Archive for March, 2014
Spirit of Presence, God of Many Names, and One Abundant and Transforming Love,
Welcome us back to our center.
Help us to find the quiet of the moment,
amidst all the bustle and conflict in our lives.
May we find your wellsprings in our time of plenty,
and our hours of dryness,
knowing that solace is always a breath away.
Some of us our grieving this week,
lost fathers, lost daughters, ongoing struggle with illness,
difficult news, the search for good work, the stress of tests and college applications.
Ground us when we are stressed,
lift us up when we are tired,
teach us to turn down the volume of over-thinking when we find ourselves trapped in all the possibilities.
Others of us are celebrating successes in school, on the field, in the Scouts; welcoming grand babies, coming home healthy from the hospital, making a new friend when we felt alone.
Mother of Life, center us in joy,
teach us to remember that life calls to life,
and we are ever so called.
You can watch the video of my sermon “The Nature of Evil” here.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington on 3/16/14. It explores the nature of evil in response to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The video of the sermon can be watched here.
One of the oldest surviving stories in human history is about the birth of murder. In Hebrew (and later Christian) scriptures, the story of two brothers – Cain and Abel – teach us about the mythic first atrocity. Brother killing brother. Both brothers are loved by God. Cain is a farmer, and Abel is a shepherd. Both offer a sacrifice to God from the fruit of their labors. The story tells us that God is pleased by Abel’s offering of meat, and that God held no regard for Cain’s offering of grain. At first God noticed Cain was disappointed. He asked Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Shortly thereafter, consumed by jealousy, Cain murders his brother in the fields where Cain toils. When God catches up with Cain and asks him what happened to Abel, Cain responds, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”
Am I my brother’s keeper? These words, to the scripturally-minded, would resonate through the eons as the quintessential backdoor confession of guilt; claiming ignorance and deflecting responsibility. Why should I know or care; that other person is their own man (so to speak) and no problem of my own. It’s an ancient story of murder, but it’s also an early story detailing the roots of evil. We divest of our personal responsibility for those around us – especially when we know they are in trouble – whether we’re to blame or not. Implied in the story, we are our brother’s keeper. Or at least we’re called upon to account for the well-being of those around us.
We often get lost in in the doctrines of original sin. These are interpretations that would come much later in time in the Christian Church.. But from early on – the text itself tells us that evil, that sin, is found when we fail to honor our essential interdependence. When we throw compassion away. It’s found both in acts of harm that are obvious to our sense of morality, and in acts of neglect. Sometimes through complicity, and sometimes through apathy we come to witness evil.
But the nature of evil is not indicative of everything bad we do. Humans make mistakes. Sometimes we’re jerks. We’re short of temper. We’re flippant or rude. We forget to recycle the can of soup. We don’t tip our waiters. Evil is a word I prefer to reserve for the bigger crimes against life. The smaller things are the smaller sins or errors of our ways. Moving forward today though, I’m going to stick with using the word sin to describe the smaller human errors – for our smaller intentional errors. Calling a bad deed an error or a mistake is sometimes appropriate. But sometimes it sounds like we’re talking about a math problem and not human crisis. Separated from the notion of Original Sin and Heavenly Judgement, neither of which I believe in as a Universalist, sin is still relevant. Sometimes we wrong life, in small and big ways – intentionally or not – through our actions or through our lack of actions – and that’s sinful.
Our choir music this morning references the acts of genocide central to the horror of World War II. With the dead reaching beyond 12 million souls – Jews, LGBT folk, dissidents, Gypsies and so many others, the mind can not grasp the loss easily. … Germans killing their own for the differences we pretend are bigger than our humanity. … For us, that staggering number would be akin to the death of two thirds of the people who either live or commute through NYC everyday. Most of our family, most of our friends.
