Breaking Ground

This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.

As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.

Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.

When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.

Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.

By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.

As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.

As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.

First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.

It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.

Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.

I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)

(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)

So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.

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Sermon: Putting Down Roots

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.

Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.

I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.

So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.

It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.

In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”

Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.

Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.

Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.

This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.

But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.

The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.

At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.

As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.

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A People of Summer

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/7/16 and looks at the impact nostalgia has on our sense of selves.

A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to DC. My husband had a non-profit work conference and I decided to tag along. While he was in workshops, I was visiting our national museums, and the national zoo. We only got to see three museums together, since he was in meetings all day. The Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. There were some awesome exhibits, and there were some extreme disappointments. The IMAX movie about gophers would have been more riveting than the summer blockbuster, Independence Day II, not even the IMAX in our nation’s capital could save that rotten tomato. I wanted to show him the Star Trek Enterprise that I remember hanging from the ceiling; but sadly it was smaller than I recalled and tucked away in a corner. But my husband is an Air Force baby (born on one of our bases), so getting to see the history of air flight, and much about our armed forces, was still rather amazing.

But the American History museum was my prime goal. I used to visit the Smithsonian twice a year throughout most of my twenties. In my college years, in addition to religion, I studied Anthropology, Archaeology and World Art History. I couldn’t get enough of seeing the things I read about in person. But contrary to all that, the most engaging exhibit in my memory was the section on TV History. Cultural relics from the small screen ensconced behind glass for the generations. Maybe it didn’t make a lot of sense, but Archie Bunker’s and Edith’s chairs – Kermit the Frog – the Ruby Slipper from the wizard of Oz. All those small pieces of culture stood out as amazing to me twenty years ago when I finally got to see them in person.

I remember visiting it twenty years ago, and the exhibit circled round and round, with artifacts from the golden years of Television. You couldn’t get through it in less than 3 or 4 hours if you took the time to read it all. But this Summer, we get to the museum, and the whole layout is so different. Everything looks more polished, but I don’t recognize much of what I’m seeing, beyond maybe the steam engine on one floor. Good museums change their exhibits regularly, so there’s not an issue there. But soon we’re circling and circling and can’t find the TV History section. We ask guides, and I’m starting to think we’re in the wrong museum; that maybe there was a museum that was entirely dedicated to TV and Radio. But one more guide insists that’s not the case and points us in another direction. We double back three times, before Brian spies the ruby slipper.

It’s just not the same. There’s a lot less there. The lighting is dim, and all the relics from that era can fit in a room that’s maybe only a little larger than our social hall here at our Fellowship. This isn’t a three hour exhibit, it’s more like 15 minutes. We never found Kermit, though Edith’s and Archie’s chairs were there, as were the ruby slippers. It felt a little ironic that I was pining for a time when our yesteryear relics shined a bit more than they do now. How we remember how things once were, has less glamor than it once did.

I know it has more to do with the reality that as time rolls on, the shows that I remember from my childhood – even if some of them were already in repeats – may not even be known by the generation that came after me. I think I saw every episode of Lassie three times, and anyone born after 2000 won’t even know that’s a dog. Time rolls on. But it struck me. At a time in our nations’ life, where many of us are pining for nostalgia, as all too often things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, losing the relics from yesteryear felt more like a punch to the gut than maybe was all that rationale. The wrestling with nostalgia may be counterproductive, or even misleading. Shows change, cultural reference points change – that doesn’t mean we’re worse off – just that history is making room for those who come after us.

…July was another rough month for our nation as we heard the tragedies in Dallas and throughout our country. A black man shot in his car over a broken tail light. So many police officers, and transit cops, gunned down by a US war veteran – while they were peacefully doing their duty protecting civilians who were protesting the earlier police shooting. That’s a police force, at its finest, doing the most American Civil service we can imagine – protecting free speech – and their lives are lost….

