Archive for March, 2015

Rebirth and Renewal

This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 22nd, 2015 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It explores the role of doubt during the winter times of our spirit. It was part of our monthly Multigenerational family friendly service.

 

Happy first weekend of Spring everyone. (snowscape photo) It’s been a rough long winter for many of us. We’ve had a lot of strong snowstorms in quick succession this year, and it can feel really overwhelming, even if they might have been fun to play in or watch over cocoa at first. Over time, you can get sick of the dirt and the rock salt, and the wiper blade that at some point just decided to stop cleaning the bottom left third of your driver-side window (or maybe that last bit is just me.) And we just want it to be Spring already – how long do we have to live through this?

I know I felt that way Friday night when I realized we weren’t getting a dusting, but something I was going to have to shovel through one more time. I know when Brian got home from the train at 11pm at night, and saw 6 inches of snow on top of the car in the Huntington Station parking lot, and thick ice on the windows, without any gloves, that he let out a primal scream – a primal scream. Were there any other primal screams this weekend? (just slowly nod if you don’t want to raise your hand…)

And for some of us, this Winter has felt like a symbol for what we’re going through in our personal lives. School might be tough; others have dealt with health issues for a long time; our Fellowship has lost many long time friends and family members to illness; and a neighboring congregation, that many of us have attended year after year to start out the week of the Fahs Summer camp, burned down last weekend. One more thing can feel like just too much.

But tough times don’t last forever. We have to grieve through them as best we can, but they do end and something new comes through eventually. It’s not always comforting when you’re in the midst of an endurance run through rough times, but it’s important to believe; because it’s true. Sometimes the Spring comes, however late, and we’re still thinking it’s Winter because the Wintertime has lasted so long.

I went for a walk to a brunch spot Saturday morning. I put on my winter coat, gloves, long scarf, hat, and snow boots. It was still freezing; snow was everywhere; and there was a fair bit of ice. I had to dodge at least one neighbor who didn’t see me as his snowblower was grinding up the layers in his driveway. The sky was gray and cloudy and I was wondering it I should have brought an umbrella too. In fact, the weather reports said rain in the morning. But the rain didn’t come. On my way home, the sky had turned sunny. I saw the color blue up there again – it’s a great color that I feel like we haven’t seen in awhile. All the snow melted fast, and my winter clothes started to be come too much. Gloves came off, scarf untied, the hat went and finally I was walking with my coat open. But for the first bit, I didn’t trust it. “Oh, a wind will come.” “It’s not that warm.” Not until, “ok, now I’m sweating” came along before I changed my actions to fit the world around me.

Whereas a friend of mine in NJ had the mantra, “I’m planning to hold off shoveling till Mother Nature does it for me.” And he was right, it melted before he had to do anything. Inside, he already moved into Spring, and I needed a lot of convincing to find my way there too.

A month or so ago I got new glasses. I had gone to the eye doctor for a check-up and realized that after years of my eye-sight being constant, it was time for a new prescription. I’ve worn contacts since I was in college because they’ve always given me better eyesight than glasses. But recently, science has improved on the technology around eye-glasses and they can now better adjust for what my eyes need than contacts can. But somewhere along the way, I got used to seeing things just a little blurry. It’s small at first, but over time, those small bits can add up to a lot. One day this Winter, it dawned on me that I haven’t been seeing the craters in the moon, or the fine edges of stars in the night sky for what has probably been more than 10 years. I know it might seem foolish to miss that change, but sometimes things happen so gradually, that you simply don’t notice.

These new glasses, thankfully, fix that. My vision was 20/20 all this time, but I was missing the fine lines of things. I remember for the first few weeks, I was walking around a bit stunned by the world. The harbor at the dog walk at Coindre Hall had neat, clean edges again. The leaves had fine details again. Nothing was really blurry before, they just lacked distinction. Now everything had a crispness to it again. I must have lived for 10 or 15 years missing all that and not knowing.

