassled when they come to visit me. It means that any of us could be detained, harassed and deprived of our rights as American citizens.” We know this to be true, because we see this in our Border states where Latinos – even US citizens – live in fear of harassment and need to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Now we begin this with our Muslim neighbors.
Jewish and Christian Scripture is very clear on how we’re to treat refugees, the stranger and our neighbor. When Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” He tells the story of the Good Samaritan in reply; he tells the story of a foreigner of another religion as his answer to who is my neighbor. We teach our children these values, and this ban wouldn’t stand up to a kindergartener’s test for simple fairness, or any biblical test of righteousness. But we know this story from our past too. One of our members and a public school teacher, (Theresa) reminded me of this yesterday, “A U.S. President did this before… On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana, Cuba with hundreds of Jewish refugees. FDR forced the ship to turn back. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died.”
We are past hyperbole, or partisanship here. This isn’t an election cycle or a political issue; faithful people from all political walks of life should oppose this. This is basic human decency. This is about our religious conviction that freedom of religion, that religious pluralism, is a spiritual value and a human need. We have refugees – green card holders – legal residents – legal residents – who were detained in JFK calling their lawyers and suing the US for unlawful detainment – while they waited to find out if they will be sent back to dangerous ports. The ACLU won a stay, which just means that no one is being sent back right now, but this Executive Order was haphazardly implemented and we still don’t know what will be next. This on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Will we remember?
As a child, we wondered how everyday citizens in Germany could let the horrors perpetrated against the Jews, Gypsys, gays and dissidents occur. How could any people allow the systematic dehumanization to occur to the point where lives were treated as chattel. We now understand that it happened piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit. What was once outrageous became acceptable – pushing further and further back the line of what was considered normal. Denying refugees the safety of our shores is not normal; it does not fit the American Dream, and it’s in direct opposition to our religious faith. This needs to be the next line we draw as a nation and as a religious community.
Religious institutions, at our best, are bedrocks for prophetic witness. And as an institution, we need all hands on deck for what’s happening in our name. We need to call out injustice where it weakens the spirit and the hearts of our people. When worldly greed, fear and hate, take root in our government, we need to make clear the road back to righteousness. Righteousness. In Jewish Scripture, the word we translate in English to righteousness, has lost some of it clarity over the generations. We often conflate it with self-righteous and have a reluctance to embrace it because of that shadow side. In the original meaning of the word, it’s much more positive, and a word that holds us accountable to something beyond just our lone egos. A contemporary translation would be closer to, “behavior that’s in solidarity with the community.” Righteousness means to act in accordance with the needs of those around you – and to do so knowing that your neighbor is your own and you’re your neighbors’ as well. Righteousness. Bans on refugees fleeing genocide is not righteous. Bans on citizens from Muslim countries – except of course their Christian citizens – is not righteousness. That’s base religious bigotry – and base religious bigotry does not get to easily parade itself as a partisan issue – it’s a moral issue, it’s a biblical issue. And those are our issues; that is our call as a religious people.
Our Fellowship has made numerous commitments to the immigrant, to the refugee, to peace. Over 15 years ago we led the move to start the interfaith collaboration that we now call HIHI where migrant men are offered shelter in religious homes throughout Huntington, 7 days a week, during the cold weather months. We do this for many reasons, but it began in the tragedy of a man freezing to death over-night. Politics being what they are, are not always a viable solution for some of our people to survive. That’s why we need religious institutions like ours, to shine a light on what needs to be seen.
As low pay farm-workers out on eastern long island are struggling to make a living, with limited other options, large farming corporations have used loop-holes in the law to take advantage of lower than minimum-wage work. As they continue to protest and advocate for their own rights, last year we used our space to house protest marchers overnight as they walked from Eastern Long Island all the way to Albany. We’ve hosted their art in our art gallery, we’ve educated about their plight from our pulpit, and some of our members continue to work in solidarity – to work with righteousness – for their needs knowing that their needs are our needs. Sometimes, religious institutions become a sounding bell to ensure we all hear what needs to be heard.
