Archive for April, 2017
This Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/23/17. It explores the role of doubt and faith in light of living into the message of Passover and Easter.
Unitarian Universalist congregations have a lot that go on this time of year – religiously speaking. Passover and Easter meant we were celebrating two, difficult yet ultimately joyous holidays, in quick succession. Saturday night had song, and food, children pantomiming rivers of blood and hosts of frogs. And if you can’t imagine what pantomiming rivers of blood what might mean, don’t worry, no red crepe paper was actually harmed in the celebration of the holy day. And the following morning, our children enjoyed an Easter egg hunt, in our Memorial Garden, in what might have been the most perfect Easter weather I have ever experienced. One of the things I love about our Fellowship is how the community designed a memorial garden that would be warm, lovely and welcoming enough that our kids would enjoy an Easter Egg hunt there – and that our folks would want to craft spaces that were welcoming to all ages.
Being so open to play, being willing to shake the norms, or shake worn expectations, sometimes leads to some odd places. A few years ago, when I was serving another congregation, I think I saw the envelope pushed a little further than I might have been ready for. Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel of a UU church with a very traditional Neo-Gothic style architecture; stain-glassed windows, wooden pews, solid stone walls. I was looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery. I was mentally preparing for the service to begin when our latest guest walked up the aisle and sat in about the 4th row of pews in the front and center just off to the left…. Now I knew the 6 foot tall (counting ears of course) Easter Bunny was coming; but I thought she was going straight to the children’s party downstairs. Now – this is true for us here too, so please try to take it to heart. You see, in the first few years of ministry at a congregation, there are so many wonderful facts like this that get left unmentioned because everyone else kind of knows, so people assume I must too. (Like even this morning, I knew a dragon was coming to the service, but until last week, I didn’t know we even had a dragon that I could call upon. Someone should have told me we had dragons…). So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing the Easter Bunny decide to worship with the UU’s for our then very traditional Easter service. Add in my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was a rather unexpected challenge. (So please hear me, if anyone is getting any rabbit ideas for next year… [shakes head no].)
That famous guest reminded me of my childhood expectant Easters. I more or less got the religious meaning of the holiday at the time as a kid but to be very honest I was just as focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar-induced coma of the sweet-tarts. (Remember when we could eat a punchbowl of candy without getting sick? Oh the good ol’ days.) The deeper appreciation of Holy Week would come later, but I do recall the period of “great waiting” that was the hallmark of this time.
That’s the sugar-coated stories I remember – “The Very Hallmark Easter.” (This might be a little less pronounced for those who were raised Jewish, or maybe not since commercialized Easter knows no bounds in the modern US.) But both the Jewish story of Passover and the Christian story of Easter are coated in blood, not sweetness. They culminate in hope but they are rooted in pain and sorrow. They speak directly to an all too uncomfortable fact of the lives of so many people on this earth. In the U.S. we are very fortunate to not have to live daily under the realized threat of military violence from foreign powers, although many of our people are increasingly feeling unsafe from legal changes and practices. So it may, or may not be difficult, to imagine how just the repercussions were that we hear of in the scriptural stories. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 16 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke, that Exodus speaks of, where God brought the Jewish people out from under.
Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Verse 51 goes on to conclude, “That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.”
The act of sacrifice and covenant culminated with protection for those who were violently oppressed and brutal punishment for those who were guilty of their abuses. But what then? Years of oppression over? Sacrifice followed by hope? No, we pause in the story of Exodus where freedom from bondage is won; but it’s not too long before the people succumb to uncertainty. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, erecting golden calves that promised the certainty of old bondages, rather than the promise of what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt held the people back another 40 years to wander, before the promise was finally realized.
Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story; which is also the human story. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us – whether it’s emotional, or financial; our health, or our heart. We wait for the news, we wait for the resolution, and then the day comes. Sometimes it’s the way through we hoped for, or the message that the promise land is out of reach, for a time, or maybe it seems that it’ll be out of reach always.
I believe the Jewish story of Passover, and what follows after, is a reminder that how we handle what comes before us – is what determines whether we feel like we’ve found our way home, or we’re lost in the desert that is the pit of our despair. Sometimes we may be the source of what causes our suffering, and sometimes the suffering that befalls us would be there regardless of anything that we could do differently. That tragic health prognosis for ourselves, or our loved one, is not our fault, but at some point we need to choose whether in light of it we’ll find our way or we’ll be lost.
In this story, the God of Israel seems to be saying to us that the path ahead is possible, despite it all, if we stay true to our hearts and keep our integrity.