This month we’ll be reflecting on the spiritual discipline of rootedness. Where do we find grounding in times of crisis; how do we find connection in an era that feels like we’re further apart than ever; where does upheaval help us to find our footing again. At the mid-point of this season of sun, I want to reflect on the lessons of this time of year – what it would mean to be a people of Summer. It’s been my favorite season more at least 20 years. You look forward to it for much of the year, and then in a blink – half of it’s gone away. I’ve recalled before from this pulpit about childhood summer days that seemed to stretch on to eternity, and as the years go by, and we get older, finding those never-ending days in the Summer sun seems more and more elusive. And I don’t mean, whether you can get the time off, or the time away. Even on long days at the beach, as we age, I think time-spreading out seems more elusive than in yesteryears. We are so often, more a people of nostalgia, than a people of summer; living into what was as some mythic time of ease and perfection, rather than living into the day that is before us – which we should rejoice and be glad in it.

We hear so often, folks lamenting how things once were and why can’t we go back to that. Well, that’s nostalgia speaking. Things aren’t worse these days, we’re just hearing and seeing more of what always happened, through the advent of cell phones, and cameras in every hand, and Twitter poking national media’s attention. There are regular tv newscasts now that follow what Twitter says, because posts on Twitter often are the first sign of a news story. With all the instant access news, it feels like things are much worse than they once were.

Police deaths are actually at a historic low. Despite partisan politics, every president – every single president since Reagan, every single president, has presided over a period of history where police killings were less than their predecessor. Yet, there’s a story that says we’re at our most violent. Every death is tragic, and we need to reach no deaths. That’s the truth, we need to. But we’re also not getting worse, we’re getting much better. But that’s not how we feel. We feel like it’s worse. There’s a way in which that’s real for some people, especially anyone who has lost a loved one, or fears for the loss of a loved one. That’s very real. And there’s a way in which that’s a form of nostalgia that makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do, in order to make it better for those who are serving and living today in this world. We can’t fix something that’s broken, if we don’t address it as it is – as it really is and not as we think it is.

Communities of color have had to face this reality since their first days in our nation, whether they were born here, immigrated here, or forcibly taken here, or were kicked off their own land. Waves of white immigrants have experienced challenges like unwelcome signs, housing and employment bias, and so on. But within a few generations, white immigrant families integrate and dodge the bias by being known as white, rather than Italian, or German, or Irish. But beyond us simply being more aware of the violence on our streets because of cell phone cameras and Facebook poking the attention of newscasters faster than they can follow on their own, there’s a sense among white communities across our country that somehow whiteness is under attack. For a long time, I mostly saw it the pains associated with having some of your privilege taken away and confusing that with oppression. But a July 25th New Yorker article had an interesting story about the advent in popular culture of putting real and mocking faces on what we derogatorily call “white trash”, and compare that to “proper” elite whites.  Urban centers are taken seriously, rural communities are taken as a joke. Enough decades of that, and we have a problem in our national identity. If whites in urban centers advance, and whites in rural centers stagnate, it gets worse. Maybe we’re starting to see that in some parts of our suburbs as well, right? And when we live into our identity of a people of nostalgia – we remember back to all the black and white TV classics, where middle America seemed to be the best of us – we want to go back to how things were then; with a vibrant middle class, a one family income, and no cell phone cameras showing us where the fire hoses, and the shootings, and beatings are happening in real time. From the fire hoses that lead to Selma, to any story we hear about daily in our news feeds today – They’ve been there all along – now we’re just talking about it more – or maybe I should say all of us are talking about it more; because communities that have lived through oppression have always talked about it.

When we live into being a people of summer, we don’t stick with the notion that the days only stretched out into eternity when we were children. That’s a trick of our monkey mind. We’re letting the part of ourselves that are weighed down with responsibility and obligation rule our down-time even when we don’t have those obligations – we keep them with us, and our days become shorter and more fret with anxiety. It’s the classic trap we’ve all done. Sunday comes along and you lament you have to go back to work on Monday so much that you lose much of the joy of the day off because we’re already living into our next day of work. Rootedness is a spiritual discipline. Being rooted in what’s right before us – for good or for bad – is the most spiritual way to live. When we work, we work; when we rest though, we get to rest. Nostalgia for what was – even knowing in all likelihood it never really was like the way we like to remember – only keeps us from rejoicing and being glad in every new day.