When our music director, Richard, first sent me the lyrics to the choir’s anthem today “Written in Pencil”, I wrote him and said, “I think the lyrics are cut off. Can you resend the document.” All I received was, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railway-Car” “here in this carload – i am eve – with abel my son – if you see my other son – cain son of man – tell him that i”…. Richard wrote back and said, “‘Written in Pencil . . .’ isn’t cut off. That is where it ends (poignantly), and it’s as if the writing (in the railway car) has just stopped there. Eve doesn’t have a chance to say anything to Cain. This may be the poet’s way of indicating that the railway car reached its destination and Eve was put to death. It may also be an indication that there is only an unspeakable response to unspeakable horror, even from a mother.” …
And there are no words to finish that thought…. The Holocaust left humanity reeling from what seemed unimaginable before it wheeled into the 20th century. It was grounded in the abject loss of any human sense of interdependence. Evil separates you from I. It teaches us we are alone in this world, and its ok to act from that sense of separateness. On the small scale, being an island to oneself leads to greed, or hate, or fear, or jealousy. Each props up the ego, strengthening the ego’s identity through isolation or group think. Taken to the extreme, these sins lead to horror. It’s a sobering reason to check ourselves when we succumb to the smaller vices lest they rule us.
In Unitarian Universalist circles, we have a propensity toward accepting human goodness in the face of the reality of evil. Even saying “the reality of evil” may get some to raise their eyebrows in polite conversation. We’ve moved away from Original Sin, so we try to throw out all that relates to it, rather than look the difficult parts in their face. This is a great weakness in an unreflective UU theology. One can refuse to believe in an essence to evil, while still recognizing the practice and experience of evil. Hatred that ruins lives, fear that endangers lives – they’re not mistakes. They’re not errors. They’re a perversion of life.
From the big picture, it’s impossible to configure every safeguard, every step along the way, that might have prevented such an atrocity. If war is ever just, war to end genocide is certainly counted amongst the acts of justice. From a practical pastoral level though, we can diminish the roots of evil every day when we offer one simple act.… Being present to one another…. Being present in our messiness, our highs, our lows, and our joys and our sorrows. Being human with one another. This won’t remove the great evils of the day, but it will contribute to reducing the evils of another day – in ourselves, in the people around us. Every act of personal hatred, or fear, or jealously – begins from someone who can’t face the world as it is. They’re either building up their own sense of self by diminishing another, or they’re craving some solace or satisfaction they falsely believe can only be achieved through another’s sense of loss. But with every greed or jealously, the satisfaction of the thing once obtained, rapidly disappears.
The spiritual discipline of Presence teaches us that our souls are not built upon the acquisition of stuff, or in dehumanizing another. Our souls are grounded in the profound reality of being alive, being a witness to life, and being a part of something whose vastness exceeds our imaginations. Presence calls us back to our depth, our breadth, and our essence. It’s opposite, leads us to a road of pain and misery; a road that often drags others along the way. I can’t imagine a form of evil that doesn’t involve ceasing to be present to another’s humanity. Presence may be our most important virtue for this reason. It’s found through openness, and it teaches reverence. All three qualities nurture and respect life.
Our graphic today in the visual presentation depicts an immense pile of shoes from a camp or killing field. The shoes are a testimony to the atrocity that has been committed. They’re also a visible reminder of how evil happens. When each individual’s humanity is relegated to remnants and cast-offs; when we make another’s humanity a number, or a category – we craft evil. When we sit idly by, while the cultural production of evil occurs, we are complicit in its crafting. Evil is not done by acts alone.
Our wisdom story today is probably the best metaphor for my own belief in heaven and hell. I tend not to spend much time on the afterlife. I know it’s an odd thing for a minister to say, especially one who does believe in God. I just don’t find it’s an area that I have much to go on either way, so it’s not very helpful getting caught up thinking about it most of the time. But I do believe our sense of Heaven and our sense of Hell – in this life, and the next (whatever that may entail) is built upon this Jewish Folk story. We create a thousand heavens and a thousand hells in our everyday by how we handle and treat one another. If everyone’s sitting around a warm cooking pot full of nourishing soup, but is stuck with very long handled spoons – the people who care to help one another to the soup will be well fed; those who ignore their interdependence will starve. And those that force others not to help one another will also make the community starve. I think of this when I hear stories of people saying we should cut food stamps; or that people are unemployed because they’re lazy. It’s a profound lack of empathy; it’s a profound lack of being present to the pain of others; and it’s a profound lack of awareness of the actual economic nature of our country. But it’s an easy rallying cry to say, “those people over there! They’re the ones that are the source of our problems.” It’s the nature of evil to do that. And it’s a scary thing.
