This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at how we can reclaim our public voice for social justice.
Our day has finally come! There’s a case right now before the Supreme Court that will rule on the nature of public prayer in civic settings. Specifically, it’s looking at the matter of opening government meetings with sectarian prayers. The local town claims that no bias toward any particular religion is being held despite the fact that almost every public prayer is led by Christian clergy. “In a friend-of-the-court brief filed (a week ago) Friday, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Supreme Court that prohibiting Christian pastors from delivering a prayer to start official town meetings would effectively impose Unitarianism on the nation…. We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church (they go on to say) but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”  Our day has finally come.
When I read this, I should have cried, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Imagine it: The Unitarian Theocracy has come to power! The Southern Baptists are taking issue with a secular request not to mix civic duty with religious practices – a request that was based upon the fact that almost no non-Christian traditions were invited to the table – and are equating this with our Unitarian Universalist pluralistic attitude toward public faith. They’ve created a good story. The Southern Baptist Convention are adjusting the facts to suit their preferences. … Imposing Unitarianism… let’s rewrite that story. What would that actually sound like? (1) You will be open to diversity of opinion. (2) You will make room for multiple religious voices at the table (3) You will support, engage, and nurture the democratic process ensuring that all people have a right to vote, access to voting, while faithfully seeking to eliminate obstacles to full inclusion in the democratic process. (4) You will not confuse your desire for unlimited personal freedom to do whatever you want, as a legitimate example of a real limitation on your freedom (5) We are all in this together, so we might as well act like it.
(6) You will not impose your religious views on anyone else as a matter of government – except for every one of these rules of course – which require you to act against your personal and cultural faux-American, faux-Christian tradition of being bigoted toward anyone different. Now that’s my kind of theocracy!
But it’s not. It’s not a theocracy in any real sense. Personal freedoms are not lost to any real religious authority. Just like claiming one’s freedom of speech is impinged upon when mandatory prayer at the start of a civic activity is removed. Mandatory anything – by definition – is what a real loss of freedom looks like. But we’ve allowed ourselves – to take serious – twists in language that tie us up in knots. Freedom begins to mean – only my personal freedom. Theocracy begins to mean – I can no longer impose my religious views on others. East is West, and Up is Down. Science-Fiction authors have been writing about this for at least the last century. It’s why books like 1984 and A Brave New World continue to be required reading in High School. (I sure hope they are at least….)
In short – the Faux Cultural Christian Right in the U.S. is very adept at wielding propaganda. And we need to get better at re-telling the story as it actually is happening. And we need to re-learn how to do this retelling in the moment that doublespeak happens. Not a year later; not in the safety of our dinner tables; not solely on our Facebook walls. When it happens. In the moment.
I call this recent mindset “faux cultural christian right” because as a powerhouse, it’s only a recent phenomenon. It was birthed with the evangelical movements that grew post Billy Graham. Christianity in the U.S., as a political force, was primarily liberal until the 1950’s. In the 1820s-1840’s – the Unitarians controlled the New England court system. In 1850 the Universalists were the third largest denomination in America at 5 million members. The Social Gospel movement of the 1920’s was mainstream Christianity and it was very liberal. Essentially, this movement said that Jesus taught us to care for the poor, so we should act like it. Even the Neo-Orthodox movement that rose out of the horrors of WWII, led by great theologians like Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, were theologically conservative but socially progressive.
I call it faux and cultural Christianity, because its social message does not reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It’s a simple fact. You can’t find a lesson of hate, isolation or consumerism anywhere in the actual teachings of Jesus. Anywhere. He never said anything like it. One does not need to follow Jesus of course, but if you’re going to speak in his name, you ought to quote him right at least.
Just because the right wing of American Christianity is dominant in public debate for the past 40 or so years, and it’s only been 40 or so years, does not mean that they get to define Christianity, or religion for that matter. But that’s exactly what we allow to happen, when we indignantly sit in our disgust of barbaric views that foster bigotry, racism, homophobia and xenophobia…. And too often we just sit quietly…. As a religious people – we are not called to silence, we are called to voice. Our principles teach us that we have promised to act as though each person has dignity and worth, and to do so with equity and compassion. They tell us that acceptance, inclusion, and responsibility are spiritual matters. The promise we made when we joined this faith included taking democracy very seriously. It’s a sacrament of sorts for us. Because when the democratic process fails – dignity, worth, equity, and inclusion are all at risk. And we can not live the lie that we are alone in this world; that we have earned everything we have ever achieved by ourselves; that the earth does not need us, and we do not need it. The great lie tells us that we are an island unto ourselves, and that’s quite fine thank you very much. That’s not what our religion teaches us, and it’s not what it demands of us. Each of these principles demand a strong voice from us this day. And we need to re-learn to be very public about telling our story. Or we allow others to say Up is Down, and East is West. We become complicit. We become complicit.