The Christian story is similar. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, now retired, famously said, “The cross would cast no shadow were it not for the light of resurrection morn.” Jesus, a teacher of non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope suffered the cruelest corporeal punishment the Roman Empire executed. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and highwaymen. The saving message of building that beloved community on earth; the message of turning us back to our humanity through these virtues he extolled, is tempered by the painful reminders of worldly suffering. The way forward must ever remember the difficult truths of our world if it can ever be followed. Transformations, and resurrection, have no meaning if they don’t honestly accept the reality of human experience and suffering.
Some say that suffering is redemptive…. I would not be one of those people. Suffering can be crippling, or suffering can be transcended, but any redemption that occurs through suffering is only in light of that suffering, not because of it. The moment of resurrection in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships, brilliantly reflects back like that light of Easter morning. We do not need to suffer to be reborn, but many of us only choose rebirth when it gets too difficult not to…. Even then, it’s not too late.
What of the week after the Resurrection that is central to the Christian story? A woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness Jesus and begin to spread his gospel. His other apostles, the men as it happens, were huddled hidden in a room upstairs – fearful. In the Christian lectionary, the readings that are given a week after Easter are found in, John 20:19-31
“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (which I would clarify were their own people), Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the microcosm of the perennial story of liberation and imprisonment. The greatest moment of Christian salvation has occurred and the apostles of that movement are hidden away upstairs with their doors locked. Whether you believe this story is metaphor or fact, imagine for a moment being those apostles. You’re terrified of your own people. You’re scared that the government – the Roman Empire – might be coming for you next because you were part of some fringe movement that was supposed to end with his execution. We’re supposed to be free, but we lock ourselves away, scared of all those people who seemed familiar and safe a moment ago. The story tells us that liberation and resurrection has just occurred, and for the life of us, we can’t see it. We haven’t even gotten word yet.
That’s what we see with the apostle Thomas. Scripture continues, “Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
I’ve always found this scene in the story very curious. It seems to be suggesting that those who require proof in order to have faith are less blessed than those who have not seen and yet still believe. Centuries of Christian interpretation can be summed up with the critical phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” The Agnostics and Atheists among us might have cringed at some point in their lives over this imagery – (or maybe they may have been proud of it.) I find this scene curious because a week later, one week after the resurrection moment, the door to the room the apostles were hiding in was still locked. They’ve all seen their risen Lord, and claim to be overjoyed in response to Jesus’ acclamation of peace. They are saved, and are the rock of the church to come. And yet, a week later, the door is still locked.
It leads me to think they’re all still scared, and they don’t yet have that sense of liberation, of redemption, of freedom we’re often led to believe. It’s very human. They’ve been led out of Egypt and yet can’t walk out of their bedroom. So what does this mean for us? We’ve gotten word that the prognosis is good, or that our kids made it home from the war, or we got into the school we really wanted to, but we can’t let go of the fear of what might have been. I remember healing from the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian – I’m coming on that 7-year anniversary in a month. It took me me a while to walk on my own without a cane or splint. But even though I got the seemingly miraculous news that nothing was broken even though I was thrown 10 feet in the air, it would be months before I would believe I could do much with my leg. I was fine in body, considering the seriousness of the accident and the couple of weeks where I really couldn’t walk, but I was literally locked up in my second floor apartment, up a flight of stairs, that I scarcely thought I could climb back down. More than half of that recovery was a matter of the heart not the body. If the prognosis had been bad, any recovery that could of occurred would have been entirely a matter of the heart, not just half of it. What are you locking away in a room up a treacherous flight of steps you can’t seem to find a way back down from? And the teacher and prophet reminds us, “Peace be with you!”
My childhood cravings told me these times of year were coated with sugar and sweet. They led me with great excitement to the moment of celebration, the moment of fun, the moment of beauty in all it’s finery and splendidly colored eggs. There were giant 6 foot tall bunnies aplenty to bring a smile to my face – and I was very glad for it. The hard work though, begins some point after that moment. All the information is in, the facts seem set, and we now have to do something with it. One week after, life continues on, whether or not we’re ready for it. The news can be liberating or mesmerizing or terrifying as we huddle in the corner. When you catch yourself putting the blood on the door in the hopes of the Angel of Death passing over, or you find yourself feeling in your body like you’re truly hanging from the cross – stop. Take a breath. It might be all you feel you can do, so you might as well do it with intention. Come back to that moment. Fill the way forward with intention as often as you can.
Some of us will doubt no matter what; others will say they are overjoyed with their lips, but remain trapped in their hearts; and others will find a way to keep ourselves imprisoned in action, when all signs had pointed toward liberation. But like these scriptural stories, there is always another opportunity to let go, to get out, to accept or to heal, if only in the heart and not the body. Beyond or despite the facts of whatever situation we find ourselves in, what is most crucial is how we deal with the moment, and not what the moment told us. One week after is when the difficult work begins.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”