Sometimes we make space, or hold space, for others to be heard. Non-partisan, issue-based groups that align with our religious values, are using our building more and more to organize locally. NOW (the National Organization for Women), LITAC (Long Island Transgender Action Coalition) as well as a newly forming LI based Latinx Transgender rights group are just a few who know that our community is a safe-haven in these troubling times. Institutions matter – and when we’re living our values, when we’re responding to our call as a religious community – our institutional values matter. We will continue to adapt to address the needs of each generation – generation after generation.
Together, we make this religious institution possible. Living in accordance with the needs of those around us, knowing our neighbor is ourselves, and we are our neighbor – is the sense of righteousness we are seeking for ourselves, and what we’re raising another generation to value. Before Friday’s ban on refugees and Muslims – this service was planned to be a straightforward kick-off to our annual pledge drive where we talk about our financial commitments to living out our values. Today the tone is different. We’re funding our grassroots spiritual home that commits to making sure our neighbor lives another day. We know that politics and movements come and go – but there are eternal human values, moral values, that we need to ensure are not forgotten in the wider public. We need each other to be faithful to our highest ideals, and strive toward that lofty goal of the beloved community, step by step. And we need to ensure that we’re strong as a community to do that hard work – day by day – generation after generation – together. This is what stewardship means for us; for our generation and the generations to come.
Our social justice, social action, social witness wing of our denomination – the UU Service Committee – was originally begun as an organization devoted to helping get survivors out and away from the Nazis during the occupation of Europe. It’s in our very DNA. Yesterday, the UUA and the UUSC issued a joint call to action in the face of the growing barbarism coming out from our capital. The statement reads, “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence. We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.
As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us. We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.
The time is now.
I have signed onto that pledge. We’ll have a link to it our Fellowship Facebook page shortly, and if you don’t use Facebook, the link will be in this sermon online as well. (I’ve begun speaking with our Board President, Michael A., asking for our Board to consider having our Fellowship sign onto the pledge as well.) This statement is our roadmap – it’s our mirror to look into as we decide who we want to be – how we live into the deeper call to righteousness. And it’s all hands on deck. I charge our committee leaders to review it seriously and see where their team’s work coincides with the religious precepts articulated in the ethical pledge. As individuals, I charge each of us to (as the Jewish proverb goes) to write those words on the tablets of our hearts. It’s a moral compass we can strive to live up to. Righteousness in the face of injustice is an act of communal solidarity – that’s both individual and institutional.
Maybe you’ve felt like you were in a sort of fog or haze over the last few weeks. So much of what we don’t agree with is happening so fast. Others are feeling the barrage very viscerally; some of us are less safe. It’s got a dispiriting effect. I’ve heard from many of us that there’s a way in which we’re feeling alone, or isolated. Maybe that’s a reason you’ve come through our doors today. In my own house, we’ve been trying to set time aside for doing things that are a bit more frivolous to keep our spirits up to do the work the world needs us all to do. My husband and I are largely focused personally and professionally on causes that feel under attack of late, and there comes a time when one needs a break.
Earlier this week, with popcorn in hand we sat down to re-watch the Harry Potter movies – another movie from the series most nights. He knows he missed one, but wasn’t sure which one he missed. On Wednesday night, we got to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For those unfamiliar with the series that started out as a children’s book but turned into a manifesto for the millennial generation – it’s a series about a magical kid who’s only alive because of his mother’s love. Harry Potter is pitted against a fictional character – Voldemort – who signifies fascism, anger, and bigotry. The heroes of the story are studying in school, and come from School “Houses” that signify courage, steadfastness, friendship, intellect and dedication. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this covers it well enough.
Well at the mid-way point of this book in the series (or movie), Harry is feeling very low. He’s not trusted by the wider magical world. The villain of the story, Voldemort, is still thought to have been defeated years back and gone from the land. Harry is one of the lone voices calling out of the impending dangers with Voldemort’s imminent return. He turns to his close friend, Hermione, and tells her that he feels all alone – that the world has turned on him, that he’s exhausted for not being trusted. Hermione turns to him and she says, “Voldemort, only wants you to think you’re alone Harry.”
We were watching this movie on Wednesday evening, only a few days after the historic international Women’s March, which drew millions of people in the US and countless more across the globe. I’m proud to know that 45 of our Fellowshippers were together at the March in NYC, and I haven’t heard what the formal count for those who made it to DC war. 45 in NYC!
