This sermon calls for a return to the basics of the teaching message of Jesus, and discusses how his wisdom has been co-opted for political ends. The Occupy Wall Street movement is centrally reflected upon in this podcast. It was first preached on October 9th, 2011 at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn, NY.
About two months ago, my partner Brian and I were driving in a rental car from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR. But maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My partner Brian, left – no scratch that – ran away screaming from a homophobic fundamentalist Christian upbringing and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. Soooo… it’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment that was punctuated by my statement, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.”
This sermon is largely about how we’ve gone astray from the basics of religion with an aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. Or maybe just really obvious. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelations. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. Harold Camping, the modern day prophet of Revelations, the man who caused fear and trembling amongst tens of thousands this past May 21st, was the brainchild of wayward prophecies that cause anxiety and terror around the end of the world. I believe he came to the conclusion that May was the wrong date and it’s somewhere in October or November. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or maybe some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, that sky was ocean, and false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said. That we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here? Just this week I was watching a 1975 classic movie with a few friends at my apartment called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward.
I see so many similarities with the protest movement we see and hear just across our river in Wall Street. Last weekend, Brian and I were taking a walk down the promenade and about the time when the arrests began happening on the Brooklyn Bridge, we could hear the loud cry from that far away. A movement that originally was said to only be in the hundreds, took a shift and became a movement of thousands and thousands. And not only in this city, but sprouting up in cities across the country. Within a span of days, social media became abuzz with the grassroots movement. Numerous of our congregants, friends of mine, and fellow UU colleagues have travelled out to Wall Street to protest. Many deride it for lack of clarity and focus. There’s a laundry list of things about the Occupy Wall Street movement for which it is critiqued into irrelevancy. And yet, all the critiques sound to my ear identical to those critiques of the early Tea Party movement. Some of you in the pews may be squirming at the comparison, but the truth is that the Tea Party became unbelievably relevant out of a sludge of irrelevancy because it was speaking to a primal disgust toward the system.
Rick Bruner, a member at First UU, is one of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. He was recently telling me that he’s, “been surprised by the effect that the protest has had on [him].” His 23-year-old nephew, Patrick Bruner, has emerged as a prominent player in the whole movement, as one of the principal spokespersons for the protests. He is being widely quoted, including in NYT, WSJ, NPR and elsewhere.” Rick tells me that his nephew stayed with him for several weeks earlier in the summer, and they had a number of political conversations, and while Rick was once much more radical and idealistic in his political views, he kept getting frustrated with his nephew in their discussions for being a dreamer. As he’s aged he says that he supposes like many he’s “grown more cynical and jaded about the workings of the world.” A few months later, Rick was telling me that he was feeling a bit like he “… got schooled by his nephew.”
The movie “Network” that I spoke about had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger.
I don’t agree. I don’t believe it needs to start with anger. I believe that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger, and I want no part of that. For me that would be another warning sign of messages spouted by modern day anti-christs. Don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path. I believe these protests on Wall Street are so far non-violent ones. Maybe centered for some in frustration, they remain peaceful – well except for a rare few members of our police pepper spraying some protesters.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the river. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. For some the movement is amorphous and without meaning. For others, it’s very clear. CNN recently summed up the movement as follows, “They are suggesting that the fiscal operating system on which we are attempting to run our economy is no longer appropriate to the task. They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.”
Speaking in religious terms, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now in a recession. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to. This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us and a return to living the values we already know. I mention this aside because this morning Judson Memorial Church, a progressive Christian church at Washington Square will be processing a golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street Bull down to Zuccotti Park at 2pm for an interfaith service. Some of you may be moved to join them. But I also mention this because we sometimes get stuck in thinking that one faith tradition holds a monopoly on a teaching.
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work does First UU do? Some of us donate to shelters: CHIPS, Ali Forney, Henrick-Martin and the Harvey Milk school all happened last congregational year. I know that literally scores of bags of clothes were collected between us all. That’s frankly incredible. Can we institutionalize this? Can we plan to do so outside of the Winter Holidays or special collections originated by our program of Small Group Ministries? Is there someone among us that would be willing to step forward to make sure that we’re always helping to clothe the naked? I learned on Friday that our member Mary Most began collecting clothing goods to deliver to the Occupy Wall Street site. So many there are not just protesting, or camping. They’re homeless.
Do we feed the hungry? Well, the answer is sort of. Some of us volunteer our time with food shelters. We do collect goods in the vestibule every Sunday to be sent to a food pantry. If you haven’t yet donated, please consider doing so. Every week we accept goods. Could we do more? Yes. Could we set up times where we travel as a group to a local soup kitchen to staff it? Could we join up with our sister congregation of All Souls which has their own kitchen that serves over 250 people every Monday night? Yes. Are there ways to collaborate with our other synagogues, mosques and churches in the area? Yes. Is there someone among us that would be willing to step forward…?
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up.
When I visited Zuccotti Park, the center of the Occupy Wall Street protest, I experienced the human megaphone. Apparently, protesters are not allowed to use actual megaphones. So when one needs to speak so that all will hear, they say a line and wait for those closest around the speaker to repeat what they said as a group. The sound reverberates outward till folks further back repeat it again until all can hear. In this gentle act of human spirit, the voice of the silenced get repeated and passed on louder and louder. Standing in the place of love, where each human being helps the next be heard by all, leaves little room for the voice of an anti-christ to be heard.
I would like to end this morning’s sermon in a different way than usual. In a moment of solidarity with those who have no megaphone, those who have not the luxury of a high pulpit and ample sound system, I will end my sermon by coming down to the pews. In a moment I’ll turn off the lavaliere, and speak without electronic aid. I’ll ask, the risky request, that those in the front pews help us to experience the human megaphone within the walls of this historic church building. For those that are close that can hear me well, please repeat my words for those further back. Afterward those in the middle can repeat what they hear for those seated in the rearmost pews. We should hear two echoes.
‘We are the congregation of the open mind. We are the congregation of the loving hearts. We are the congregation of the helping hands. We teach this to our children. May we find ways to live this deeply as adults. It is a religious mission, to transform ourselves and our world, through acts of love and justice.’
 http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/05/opinion/rushkoff-occupy-wall-street/index.html – Brought to my attention by congregant Julie Bero