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Prayer for Black Lives and for Dallas

Prayer for Black Lives and Dallas Police: –Rev. Jude
 
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Many of us are numb this week,
Overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty
in the face of story after story,
Of another person killed in our streets.
Alton Sterling for selling cd’s at a gas station,
Philando Castile for a broken tail light.
 
And 5 Dallas police and transit officers who gave their lives, and 7 who were wounded, while protecting civilians, who were peacefully protesting the deaths of Alton and Philando.
 
The names of the fallen that are now public are Brent Thompson, a 43-year-old transit police officer and Patrick Zamarripa, a 32-year-old police officer who served three tours in Iraq with the U.S. military.
 
We are grateful that 3 of the officers injured are expected to recover. We pray for the healing of:
 
Omar Cannon, 44; Misty McBride, 32; and Jesus Retana, 39 – as well as all the officers who names are not yet public.
 
Let us hold a moment of silence for the injured and the dead…
 
 
 
Mother of Hope,
 
We ask for their healing,
While we know that the grief, the sorrow and the fear that rests in our hearts
May not heal anytime soon.
We mourn with the victims families – whose lives have forever changed with the loss of their loved ones.
Grant us a spirit of resolution to do the work of community building centered in justice and compassion;
Ever knowing that violence never leads to justice for any of us.
Help our nation to move through the impasse of pitting the value of Black Lives against support for our officers.
Teach us ways not to fall into the false message that one cannot value the rights and humanity of Black civilians if one values our police.
May we cease to pit one against the other; yet ever continue to affirm the mattering of Black Lives who are so egregiously assaulted; while ensuring our officers have the resources they need to do the hard work they are here to do.
 
We ceaselessly pray for a time in our nation where gun violence does not plague our lands;
where power and privilege wage war on the rights of the individual for a life of meaning and substance;
and we commit and recommit to doing the public work to change our practices and policies that lead us relentlessly down this tragic road.

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Simple Beauty, Complex Pain

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 6/19/16. It addresses the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando.

It has been a painful, difficult week, following the shootings in Orlando. The tragedy that I spoke about last Sunday with news slowly trickling in, has turned out to be more than twice as deadly as we first thought. We’ve known worse attacks in war, and in our history of genocide, and lynchings, but in the modern era, we have not seen a mass shooting like this on our nation’s soil. Most of us are shook up; some are numb. And the LGBT community, particularly communities of color, are experiencing an extended shock response to the trauma because it’s an extension of the all too often reality many of us live in.

I briefly considered doing away with our Flower Celebration today, but the origins of the ritual come at a time in Europe’s history where the worst violence known to humanity was occurring during World War II. Unitarian minister, Rev. Chapek, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain. Remembering those lost last week is incredibly painful; many of us are experiencing the tragedy as if we knew those victims personally. I remember texting a few friends, during our annual meeting last Sunday, who lived there waiting to hear back; and thankfully they were all fine.

But the perpetual state of gun violence in our nation is leaving us more and more raw, and it’s making it harder and harder not to imagine that it could happen down the street. The political noise around each tragedy keeps real conversation at bay long enough to delay till the next mass shooting. It’s a sort of fog of war: as long as we can’t see straight, we don’t know how to react politically to protect our communities. And the issue is complex, but friends, it’s not that complex. We manage to know how to regulate how much Sudafed someone can buy over the counter, we can figure out how to track AR-15’s. What stops us from organizing as a community for sensible laws that don’t allow people on the FBI terrorist watch list from purchasing these military-grade weapons? Is that really a radical thing to suggest?