‘In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes,’ we hear the calm, intelligent, caring voice, in that loudly loving Women’s March respond, ‘fascism, anger, and bigotry only want you to think you’re alone.’
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.
If you’re so moved to take further action on our imminent refugee crisis and immoral ban on religious groups – Muslims – Theresa K. had pulled together language at each table for you to make phone calls to your local representatives here on Long Island. There’s a copy at each table, and more will be back in the Social Hall on at the social justice table. The table in the social hall also has other local actions that our team has reviewed for you to further consider.
 Thanks to Rev. Rachel Morse for lifting this up in social media
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/8/17. It looks at our first principle in terms of self-worth in light of our trying times.
Every New Year, many of us feel the pressure to make resolutions; to give up this, or to strive for that. Eat better, exercise more, and maybe drink less and probably hide from the holiday sugar crush. Some of the more detail oriented of us write them up as if we were in a work-based performance review – smart goals that are quantifiable, actionable, timely and measured. “I will lose x pounds a week for the following y number of months.” Others keep it simpler, “Maybe I’ll go to church or Temple this week.” If that’s you; I’m glad you made that resolution – welcome to our Fellowship!
Looking back at the year just over, I know that many of us felt like it was a long slog through hardship, turmoil and disappointment or loss. It became so culturally endemic as “the worst year ever” that we realized we needed to create spaces at our Fellowship for folks to come together through small groups, vigils, social action and we even updated our website to clearly ask, “Are you looking for a safe place during these uncertain times? A place to find people who share your values and concerns? We welcome you here.”
In some ways, for many of us, 2016 felt like an unwelcome guest who came knocking at our door. Now that 2017 is here, we’re wondering what kind of stranger it will turn out to be. Do we still walk with hunched shoulders waiting for the other shoe to drop, or do we plan for something new and more positive? Do we even feel we have a choice? As the year came to a close, many of my messages each week were dealing with harder and harder topics. Taking a deep breath, I wonder if we can begin our new year on a lighter note, clear the fog, and begin again to do the hard work that won’t magically go away – to build the beloved community – maybe with our backs a little straighter and taller than they’ve felt in awhile.
Imagining years as guests at our door got me thinking about the folk tale I told earlier in our service today –The Soup Stone. I think it can be really helpful in looking at a new year in a new light. It began by saying that “A woman in a village was surprised to find a very well-dressed stranger at her door, asking for something to eat. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have nothing in the house right now.’”
What a curious challenge this story creates! All we know about the man with the odd soup stone, is how he’s dressed. Just a first impression really. But with it, a rock and some good clothes, all the folks in the village go from not feeling like they have anything to offer to being able to cook a meal for the whole town…. It’s enough to make one want to carry a rock around with us all the time.
I’ve always liked this story for the rare tale of the charlatan who uses their charisma for the good; the sacred trickster who generates wealth and compassion rather than the type to siphon it away for their own ends. It reminds me of stories friends have shared who have benefitted from the random driver ahead of them who chose to pay their toll at a collection site, only to generate a string of folks paying for the next person behind them. Maybe nothing has actually changed if each successive driver still pays the same amount, but it makes a world of difference in how we see the drive. Or as our image on the screen today shows rose-colored glasses covering a bleak landscape – we can sometimes choose the meaning of the story – creating beauty along the way. We can choose sometimes to feel like the kind-hearted well-dressed stranger in the story, or sometimes we can choose to be the villager who feels they have nothing left to give. We don’t always have a choice, but I think in our times of strength we have much more of a choice than we allow ourselves to think we have.
The story we heard this morning is a sad one in a way as well. It relays truthfully the world we live in when it reminds us of how much clout and status we give to strangers (and maybe to New Years too.) There’s a message here that we all have something to give, but we so often give away that power to others with rocks in their hands and a smart set of clothes. Remember that as we go boldly into a new year. It’s the internal voice that convinces us that everyone around us is smarter, or more skilled, more talented, or better looking. It’s the same one that loudly lies to us that others are more self-assured and confident. In case no one’s mentioned this to you today regarding self-assurance, (and it’s a message I need to hear just about daily to remember,) the other person is probably thinking the same thing about you. Most of us think we’re more of a mess than those around us; even and especially those who outwardly act like the entire world is more a mess than they.