Heaven and Hell are open to us in every moment, in every way, for every thing. If we retract to our egos when pain or challenge comes along, we will be greeted with further pain and challenge. If we reach out to our neighbors and they do the same, we will nurture a heaven of compassion. It may not end the wars abroad, or violence in the next town over, but it will create pockets of humanity where we have the most influence. And in time, the rest will follow.
This is not the same thing as saying we get what we give, or we get what we send into the universe. I’m not preaching The Secret here, or what they call Laws of Attraction. I’m saying that compassion calls us to reach out – but still – our neighbor has to also reach back. That’s not a given. Reaching out doesn’t earn us or guarantee us a positive response. But spiritually speaking, it’s the only sane thing to do under most circumstances. To put it lightly, in our everyday living, Heaven happens when a group of decent people act like proper humans. Yet, most of the time we don’t do that. Each of us in this room here – each of us – from time to time, we won’t do that.
Hell happens when we institutionalize the clutching and grabbing. It happens when the ego reigns supreme. It happens when decent folk look away. We saw both the clutching and grabbing, and the looking away in the story of Nazi Germany. It’s sobering to know that the two decades prior to the rise of Hitler saw a decade of liberal acceptance followed by an economic downturn. The flow of freedom, turns to an ebb of fear from scarcity – and a people change. It’s easy to say that’s only in them over there back in that decade some 75 years ago. But our Nation’s own history with the depravity of slavery; with the genocide of Native Americans; with the Japanese prison camps; and the Chinese worker-chains; and as our responsive prayer today reminds us – of our actions with the Atomic Bomb.
We have that in ourselves too. Human nature has a profound potential for good. Human nature also has a tendency toward sin when left unexamined. And in some situations – individual – or communal – that sin can be staggering. In each of the American cases of depravity, the people of the time were able to rationalize their actions. Each was based upon the false notion that the other – that the African, or the Native American, or the Japanese or the Chinese – were somehow less deserving of freedom or life because of the arbitrary difference chosen for the moment. We were not present to another human being as a fellow human being. We strengthen our egos through the idolatrous worship of sameness, and we shatter the lives of those that can’t worship our idol because of birth, station or chance.
Some of you may still have a hard time hearing the word sin in reference to our individual actions. Try thinking about it in terms of communal actions for a short time. In society, you might even come to believe in Original Sin, albeit in a new form. Our nation struggles with many institutional forms of oppression. Oppressions that were birthed in another generation, before any of us were alive. Oppressions that were responding to different circumstances in a different time. But they were passed on. Not just in the form of personal bias, but in the form of institutional systems that keep some people down, while lifting others up.
We see it with women who can’t get equal pay for equal work. Is that crisis your personal fault? Yet it continues. It’s inherited in our system, and we have tremendous trouble cleansing our nation of that disparity despite the facts being in the open. You can replace this systematic sin with any other -ism you’d like and it would only strengthen our concern.
God’s words in the early scripture return to us, “And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” When we do well, and things are going smooth, sin is not that close to us. It’s when times are tough, or we fail at something, or we need a scapegoat, that it runs in through the open door. When the stock market is down, or housing is hard to find, or our schools are underfunded, or we can’t seem to stop going to war, or when people’s sense of power is threatened as demographics shift – that is when we must master what’s lurking at the door. When we succeed we may be vulnerable to pride. But when we’re weak, we’re vulnerable to making others weak as well so that we appear strong. In these times of failure, our faith, or our character becomes committed to the care and feeding of our ego, rather than resting upon the eternal bedrock, that can be found, in every moment, where we take in another breadth. Feed your neighbors with your long-handled spoons, and be ready to be fed in return. Make sure to teach our kids that lesson well. It is here that we craft Heaven.
This call to worship is based upon the hymn # 126 “Come, Thou Font of Every Blessing”
In our gathering this hour,
may we tune our hearts to gladness,
lift our eyes to what may come,
being open once more to the promise of this day.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington talking about how we often live our lives from the script in our head and not what’s going on right here and now.