That’s my question for our Fellowship: can we organize around this issue? I believe in hope, and I believe in the power of prayer, and I know the value of reading the list of names of those lost to us. And as scripture reads, Faith without works is dead. That’s the bit that I think all UU’s agree with theologically. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we aren’t doing something about those intrinsic values, then that ethic is empty and hollow. I worry about every first responder that needs to go into these places. I’m grateful for the military vet who was on site at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, who saved many lives. And I know in my heart, that there are too many LGBT youth and adults who will now delay coming out for fear of safety. Why do we leave it at that? Can we extend forward our respect and appreciation by working toward reasonable precautions against future harm? While we grieve this great loss, hold-off in coffee hour from worrying about the small details of congregational life that are less than to your liking; hold off from the what if’s and not that’s of life. Use that energy in connecting with one another and imagining how can we be a force for change on this issue that so many of us clearly care so deeply about. The Fellowship can be a crucible for this work, and the world needs us to take part.

It reminds me of the old scriptural adage of sack cloth and ashes after a great loss, or out of a spirit of repentance for a great wrong. I spoke last week about the words of one Rabbi who asked the people to repent of evil before we commit it. Another kind of repentance happens when we have failed to do what needed to be done. We remembered lives lost in our prayer today, and I wonder what I could have done to have prevented that ever from being necessary. And I know this is a community that is big enough to imagine coalition building that extends across difference, to build that safer world. The Flower Celebration originated as a service to draw our eyes back to simple beauty so that we can do the difficult work to address the complex pains of the world. In our hours of despair, may we find a renewal of spirit, to do the work at hand; and not be distracted by the thousand small details in life that keep us from the clear path.

A few weeks ago, I was attending our Tuesday morning silent meditation group, and I heard a classic Buddhist story about a Nun who was carrying a bamboo container full of water. In the water she could see the moon. After some time, the bamboo weakened and shatter, and all the water quickly leaked out. The Nun exclaimed laughing, “no water, no moon” and the story goes that she was enlightened. Traditionally, this tale is one that teaches about some of the classic characteristics of Buddhist understanding. The water and bamboo are the myriad things of the world, and the moon signifies impermanence. When we grasp onto what is fleeting, we can find despair or relief in what begins and ends before us as the water leaks through our fingers.

But there’s another aspect of this story that I find very true. In everyday terms, the water in that bamboo bucket is how we see the moon. We’re not looking at the moon directly; we are seeing the image of the moon in a reflection that draws our eyes away from what is real and true. The moon becomes a story about itself that’s retold dimly from another direction entirely. Everything that we see only through the reflection of the water is reliant upon how we hold the bucket, where are standing or moving at any given time, how long the bucket will last, and even how much water we have over time. The water becomes a story that we tell and retell others to understand the reflection of the moon – not the moon – merely it’s reflection.

This is really true about life. What’s the story we hear in the media, or among our friends, or the one we ourselves tell about what happened in Orlando? Do we have the story memorized that tells us any act of violence by someone who professes Islam, is an act of terror first and foremost and more about the clash of civilizations? Or do we have the story that homophobia can be internalized and cause grievous harm to ourselves and the world? Do we have the story that the Second Amendment trumps all other forms of liberty and rights? Or do we live into a story where we imagine we can never be fully safe? Since (most) or probably all modern mass shootings have been instigated by men, I have a story that there’s a way in which we are raising our boys and men that is fundamentally flawed. Masculinity has been twisted to mean power and aggression. I think that story is right, but it’s still just one way of looking at it.

As we recommit to building the world we dream about, we are going to need to find points of connection with people who have differing opinions than our own. Lives are very much on the line. Despite what we might hear colloquially, surveys show that most members of the NRA are in favor of reasonable precautions around the sale of military grade weapons. It’s not us vs them, rather the lobbyist organization that is the NRA is not in alignment with the vast majority of it members on this issue. We can hold onto a story that says otherwise, but it won’t help move the dialogue forward.

