Archive for January, 2014

Sermon: Living the Dream

This sermon was preached on MLK Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the difficult social justice lessons of the year past.

The past year has woven a mixed tapestry of social justice progress and heart-breaks. Certainly, this is not a new outcome for any year. To honor one of our nation’s heroes of social progress, I like to take Martin Luther King, Jr’s holiday to reflect on the work of the year gone past. There are ways in which many of the disparate outcomes connect with one another, and it’s important as citizens to understand the interconnectivity of oppressions. Our faith teaches us that all things are interdependent, and this includes all oppressions. Sometimes, when we assess how different issues are connected, we can unravel the solution for them all – or at least better discern the true source of the problem.

June 25th – in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States rules that parts of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Even though Congress periodically reviewed the timeliness of the precautions implemented to reduce racially motivated blocks to voting, the majority opinion would claim that the Voting Rights “Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.” In conflict with this assessment, Congress, which according to the Constitution, has wide powers to legislate the voting process, last reviewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, only 7 years ago. Suggesting racial discrimination is radically diminished, the majority opinion would conclude with the words, “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Eighteen days later, on July 13th, George Zimmerman would be found not guilty in the murder of the black teen, Trayvon Martin. In a rare turn of events, the court of public opinion would perversely put the dead youth on trial to defend himself posthumously against a White Hispanic man with a restraining order against him for domestic abuse. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose.

Within 6 weeks of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, 6 Southern States would pass or implement new voting restrictions. And we need to remember that “(s)ince 1965, the Justice Department blocked at least 1,150 discriminatory voting changes from going into effect under Section 5 of the VRA.” The Rev. William Barber, NAACP North Carolina president, speaking about the assault on voting rights would say, “In some ways, these tactics are not Jim Crow. They do not feature Night Riders and sheets … This is in fact, James Crow, Esq. Jim Crow used blunt tools. James Crow, Esq. uses surgical tools, consultants, high paid consultants and lawyers to cut out the heart of black political power.”

Two days ago, “a Pennsylvania judge struck down the state’s voter ID law Friday, finding it puts an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote…. (due in part from) the law’s challengers (who) brought evidence during the trial that as many as 750,000 Pennsylvanians—disproportionately black and Hispanic—lack a photo ID.” According to MSNBC, Judge Bernard “McGinley also found that the law was not motivated by an effort to disenfranchise minorities–even though a top Pennsylvania Republican said in 2012 that the law would help deliver the state to Mitt Romney.” … Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

In a recent conversation I and several colleagues had with our national social justice community organizers, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, we reflected on where we are six months after the Summer rulings. The whole conversation will be available on Monday, but I want to quote my colleague, Rev. Michael Tino briefly. “People of color are “made examples of” by overzealous prosecutors while white people are routinely “given breaks.”  People convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote–and thus the basic way American society gives anyone access to power.  When the Trayvon Martin case has faded into unfortunately distant memory, people of color will still be facing an inherently unequal justice system. I feel like if we focus on specific cases as if they were exceptions to a larger rule, we miss the broad patterns of injustice that are replicated every day.  We need to force ourselves to see the patterns.” Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

The horror that was the Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead happened on December 14th, 2012. In the year that followed, the US experienced 23 more mass shootings where 4 or more people were killed in a single incident. There were “at least 24 school shootings claim(ing) at least 17 lives” in that same time. This past week we have learned of a movie theatre shooting where a retired cop shot a dad for texting his 3 year old daughter during the previews. And on Tuesday, “a 12-year-old boy opened fire with a shotgun at the middle school he attends in Roswell, N.M., striking two among the dozens of students who were gathered inside a gym waiting for the first bell to ring…”. And on Thursday, a supermarket shooting leaving 3 dead, perpetrated by a man with known mental illness yet still able to get a gun. Dalia Lithwick, a court and law columnist for Slate, would write “We just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage… And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what ‘freedom’ looks like.”

There’s a question that’s floating around social media that goes, “How did asking white people to pass background checks to buy a gun become more offensive than asking minorities to provide photo ID to vote?” It brings us back to my recurring questions – Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose? Why should we be more restrictive concerning our right to vote than we are restrictive of our right to bear arms? Why is it that minorities’ access to equal power is more threatening to some people than anyone’s access to a deadly weapon? How did citizenship become more terrifying to us than mass murder?

