Archive for June, 2017

When Did You Hear

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/18/17. It explores the heritage of slavery on the 152 anniversary of Juneteenth.

As we mentioned earlier in the service, today’s sermon is different than advertised, even if we’ll try to get to the same place of finding renewed purpose in gratitude for a religious community striving for a better world. This week saw a shooting a congressional practice baseball game – targeting republicans and the capital police officers who were risking their lives to protect their charge. We saw graphic images of a horrendous fire engulfing a poor London apartment complex on a street that had vacation mansions being held for later property value. And we learned that no one would face any punishment for the killing of Philando Castile of Minnesota at a routine traffic stop, while his young daughter watched from the back seat of the car. Our systems are broken. And they’ve been broken before, and been repaired, only to break again. Humanity is imperfect, and we need to keep trying.

Let’s begin with today’s holiday, and see how we can find purpose, meaning, and deep wellsprings for the work for the years to come. “June 18 is the day Union General Gordon Granger and 2,000 federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to take possession of the state and enforce the emancipation of its slaves. On June 19, 1865, legend has it while standing on the balcony of Galveston’s Ashton Villa, Granger read the contents of “General Order No. 3”:[1]”

The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.[11][2]””

What sounds to the modern ear as formal, perfunctory, and a bit horrifying – I couldn’t imagine working at the present home of my former master – was nonetheless cause for rejoicing in the streets. The discord in the language reminds us of how far we’ve come. Slavery had been formally at an end by January 1st of 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation officially went into effect, despite it’s September 22nd, 1862 issuing. It would take ten months, and 2000 more soldiers, to actually come to an end. This country would have such a long road ahead of it to realize Civil Rights, a road we are likely, at best, only about half-way down, but it would be enough to cause freedmen and women to rejoice in the streets.

The end of slavery in the US is no less a cause for celebration now than it was 146 years ago. Our humanity moved forward that day, and takes another step forward, every day slavery is at an end in our hearts. It’ll take another step forward when the for-private-profit prison-industrial complex is torn down. It will move forward when justice is served equally across all races and occupations. With acquittal being the ruling for the officer who killed Philando Castile (a black man who was caught on video, obeying all requests from the officer, who also posed no visible threat, who also had no record, and who also served the community he lived in) we painfully and tragically see that the worth of our lives are still not all treated the same. It’ll move forward when we invest more in our schools than our prisons; when we invest more in opportunities for those who have few and less in retribution against those we see as merely different. Our humanity will move forward when we offer living wages, and not merely minimum wages; when we recognize that the cost of living has increased since the start of the minimum wage in 1938, as has the proportion of rent to salary and cost of food to salary, but the minimum wage has not kept pace with the changing ratios of costs and spending, and of course, living. This last bit has caused much strife in our nation and our political landscape – as white people increasingly feel the burn of what I would call the logical conclusion of capitalism in a world where humanity can be greedy. As fewer people have so much more (as of January of this year, 8 men own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world’s population)[1] we’re seeing folks increasingly blaming those who are different. The thinking goes… ‘If only we closed our doors to the immigrant, or to Muslims,’ and on and on – all fake solutions born of fear and personal loss.

I think of our poor, of our working class, of our freedmen and women from our prisons when I hear of school budget cuts, or hear of the exorbitant costs of an increasingly necessary college education. I remember how often race and poverty are intertwined in our country. Slavery may be at an end. Poverty today is not the same as slavery in the 1800s. Race dynamics have changed. The road may be open for so many, but I wonder if the toll to walk it is too high. I think of the irony of Juneteenth 1865 where Blacks were told, “… that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts” now that they are freed, whereas the military these days are sending recruiters routinely into poor or inner city neighborhoods asking for the exact opposite.

I am drawn back to General Grangers words, “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.” I’m not sure that that message has gone away. I’m not sure that our society has changed so radically, so drastically, that we’re not continuing to ask certain classes or certain cultures within our community to continue to do this to this day. We all have the freedom to do whatever we wish. We all have access to the American Dream. We can all improve our lives and our lots if we work hard enough. But we might not have access to good primary education unless we live in the right place. But we might not be able to go to college because the prices have gone so high. But we might not have reasonable access to an alternative path to prosperity not involving college because those kinds of jobs have been shipped out of our neighborhoods. But we might be more likely to end up in prison because of the nature of location, birth, and community…. “The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages.”

If you will, try to imagine living in Galveston, Texas in 1865. Imagine being a slave. You might be aware of the Civil War. You might know that it’s being won by one side or the other, or you might not. You might know that it’s nominally being fought over slavery, but probably not. It’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. It would be heroic and noble if that were the case; but that would be too simple a telling – one that we best reserve for our elementary schools alongside other fairy tales – if even there. Then the military arrives – a white military to be sure. And everything changes. Life may not get incredibly better or easier, but you now have a chance to direct your own fate.

Try to imagine this moment in your own life. At what time in your life were you cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low? When did you hear that it no longer had to be like that? Who told you? Or who helped you to see that another way was possible? Or has no one yet told you that it can be another way? Have you never felt cast down?