We can hold onto the story that this attack was solely against the US, which is sadly a story that has far too many politicians shutting their eyes and proclaiming. That story falsely tells us that any child of an immigrant is a potential risk. This shooter’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan at a time in our history when that nation was our ally against Cold War Communism. Do we stop immigration from any nation that’s our current ally because we do not know what will happen 30 years later?

We are people of stories. That’s often what makes us human. Myth, and story-telling, is the heart of my vocation in many ways. We can communicate the depth and breadth of humanity in story. But a good story helps crack open meaning and truth. As religious people, it’s our challenge to get better at telling what’s a good story that brings our humanity out to the surface, and which stories trick us into believing in the reflection of a moon.

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Prayer for Orlando

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

We gather this evening, in peace, in sorrow;

in grief, and in pain.

We bear witness once more to such a deep,

human loss for all our communities.

We mourn the death of 49 lesbian, and gay, bisexual and transgender people;

Bright souls with parents, and siblings;

some in the vibrant youth of their lives,

others who lived for decades, getting to see our nation,

too slowly turn toward equality for all,

and at least one – who was in great personal pain – who brought that tragic pain to bear upon so many others.

We bear witness to the parents who will no longer see their children come home; parents who will not get the chance to celebrate their sons’ or daughter’s plans for marriage or for children of their own, for a long life denied them.

We have no words in the face of such loss….

Mother of Grace, we pray you write this grief into the tablets of our hearts,

so that we may no longer go into this world complicit with the quiet hates that embed our streets, and schools, offices and houses of worship.

As we have seen so much loss, teach us to hold tight to one another,

while we can, and live into this world with Your sacred trust; with respect and compassion; especially when it’s hard to find.

Move us out of inaction and complacency,

and use us to build the Beloved Community on this earth.

And turn us away from fear, and easy blame.

May our people not look to the actions of one man,

and blame the whole of his religion.

Ever teach us to question any lesson that ends in fear, or hatred;

that lifts up the differences over our common humanity,

that divides us and makes us forget we are all children of God.

We pray for a healing of the toxic masculinity that puts all of us at risk;

may we raise our boys into men whose hearts are stirred by justice and forbearance;

men who find strength in solidarity rather than in power,

who find self-acceptance in compassion rather than insecurity from fear.

Where we feel helpless before the enormity of it all,

remind us that our work in raising families and communities grounded in Spirit and centered in love,

is the very work that each of our faith’s call us to do.

We are the hands of the Holy on earth,

and may we ever reach those hands out to one another,

in times of loss and in times of celebration,

building and rebuilding our world.

Let there be peace on earth,

and let it begin with me.

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Sermon: Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/12/16 as part of our annual LGBT Pride Sermon and in conjunction with the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence.

 

This week has been one of many firsts in our nation and in our world. The glass ceiling of the White House is seeing some cracks in it; for the first time in our history, a woman has been selected as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Whatever the outcome, and whatever your political leanings, imagine what that looks like to young girls today. Imagine what that looks like to young boys today?! Let’s take politics out of it for the length of this sermon and this worship. When it’s possible to imagine role models for the highest position of power and authority and leadership – irrespective of gender – it may be empowering for young girls growing up, and it may be critically instructive to young boys growing up, to better understand the genders as intrinsically equal. I don’t know what may come, and regardless of the outcome of the elections, I am hopeful that girls will have a little more space to grow freely, and boys will have a little more room to be themselves because the ideal of power and leadership might possibly look different. And when we slowly inch toward a world where we put less bias into gender discrimination, I pray for a time where young trans youth can grow into themselves with safety and confidence.