On Thursday, January 9th, “West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business Friday after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.” 300,000 people were affected. “According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals and does not produce them, The Associated Press reported.” 300,000 people, in our country, have lost access to water. They can’t clean their clothes, wash their dishes, or take a bath because we’ve written legislation that allows a corporation to function without regulation because of a technicality. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that “three in 10 West Virginia kids under age six live in poverty.” The future of this state’s citizens is mired in poverty and we choose to privilege corporations’ short term ease at the expense of our children’s (and thereby our nation’s) long term welfare. What say do those kids, who can’t take a bath, or drink from the faucet, have in the face of the overwhelming power and wealth of unregulated corporations? Why would we further empower the powerful and risk the lives of the weak? Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

My last example today happened also on Thursday. A leaked UN report on climate change indicates very bleak findings. It reads, “Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, 42% of the world’s Carbon Dioxide emissions come from China and the United States. With both nations’ proclivity for competition, financial gain, and industrial power – there are many eerie flashbacks to the Cold War and threat of Nuclear annihilation, only this time the risk will come from economic warfare’s spillover effects upon our planet. Which nation will slow down the industrial race first? How do we get both our country and China to “disarm” our weapons of mass greed? All throughout this, the  enormously wealthy few decide the environmental fate of a planet. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

Those two questions gird the theological question of the morning. The legacy of Rev. Dr. King teaches us that every person is entitled to fair, equitable treatment. Every person is entitled to their voice having a reasonable say. Every person is entitled to safety in our society. Our principles reframe these teachings in our own language around worth, dignity, democratic process and global community. All of these crises can easily be swept aside, and we came blithely blame the lack of public interest, or commitment to civic duty, or proclivity for Reality TV over educational documentaries.

I think in some ways disinterest, misinformation, or denigration of education are to blame. But they’re blimps compared to how systems of oppression dictate allocation of power. We have corporate lobbies, that privilege short term investor gains over long term environmental catastrophes – as if the costs of clean up or the costs of medical treatments were imaginary things. It’s an outbreak of Corporate Affluenza. They’ve never had to deal with the repercussions of their actions before, so they shouldn’t be expected to have the maturity to deal with the fall out of their pollution of our water and air now.

We have a gun lobby that dictates the safety of our children. Although the second amendment is often cited as the main reason for the strength of the gun lobby, I believe it’s more rooted in wealth. In the year following the Sandy Hook shooting, gun makers’ profits went up 52%. There is a financial cost to big business in order for our kids to have safe schools. It’s not profitable – for the select few – to make choices grounded in common sense.

And so long as minorities continue to tend to vote in such ways that support the interests of the working and middle classes, or merely support the interests of common human decency, their votes become dangerous to conflicting special interest groups – groups that are not interested in common human decency. It is horrifying to me, that our nation will lift up the life of Nelson Mandela, a leader who fought to ensure everyone had the right to vote, a leader who strived to help his nation move past a time when voting centers in black communities were dealing with bomb threats and actual bombs – that we would enshrine him and then dismantle our own bill of rights for the very reasons Mr. Mandela dedicated his life against. Freedom does not mean the right to do whatever you may wish, whenever you may wish it, to whomever you wish to do it to. That’s call anarchy. Freedom, in our faith, means recognizing how we are all interdependent and living with compassion in light of that fact. It’s not about removing our inhibitions. It’s not about ignoring our accountability. It’s not about maintaining an ignorance of the ramifications of our actions. Freedom, real freedom, is living and letting others live too. Sometimes freedom means accepting mild, reasonable limitations on our sense of entitlement in order for others to have a fair chance at the same free life. Freedom is another way to say communal maturity.

It can all feel so overwhelming. Ministers hesitate to dwell too long on the difficult news of the day because it can so easily instill a sense of dread, or fatalism, that’s contrary to our religious truths. We must be diligent in remembering the words of the great Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker that were made famous to another generation by Rev. Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Despite all the tragedies of the day, people’s concerted efforts, over time, have meaning and substance. They define our humanity, as much as one’s apathy draws fences around our souls.

Both of our stories this morning teach us that our efforts matter. The kids’ story of the mouse and the bird counting the snowflakes. It may take that millionth snowflake to finally fall, but that branch will then come down. Or our second story where there’s always another building that must be built, but it doesn’t mean we stop building because we’ll never finish. It’s the stories we live and breath that create lives of meaning and substance and integrity.