We recently adopted a 3 month old puppy. She’s a boxer/bull terrier mix. Super cute. Super sweet. We brought her home the day she was spayed from the vet’s office. She was so nervous she was shivering in her bed. When it was finally time for her to go outside, she would have none of it. We’d get her to the door, try putting on a leash, and she would pull and pull. We had to pick her up to bring her out for the first week or so. Maybe it was the snow. Maybe it was the cone of shame around her neck. Maybe it was the snow being scooped up by her cone of shame that fell into her face. But all of that would come later. When she got to the door, she didn’t know what she was looking at and she was afraid to go out.
You see, Lola (that’s our puppy’s name), Lola was a city girl. She was born in a NYC apartment and was fostered away immediately to friends of friends of ours in another apartment. Lola had never seen the great outdoors. And whatever she had seen was total asphalt, concrete and metal. This wide open space, that allowed her to see beyond 10 feet, was a scary thing.
I can kind of relate. When I had been living in NYC for just about five years, I got used to seeing the world only so far away. I had taken a vacation trip to see friends in Minnesota and we stopped by a Walmart for something on the way to somewhere else. I went inside – and – froze. I began to have a panic attack. They apparently make Walmarts bigger in the midwest than here. While inside I could see further away than most spots in Manhattan. I had to have a friend walk me out.
We can get used to living in a world whose borders lend us comfort, security, stability. And when we cross into a new space it can be really scary. My puppy had a script. Her script said this world looks a certain way. Outside is a scary, strange, noisy, cold and busy place. Her script told her it wasn’t a place she wanted to go.
So we began coaxing her out with treats, and play time with her squeaky ball. We’d leave her alone for 2 minutes at a time and come back inside. At first she would come back to the kitchen glass door and look back in and whine to come inside. But over time, her time alone would get longer and longer (up to 15 minutes now.) We can still see her through the window, and we’re fenced in, so she’s safe. And now, once she’s past her initial lonely wobblies, it’s hard to get her back inside. She’s finding all these new scents; hearing the range of birds calling; and our next door neighbor’s dog who howls like a fire engine. Lola has a new script. “Outside” now means a place of fun, exploration, running around like a silly ball of energy, and cool new things to smell.
How do we all do that in our own lives? When do we react negatively to something because our script tells us that’s how we should respond? I don’t only mean trying the new stuff, or the dangerous stuff. We all have to know our limits. No matter how hard Brian will try to convince me, I will not go parachuting. I appreciate that some part of my Id will go crazy wild over the new sensation. While the rest of it is panicking because I chose to put “down” so very far away. I’m talking about the day to day stuff that we respond to as rote.
When you get on the phone with your parents, or your kids, do you know how the arguments will go before they begin? When you perceive that someone wrongs you in some way – will you hold onto that grudge till your dying day, or till they offer abject abasement before your stalwart ego? If a problem comes up – do you just know how it will play out and how everyone will react to it?
In what ways does your script trap you? I find that when we live from the scripts, we’re not really able to respond to the world before us as it is – as it’s actually happening. We’re reading our lines to a scenario that’s not necessarily happening right now. It can make us unable to deal appropriately with new circumstances. It can also force us to relive painful encounters over and over because we can’t see the newness that’s before us.
Sometimes our scripts are a team sport. I lost a long time friend some years ago to a script. We had gone through a lot of personal and professional challenges together over a ten year span of time. We were close with each other’s families, shared a house together – we became family of a sort. All close friendships have their stressors; we always have ways we drive one another nuts. All that aside, I used to be a lot more uptight in my twenties. When I left my home state and moved to NYC for graduate school and later seminary, I mellowed out. My detail orientated perfectionism began to dissolve; my taking the smallest things so seriously mostly disappeared; and I got out of the habit of arguing with people (marital realities not-withstanding.) Seminary doesn’t always help people become more spiritually mature, but my time there really changed who I was for the better. But when I would go back to visit my dear friend (and other long time friends), I realized that she was interacting with me as if I hadn’t changed at all. We would start having fights about whether we were having a fight. (Ever been there?!) Every sentence was heard through the filter of the script of how I used to act. I’d go back to the City and talk to my local friends about how frustrating the trip home had been. That folks back home only saw me as controlling and argumentative – even though I wasn’t acting that way. My local friends would laugh – they didn’t see me that way at all. My old, dear friend’s script, ended our friendship. It was one of the most frustrating losses in my life. It was frustrating because it wasn’t necessary. My legitimately negative behavior had changed for the better, but it didn’t matter to the friendship if the other couldn’t see it for what it was – a new line, a new direction to the story.