Of course, we will all go through times where we are particularly down from loss or illness, drawn out from work, or enervated from family. And the guest at our table – in the form of 2016 – may have gavin us many reasons to doubt ourselves. They are all realities in life that we will forever struggle with. But even in those moments, worth comes from within, even if it might take a stranger or a community to help bring that sense of self-worth back to the surface. The Soup Stone’s resolution involves a secreted exit for the trickster of the story, who leaves the very precious rock behind. The people of the village have been gifted with the magic they need to realize their capacity for giving. They are better able to see what they are able to offer to the world. I see them as better recognizing their own value. What they can only achieve from within, they are only able to do so by being in community; with a little good-hearted kick from the story’s roving trickster character.
So why do we do it? Why do we give rocks magical powers and think we have none of our own? Why do we so clearly see the value in others, and so often have a terrible time seeing the value in ourselves? Why do we all do it, and easily forget that that means the person next to us is also similarly struggling? How do we lift up the mantle of trickster in the story, and live that generosity for ourselves? That’s the religious question (or questions) for the day.
For those who are new to Unitarian Universalism, we have 7 principles that are central to our ethics. You can read them all in your order of service but today I want to focus on our first principle – what I think of as the promise of worth – our first principle states that we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In practice, it means several things: First, that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect; regardless of race, class, religion, gender, sexuality or gender expression. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that lofty and healing goal.
The second is about spiritual calling: just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. In this way, this principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
There’s at least a third aspect that’s important – especially when years grow long and wear on our shoulders. If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict upon ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? It’s the villager that believes they have nothing to give, when in fact they have so very much to give. Some years may tell us we have nothing left to give, and we can’t listen to that message. Just the other day, Starr Austin and I were talking about a cartoon we saw make its way through social media. It had two people talking on a piece of ground that read “2017” and it showed one person asking a gardener how did they know the year would bring up something new – and the gardener replied “because I’m planting the seeds.” I think the world can be a harsh place at times, and this cute cartoon doesn’t speak to that, but it does remind us not to still the work of our own hands because we’ve convinced ourselves that we are powerless. We still have agency ourselves despite all the sound and noise of the wider world.
We often hear the first principle as a justice issue; and it definitely is that as well; but it can be a pastoral issue as well. How do we convince ourselves that we deserve to treat ourselves as well as we expect ourselves to treat others? How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others – within us as well?
I’ve been wrestling with these questions in relation to our seven principles. As Unitarian Universalists we are a covenantal faith. Rather than coming together based on a shared creed, we are a faith whose identity is based on shared commitments. As a tradition we first stand in relation to one another, rather than how much we agree with one another. Despite all this, we too often speak of our seven principles as beliefs. The wording for them all begins with us agreeing to “covenant to affirm and promote…”.
How can the principles be more than affirmations of static belief – which they’re not supposed to be – while still speaking to the questions of the spirit and the heart? How differently would we engage with our principles if we saw them as religious promises, rather than simply religious beliefs? As a covenantal faith we focus first on our relations, and so too can our core principles. A promise is a sort of belief that we extend out into the world between ourselves and someone else; although sometimes it is a value that we commit to just with ourselves. And I’m talking here about the bigger ones. Like the promise a parent makes to their children, verbalized or implicit, in that they will raise and care for them with all their heart. It’s a belief that the parent typically holds to, and one that children usually believe (– at least till our teenage years, then all bets are off.) The promise is lived between the parent and the child. It has as much power and substance as the maker invests in it. It’s deeply relational, and intrinsically based on belief.
So, what changes? Promises bring us back to the theological question. In the case of the first principle, our faith makes the bold statement that everyone has worth and dignity; including yourself; including myself. I promise you that your inherently worthy. You may not be feeling that to be the case at this moment because of something you’re carrying with you from work, or school, or how you acted on your way in here this morning, or how brutal a year was for you. But it is a promise Unitarian Universalism makes. We’re not saying we’re forgiven, although we all need to be from time to time. We’re not saying we’re justified, or sinners, or lost or found – although we may all be all of that at different moments in any given day. We’re saying we have worth, and we deserve to be treated with dignity; even by ourselves.