Our hymns this morning reflect the spirit of global civil rights movements. Our first hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is often called the Black National Anthem. It does not tell a story that expects overnight solutions. It sings of endurance through the long road. And for those of us who may not come from a life situation where this song speaks to our pain, but may come from a heritage that was the source of the strife, it reminds us that we need to be cautious with our power; we need to be mindful of how we choose who keeps their voice and who gets to choose. The choir offertory, Precious Lord Take My Hand, was Rev. Dr. King’s favorite gospel hymn, and we sing it today in honor of him. Siyahamba, was a South African freedom song during the long, painful struggle against Apartheid. We are marching in the light of God, and the song is sung with joy and life! Joy and life in the face of extreme adversity. It teaches us that people can find celebration within themselves even at the worst of times so long as we remain open to the awe at the center of life. It’s another spiritual discipline to foster with care and attention.

Even the act of coming together in community is part of our spiritual work. One of our mid-twentieth century theologians, the Harvard professor James Luther Adams, would often espouse voluntary associations as engines of social progress. Voluntary associations could be congregations or they could be any secular group that further a social good – conservatory groups, educational partnerships, civic groups, etc. The work the groups do is one thing, but there’s something about being in a voluntary group that changes us. When we commit to remaining in relation to the people around us, we continue down a spiritual path. It’s not always easy to work with strangers. The democratic process isn’t always pleasant or even enjoyable. Our neighbors can be frustrating. We might not see eye to eye and still have to come to a consensus. In Unitarian Universalism, that discipline is our religious path. We’re saying that we’re here for the long road ahead. We know it won’t always be easy, but our humanity is rooted in our interdependence and by definition, that is one thing we certainly are not equipped to do alone.

If we live our lives where we only interact with people that look like us, think like us, and talk like us, we are cutting ourselves off from the religious truth of interdependence. If our congregation as a whole does not partner with communities that reflect identities other than our own, then we are cutting ourselves off from that truth. If we act primarily out of self interest and not out of communal health, we are cutting ourselves off from that truth.

We can’t individually tackle each of the major crises I’ve spoken about today, but there are people here who are called to focus on each of these needs. Find each other, and commit your energy to the shared work, even if it’s only 1 thing. On this social justice national holiday, dedicate this coffee hour to this task. Teaching ourselves and our children that our central identity is that of a citizen, or a person of faith, or a human being and not as a consumer, a bystander, or merely self-interest – is the primary task of in our life. It defines our character and the scope and breadth of our dreams.

I  mentioned our national community organizing campaign earlier – Standing on the Side of Love. If you check out their website, Facebook page, or twitter account (StandingontheSideofLove.org) you can sign up for their 30 Days of Love campaign. From MLK weekend through Valentines Day, they’ll offer different resources, reflections, family actions and more each day. If you don’t know what to do next, but want to do something, this will be a great place to help discern your call in this work as an individual, as a family, or as a congregation.

We can do this together. Together is the only way anything has ever actually been accomplished. Doing it, or making it alone, is the American lie, not the American Dream. The American Dream is Rev. Dr. King’s dream, and that was no singular vision scripted by privilege or power. And the world needs to see you, so very badly this hour.

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The Art of Worship (2)

This updated sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship of Huntington on 1/12/14. It wrestles with the meaning of worship in a pluralistic world.

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 were led by one of our faculty Buddhist scholars 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 eight 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 services at the ungodly hour of 10:30am 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 200 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying or meditating 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 this new Minister, our community was split 53/47 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 opening 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.

Hymns like that one, tend to also be very popular at youth con’s (weekend youth retreats). You might not have 60 spare hymnals when you’re out camping, and it’s hard to read the words on the page if it’s night time and you’re leading an evening youth worship on the floor of a Fellowship Hall. Plus the message often fits where we are. It gives space for the breadth of meaning that represents who we are and all the places where we come from.

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, more than our small convictions, more than our ego. As I was working on this sermon this week, one congregant  shared a quote on my Facebook wall that read, “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, your behavior does.” I think most of us intuitively fall into this line of faith. It’s not our beliefs, it’s our works. This is one of our many major departures from modern Christianity. When we talk about religion or faith, we privilege works over belief. But I think that sometimes, internally, we still hold onto the “belief script.” If we really had let go of connecting belief with our faith, we wouldn’t always get so worked up if someone we love sees the world differently but lives the same good life.

