Archive for August, 2017

The Oldest Story

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 8/20/17. It explores the infection of White Supremacy, Nazis and White Nationalism plaguing our nation.

 

One of the harder stories I’ve wrestled with in the Bible is the story of Cain and Abel – one of our oldest stories. They were the first children of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer and worked the earth. Abel was a shepherd. When it came time for them to offer gifts in sacrifice to the Lord, they gave in turn a portion of their work. God was pleased with Abel’s sacrifice of the fat of the first of his flock, but was not moved by Cain’s gift of the fruit of the earth. Angered by being treated differently, Cain murdered his brother Abel, and when God came to question him where Abel was, Cain responded famously, “What, am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain would be cursed to wander the roads and leave the lands of his family for his sin.

It’s a hard story. Was God unfair in what pleased him? Could he be so flippant in his regard for his children, that one would be driven to murder? I think some of the story is lost to our modern ears. Farming would allow civilization to thrive with more and more people being able to live stably near one another; but meat would continue to be more prized. I think, to an earlier time in our history, the difference in what sacrifices were made might be more readily understood. Each of the brothers may have worked as hard as one another, but one sacrificed more, and the other was jealous for not receiving the same benefits, even though he may have given up less.

The story even has God tell Cain, that he shouldn’t be angry; for if he works harder he will be rewarded. What’s lost in such a simple statement, is that Cain probably already feels like he’s worked hard. But he can’t get into his brother’s shoes, so he doesn’t appreciate that Abel is also diligent in his duties.

…And then it comes to murder. “Am I my brother’s keeper.” It’s probably the oldest story – Claiming no responsibility for the welfare of our neighbor as a defense – when in fact we’ve actively contributed to their ruin; or in Cain’s case – murder.

The Cain and Abel story is near the start of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures – although with slight derivations for each. At the start of scripture we learn clearly that yes, we are our brother’s keeper – we are entrusted with securing the well being of our neighbor. It’s central to the spiritual teachings of each of the Abrahamic faiths. Everything else builds upon that foundation.

Cain could be the poster boy for white nationalists, for white supremacists, for nazis. They might feel they haven’t been given a fair shake, but they can’t get into the shoes of their neighbors. Instead of reaching out, caring for their neighbor, they seek to end the competition. We see this in the rapid spreading of for-profit prisons -which are especially thriving these days. We see this in gerrymandered districts that lead to disparate quality in schools – benefiting whites and the affluent above all others. We see it in how public protests are too often treated: Nazis with semi-automatic weapons are allowed to police themselves in Charlottesville, whereas native Americans protesting the health of their lands and the risks to their children are met with water hoses in freezing temperatures. The White Supremacists are right that we’re not all treated fairly, they just don’t understand how much has already been stacked in their favor.

There’s a blog post that was making the rounds relating all this to game theory so to speak. It’s an over-generalization to prove a point – so it’s far from perfect, but maybe it would help some of us see where it’s getting at. Being a white (cisgender) straight man is like playing a video game on the easiest setting. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to still play the game well, or that it doesn’t take effort, or that you won’t fail at times and have to try again and again. It could still be quite hard. But everyone else is playing on a harder setting. The tricky part is realizing that when you’re on an easier setting, even when it’s hard, others probably have it harder.

I’ll give you an example in my own life. When I began in the ministry 10 years ago, I was working in religious education. It wasn’t too long before I started realizing that a good number of people would feel quite fine speaking to me with what I considered a patronizing tone. I was in my early thirties at the time, and I didn’t recall anyone speaking to me that way at least since my early college days. After talking to a few colleagues who were women, I started to realize that some of us were accustomed to speaking to women this way all the time, and since I was doing women’s work (working with children), they unconsciously treated me the way they treated most women.