I don’t mean to suggest that our woes are the same as the plight of slaves in the US in the 1800’s. I don’t mean to attempt to equate the bodily enslavement of a whole race of people, stolen violently from foreign lands or from their mothers and fathers on this soil of ours, with whatever temporary struggles we may currently face. I do mean though, to help find a way to celebrate this day in more than a merely intellectual fashion. I have no idea what slavery was or is like. I have never been taken from my family, or my home. I have never been made to work against my will. I can intellectually imagine the horrors these represent. But our mind’s eye is only one part of understanding how tragic, how inhumane, slavery was and is. And it’s serious enough to command more from us. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and our souls. We need to appreciate it with our hearts and souls, my friends, because its repercussions are alive and well in our country today, and all the thinking and intellectual disdain we can muster for 152 years has not yet gone far enough.

Fourth of July is the day we celebrate freedom with fireworks, but it’s only a comma in our history. The real celebration of America’s Independence happens when that last American became independent. Juneteenth completes that dream; and yet it too, is another comma on the path toward freedom – because all of us are not treated the same.

It is my prayer that if we can come to understand its reality with our hearts and our souls, it may change us enough to make the difference we need to see in the world. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul.” The answer to the inheritance slavery has given us requires more longing in our souls than thoughts in our heads, than rational responses of a simple, dignified people. The progress forward in our humanity requirements movement – a movement internally – and words in our heads seem to me to be failing us there.

So, again, try to imagine this moment in your own life. That moment in your life where you felt cast down; out of control of your future; at your lowest low. It may not be the same thing, but it’s the best opening we have to understanding what slavery has woefully given us. When you reflect on systems in our country that foster wealth for some, and poverty for others; when you wonder why some have access to education and others don’t; when you remember the demographics of our prison system – consider all this in light of that moment in your own life when you felt cast down. That moment in your life – that moment is what we foster within our neighbors and our neighborhoods when we keep alive the heritage of slavery. Call it racism; call it classism; call it xenophobia; call it sexism or transphobia or homophobia. None of them are the same as slavery, but the practice of tying privilege to the few is well exercised and each get a glimpse of its affects. We could argue the hierarchies of oppressions to the end of days and it would only serve the prolonging of them. Strive to find where we are connected, without diminishing the struggle of our neighbor, and build places of strength and succor from those connections. Appreciate our differences, while building upon our commonalities.

What this world needs is more comprehension that leads to compassion. Attend to that moment when you felt truly downtrodden, and work diligently, everyday, to not create that feeling or experience for anyone else. Actively challenge those systems as they arise. Be patient with other people’s pain. I said before that it’s hard to imagine a bunch of white folks in the 1800’s risking their lives to ensure the freedom of a black slave-cast. In the intervening 152 years, can we say that that reality has meaningfully changed? Regardless of our background, what risks have we taken to live up to our highest ideals? What modern day slaveries go on unperturbed by our passing?

And it all can be so overwhelming. I felt helplessly at a loss this week as I watched the news cycle. A shooting at a practice session for a congressional baseball game; a horrid housing fire in England that was a story that seemed to better belong to another century; and ending the week with the news about acquittal over the killing of Philando Castile. What has been done, we can’t change. It’s doubtful that the work any of us individually do will affect the outcomes we hold in our dreams. But building a better world is an incremental ministry we do collectively, and it begins at home. If this sermon is about the spiritual internal work we do to grow in compassion, our service is about how we come together to heal this corner of the world. I’ll invite us all to join in song about stoking the flames of our commitment to building this new world; and then we’ll hear from Liza Burby to tell us about what we’ve done in the world, and what we plan to do in the years to come. The work of life is never over, and we do it together.

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/worlds-eight-richest-as-wealthy-as-half-humanity-oxfam-tells-davos-2017-1

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A People of Zest

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/4/17 for the 95th anniversary of the Flower Communion.

This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of zest. Zest is a fancy word that we don’t use that much everyday. What does it mean to you? (call it out.) What does it mean to leave room for all of these things (energy, possibility, life, vitality) in our lives? How do we do that when we find ourselves trudging along, through one more test, one more class, one more day at the office? When we’re stuck or exhausted, where do we find the help to kick-start feeling alive again?

 

American poet, children’s book author, and photographer, Nancy Wood, gives us one answer in her poem entitled My Help is in the Mountain:

 

“My help is in the mountain

Where I take myself to heal …
I find a rock with sun on it
And a stream where the water runs gentle
And the trees which one by one
give me company.
So must I stay for a long time
Until I have grown from the rock
And the stream is running through me
And I cannot tell myself from one tall tree.
Then I know that nothing touches me
Nor makes me run away.
My help is in the mountain
That I take away with me.[1]

 

….and I cannot tell myself from one tall tree. Nancy Wood is talking about something many of us have done. As a kid, I remember laying out this time of year on the grass and staring up at the daytime sky. If it were a clear blue day, and I could look just at the right angle, I could lose any sense of up or down. It could feel like I was in the sky. Who else remembers doing that? Who else has done that recently – maybe in your own way? (less hands?) As we get busier and busier, it’s easier and easier to forget to get lost in the clouds from time to time. We even use the phrase – lost in the clouds – to mean a criticism.