A good coffee hour exercise this week might be to watch when you’re feathers get ruffled. Was it over a difference of opinion? Or was it over a difference of values that are being applied to the world we live in? (Maybe you might be starting that exercise right now – during this sermon – because of the crazy things I’m saying. I wouldn’t know… so it’s ok.)

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.”[1] 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, (any fellow readers out there?) 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.”[2] … 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. It’s the classic trinity that I’ll invoke in many of my sermons. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Openness to difference enables us to be mindful of the world around us so that we become able to revere the gift that is before us once more.

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.) (And you may think your family is tough!) 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.”[3] 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 chairs this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

Now, I know that we call what we’re doing here every week – “Sunday Programs” or sometimes “Services.” We’ll still be calling it that. SPC – otherwise more helpfully known as Sunday Programs Committee, will still be leading Sunday programs. But when you hear me off and on referring to this as worship – keep this sermon in mind.

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.”[4] 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.

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Prayer for Endurance

Spirit of Endurance, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

We gather this hour, as a community of hope,

dedicated to the work of building a world centered in peace,

grounded in compassion for one another,

and seeking new ways to nurture justice in the many corners of our lives.

At the turning of a new year,

we pause to reflect on all the many challenges of the year past.

The violence in a world that we all too often can’t seem to stem or make sense of,

the bickering of our nation’s leaders – which always seems to leave the poorest of us worse for it,

and the challenges in our personal lives:

work where it may be hard to find,

a home that may be hard to afford,

sicknesses and loss in our families and among our friends.

May we find strength to witness what we must,

and love to make the world better for our presence.

At the turning of this wheel,

we pause to remember the places and moments of joy in our lives.

Reconnecting with that old friend we haven’t seen in years,

our successes in our classes, or on the field,

That one sunset.

The slow movement forward for civil rights in our nation for all people.

The job interview that finally came.

A community that loves you.

We each challenge, there is a place within us, and around us,

where we can find the strength we need to do the work at hand.

In hope. In prayer. In silence – may we find it when we need.

 

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The Work of Christmas

This sermon was first preached on January, 5th at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It looks at Epiphany, the day the Wise Men finally found the manger.

I was gifted with a hand-made scarf a few months ago. It’s bright, multi-colored, but not too over the top. Brian purchased it on-line at a site called etsy, where hand-crafters make a living. The scarf looks so good that people stop me on the street to say, “hey, that’s a great scarf!” In fact, I get the compliment once or twice a day, every day. It feels great – people smiling. Strangers – smiling.

It started to feel a little surreal later when I would wear it and go into NYC. It was one thing for suburbanites to stop me at the grocery store or at the coffee shop. It’s another for insular New Yorkers to stop their sidewalk arguments and turn to compliment me. I swear – I’ve had people stop in the middle of a fight to turn and spread the good word my way. And the folks that stop me on the City street come from every walk of life in fact. The magic scarf has turned urbanites gregarious.

Then. One time when I visited the City this Christmas, I was walking through Penn Station and a woman came up to me and asked, “did you get that scarf online in October? I think that’s my scarf. I made that scarf.” The knitter was, in fact, from the right state of origin – (Virginia) and was the right name – (Caryn.) I complimented her work, and passed on the word that every single random stranger seems to love it, and we went our separate ways. What followed was feverish texting to Brian to share the strange news, and confirm all the facts because I still didn’t believe it. But she checked out. What was the chance that the knitter was 500 miles from home and just happened to run into the new owner of her craft – at the right spot  – at the right time – in Penn Station to say hello – and I didn’t just ignore her and walk away…. It was a real Etsy Miracle on 34th Street!

Now when I think about how disconnected we can become in an age of the internet; with folks living further and further apart; with families across the globe and neighbors not knowing one another’s names; and unchecked electronic devices that can make us feel alone at a party or over the dinner table – this kind of story gives me hope and a little perspective. The absurdity of running into that particular stranger when we’re both away from home in a city that has 18 million people commute through it every day, tells me that it is in fact possible to live in this world full of humans and choose to maintain and strengthen our connections with the people in our lives. If I can run into that particular knitter, we can make or maintain just about any connection – if we’re committed to it. But often, we’re not.