Now – I earned my way into the ministry. Two graduate degrees; I paid my way through school (and am stilling paying the debt); spent countless hours in internships and hospital chaplaincy, and so on. This is my calling, and this didn’t come easy. But until experiencing a sliver of what women deal with all too often, I didn’t personally or fully understand, how having that leg up being a guy, changed the proverbial video game setting to “easy”. And to my fellow men – intellectually getting that women are treated differently too often – is different than experiencing it. There’s an emotional part that is demoralizing in ways we’re not necessarily accustomed to, and I can say most of us are not trained (or raised) to cope with.

White Supremacists are sexists too, as they are homophobes. But their flash point is race. In our everyday world, through the news, Facebook, and our schools, we learn a lot about Race. From some people we learn that everything is fair and balanced, and that if only you work hard enough then you’ll be given a fair chance at success and happiness. In that story – class is the real dividing line. From other people we learn that not everyone is treated fairly; that the color of our skin influences how people will treat us. Some of these lessons are taught by other people about the world, and some of these lessons are experienced personally and directly. It’s not enough to come to a conclusion about which view is “correct.” Our UU values teach us to live out a responsible search for truth and meaning. Our fourth principle asks us to continue to examine matters that affect our lives and the people around us. It’s a spiritual discipline that our faith calls us to live up to.

I’m a child of the 80s, white, gay and from a working class background. My Dad was in the navy with a high school degree, and my mom got her GED in her twenties after she had dropped out of high school. I was the first generation in our family to go to college, let alone to graduate school. It would be easy to say that everything is fair and balanced. I worked hard and succeeded in education and in my career. The economic class I was born into didn’t hold me back. Mine is the kind of story that’s often lifted up to say “anyone can make it.” But it would only be part of the picture.

I grew up in an African-American neighborhood. I was the only white kid. I moved away from my parents at 19, and would come back and catch up with friends, or hear stories from neighbors about how folks were doing. By the time I went to graduate school at the age of 28, only one of my childhood peers, from my section of town, had attended higher education. Some were in and out of unemployment. Others had good blue-collar jobs like being auto-mechanics. Some were still living with their parents. Besides my one neighbor who went on to law school, but who had to drop out to care for her dying mother, I heard no stories of folks attending a four-year college. She eventually had a good career as a teacher. Something was different. I felt different in a way that I hadn’t felt as a child.

I think it’s important to consider how our identities shape and impact our lives. Class, gender identity, and sexuality each intersect in important ways with race. But I’ve seen first-hand how much easier I’ve had it, as a white man, to secure educational opportunities and employment over the success of my childhood peers who are black. My faith declares this an injustice that I must work to alleviate. The key to changing this lack of fairness is first to understand its causes. Examining racism – why people are prejudiced and how systems perpetuate disparity – is part of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and is, for me, a spiritual discipline. Its end result is building a world founded on equity and compassion.

I’m sharing these two personal stories because too often our conversations about racism are either in the abstract or in the extreme. Aside from our President’s inability this week to do so, normally it’s easy to acknowledge that nazi’s are bad, that white supremacy kills. But it’s harder to acknowledge how we benefit from the inequity – for those of us who benefit. We are each our neighbor’s keepers, but too often we turn away from the hard truths when we might be asked to honor that we’re getting too much, or that our hard work – even though it was hard – was held to a different standard than our neighbor.

Most of us here are probably thinking to ourselves, but I’m not the problem, I’m not a racist. Good. We might not be actively causing harm, but ignoring what’s before us can be  another way to perpetuate the original sin of racism in the United States. Every time we change the conversation away from race to focus on class, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. Every time we give our forbears a pass on how they immigrated through a much easier system, but hold a higher standard to more recent immigrants, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we get more worked up over a silent protest at the National Anthem of a man peacefully bending the knee, but excuse Nazi’s their First Amendment Right to protest with semi-automatic weapons near civilians, we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy. When we conflate violent white supremacists rioting in the streets and mowing down civilians with their car while armed to the teeth – with pacifist clergy or with other more aggressive protesters who bodily got in the way as human shields to protect the vulnerable – we strengthen the bedrock of white supremacy.