But sexism is still alive and well. The news this week told us that women who are rape victims, with all the evidence in the world, may not see their attacker live out a real sentence if the attacker is a privileged white male with a promising future and an expensive lawyer. We know that in too many states, Transfolk are challenged when they attempt to use a public bathroom that conforms to their gender. A young white college student criminally assaults a woman – with witnesses who testified – and the judge will express concern over the impact a punishment will have on the assailant – yet instead of looking to the real problem, there are states that are policing bathrooms for mythical Transgender attackers. When the story gets so out of whack, like the stories we’ve heard this week, it’s a sign that it’s not about what it says it’s about. Something else is at foot. Hans Hoffman, a 20th century Abstract Painter once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” This month we are imagining what it means to be a people of simplicity. When the world contorts itself to see threat in places and people who are safe, and seeks to protect or go lenient on people who are a known threat, we as consumers of the media need to learn to simplify by eliminating the unnecessary in the story, so that what is necessary may speak. Gender terrifies some; or our sense of power connected to gender terrifies. Some men become violent, some seek to possess, some seek to control and mitigate those that blur the lines. When we become a people of simplicity, when we have cultivated a discerning lens through which we take in what the world is giving us, we learn to see through all the smoke screens that seek to confuse and separate those with common cause.

Pride month is a time of celebration. It’s also a time of memory; a time to remember the movement for LGBT equality began with Transgender People of Color, who were leaders in starting a riot in the West Village because enough was enough when it came to the police abrogating their civil rights through harassment and arrest. With that broken glass, I doubt this gay minister would be preaching from your pulpit today. It’s a time to remember the lives that have been lost over the years to hatred and fear; a time to remember that our LGBT youth still kill themselves at a radically higher rate than straight youth. What is it about our society that teaches victims to blame themselves? When you cut out all the chatter of politics and popular culture – we get to the question of why – why do we do this to ourselves; why do we teach our youth that brutality is something to be tolerated and managed? That’s the simple question for the day.

We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 5, 13, or 19. And sometimes, try as we might to be the most supportive, nurturing parents with the best intentions we can be, not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. We all have flaws and blind spots. Coming to accept who our children are when it doesn’t fit the neat description we have woven over the years, isn’t always an easy task. This isn’t just an LGBT issue, as many parents in this hall today will attest. Raising a child to be their own self means we have to accept what comes, even if it isn’t our design. But for the sake of today’s topic, I want to focus on the family dynamics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Some parents, who learn their child is not heterosexual or identifies with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, simply don’t know how to cope. Sometimes it all works out. But sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.

I can relate to that heartbreak. I am, after all, a gay man, and I, too, have felt the seemingly insufferable burden of simply being who I am. I can relate to the LGBT youth who succumb to despair in a world of violence. And I see it intrinsically connected to a culture that protects sexual assailants over their female victims. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. …

Parents who truly care for and love their children unconditionally want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to their kids, they’ll know right away and know how to help. Many of us imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us. But that isn’t how it works much of the time…How many times did you hide something painful from your parents, because you were ashamed or afraid or confused or couldn’t imagine that they could possibly understand or help?

Many injuries fall below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that others wouldn’t see the bruises and know that I had been subject to violence. Kids don’t speak up all the time.

All too often, the people a child in this situation most looks to for help, the teachers and principles with all their schoolyard authority, simply want the problem to go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with the people who attacked me, yet I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For all the LGBT youth whom we’ve lost to suicide, I can not just see, but I also feel how shame won out over safety for these young people.

At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence against me wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation exactly but one to which I could relate, and the connection clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. It wasn’t an easy process. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness is not easy when the stakes are high, yet forgiveness extracted me from a nightmare of shame and violence that belonged to someone else, not to me. It freed me.

The sad thing is, some of those boys who tormented and beat me later would be men whom I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. They were people who allowed their blameless self loathing to bring them to harm the very thing they were seeking, which is validation of their identities as men who love men. As a child and as a teen, I was subject to their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold.

I’ve never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions, no matter the causes. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.

I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.”

We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.

The justice system is an important element here. It’s one that has many failings, true, but one that also has so much potential to help. The inner spiritual work that we do individually to release ourselves from the pain of injustice through forgiveness, is different from the lengths society as a whole must take to address this problem. I began this sermon lamenting a very public injustice that impacted the life of a woman who was sexually assaulted. The work we victims must do to come to a place of wholeness – of our own striving – is separate from the work the judicial system must do in order to have earned its title and complete its duty.