When we moved into our new home, we got to know the two neighbors on either side of us. And at one summer BBQ, we got to meet a lot more of the extended neighborhood. But more or less, we are quiet neighbors that have busy work lives and with the onset of the winter months, the casual day to day sidewalk conversations have happened less and less. We live on a curve in the road where the road forks. Well, when it snows like this past Thursday, the neighbor across the fork helps out everyone he knows. And by “helps out” I mean he owns a bulldozer. We never got around to making the connection with them when we moved in this Summer, and so he didn’t include us in his clearing out of driveways. Alas.

It’s a small point – and it’s not the reason to make friendships or develop relationships with strangers. But there are some real benefits of living in community and putting real work into developing that community. We can’t always make it happen with everyone, nor do we have the energy to necessarily do so with everyone we may wish we could. But usually there are more connections we could foster or maintain than we otherwise do. One neighbor knows all the ins and outs of all the rules and schedules in town. Others are fire chiefs, or nurses, or police officers. And one has a bulldozer. There are things that we each are better at than the other, and when we’re generous with our gifts – when we give what we are best at – and everyone else does the same – the community thrives.

It’s the principle of socialist structures like “the fire department” or “the snow plowers.” There are a lot of things I’m rather good at in life – but if you’re relying on me to shovel out Route 25, or carry you down a ladder, over my shoulder, out of a burning house – it’s just not going to happen. There are better people to rely on for those services. And that’s true for each of us. We sometimes buy a little too deeply the myth that we can do it all alone. I have a hard time remembering to take the trash out on Wednesday and Sunday – I’d have no clue when to plow the fields.

This is one of the disciplines of religious community too. We all come here for so many differing reasons. We’re all at different stages in our lives, and we all have somewhat different needs. But in congregational life – the building up of community is one of those disciplines we have to put some back into. I hear many stories here of people caring for one another in times of loss or times of need. People hosting dinners for the holidays for those who can’t or aren’t traveling. There are those who help keep our roof up, and our floor safely on the ground around here, or who care for our kids when we’re not around. Sometimes things are really bad, and the help we give means even more.

If you’ve been coming here for a little while now, or casually for years, challenge yourself this new year to make a new connection here. Coffee hour is a good start, but it’s not for everyone. Read through our laundry list of announcements when you have a chance and check out any number of the activities, services and groups we have open to all. You never know whom you’ll find who’s a mean knitter or owns a bulldozer just when you need. (And if you find the latter, get me their number.)

In the Christian calendar, today traditionally marks Epiphany Sunday. It’s the 12th Day of Christmas, as the carol goes, and it marks the day the Wise Men finally reached the Manger with their gifts after a long road from the East. They didn’t quite know what they’d find, and they didn’t quite know where they were going, but they were committed, and despite all the absurdity of it, they somehow managed to find that manger in the middle of nowhere. And the really, really absurd part of that story is after trekking through the desert on a road to nowhere, they came ready to share their gifts, not quite knowing who they were giving them to, or what would come of it. But they shared their gifts anyway – knowing deep down – that this sign mattered. Their story is the paragon of commitment and generosity. Two thousand years later, we still mark their journey, with celebrations, in our songs, and in our pageants. We teach our kids this combination somehow matters – it’s somehow noteworthy.

We often don’t focus on them though at this time of year. The Christmas season is over. We’ve absolved ourselves of the battle and let the stores redefine the season with toy-giving almost being the point – or certainly the high-point – of the holiday. I saw friend’s photos on-line showing drug stores on December 27th whose aisles already were ready for Valentine’s Day. Pack up one holiday and prepare ye the way to the next. But if we remember the magi story – we’re a people that have heard of the birth of a prophet – and now – now -we’re on the road to change our lives in light of the teachings that will come of him.

The core of those teachings we’ve heard once more in our chalice lighting and our choir songs. Howard Thurman’s poetic rewriting goes again “When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flock, The work of Christmas begins: To find the lost, To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among brothers, To make music in the heart.” The first of those five things are the core of Jewish and Christian teachings, and you would be hard pressed to find any disagreement about those teachings in Islam (which also sees Jesus as a prophet), Buddhism or Hinduism. The ethical drive in our religious tradition is to care for those in need. Whether they are sick, hungry, without shelter or warmth, and to free those who are bound.