Friends – many of my clergy colleagues of color – tell me they are exhausted from having to address this, manage this, and preach on this over and over. Their lives are tragically more at risk. And yet they still lead. Too many of my white Christian clergy are remaining silent in their pulpits this week – though thankfully I’m hearing more and more speak up. This is the central work of this time – to speak truth to hate; to limit the damage caused by the worst of us, and to carefully inspect our own internal motivations and actions to reduce the harm each of us contribute unknowingly or unintentionally.

The line in the sand must be drawn when the KKK marches in the light of day without their hoods. The line must be drawn when nazi’s – in our streets – chant “the Jews will not replace us.” We know what that means. We’ve seen that before. For those who lived through WWII – I encourage you once again – to do as Ruth Owen suggested – “So I invite you to pull out the old photo albums, medals and folded flags. Re-tell grandpa’s war stories. (Or your own) We owe it to our ancestors to make sure their sacrifices were not for nothing.”

As Maya Angelou said, “When someone tells you who you are, believe them the first time.” I’m going to believe someone claiming to be a Nazi as someone who is a threat to basic civil discourse – the first time. Now is the time, for those of us who are usually quite comfortable, to throw ourselves into uncomfortable situations. Challenge apologists for white supremacy. Don’t entertain Nazi sympathizers as legitimate viewpoints.  Call sin what it is – sin.

Everyone is entitled to free speech – and that’s being used in a way these days to twist us in knots – as if we can’t respond in kind with free speech – without offending. But what’s worse, is that we’re confusing free speech with incitement to violence – which is not a protected right. We’re confusing free speech with falsely screaming fire in a loaded theater. That which causes or risks bodily harm, is not free speech. Terrorizing a town with lit torches before injuring 19 and killing one woman, is not free speech.

As our grandparents have the duty now to tell and retell the old stories – to vaccinate our next generation from these evils; I strongly encourage our parents to speak with your children. Make sure they understand the threats and risks. They will also mimic your thinking. If you find yourself edging away from engaging in any of this, they may too. If you find yourself avoiding ever talking about race, and shifting always back to class, they may be more vulnerable to the extremism of white supremacy. They need to learn and understand that although economics are not fair for all, racism is alive and well. They need to know that prior to the rise of Nazisim in Germany, they were a fringe movement. They need to know what torches in the streets meant in Nazi Germany. And if we are going to believe someone when they tell or show us who they are the first time, we need to prepare our next generation to know fully the lessons our forebears learned in the most horrid way imagineable.

And it is not too late. Just yesterday, on Saturday, we saw images of tens of thousands of decent citizens protesting the minuscule white power rally in Boston. Our denominational president, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, was front and center in the marches in Charlottesville last week, and very present in Boston. Decent Americans are the vast majority; but we must remain vigilant, loud and clear in denouncement of the worst excesses of hate humanity has perennially to offer. Our oldest story teaches us that we are our brother’s keeper; we are responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. Any other teaching is false. So it is to all of us then, to help us back on the right path – that honors liberty alongside justice. White Supremacy is a failing lie, that continues to kill despite its hollowness.

In the weeks to come, know that our Social Justice team will be offering more trainings and options to continue this work. And our Huntington interfaith clergy group are gathering in two days to discuss what our collective next steps will be – together. And for those who missed the announcement at the start of the service — Mary Beth Guthyer, one of our members, who also professionally works with grassroots organizing on Long Island, has invited us to a vigil today from 4-5:30pm at Bolden Mack Park, 3453 Great Neck Rd, in Amityville that’s being organized by many non-profit leaders in the Black Community on Long Island. Some of the groups include Every Child Matters, Urban League of Long Island, NAACP Islip Town Branch among others.

