This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/19/17. It explores what the “Alice in Wonderland” story can teach us about a world that’s turned upside down–and how we can turn ourselves right-side up again.
I had originally planned to preach a lighter sermon this week, after several heavier weeks in the pulpit. With the turning toward Spring, we hoped for a more airy service; but in light of our national news this week, that would feel too tone deaf. But we decided to keep with our originally planned story earlier in the service around Alice in Wonderland – specifically about the March Hare – because the mad antics of this most famous children’s story remains relevant despite it all. We heard earlier about the light-hearted origins of the “mad as a March hare” reference that led to the famous storybook character, the March Hare. The Tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland would have been a shocking vignette for Victorian England; propriety mixed with mad-hatted rudeness. The recklessness of this tea-party inverted all the social norms for the day. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time. Hold that image in your mind as I speak today. We’ll come back to it soon enough.
Several years ago, my husband and I were driving from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR; but maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianty doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment where I lamented, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.” (Yes, this is exactly what car trips are like when you’re married to a minister.) Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
This sermon has become largely about how our nation has gone astray from the basics of religion – with the aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, that’s how I always was taught to understand what it would mean to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelation. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent. Too often, it’s leveraged to further partisan aims or issues over actual scriptural truths.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or more likely some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, and that false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said; that we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up. I get very worried we’ve lost our way when we’re discussing cutting support for school lunches for hungry kids, or food delivered to seniors who can’t get out on their own – programs that have bedrocks of our safety nets for generations.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. One of the major Baptist news feeds this seek, just called out the national desire to spend more on ways to kill people with our military while cutting back at feeding our elders. I would say that this shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind a partisan smokescreen; the Baptist press simply called it “sin.”
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the partisan politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Anyone remember that 1975 classic movie called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward. The reality of the 1970s white flight would come to vividly impact housing choices out here in Long Island – to this day.
The movie “Network,” had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe this all needs to start with anger. I believed that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger. Nowadays, I’m less certain. Anger is a real emotion that speaks to the injustice in the world; it’s telling us something. But we can’t stay in anger. When we dwell in anger, it’s a warning sign. Dwelling turns into that sort of up-is-down version of Christianity — don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. That’s a false teaching.
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now at the tail end of a recession, where not everyone has returned to employment. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us, and the subsequent return to living the values we already know. What are our golden calves in 2017?
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? Would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. If you came early this service, you saw pictures of our Grow to Give Garden. If you haven’t taken part yet, I encourage you to reach out to Beth Feldman who leads our warm-weather food ministry here.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 10 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming to an end, this shelter closes till the end of the year though.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up. Our pastoral care associate, Gerri Farrell, and I are beginning to work with LI-CAN on Long Island to explore how we can make headway against the opioid and heroin epidemic. If you’re interested in helping, please do reach out. And others are helping with undocumented people who are being called to court – to walk and witness with them during that scary time. If you’re interested in being trained to be such a witness – reach out to our social justice co-chairs, Diana Weaving or Steve Burby. There is much to do locally.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In light of recent US Budget proposals, I worry around some of our national choices, and how far afield we’ve gone. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
I’ll close with the words of the poet Marge Piercy who we heard earlier this service. She responds to this madness with, “It goes one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say No. It starts when you say We and know who you mean; and each day you mean one more.”