Stories have power. They shape us. I want to share another story with you now. I grew up hearing stories about the March On Washington. As a child, this historic moment seemed immense, and far removed in time. Yet, it ingrained itself in my young conscience. Rev. King’s watershed speech galvanized an ethic that not only challenged the institutions of his time, but offered a path for the next generations to mature into. From this grounding, we as a people struggle, grow, and heal. He did so by re-telling the American story. He made The Dream bigger and more inclusive. He basically said – ‘you know all those things we said about freedom and equity – well let’s start meaning them.” And the work must continue.
August 24th marks the 50th anniversary of “The Great March.” Brian and I will be heading down to DC to join one of our largest congregations – All Souls, DC – in Standing on the Side of Love. Our weekly eFlash has more information on how to join. You can also follow that link to read the letter I wrote that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign sent out to the denomination on Thursday inviting us all to DC.
Wherever any of us are oppressed, we are all diminished. Whenever we remain complacent, we are complicit. When we are unmoved, our faith calls us back to a place of compassion. We are all our relations. We still have a dream. May the next generations be inspired by the course of our hearts. I hope to see you in DC at the end of this month and take part in the re-telling of our American Story for this generation.
Just like our nation, what we say about ourselves influences what we become as a faith community and as individuals. If we speak only about ourselves as a thoroughly-reasoned people, and not as an empathetic community, we will sound more intellectual than heart-centered. If we neglect our commitment to the public sector, the public sector will expect us to sputter quietly in the night. If we stew in our terminal uniqueness, we will sit alone at lunch hour.
What are the stories we need to retell in our own congregation? Where are we silent when we ought to speak up? What would reclaiming your commitment to voice in this Fellowship look like? Consider it. You may have different answers than I will, or the person next to you will. I’ll suggest a few, by starting with the most individual and working my way up.
When are you silent when you should speak up in this community? Sometimes folks gossip in life. Sometimes people are critical of one another behind each other’s backs. This happens in our families, in our classrooms, in our social circles and yes, in our religious home. It’s a fact of human interactions, and always continues. I challenge each of you to challenge it, when you witness it, with love and compassion. Not with finger pointing; not with a judgmental tone; without the classic “ah, gotcha!” You can say things like, “Well, Billy’s not here right now, maybe you can bring it up with them directly.” Or, “That’s not my experience of them.” When we’re guilty of guerilla tactics of critique we need to ask ourselves “Is this kind? Is this helpful? Is it even true?” I would further add – “Is this actually what we’re here to even do?” Gossip is the same as behind-the-scenes critique.
Sometimes in our circles we’re called to not remain silent for more serious matters. Someone in earshot makes a racist comment, or a homophobic comment. It could be in this building, or at work, or in home room at school. If we say nothing we are complicit. Anyone hurt by the comment will be further hurt by our silence. We don’t need to enter into an argument. We could just say aloud, “That’s not my view” or “We don’t appreciate hateful words like that here.” We need to make a spiritual practice of responding with compassion – in the moment. Not waiting till later. Not thinking it’s not our place. This is our home, and we make of it what we wish to see.
What about the bigger picture for our congregation and our community? What old stories need retelling? Are we actually broke? People believe in God now! No one believes in God now! Do we really want our parking lot to greet the bottom of our cars every time we enter or exit? Do more people really not want to take part in the leadership of this community? Are children welcome in our religious home? What does membership in our congregation mean? What is our purpose?
Many of these answers will take the better part of the next year to define and redefine. I have some impressions from the many conversations I’ve had already, and look forward to learning more from each of you. The Board began some of these reflections last Sunday with me in our 6 hour retreat after services, and the Board will be intentionally seeking more and more inclusion in the months to come. I can’t answer each of these questions for myself yet, but I would like to look at one right now.
…The Parking Lot… Everyone get comfortable in your chairs. Stretch if you need to. Take a deep breath. Really. Ok, you can keep breathing. I know this has been a challenge for somewhere between seasons and eons. Everyone has a different view about exactly what’s going on. The facts are three-fold: 1) We have a parking lot (can we all agree on that? by a show of hands, how many of us agree that’s true? ok, good.) 2) the parking lot needs to be repaired because cars have been driving on it and parking in it for a long time and the laws of physics and geology remain true even here on our sacred grounds and 3) repairs cost money. What appears to me to be the dominant story is that we are short money. We could probably get enough money to do basic repairs – assuming we can agree on what the word “basic” means – or we could agree on what the word “what” means for that matter. Some in the community weigh environmental concerns more highly than fiscal and are holding out for doing this in the ecological manner. Namely – semi-porous materials that help tremendously with drainage. And the dichotomy that’s created sounds like, “we’d be able to move forward if the environmentalists would just stop blocking the process.” I’ve heard this already, and it’s not the best way to phrase the situation.