Our theme this month is presence. Presence saves us from these losses. Being present to the person or the situation before us allows us to deal with reality as it is and not bring the ghosts of past pains into this moment. We know we’re not being present when our minds our racing through past hurts. Or when we’re perpetually fixated on what will or what might happen in the future. It’s not to say that we don’t learn from the past or plan for the future. But living most of our lives in the past or the future is not learning from or planning for – it’s missing out on this moment. We cease to live in the world that is, and pretend to live in the world that was or will be. But there is only ever the moment that is – right now. We can’t ever live in the past. We can’t ever live in the future. We can only live in the present, and the more we allow our minds to run wild, to live from the scripts of our fantasies, we cease to fully live.
…I’m about to utter a genuine UU heresy…. I make it a habit to preach something heretical every year, and this is the week for it – (so the folks that made it on time despite Daylight Savings will be well rewarded). Take a deep breadth… Our intellect, our thoughts, our minds – they are not us. We are not our heads. Our scripts, our thinking, our fretting, our worry, our dreams, our plans, our arguments – they are not us. Our intellect is a tool, like our vision, or our hearing. It shapes how we interact, understand, and experience the world. Of course, we’d interact differently if our mental faculties were to change. Mental health aside, we as a people have a tendency to over-identify with our intellect and thinking. We confuse the tool with our identity. And that can be a very painful thing. The worlds we create spin fantasies that we confuse for fact. Our congregational covenant talks about assuming good intentions. This goes beyond giving someone the benefit of the doubt – it’s more about not creating a false person we then inappropriately interact with. Leaping to conclusions, without evidence, is our script showing. Sometimes it tells more about ourselves than others.
When our thinking minds go wild, when they run the show, and create the opinions that will shape how we interact regardless of evidence – we lose who we are at our core. It’s as if we’ve become possessed by our thoughts. Our essence, our soul, takes a back seat and something else is driving the car. I find this to be a helpful metaphor because it describes what we experience. Think of a time when you reacted poorly, or strongly, to some set of events. We all have. When the whole thing was over, did your original thoughts match exactly what was really going on? Were you 100% correct and the others 100% wrong? We’re rarely entirely right. There’s usually another side. If the time you’re thinking of you were totally in the right, think of another time. If you can’t think of another time where you were in the wrong, you have an entirely different challenge to deal with that’s out of the scope of this sermon. Since we’re all usually off-base by some amount in almost all things, what possesses us to defend and live into the fabrications of our mind so readily? It doesn’t practically help us to read from an outdated script, yet we do.
James Baldwin has a related quote, …“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once the hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with the pain.”… Baldwin’s quote is in reference to hate, though I think it applies to many more aspects of human behavior. We cling stubbornly to any of our habits, because those habits hide something more difficult below the surface. I spoke last week about how hard it was to get back into an exercise routine after a bad car accident – that the most difficult part was facing the fact that I was much weaker – and exercising – though it would help me – was painful because it made me face a new truth that I didn’t want to see. Our thinking minds are one of these habits. If we quiet our chatter – who are we? What’s our core when the mental volume is muted?
Often we over-identify with our thinking patterns. We’ve identified with a tool, not our essence. It’s comforting to stick to what is known. Experiencing the moment for what it is – is not what most people’s habits are. Our thoughts become identified with our ego, and then all things become slings, or darts, or succor for our ego. In some ways our scripts – especially the negative ones – are preferred because they allow our ego to become more solid. Struggle, anger, hate, indignation all contribute to a vibrant ego. Our thinking patterns create those realities. Without the mental script – anger, hate and self-righteousness lose their solidity. There’s no there there. Self-righteousness is not an instinctual or biological response to evolutionary advantage. Self-righteousness is not hormones, it’s not nature. Self-righteousness is a psychological tool used to prop up the ego. If we silence the chatter, if we toss the script, we see that self-righteousness or anger or hate – are not real.