That is the work of Christmas. That is the reason for the season. We celebrate the birth of this prophet because of the impact of the teachings of this prophet. And in commitment and generosity we honor the life of this prophet by doing our best to tackle these challenges. Like building relationships with those in our community, we may not be able to help with each of these, but our religious life calls us to try for at least some of them. This congregation has a strong, on-going and long-term commitment to many of these – as a congregation. Our community-based commitment to cold-weather shelter for homeless or migrant men – HIHI – is addressing a major need for shelter, food and clothing. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Likewise, the other community based clothing drives that seem almost perpetual are addressing a major need – whether due to poverty or the all-too many families still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. This is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. Although individuals may be working on prison reform – personally I feel this is another area where are congregation has room for growth in our ministry to the community. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. 

We can’t do it all, and sometimes we’re at a place in life where we can’t do one more thing. Or maybe we’re going through a time of crisis and need the help ourselves. There’s nothing to be ashamed about that. We all need help at times. We all fall under bad luck at times. If you feel like you’re in need of help, please reach out to me. This congregation will help as best as it can. This too is the work of Christmas. This is what the manger scene was about. It’s not about gift-giving. It’s about community building. And it takes all of us.

  This month’s theme is commitment. I encourage you to use the new year to stretch in the best ways you can. To care for yourself a little better. To care for the world around you a little better.  And if you’re not in a place to take on one more thing – use this time to deepen your ties to the community that takes each of us to build up. Our congregation becomes more resilient the more each of us supports one another. Maybe we individually can’t take on the wrongs of the world – but in caring for one another maybe you’re giving another person the strength and resources they need to do so themselves. Religion is a team sport. Community is a team sport. Sometimes we make the goal. Sometimes we make it possible for another to make the goal. And when the stakes are health, wholeness, compassion, shelter, and justice – it only matters than someone makes that goal. Commitment to those goals. Commitment to building our neighborhoods – one relationship at a time.

And by the way, after I finished this sermon, I went out for our third round of shoveling to finally clear the driveway. We had about 1/3 more to go. The neighbor with the bulldozer saw us, took pity on us, and in 30 seconds cleared out what would have taken us 30 minutes. Sometimes we don’t do anything, and people are just plain kind.

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The Shepherd Who Stayed

This sermon was first preached for our 7pm Christmas Eve service in 2013.

When I was a child around Christmas time, I remember getting into my pajamas at night and laying down on the carpet of our den and listening to the 24 hours of Christmas. It was a radio station in my area that was taken over by the holiday – probably the same in many areas – that would play Christmas music straight through with no commercials. It was so important to me that I would ask my parents to record it on cassette tapes – a relic now from another time. Each year, I wanted to somehow capture the feeling of Christmas, and the little kid in me was sure recording the sounds of the holiday would help me to hold onto the spirit of the holiday a little bit longer.

There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon from my childhood that is just a single panel long. The picture of the boy and his tiger shows them curled up asleep in front of the fire. The words read, “Christmas Eve — On window panes, the icy frost – leaves feathered patterns, crissed and crossed, but in our house the Christmas Tree is decorated festively, with tiny dots of colored light that cozy up this winter night. Christmas songs, familiar, slow, play softly on the radio. Pops and hisses from the fire whistle with the bells and choir. My tiger is now fast asleep on his back and dreaming deep. When the fire makes him hot, he turns to warm whatever’s not. Propped against him on the rug, I give my friend a gentle hug. Tomorrow’s what I’m waiting for, but I can wait a little more.” That closing line sums up the childhood feeling for me. I’m waiting for tomorrow to happen, but I’m also happy being here now – waiting.

In some ways I was already experiencing nostalgia alongside the childhood joy. But mostly I just didn’t want it to end before it began. I was excited about the toys, but I was also looking forward to the religious services. Midnight Mass was a powerful thing for me as a child. I felt like it was opening up sacred doors to view a glimpse again of something I was not here for – the first time around. Maybe you could call it the opposite of nostalgia – hoping to witness what had already happened. Pining for a time or an event we had never seen for ourselves.

As an adult though, I wonder if each of us doesn’t witness the scene at the manger after all. Maybe we touch the spirit of it, in between the silly and the serious, as our children reenact it at our pageants. Maybe we glimpse the Star of Bethlehem in our own way, as we light our candles to Silent Night. The rituals and our traditions bring us back to a time we didn’t get to see ourselves.

