Archive for March, 2013
This homily was preached on Good Friday, March 29th at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn.
This is the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. We are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of this day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose.
What is this death? The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. When we bear witness to the child or the teen shot dead because of the wrong time, or the wrong place, or the wrong color, or the wrong class, or for loving the wrong person. The Cross is there when society looks on in fascination or horror and stands paralyzed to act – only enabling the crime to occur again and again. There is no hope when we see this – but we can pray for purpose.
The Cross returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity.
The story of the Cross is not a myth to ease our fears of the afterlife. It is not solely a tale of someone making a sacrifice for our good – or our ease – for our comfort. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. The lynching trees of our history and our present can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods. There is a cross that hangs on the corner of the street – on too many streets.
Inertia. Apathy. Numbness. They can plague us sometimes. With the barrage of so many stories of grief, of loss – we can succumb to hopelessness. We can ignore them all, by throwing up our hands, and saying, “Not one more thing. Not me. I can’t fix it all. So I won’t begin anywhere.” That’s the warning of the cross. You won’t be able to fix it all. … That’s the truth. The Christian message doesn’t say we can fix it all. It says we have to act where we can. It says – “On this day – Don’t look away. You need to see this. There is something that can be done for the person before you. For the Cross on this street corner.” You can choose to be the soldiers dicing over the garments of the man on the Cross, or you can be the onlookers gaping in mute horror, or you can be the women at his feet who care for the body and quietly resolve to change the world as best they can – to live their life in memory of a man killed by worldly powers and worldly privilege.
This is why we commemorate the life and death of Jesus this day. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.
Source of Love, God of Many Names, bring us back to ourselves.
With the closing of the Winter,
Help us to reflect on the places in our hearts where we have hunkered down,
Where we have closed ourselves to the bitterness around us.
May we let go of the biting comments of the past,
So they not fester in our minds.
May we make room for the coming Spring,
And for the seeds of the spirit –
that are striving to bud,
If only we would care for them.
Mother of All, bring us to your living water,
May we drink in your possibility.
The seasons remind us that all things are temporary.
All pains have a way of passing,
With new joys only a grasping hand away.
Let us not fixate on what is past,
Making it ever and always in our present.
Rather teach us to learn what is to be learned,
Mourn for what is gone,
To live brightly and sharply from those lessons,
And craft new stories for our lives.
Gather this hour,
With peace in our hearts,
Warmth in our eyes,
And care in our words.
May we end one week,
And begin another,
Centered in our spirit,
Open to a renewal in our lives,
And focused on the path before us.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.
(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)
When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.
…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)
The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.
Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.
With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.
Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.
Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.
The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.
We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts. We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.” He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.
Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.” Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.
“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.
All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.” Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.
Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)
#35 Small Group Ministry Session Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian, Brooklyn – Based on the sermon, “Where the Desert Meets the Sea” preached by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons at First UU on 3/3/13. This session explores the role of heroes in our lives. The sermon it’s based upon is found here: http://www.fuub.org/home/clergy/sermons/?sermon_id=104
Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting (Please read aloud) excerpt from the sermon by Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons
‘“We are each the joining of two worlds.” We stand at the place where the desert meets the sea. We stand at the place where absolute absence intersects absolute presence. And as much as we hunger to declare ourselves just one or the other, the fact is that we have a dual nature. We are dust and ashes and at the same time for our sake the world was created.”
Statement of Purpose: To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.
Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.
Reading: Excerpts from Rev. Ana’s sermon.
“This is what I call our desert consciousness. Dust, ashes, sand, rock. Our consciousness of ourselves as defined, like a desert, by what we lack. It’s an ethic of scarcity and humility. Like a desert, where you can see the bones of everything that came before baked white in the sun, it’s a vision of our mortality. We become like the human Jesus who was said to have prayed in the desert for 40 days, preparing for his own suffering and death. If you’ve ever been in a desert at night, you may remember the feeling – the visceral feeling of clinging to a dry planet that’s spinning through outer space. From the perspective of desert consciousness, we are decidedly not God, we are small and vulnerable and utterly dependent on the universe for every breath we take.”
“This is what I call ocean consciousness. Wavelike, surging, abundant energy, teeming with life. It’s the consciousness of ourselves defined by what we have and all that we are, rather than by what we lack. It’s a vision of grandeur, even of ourselves as the substrate that supports a thousand life forms. In ocean consciousness, humans are heroic. It is the awareness of our God-self, like the ocean that will always be crashing on the shore, impervious, immortal, and infinite.”
Discussion Questions: We often make heroes of the people who excel in what Rev. Ana would call Ocean or Desert consciousness. Extreme success or extreme sacrifice. Why do we choose to look up to the people we choose? Who are your personal heroes? Who are the ones you might be afraid to admit you admire? What do these choices say about ourselves? Do you feel more drawn to the Desert or the Ocean? Where have you found that balance, and where have you fallen short?
Closing: (please read aloud ) Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Spirit of Renewal, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,
We turn this month, in our nation’s life, to reflect on the stories,
and the struggles,
of women throughout the ages.
We seek to learn from all those voices that have been left unheard.
May we pause before the silences of the ages,
Find who has been left out,
And craft new ways of inclusion,
For every week, and every month.
May this spiritual practice,
Bring out the voices of all those struggling,
All those left apart.
May we let go of our assumptions and cold comforts,
Of what is the normal – to live by,
Unless it be a standard that is rooted in compassion,
May this month of reflection teach us to search
for those stories that are different from our own.
Mother of Possibilities,
In the finding,
May we come to know ourselves changed.
Renewed were we are dry,
Hopeful where we are lost,
And open where we are shut.