We all do that from time to time. Especially, when the Winters of our spirit go on and on. Maybe the kids at school have been mean for a long time; or we can’t seem to catch a break in our career; or health problems or day to day stressors fill our world. All of those very real things can change how we understand the world. They may be tough; they may be hard, sometimes even very hard – but they don’t define the world. They don’t define joy, or limit hope, or change the nature of our character. I often talk about reverence in our services. For some that means revering God, for others it means to find a sense of awe in life. Today, I think it means recognizing that moment when we see the first flowers poke up past the ice and once froze earth – and knowing that matters – at our core. … and taking a step back and knowing that life has always been there beneath that frozen earth, whether we see it or not…. In the Wintertimes of our heart, life still grows. …

For the past two years, Brian and I have hung large pots of Mums from our back patio to add some color in the Autumn when the other flowers are mostly gone. Sometime around December, they pretty much lose all hope to survive and I want to take them down. Brian insists on keeping them hanging. He thinks the now dead plants “still look nice” – in their own special way. Well, now two years in a row, sometime in February a family of doves moves into one of the dead hanging plants and builds a nest. (show slide of dove family) This next slide shows a photo of the family taken last Spring. It doesn’t look like our mom and dad will raise any birds this year, but they have used the plants as a safe haven on some nasty Winter days. So it looks like I’ve clearly lost that battle with the dead hanging mums for next Winter for sure. But I mention this because it’s important to remember in the times of the Winters of our spirit, that when we’re dried up and useless or exhausted, that maybe life can find new ways of being born; ways we might not have ever expected.

All of these stories have something in common. The biggest changes – the biggest surprises – all happen on their own. We may need to do the best we can sometimes when life gets cold or crazed, but the seasons of difficulty often go away as suddenly as they arrived. They often become moments of grace, where things ease up through no credit of our own. We sometimes need to remember that very much. What has been, will some day ease, and offer something new.

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Selma Today

This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 29th at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma.

A few weeks back, while I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act, we had a Sunday service here reflecting back on the justice work of 50 years ago. Our member, Joyce Williams, reflected on her own memories of that time and being there. Her words should be on-line already or will be shortly and I encourage those who missed her talk, to read it when you have a moment.

I’ve heard other Selma Veterans speak before and they always open up parts of history that weren’t really taught in schools. History tends to look at the biggest moments and the rest often blur in memory. One such time I heard a Selma Veteran speak was a story I’ve briefly shared with our Fellowship before, but it takes on new qualities for me in light of my own trip to Selma earlier this month, so I want to share it with you again, and fill in some spots that are less blurry now.

A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Earlier this month, Joyce spoke at length about him and a few others. But briefly, Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.

I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible.

Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings.

Ok, that’s the recap part I felt was important to lay the groundwork for today’s sermon. While in Selma this month, we heard more stories like this. Some congregations’ Board’s would require their minister to attend. And sadly, some congregations would not approve of their minister going. Why would the church risk its standing in the community by getting involved in other people’s business, or by challenging the perfection of government or the police force in Selma. We think of the issue being so clear cut, but in the midst of tragedy we can often forget right and wrong.

We can all imagine stories alive and happening today where people of good conscious come down on different sides of a crisis for various reasons. I think of Ferguson, and Staten Island most recently centered in the media’s view. I wonder when we come down on differing sides of a situation that folks on both sides may think is crystal clear today, will we see it differently in another 50 years? I wonder how soon we can forget the role institutions and authority had in the violent deaths around Selma of Jimmy Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, those 4 young girls in the church, and Viola Liuzzo. I recall Rev. Dick Leonard, one of the final 300 marchers who finished the 4 day march in Selma across the bridge tell his story of the National Guard being present to protect the marchers. But he relates that for several days the National Guard were facing the marchers as if they were protecting Alabama from the peaceful protestors. They would eventually be convinced to turn around and face the trees with their Spanish Moss and Ivy – where snipers would easily be concealed, but that’s not what they were inclined to do at first.

And those roads were dangerous. Viola Liuzzo, the young Unitarian white woman from Detroit, was chased down – car to car and shot dead. This happened after the march, after she had dropped some protestors off, when everything was already over. She was just helping out, and was chased down, and gunned down, on our roadways.

We remember the images of our own institutions turning water hoses on peaceful protestors, and local State authorities ignoring Federal rules. And I think of Ferguson, MO, where a court recently had to intervene and tell local police officers that, no, in fact they could not reasonably use tear gas on people who were standing in their own yard. Apparently the courts had to intervene because peaceful protests, including prayer rallies, were being interrupted with no warning and dispersed with tear gas. And the worse part of it, there were cases where there were no points of egress, and they were still gassed. Whatever your feelings may be about the initial case regarding the death of Michael Brown, and the officer who was found to have done no wrong-doing, I think we can safely say that our American institutions should not be using tear gas on prayer rallies or people’s front lawns. But I hear those stories, and I see those images, and I remember the water hoses, and wonder where do we find Selma today? How often do we look back at the civil rights movement and become guilty of thinking it ended 50 years ago, of doubting it’s still a current crisis?