Sometimes though, we relive this moment in unexpected ways. I feel like some of us witnessed the Christmas miracle again just this past weekend. From Monday’s New York Times, “Like Black Friday shoppers, Ms. Campolucci and dozens of others began lining up on Sunday night, bundled up with sleeping bags, hand warmers and down jackets to fight the snow and wind. They huddled together with hot tea and coffee, ducking into running cars to warm up before reclaiming their spot in line.  

“We’re just waiting with bated breath,” said Amy Wilson, who is seven months pregnant and spent much of the night outside the offices of the Salt Lake County clerk. “We’re not missing this — it’s not happening.” 

Ms. Wilson said a marriage license would mean that she and her partner of seven years, Emily Eresuma, would both be recognized as the legal parents of their daughter, with each of their names listed on the birth certificate. In case they could not get a license, they had been exploring out-of-state adoptions and other costly measures to ensure that they would both be the girl’s legal guardians. 

After a cold night, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Eresuma married at 8:20 a.m. It was a quick ceremony in a stairwell, with Ms. Eresuma’s brother performing the rites.” For this modern family, a miracle occurred in the most mundane of places, a stairwell. The most fitting Christmas present I could imagine.

Those are the stories that give me that warm Christmas glow now as an adult. In essence, it’s the messages of hope and perseverance we encounter in the most unexpected places – and for the most unexpected people. Christmas is not about the risen Christ – that comes later in the Christian story. It’s not about power or privilege – unless we’re talking about how power is overcome or or privilege is let go of. It’s not about the heroes or the rulers. Unless by hero you’re looking to a mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road. It is in exhaustion and insecurity that Mary and Joseph show the world a different path to follow.

That’s the part of the story that resonates the most for me as an adult. Maybe it’s the opposite side of the coin that we get in the Calvin and Hobbes touching cartoon, but they’re both true. Sometimes we approach Bethlehem from the story of compassion, and sometimes we come to the manger from a place of loss – of hoping for hope. Both are there – both are worthy.

Our earlier reading, “The Shepherd Who Stayed” is yet another way to enter this story. “Thieves in the wood and wolves on the hill, My duty was to stay. Strange though it be, I had no thought to hold my mates, no will to bid them wait and keep the watch with me. I had not heard that summons they obeyed;
I only know I stayed. Perchance they will return upon the dawn, with word of Bethlehem and why they went. I only know that watching here alone, I know a strange content. I have not failed that trust upon me laid; I ask no more — I stayed.”
Sometimes we’re not called to goto the manger. Maybe we’re born of another faith, or no religious tradition at all. Maybe we see Jesus as a great teacher, a holy man, or a prophet, but not the son of God – or at least not any more a child of God than the rest of us. I don’t believe that keeps us outside the heart of the Christmas story. The story is not about believing any one thing. It’s not necessarily about being ready to travel across the world with our gifts of gold or myrrh. Sometimes it’s just about seeing, as the poem says, “The hillside seem(ing) on fire”, it’s about feeling “the sweep of wings above (our) head(s).” It’s leaving space in our lives for wonder, for awe. It’s about living our lives as we feel we need, with integrity, but making room to witness the moments of sacredness between all the moments of busy and fuss. And in those moments of sacred wonder, allowing the message to infuse our being. Allowing the message to teach us that salvation, or peace, does not come from power, or privilege. We find it when we value what the manger scene shows us – A mother, a son, and an adoptive father who are travelers, are homeless, and weary from the road.

In the year to come, remember this night; remember that star over Bethlehem. When you are exhausted from the long road to wherever you are going, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re trying to piece together a family of your own making, remember you are not alone on that road. If you’re struggling to make ends meet; to find that next job; to keep a roof over your head – remember you are not alone on that road. All these stories, all our stories, are in tonight’s story. And when you go back into the fuss and busyness of the frantic year – when you hear people say the poor deserve what they have – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say, we shouldn’t be concerned about affordable places to live for others – remember this story and know that message is false. When you hear people say that a family should always look a certain way – remember this story and know that message is false. The kings and wise men of the world will come later to the creche, but the animals, the shepherds – the lowest among us – are the first to witness this night.

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