There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or whose faith is different from another’s, deserve being enslaved. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity is drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But in the scriptures, God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. In my case, the college educator teaching about domestic violence shared in her own way her Egypt’s lesson of retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward.

From the perspective of a Unitarian Universalist, here is how I see the core of the religious message: We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it. When we get trapped in amber like bugs in the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, we lose what is necessary about life. Trapped in unnecessary hate, and greed, and fear, and brutality, we cease to live.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust of the Jewish people, not gay or gay-seeming teens. But we know as well that the the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. Rabbi Telushkin’s request is one that resonates today with the challenges our liberal faith is facing.

How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is lifesaving?

Friends – repentance – yes repentance – starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the  right for them to convey the morals and values that they believe are the most critical to their children.

We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by loss and violence. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens or adults who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparks such tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Huntington, New York in 2016 on this beautiful June Sunday morning.

The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. The media often focuses LGBT equality on the issue of marriage, maybe job protections, maybe hospital visitation rights, and lately on bathrooms. But in a week in our nation’s life when gender and sexuality have so clearly intersected in so many ways with the horror of violence, I want us to remember our youth who continue to be at risk of violence done to them by others, or done by themselves from a shame they somehow learned to feel. Today, I’m thinking of the teens our world has lost to suicide. In honor of all those youth known and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Think of your connection to your neighbor. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough – safe connection, approval, respect. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.

You see, Rabbi Telushkin isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, then we are duty-bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We as the Unitarian Universalists of the Fellowship of Huntington seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth, and adults that there is another path. We teach about consent. We teach about bullying, and boundaries and support. We seek to teach that there are stories worth retelling to release ourselves from bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – it’s because I believe it can help us avoid these stories of tragedy. It’s a way to create bridges of understanding that set a path forward, rather than one that harms. And it’s not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education we affectionately refer to as OWL. It’s not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. It’s not just for our Adult Journey Groups – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. We need parents to be involved in every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is lifesaving, in so many ways.

Education is lifesaving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is lifesaving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice crafting in our nation and our towns is lifesaving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with all those who will never be named by our society.

Last night in Orlando, Florida, a gay nightclub was shot up. I don’t know all the facts yet because it was too painful to read through all the news feeds, and information is still coming in. But as of this morning, over 20 were killed and over 40 were hospitalized and the gunman is dead. It was so bad, that some messages overnight were saying there was a suspected terrorist attack in Orlando. I don’t know what the whole story will tell us in time. But as a gay man, at a time of year when much of our nation is celebrating LGBT Pride – this service included – I can’t help but look at the timing and the focus and wonder – was the gunman merely overcome with violence, or were they overcome with violence toward the LGBT community. When I thought this was a terrorist attack, I felt one set of emotions. When I learned it was a terrorist attack targeting my community, I felt another set of emotions.

When you’re community is targeted and you feel like the responses are too weak, you feel the need to say that our gay lives matter. When women are sexually assaulted and the judicial system fails in treating all assailants equally, women feel even more unsafe. We call for increased awareness around sexual assault. We don’t say that other forms of assault don’t matter, but we say that addressing this form of violence needs to be handled with more care. And when we hear story after story of black lives not mattering in our courts and our streets, we reaffirm that Black Lives do Matter. Black Gay Lives Matter. Black Lesbian Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.

As our service comes to a close, I’d like to return to where I began. The LGBT civil rights movement – the moment that finally propelled us forward, was notably begun by Transgender People of Color starting a riot because their lives didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of their neighbor or the authorities. The free exercise of the civil rights that I enjoy today are based on the protests started by a Black Transwoman and all the others that screamed out in rage when she said enough is enough. Following the benediction, we’ll process outside to join our youth who have been working all morning to install our Fellowship’s Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn. Black Lives do matter; and considering who helped to kickstart the LGBT civil rights movement, I am so personally glad that our statement of solidarity will be publicly blessed in this national month of LGBT pride.

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