This is not to say those feelings are bad. I’m not suggesting that we feel guilty over them. We shouldn’t judge them. The trick to tossing the script is attending to those feelings when they occur without judgement. If you’re prone to anger, allow yourself to be angry when it arises. Acknowledge it. Look at it inwardly. Don’t react to it, don’t judge it. And don’t live your life from that feeling of anger. Just pause and watch it until the anger goes away. There’s a classic Buddhist teaching in meditation practice – I had a Korean Zen Nun teach this to me when we were sitting together for a four month, 4 day a week practice – the teaching says thoughts or feelings are like a train coming into a station you’re sitting at. When the train arrives, watch it. You can see it without getting on it. So too, with feelings of despair or frustration – we can greet them without going for a ride with them.
German-born American abstract expressionist painter Hans Hoffman once noted, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” When our mental chatter clutters our head space, our world becomes more complicated than it needs to be. It becomes more complicated than it actually is in reality. As we eliminate the unnecessary what remains behind? What can then begin to speak? For this week, I invite you silence your internal chatter for a couple of minutes a day. If that feels too long, try it for a couple of moments a day. Simplify your mind. Put away your scripts. Exorcise your egos. Be present to the feelings and thoughts without riding their train to where they will take you. Listen for what now has room to speak, for what now has room to live.
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington for the start of our new stewardship year. It talks about how we respond to difficulty, trauma and loss.
This coming Memorial Day weekend will be the five year anniversary of when, as a pedestrian, I was hit by a car going about 25 miles an hour. I had been crossing a major avenue in Brooklyn, in the crosswalk, with the walk sign in my favor, and a group of pedestrians right behind me. The driver was making a left hand turn and accelerated thinking he could beat the crowd and simply didn’t see me. That happens to be the most common set of circumstances in car-on-pedestrian accidents. I was fortunate. I went airborne and landed about 10 feet away – on my butt. I didn’t break anything. I didn’t land on my head, or on the edge of the curb. He stopped. Offered to drive me home. In trauma shock, I said no thank you. I didn’t want to be anywhere near that driver. Instead of then calling 911, he left. Someone else offered to call 911, and I foolishly said to them – no, I’m ok. I then walked to a friend’s who was a few minutes away and later got a car home. I was sore, but fine.
The next morning, when I came out of shock. I realized that I was not fine. I was in a lot of pain. I could just barely walk at about 1 mile an hour. Living alone, I hobbled my way to the doctor who chastised me something fierce. She wasn’t surprised though of my bad choices. When we go into shock, the brain stops working properly. I remember being worried the driver would get in trouble, or that I would be stuck in the hospital too long. Strange thoughts after you’re injured. But I was lucky, the injuries were bruises and cartilage damage. Apparently, healing from cartilage damage tends to take much longer, but you can also be on your feet much sooner. It was this ordeal that taught me to take any injury seriously for those around me; that the injured aren’t always thinking straight. To make sure to call for help.
The most intense period of recovery would be the first 3 months. Physical therapy twice a week would lead back into regular gym workouts. When I finally got back to the gym, I remember being shocked at how much weaker I was after only a short time. My physical therapist explained that in these types of injuries, some biological or chemical interaction happens around impact. The muscles internally stiffen to protect organs, but they then wither or weaken at an astonishing rate. The weight room showed me that I had lost 75% of my strength in my legs.
At first, you go into recovery mode. You think – I got this. I can do this! And you’re doing everything you should or need to do to get better. And you can get better. But after the initial willpower runs its course, you realize that you’re not easily going to get back to what you once were. I had more or less held a 4-5 day a week workout routine for the better part of fifteen years. As time went on, it became difficult to face that reality. Going to the gym meant I would be faced with how much weaker, how much slower, I was. And part of me still doesn’t like seeing that. And my health routines suffer for it. What I need to do, to get back in my old shape again, is the very thing that forces me to see the ways in which I feel less than I once was. And it’s hard to be present to that – to those feelings.
Most of us have had to deal with similar situations in their life. Maybe it wasn’t a nasty accident. Maybe it’s your heart, or chemo, or your weight, or maybe you’re recovering from some other type of surgery. Maybe simply the affects of aging. We’re all challenged at some point to be present to the aftermath of trauma, or weakness, as a fact of life.