I find that challenge with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In Selma, we heard from Opal Tometi, one of the co-founders of that movement. We hear folks around us, and sometimes it’s ourselves, confuse the message of #BlackLivesMatter to mean other lives aren’t as important, or it’s an indictment against all police. But in light of the reality of Selma then, we know that all of us aren’t treated equally. It’s message is to remind us that our nation isn’t acting as if Black lives matter. It’s message is to remind us that Selma wasn’t only 50 years ago. We still see disparity between the wealth and freedom of many people of color and whites. We still see concerted efforts to restrict the rights of minorities to vote, as evidenced by the rapid response in some states of restricting voter access the very day the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. One recent statistic pointed out that we currently have more black citizens in prison than were enslaved prior to the Civil War, often over non-violent crimes. Something is morally broken, and we need to stop pretending that it’s not a blazing crisis today. We can look at any one incident the media makes a flashpoint of and say, well it’s not really that cut and dry, and I think often the critic may be right. But those incidents where polarizations distort fact, don’t change the reality of the broader picture of our prisons, and our jobs and our access to voting, and the deaths on the street.

Our model of journalism has shifted over at least my lifetime to fixate on opposing views, while watching them duke it out as if there was no room for nuance or complexity. And then we try to change our world from the perspective that there are only two positions – one being right and the other wrong. That hasn’t worked for us. Whatever our opinions of the judicial rulings concerning the tragic deaths of so many men and women of color every week and every month in our country – yes every week and every month – a fact that should shock us into action – they are one tragic side of the civil rights crisis. Even if we doubt blame in these rulings, we still have voter suppression, we still have a system of imprisonment, we still have unequal access to education, and jobs, and services. These were all tied to the Selma struggle, and I see Selma still today.

It is with this lens that I challenge us to engage, reengage or renergize our work toward justice. Following the service, Diana Weaving will host a visioning meeting for our Journey Toward Wholeness group here in the Main Hall at 12:15pm. Please come, and lend your vision, and your commitment. At the end of this month, I’ll be attending a talk at Stony Brook to hear once more Rev. William Barber speak about the pressing present needs in the on-going civil rights movement. He is a founding force for the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, and several of my colleagues hope this will be inspire the start of the Moral Mondays movement here in Long Island.

I heard Rev. Barber speak in Selma and he’s a powerful speaker. If you’re available to attend on April 28th at 7pm at Stony Brook University, I would love for you to join me. He eloquently reminds us that our movement for social justice isn’t a political movement. It’s not republicans or democrats. It’s a moral movement.

The platform of this new wave of the ongoing civil rights movement is as follows:

1. EQUAL JUSTICE: Equal Protection Under the Law — Justice Without Regard to Race, Religious Beliefs, Class, Gender, Sexual Orientation,  Immigration Status or Physical Disability.

2. ECONOMIC JUSTICE: Policies that support our labor force, including a living wage, access to healthcare, the right of all workers to organize and bargain collectively for pay, benefits and workplace rights.

3. EDUCATION EQUALITY: Provide a well-funded quality public education for all.

4. HEALTHCARE FOR ALL: Safeguard the health and quality of life for all.

5. VOTING RIGHTS: Protect and expand voting rights and ensure equal access for all voters to improve voter participation.

6. ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE & SUSTAINABILITY: Policies that provide clean water, air and food and ensure green spaces, and promote sustainability for all communities.

Selma is today. Most of these 6 talking points were part of the movement led by Martin Luther King 50 years ago. It’s not new. It may be even more inclusive, but it’s beyond political; it’s ethical. The language Rev. Barber would use is the language of sin. Although as UU’s we don’t believe in the concept of original sin, we certainly recognize humanity has imagined countless ways to act from greed, hatred, and indifference. Whether the word sin speaks to you, or not, what it points to is very important. There are things in life that are right and wrong. That’s not just politics. Those six talking points around justice: broader equality, economic, educational, health, democracy and environmental – are issues that neither of our country’s two big parties gets right all the time or maybe at all. We can pretend that it’s just an intellectual game of politics or we can recognize that there are ways in which we as a people are complicit in harm on each other and on our planet. And we can respond with faith, conscience and integrity.

Each succession of the civil rights struggle has echoes of its predecessors. But each turn toward justice is developed upon the efforts of countless unnamed individuals. Look for your place in the history and future of this work, because it truly takes all of us to make this possible. Some of us will be called to travel our country to stand witness, and others will need to stay behind to do the work in the corners of the world in which we choose to dwell – everyday. What corner can you inhabit?

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