So, in light of the question I posed before. “How do we teach ourselves to see the value we find in others within us as well?” We have the theological basis for a religious discipline. As we begin again this New Year, whether excited, or worn down, how do we choose to begin it? We’re writing our collective open letters to the New Year; do we choose to assent to the promise our faith puts forth, or do we choose to turn away from it? Recognizing the worth in others; others recognizing the worth in us; and we recognizing the worth in ourselves. If the first two ways come more naturally to you – and I know they do for me; remind yourself of them when you can’t find anything about yourself to value. That’s the beauty of a promise made. They may be difficult to keep, but if they are made with integrity they plot a very honest course.
The promise of our faith encourages us to live knowing that we believe in the people around us; that we are all deserving of a place at the table. Our story this morning ends with the exclamation, “Bowls for everyone. Then they all sat down to a delicious meal while the stranger handed out large helpings of his incredible soup. Everyone felt strangely happy as they laughed and talked and shared their very first common meal.”
We too often give up our self-worth to the judgments of others, or the ardor of years now gone by. We too often sooner place credence in magic rocks than believe we ourselves have something to contribute. The promise of our faith teaches us another path.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas morning, 12/25/16. It looks at the role of Angels in the Christmas Story with a special nod to some favorite childhood memories.
Merry Christmas! Angels are on my mind this Christmas. We’ve just sung a few songs that spoke of angels. The angels from Jewish and Christian scripture, are not the cutesy cherubs from Renaissance paintings. Scriptural angels tend to begin every conversation with the words, “Fear Not!” for although they are messengers and agents of good, they are also God’s presence on earth, and quite scary when they need to be. Eternity is both beautiful and terrifying – any of us who have stared into the deep oceans know that to be true.
When Angels speak, I know the message is both meant to be vitally important, but also to be one that shakes us to our core. The world will not be the same; something is demanded of us. We must change before the newness of the next moment. Change may be the one great universal source of dread for most of us – right? And angels mean change.
Even if we fear it, all change is not bad. In the Christmas story, the angels demand once more we fear not, for unto us is a savior born. …But the world will change for it. Hope, redemption, healing – all mean change – yet too often we fear it – that which brings us further into wholeness frightens us nonetheless.
I remember another story about fear, or overcoming fear. It’s a story from my childhood that returns year after year. Every Christmas I would look forward to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. I related to Charlie Brown – maybe a little too much. He was awkward, and made a ton of mistakes. But had a lot of friends – who in the end usually came around – but along the way were sometimes kind of horrible kids. Without going into too much detail – I’ll leave it at – I related to that as a kid. Maybe I still do, and I doubt I’m alone here in that. The annual Charlie Brown Christmas special was all of that – ramped up a few notches. At a culminating point of the story, when Charlie Brown can’t get anything right, and the Christmas pageant is about to be a total wash – and the other kids are brutal to him, laughing and pointing – out comes Linus to remind us the reason for the season. Linus is the classic kid who has it together, more mature than the others in many ways, but is still stuck to his infant security blanket. He hasn’t grown past that yet.
The story begins in Charlie Brown’s moment of fretting:
“Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!
Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Now, in most ways it’s the traditional telling of the Christmas story – Linus’ words are almost identical to the translation of the scripture we use each Christmas. But what’s always been so powerful about Linus retelling the story is the moment where he cries out as the Angel saying, “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his security blanket – Linus never is separated from his blankie before that moment, and never since. But when the Angels, when eternity, is staring at you and saying fear not, we are called to something greater than our everyday selves.
What holds you back from the change that the birth of Jesus demands of us?
Christmas is a way of telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We sing songs about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the stories) traveling to find him and give him gifts. We sing about a mother and an adoptive father. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth?
(ONLY IF A LOT OF KIDS PRESENT) [(Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?) (love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)]
He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.
But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.
If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. Fear Not! It’s about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go, better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.
The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas Eve, 12/24/16. It celebrates the conjunction of Christmas Eve and the First Night of Hanukkah while looking at the role of the Vassal King, Herod in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Merry Christmas everyone! And Happy Hanukkah! It’s a special night – with both holy days celebrating as one. The last time Hanukkah began on Christmas Eve, I was 3 years old. In Unitarian Universalist houses of worship, we traditionally have an annual service we call the Festival of Peace and Lights – which draws from the spiritual message of these holy days. Earlier in the month of December we reflect on the teachings of hope, and peace and miracles in the face of despair; the spirit of the holidays is realized in those virtues.