Sometimes though, it’s a lesson or a community. Sometimes as a people we have to deal with trauma, and to grow through it. I can think of the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Some of us, some of our neighbors, lost their homes or their livelihoods to the ravages of the storm. Even after things were rebuilt, it takes time and dedication to get back into old routines. To see old places the way we might once have viewed them. To walk back into your home after it was rebuilt and learn to feel safe there once more. To be present to the difficulty and to move through it.
Other times it’s more about responding to the depredations of social injustice. Any of the stories I’ve preached about this year could be that for you. Many of them are certainly that for me. Gun violence. Racial injustice in our judicial system. The ongoing barrage of social engineering that continues to go on in places like Arizona. Laws like SB1070, that diminished the humanity of immigrants and migrants, almost became codified this week targeting LGBT people. Under the lie of religious freedom, legislators sought to write discrimination into the state’s code of laws. Any business would be seen as a church. And for religious reasons, you could refuse services to any person. The intent was to target LGBT people, but the law was worded in such a way that you could apply that to anyone. The law was ultimately vetoed by the state’s governor because it had unforeseen financial implications. Legislators forgot LGBT people spend money. They were surprised that businesses ranging from Delta to the NFL were outraged and considering boycotting. It hit the state’s pocketbook, but not it’s soul. The law was vetoed because of finances, not ethics.
When the earlier law, SB1070 was enacted – turning local police into pretend immigration officers – I remember traveling to Arizona to protest. We spent a week protesting and drawing national attention. At first, you do the hard work of acting and protesting and putting your all into it. It’s like physical therapy for our social consciousness. Our national ethical life has been hit by a large object moving at an accelerating rate, and we don’t always respond rationally at first. We have a lot of daily work we need to do as a people to get our collective soul back to health after legislation like these. We have to be present to the injustice – to witness it – to bend into the pain to make it go away. Pretending it’s not there will not make it go away. And if we rely only on our self to figure it all out, we’ll be less effective. There’s a whole host of specialists that make us more effective, that can keep us on track, that can ensure the long term care of our nation doesn’t fall back to a permanent place of weakness. But the work is daily; it’s weekly; it’s yearly. There will continue to be laws threatening injustice so long as we as a people don’t do our work – together. What we do, together, matters.
I know in some ways this congregation felt like it went into shock. For those who have only been here for the past two years or so, you probably don’t notice any of it. For others who have been here longer, caring for your ailing former minister, Rev. Paul at about the same time you were caring for your former Director of Religious Education – Carolyn – as she was caring for her dying husband – must have felt like a shock. At first people responded incredibly admirably. People stepped up, kept the pastoral and education ministries of this Fellowship strong. Sunday services kept happening through more and more lay leadership. People did what had to be done to keep the community vital. And time went on, some people got tired, others left. Gratefully, many are now coming back – as is so clearly evidenced by Sunday attendance over the past seven months.
But for many of those who had to do some really heavy lifting, it can become hard over time to see the places of weakness, or the places of hurt. You might remember a time when the Fellowship was much larger – or felt stronger – and it’s hard to see it any other way. I ask those who this speaks to, to continue to stretch into the places that feel rough to go. Breathe when you need to, and continue loving this community as you have, and as its loved you. Congregations are as resilient as we allow them to be. And this community has shown a great deal of resilience.
And strength does come back, even if it’s not going to do that quickly. Turning away will not strengthen us; being present to the challenges, and the successes of our ministry together, will.
I see a religious community whose attendance is already back up to a high weekly point that matches the highs of 10 years past – even if our formal membership hasn’t returned to the Rev. Beth years yet. The people are here. Our religious education program once more has 100 children and youth registered. Our large team of volunteers have kept our cold weather shelter program serving the needs of an expanding guest list through this very brutal winter; offering food, and shelter and clothes to those in desperate need. We are building partnerships with various neighborhood groups who serve our communities’ needs through our weekly split-the-plate program and the volunteer work of members connecting with those service groups. Coming together, nurturing our children and youth, caring for our members and friends who are dealing with the varied challenges life has to offer, serving the needs of the world during times of strife and times of plenty – that is the work of religious community – and we are doing that work. In fact, we’re doing it so well that our denomination has recognized and awarded our ministry together. And there is a place for all of us in this work.