We need a new story. We have groups here that are more ecologically minded. We have award-recognized conservationists in our midst and on our Board. We have others that are focused on community gardens to help with the problem of hunger in our community. We have others that specifically are called to upgrading our beloved building to Green Sanctuary status. And we have others who would love to see an eco-friendly driveway. And our religious principles – namely our 7th – tells us that all things are interdependent; that we are part of the world and the world is part of us. What if that became our new story?
What if we allowed the spirituality of environmental stewardship to be a real demand on our lives? There’s certainly the need. We have members who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy. I remember being trapped in my 10th story NYC apartment with the East River in front of our door (Three avenues, the FDR and the East River Park further in than the East River should have been.) On July 22nd, while Brian and I were busy closing on our new home in Huntington, people were taking photos of The-Day-the-North-Pole-Became-A-Lake. Global Warming will continue if each of us continues to do what we’ve been doing. 99% of scientists agree. When was the last time 99% of people agreed on anything?
We all know the definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. Some changes will be easy. Most of them will not be easy. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be. Yesterday was the time for action, but we’ll have to do with today.
As some of you know, I was an Urban Planner before I was a minister. I mostly worked in the area of affordable housing and health insurance outreach, but we all got trained in the basics of everything Planner-related. Like the ministry, Planners are a rare breed of specialized generalists. So with that background known, I say this, the environmental benefit of doing this right, is actually significant. It’s not a token act. It’s meaningful. It’s also good for our collective spirit.
In our social justice and social service work we come together well when we work toward ending homelessness and hunger. I believe we have a critical mass of drive and purpose to do this collective action with environmental stewardship as well. It’s certainly in our religious values. It certainly needs to be done. And we have a real opportunity for local, meaningful impact in an area that affects all of us generally – and an area that has affected some of us tremendously – at the price of our homes.
Sometimes we make good decisions informed by finances. And sometimes we allow money to make us forget our principles. When Brian and I walked into the VW dealership to lease a new car, we walked in with the express intention of leasing a hybrid. Somehow, the agent convinced us not to buy a hybrid. As a lease, we would never make back the money in gas that we would spend in getting a hybrid. Right now, it’s only cheaper if you drive a lot, and we won’t be driving a lot. It’s only small comfort that the mileage on the non-hybrid car is better mileage than I’ve ever had in my life. I went in to make a principled purchase and I walked out doing otherwise. I forgot my center. I hope we can find our center and make a principled decision. And although “no decision” – is a decision – it’s not going to stop the ground greeting the bottom of my new lease every time I enter or exit the parking lot.
Folks can respond – ‘well, where is the money going to come from?’ And I would respond, that’s the wrong first question. The right first few questions are – As a religious community, what’s the principled choice? How will this energize us as a community? How will this define us? Who will join our community because of the potentially very public leadership we show? Will it help us find our voice? What story will we now be telling?
I have faith in this community. I believe we will actualize our center in the years to come; that we have a purpose and we will embody it with life. Because I believe in our story, I will be pledging 5% of my income as your minister to the works and ministry of this Fellowship. It will come directly out of my paycheck before I ever see it. I wish I could pledge more, but with the state of student loans in our country right now, and the crippling cost of seminary and graduate school debt, I simply can not at this time. But I want to make this choice, because it feels right. I want to contribute to our impact on the world in every way I can.
You see, the money will come, if our purpose is right. The money will not come if we focus on wondering where the money will come from. The money will come when we recognize that our religious community is saving lives as well as mending souls. We are helping to house the homeless – in this very sanctuary. We share in the responsibility of feeding the hungry in our community. We can tell our story as the people who show up to witness when advocacy for justice is required. We are literally saving lives, when a teen desperately needs to hear that they are whole, and sacred, just as they are – for who they love. We are literally saving lives, when we respect the choices people make with their bodies – even when the body they are born into doesn’t exactly match the body they feel they fit into. We are literally saving lives when we seek to change the tenor of public discourse. From all the horrifying news stories abounding we know all too well the public lynching trees are far from gone in our country. We have much work to do. We have a purpose. We are a saving faith, in a very literal sense. Go. Tell our story.