This year, I keep finding myself being drawn to the stories – or the early history of these Holy Days. Jesus was born into a world, into the small town of Bethlehem, whose nation was wracked by war, and revolutions, and invasion, and the occasional periods of independence. The miracles told in the story of Hanukkah occurred only just over a 150 years before his birth. Jesus was born under the rule of Herod; a vassal king to a foreign power. Herod was a convert to Judaism and went out of his way to be liked – beginning massive building projects like expanding the Second Temple. But he often misstepped – by building golden statues, lavish spending on gifts and used taxes as the means to glorify himself over the nation he ruled through his pomp.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance. The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.
Our image for this short homily flips the nativity scene on its head; it depicts the story with no one who is Jewish, or Arabic or African. We see only the manger and the animals. The absence of the heart of the story is the lesson for this year; a year where so many in our world, rail against the disenfranchised, pretending they are the enemy. With anti-semitism on the rise here in Long Island, and the KKK openly leaving out flyers in parking lots, kindling our Menorah as we light our Christmas Trees, is a holy blessing reminding us to ever look for the Star of Wonder to lead us from worldly arrogance – away from the baseless fears that are disguised as vicious hate.
Herod was a fearful ruler who lashed out with vicious hate, and Jesus was born to lead us away from such a small-hearted world. This empty nativity scene reminds us that we have no Christmas story without all of us; in our full humanity, and in all our difference and diversity. We offer sanctuary to the refugee fleeing oppressive rule. We keep the lights in the inn warm, and the doors unlocked for the migrant who needs a place to stay. It is in this spirit, that we remember to keep our Fellowship shelter open on Christmas night – tomorrow. We thank Joanne, and all the families and individuals who will spend Christmas night tomorrow here, celebrating the holy day by ensuring shelter is always available. There is no greater spiritual obligation we have than to care for our neighbor in the hour of their need; humbly knowing that we all come to times of great need; and in the times of our strength we are called to share that strength.
As we move from the spirit of Christmas into the acts that inspire healing and change in the world, we remember the great poet Maya Angelou’s words we heard earlier in our service. “It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time….. We jubilate the precious advent of trust. We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope. All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices; To celebrate the promise of Peace.” So friends, this Christmas, loosen our voices and speak that great Peace “without shyness, or apology, or hesitation.” For this is the great message of Christmas; this is the true reason for this holy season.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/04/16. For many of us, this time of year can challenge us with times of sadness while others are feeling joy. How can we be present to our ourselves, and each other during such times?
When I was growing up, we used to wonder if we’d have a White Christmas. It didn’t mean to us, will it snow in December, only will it snow on Christmas. Of late, we seem to be perennially wondering when winter will start. This year I think it was December 2nd before I realized that October was over. One recent Thanksgiving, I remember dodging a late waking bee for about two blocks with my bags swinging foolishly in the air. Somehow I managed not to get stung; but the bee had a tenacity that matched the spirit of early autumn’s lingering warmth. The seasons seem a bit mixed up, and neither I, nor that bee, had a good sense of what time of year it was supposed to be.
The long-lasting warmth has made for a really odd season for me. Beach worthy weekends in late September; trees that stayed green, well into November; and the last of the yellow leaves seemed to only fall in the last day or two. I swear our trees here still had leaves on Wednesday. All having the cumulative effect of letting the winter holidays sneak up on me unprepared. Although the drug stores had Christmas decorations for sale two weeks prior to Halloween, somehow I dodged hearing a Christmas tune until two days ago when I accidentally changed the station to the 24-hour Holly Channel.
…When did we stop being kids…? It wasn’t when we turned 18, I’m sure of that. How old were you when you first realized you let slip something that your inner child never would or could have? … What were you doing when trembling anticipation first became sedate? … Was it when your first kid left the house? Or when a sibling passed away? Or was it when you realized you were still single well past the ages your parents had you? Or maybe you’ve figured the secret to eternal youth for your inner kid. (If so, bottle that and hand it out at coffee hour weekly please.) …Are we OK with the change in timbre in our quaking soul, or do we try not to look at it aside from the corners of our vision?