As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world. Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?
Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.
Membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.
But those changes won’t happen overnight. Our members who were at Selma fifty years ago have seen that the world doesn’t change like that. That progress slides backward a little less often than it moves forward. Progress made today requires intentional communities of effort to continue to exist to ensure future generations have the support they need to do the work they will still have to do. We’re here today because others before us paved the way. And as Kathryn Johnson said earlier today, it now falls upon us to ensure this institution is vibrant enough to ensure our presence for future generations, future struggles, future needs and future celebrations.
So much in our culture teaches us to equate our spending power with goods rendered. In religious community, sometimes, you’re choosing to leverage that power toward another purpose. A progressive religious institutional presence is a force for sanity in our world. Every progressive religious community specializes in some areas over others. Over the twenty years of my membership in Unitarian Universalist religious communities I have seen so much good done. One congregation housed a statewide suicide hotline for LGBT folk in crisis. Getting the training and resources needed to help people at their worst hour is not something I could ever reduce to dollars and cents. Another congregation prepares over 350 meals a week to homeless and underfed neighbors while taking an active role in housing reform. Sometimes our religious homes offer a place for teens who are struggling with their sexuality, who have families who are far from supportive. It’s the kind of life-saving ministry our congregations offer, that you may never see for yourself. We can’t always share those stories because of the complexity of privacy and healing. But without our presence, some youth make dangerous choices in the face of public ridicule. For others, our ministry is that of affirming interfaith families – allowing couples with differing religions to raise their children in a space that honors both of their paths – and teaches the spiritual value of diversity.
Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming. That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.
As we begin a new chapter in our Fellowship’s life, all of these things are the bread and butter of our work – they’re our purpose. With a new covenant that clarifies our promises to one another, we’re moving along with updating and making more concise our mission statement. Our mission is a fancy word for sorting out our purpose. It will likely entail all of this work, but be a visual reminder of our commitments as a community. Our mission will not reflect the services rendered here, but inspire the work we’ll continue to do. Like our covenant building process, you’ll have a chance to give feedback to our Committee on Ministry as it leads us in this work through the end of April.
Our canvass will go to all of these purposes. As we stretch into more financial support we will be able to staff appropriately to our needs. Our search for a new Director of Congregational Life is well under way. We expect to find an excellent professional who can help us reach out to the world around us, care for the institution we have built, and deepen our ties to one another. With the additional secretarial support our plan offers, Austen our Transitional Director of Religious Education and myself will better be able to connect with all the new families and folks attending – and better able to help all of you connect more with each other. I also look forward to having more time to help lead service and justice work in our communities. We are at an exciting time that has some amount of urgency to it. With our Sunday morning attendance up by fifty percent since Ingathering in September, now is definitely the time to take advantage of that renewed interest and commitment. With our attendance back to our past high, it’s time to help our membership return to the same levels. This congregation offers so many life-saving and life-affirming services – it falls to us to be its stewards.
Everyone has differing means here. There’s no minimum or maximum to give. I am new to this community, and new to Long Island. I’m paying off ridiculous amounts of student debt – 30% of my take-home pay goes to student debt management – and debt burdens are something that I know I am not alone on here. With all that in mind, I’ve chosen to tithe 5% of my salary to this Fellowship. I made that commitment because I believe in this congregation. I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.
The choir’s anthem this morning, 100 years is a recent pop charts hit that gives me the chills when I hear it. It sings of the life of any of us. So many things to celebrate, to commiserate, to weep over. All of these feelings will affect each of us in our lives. As the song goes, we only have 100 years to live. Very few of us will make it that long, but that’s the scope of our lives. We’re present to it, as best we can, through the good and the bad. But it’s our life to live. It evokes in me a sense of the preciousness of it; of the preciousness of relationships, of loves, of losses. I often think the song points toward making deeper connections in the time we have, of leaving a footprint for where we tread. Someone else did so before us, and look at the connections their earlier gifts have offered us. How will you live your 100 years? How will you leave this place better for your passing? Will you help each of us to ensure our healing, life-saving, life-affirming presence is here for another generation?