 

I recently was reading a blog about resilience, how we handle the stresses and pressures of life. It basically argued that how resilient we are is less a factor of how much we can endure in life, but how well we turn all “the busy” off each week. Do we fill up our weekends with tasks? Do we do work on the train or the plane? Are we up at 6am, and still doing homework at 11pm? We may be able to endure a lot for a long time, but if we don’t find ways of putting it all down – not simply shifting our focus of which burden we’ll manage next – but actually getting lost in the clouds – our resilience will give out sooner than later. And in between – all our enduring work will be of less quality. We’ll be testier, in worse spirits, less accurate. Being a people of zest means remembering to leave room for life – in our life.

 

Remember the words of writer, Anne Sexton from earlier in this service, which began, “There is joy in all: in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed, that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook each morning, in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee each morning, in the spoon and the chair that cry “hello there, Anne” each morning, in the godhead of the table that I set my silver, plate, cup upon each morning.” Anne is reminding us to find life in all the everyday things we become used to; to not let them pass by unnoticed. We can find renewal in the small mundane pleasures in life if we remember to. And most importantly, to share that joy with one another, for as she says, joys left unshared, die young. Joy, zest, life, are best shared. Maybe a bit too often, we live in a culture where we look down upon exuberance. Maybe a bit too often we elevate the perpetually busy among us – as if we were ever going to be given a Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic. (What would that merit badge even look like? Someone tapping their watch? Maybe just a dry time stamp.)

 

As we come to a close in this service of celebration, memory, and life, I want to share with you one more short story, a personal one. It’s sort of my go-to memory in my life about enjoying what’s before you. When I was in college, I spent one semester studying abroad at Oxford. At the close of the program, they held a celebratory dinner. I got invited up to the high table by one of the professors whom I had grown close with for the meal. As it happens, he and I have stayed in contact these past 20 years; he even gave one of the readings at my wedding two years ago.

 

Now the dining setting is a little like Hogwarts from Harry Potter. Students all at long tables – but in suits and dresses rather than robes – and there are no owls in sight. (We had to dress formally even for breakfast.) Christ Church, Oxford, was home to Lewis Carroll who wrote the Alice in Wonderland stories that we all know so well, and in honor of him, the stained glass windows all had small depictions of parts of the story crafted into the glass.

 

There’s a part in the dinner, near to the end, when they bring out silver to serve the tea (and for the silly Americans like me, the coffee.) I’m having a surreal moment of is this really happening. It must have shown on my face, because the professor leans in and whispers, “The Buddhists are wrong, this is meant to be enjoyed.”

 

Now first off, the Buddhists are not wrong. But we do sometimes think of the Buddhist mindfulness teaching in the wrong way. Being present and aware of what’s before us is being mindful, and not passing judgments. But sometimes we confuse that teaching with not letting ourselves enjoy the fruits of life. It’s sort of another form of the Merit Badge for the Protestant Work Ethic that we can let infect our religious life.

 

But this professor was reminding me, that it was ok to soak it all in. At the end of a long semester, with a lot of work and effort, that it was ok to celebrate, to feel good about it – even knowing that more was going to need to be done before college was over. Now was the time to breathe it all in.

 

As we come to the close of another Fellowship year, another year of school for most of our children and youth, we can remember to soak it all in. Some of us heard the Coming of Age speeches yesterday at our service for the graduating Long Island UU coming of agers. Our youth will share those credo’s next Sunday in our worship then, along with the speeches from our Bridging youth who are graduating from Sunday School as they head into adulthood.

 

And for some of us, it was a long, hard year. Maybe the world has taken turns we don’t agree with. Maybe we’ve endured a year that was full of more protest than gratitude. None of that goes away, but we can still raise a glass to life, and drink deep. Our Flower Communion celebration today commemorated 95 years of celebrations worldwide. Our partner churches in Eastern Europe asked their American cousins to celebrate it this Sunday in honor of it’s origins in 1923. The Flower Communion began at a time in Europe’s history where one of the worst wars humanity ever knew – the First World War, was still in folks’ recent memories. Unitarian minister, Rev. Dr. Capek, founder of the modern Unitarian movement in then Czechoslovakia, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain.

 

I’ll end with these consecrating words from Rev. Dr. Capek. As we leave today, may this blessing enter our lives:

 

“Infinite Spirit of Life, we ask thy blessing on these, thy messengers of fellowship and love. May they remind us amid diversities of knowledge and of gifts, to be one in desire and affection, and devotion to thy holy will. May they also remind us of the value of comradeship, of doing and sharing alike. May we cherish friendship as one of thy most precious gifts. May we not let awareness of another’s talents discourage us, or sully our relationship, but may we realize that, whatever we can do, great or small, the efforts of all of us are needed to do thy work in this world. “Rev. Dr. Capek

 

[1] My Help Is in the Mountain, from Hollering Sun, 1972, by Nancy Wood

 

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