To a certain degree, we grow older, and we need to mature. Life’s experiences grant us insight, wisdom into the borders of things; borders like the dual edge of anticipation and obsession. We need the more sober view of the passing of years in order to measure out and balance all the difficulties, joys and complexities of life as adults. For many of us, this becomes the Blue Season, while the rest of the world seems to be full of joy.
But I wonder what else comes with putting our inner kid to bed. Does a certain part of us go to sleep as well? Do we lose our sense of wonder? Do we close ourselves a bit too much to everyday magic and awe? Do our views and perceptions become too jaded, … too practical, … too starchily useful? I think it’s the fastest way to let bone weary exhaustion set in: Exhaustion in the existential sense – tiredness with the passing of the seasons and cycles; rather than rejuvenation from the rebirth of times and holidays.
In traditional earth-based spirituality we will soon be crossing through Yule – the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that directly faces this perennial existential challenge. It’s a time of reflection, of new beginnings. Matching the symbolic birth of the Sun as our daylight hours only become longer and longer with each passing day following Yule, it’s a holiday that asks us to consider what we hope to rebirth in our lives. It asks us to rebirth our spirit in the face of the cold long night. I’d like to share with you a poem a friend of mine has written for Yule. I find it to speak really well to the challenge this season poses for so many in the face of all the merry and cheer. It’s entitled, “The Bare Bones of Winter” and it’s written by Elisabeth Ladwig:
“Out in the darkest night, the longest dark, appear the whitest stars against a black sky, joining the Moon in seasonal ritual of shadowcasting on the untouched snow. Magickally they manifest: Silhouettes of skeletons that shiver with the wind’s chill. To the maple I want to offer my warm coat, and to the sycamore, the linden, the oak. Come, follow me! My door opens to the bare bones of Winter… But unforeseen enters the evergreen, clothed in angelic light, greeting reverence with a promise… Of rebirth.”
Those trees that were holding onto their leaves this year tenaciously, are now just bare bones outside our windows and along our walks – If we could but give them our coats to keep warm against the chill. Which among us this year relate more to the bare trees than the charitable jolly-old traveler with arms full of generosity? Have we held on long enough to our last vestiges of yellow and orange, or is the silhouette an all-too familiar feeling come December?
This poem gives me a new sense of the evergreen, of the Christmas tree. To be fair, it’s less new than a better pointing back to a very ancient meaning. It reminds us there’s another spirit we can clothe ourselves with. There’s a way to feel full beneath the wheeling of the seasons – A lit path to rediscover awe and reverence. It shines hidden behind the packages, the obligations, the commercials, the packed Home Depots and Targets and Barnes and Nobles on Christmas Eve. We make a practice of bedecking the greens and the halls with festive, and color, and light to make certain we remember to find a place for awe and wonder in our everyday spaces: To craft rooms where we can once more Fa-La-La lest we forever Ho-Hum. We do this in community because every year some of us will be able to sing the Fa-La-La, while some otherwise would only be able to mutter softly the Ho-Hum.
It’s an increasing challenge for me each year. Several years back my parents and I agreed to stop the crush of present giving this time of year. There were a bunch of reasons why we did so, but the most obvious was one year when we finally hit the point of spending Way-To-Much. The gift-giving truce has been an awesome thing for me. My husband and I finally had that talk after 6 years of also doing the Way-To-Much. I don’t spend December fretting over the craze of consumerism; and for my family it’s finally simply about being together; something the holiday never really meant growing up – at least not that I ever saw or maybe just didn’t realize as a kid.
Lighting our trees, warming our hearth fires, decking our halls could be a sign that gift-giving is coming. It can also be the gift itself: The lit pathway to the secret of a spirit reborn. A metaphor that maybe our leaves can remain green this winter; and what a glorious gala celebration that could be for our inner kids who might have been long at slumber.
Life is about the attentive pauses. Not so much about the breaks, or the rest, or the relief. Those are very important too, but not it. Life is about the moments of gratitude, the times of awareness. The world continues spinning, the dancers continue dancing, the cat is still climbing in your face for attention but we are there to appreciate it, though we know not where that place is. Some of us will call it mindfulness. Others may call it gratitude. The less spiritually-inclined might simply call it paying attention; the poet’s “still point” – the lack of motion within every motion.
Allegorically speaking, the story of the birth of Jesus is about this too. A star shines bright in the clear sky. The kings get off their thrones; the wise men gather gifts to bear; the shepherds leave behind their flocks for a short time. Something great has just occurred. Where did it occur though? In some great exciting place? Were there alarms, or sirens, or flashing party lights? No. In the hidden recesses of a dirty manger, amongst the animals of the field. In the most everyday of places, the birth of hope was to be found. All that is, is held within the ordinary, the mundane. Only our perception cracks open its meaning; our appreciation makes all the difference.
One bit of advice I give people as we’re planning for the Winter Holidays and Holy Days relates to this – especially when the holidays have become The Blue Season for you. We can really get lost in all the work we do leading up to a Christmas Party or a Fellowship pageant, all the logistical bits—the party, the caterer, the decorations, the animal costumes, the instrumentalists, the ceremony, the guest list, and so on. As with all things in life, we can let them drive us crazy. However, they can also be an intentional way of reminding us that for that short span of time, we should be fully present. We commit all this time, energy, and focus to the planning of a very short event. It’s a way of reminding us that that joy, that celebration, is worthy of spending the time on it. What happens in the small moment of that candle being lit while singing Silent Night, is that important. Personally, I sometimes imagine all that effort is somehow condensed in the moment. The still point in the turning world.
And it’s those moments between the moments (to now brazenly quote T.S. Eliot) that we can return to for solace, for energy, for inspiration. The pausing is not solely about rest, but about renewal. (Anyone who has woken up in the morning, after a full night’s sleep, with no will to go to work or school knows the difference between rest and renewal.) The still point is about coming back to our place of renewal, stopping so that we can start once more with fresh purpose and meaning.
In the holiday season we stop, we celebrate the return of light, and the turning of the world. We pause to share time with our families, our friends, or just find some quiet time away from the frenetic New York minute. And we begin again.
We begin again as our full selves—or as close to our full selves as we can muster. The spiritual work of this season isn’t about figuring out how to lose the 10 pounds we gained from the eating over the holidays—although that’s important too. It’s not about resolutions on how to get control of our lives once more after a month of celebratory abandon—although that might be needed as well. The religious call asks we begin again doing the work of striving to make the world a more safe, a more just, a more sane place for the migrant in the manger, for those oppressed and seeking a miracle for even more than 8 days and nights. If we do that work, the rest will follow.
The rest will follow because our priorities will be set. The need for the next thing, the distraction, the party, whatever that thing is that we feel we’re lacking, which in reality is not essential—that will sift lower in our values when we’ve set the spiritual work of the season as our essential. The rest will follow when we accept that the distraction, or the crippling addiction we feel helpless before, or the petty grievance we keep at our forefront are not essential to who we are. They are what keeps us from ourselves, not what actually define us.
Mystically speaking – The moment in the manger; the moment we realize there’s enough lamp oil to illuminate all we ever could dream of, that the days will get longer, that the world will continue to spin; the moment we pause to appreciate the Holy in our lives; the moment we pause to recognize the powerless and the meek for their own worth; the moment we stop in awareness of the breadth of life—that moment informs all the rest. That moment of stillness gives the dance meaning and makes it possible. Life is not a series of disconnected moments strung together with only the meaning we lend it. Life is encountered in the flow between stillness and movement. The renewal is of the spirit, rather than the resting of the body.
Our hymn following this homily is a classic Christian reinterpretation of the Yule-time spiritual message. “In the Bleak Midwinter” the earth is as hard as iron and water is like a stone. Even though the version we’ll sing was re-crafted probably in the 1990’s, the lyrics still evoke a sense of barrenness. The bleak world outside reflects the inner world of our spirit; where the Christian Saviour is but a homeless stranger bringing the hope of the world in the most everyday of places – the setting of wood slats and strewn hay. Can we take a moment in our minds to deck those bare walls with garlands gay and singing? Can we take that message and that image with us in the year to come? Can we be-speckle the corners of every dry spirit we come into contact with, especially if it’s our own? Can we let our neighbor help us? Can we offer ourselves that wondrous gift before the trembling bare bones of winter?
As many of us who feel the draw; coming together in a shared spirit; singing for feeling, for joy, for camaraderie. We’ll sound just as wonderful as we let our hearts be large for one another. Allow yourselves now to be present through the cadence of song. Will you please join with me now, rising in body or spirit, and sing hymn #241, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”