 

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The Art of Possibility

All this month we’ll be exploring what it means to be a people of possibility. When I preach on our themes, I usually slip that question- phrasing into the sermon somewhere – sometimes obvious like now, and other times, it’s subtler.  I could ask what it means to be a person of possibility, beginning with the individual. We change the world most profoundly when we begin with ourselves. In fact, most religions, at their core, are helping seekers to make the personal changes first – affecting the broader societal changes later down the road.

And for certain, we’ll wonder what possibility as a spiritual virtue means for us individually as well. But I like to begin with “people” – begin by searching for what it means to follow a spiritual path in community, because we’ve chosen to do this together. Unitarian Universalism, for all of its strong streak of individualism, it is profoundly a communal faith.

Our 7 principles even show this tension in the way they are written. Even the newest among us, probably knows the first principle by heart. (What do we covenant to affirm and promote)? The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Even when we talk about the most individualistic of principles, we’re doing so by talking about our shared promises to one another – we covenant to affirm and promote. But what’s less obvious is that our 7 principles move into wider and wider circles as we approach the seventh principle. Worth of individuals moves toward equity and compassion in relations, to acceptance of one another, and through learning moves into democratic practices, world community, and ultimately recognizing how all of life is interdependently woven. Our 7 principles teach us to move from our own experience into deeper and more meaningful connection with the world around us, all our neighbors. The end goal is building the beloved community on earth, ever knowing that we may never see it in our own lifetime, but our purpose keeps us focused on the possibility. So, what does it mean to be a people of possibility.

Our second reading today reminded me of the old folk tale about a traveler who comes to a new town and sees several people hard at work. They’re all alternating between mining stone, or moving the mined stone, or chiseling the stone. Curious, the traveler comes up to the first worker and asks, “What are you doing?” The first worker, exhausted says, “I’m stuck mining stone all day to make ends meet. I hate it, but I need to put food on the table.” Thrown off, the traveler goes up to the second worker asking the same question “What are you doing?” That second worker responded, “Oh, sometimes I’m moving stones from one spot to another, other times I help mine. It’s ok work, and my family is grateful for the house we have because of it.” Feeling a little better with this response, the traveler goes up to a third person asking them, “What are you doing?” This third worker, with a smile on their face, and a little bit of awe in their eyes, answers, “I’m building a cathedral!”

The virtue of possibility is sometimes a bit about perspective. How we engage with what’s before us certainly impacts our attitude, and our sense of satisfaction. But it also can set the scope for what we imagine is possible. Cathedrals are not dreamt up, or dreamt of, through drudgery, though they do take a lot of work to build. Vision casting – imagining what we might achieve together – is sort of the art of possibility; it’s making room for newness, giving it shape, and using possibility as the road map for a better future. Will it always work out the way we hope – highly unlikely. Do we want to keep an eye out for the worst – yes; but we don’t want to be ruled by the worst that might be.

As New Yorkers, we’re good at that last part, right? We can be our own worst critics. Finding what’s not ideal, and poking at it until it becomes all we can see. I’m sure most of us have that challenge in the office, or our teachers dealing with a rather difficult culture in our educational system these days, or the last time we had a family dinner… We do it here too. Especially in times of challenge, this gets rougher, and anxiety rises.  Money is tight, the broader norms in our country seem upended these days, we’ve lost friends or family to illness. None of that is easy to emotionally handle, and we can turn toward focusing on all that’s hard and forgetting to look toward what is possible.

As a spiritual leader here, part of my responsibility is to help us not get lost staring at what isn’t working. Acknowledge it, address it, tweak what we can, and keep moving forward. I look to the radical changes on our grounds these past 6 months as a mini-parable in change-management. We’ve had a few cancelled attempts over the past 35 years to repair our grounds, so that it’s safe and accessible for all – whether we’re walking or wheeling into our sanctuary. From the stories I’ve been told, the history is one where, each attempt, we got far along, but there were always reasons why the plan wasn’t perfect for everyone, so we didn’t move forward in doing the needed work. (Who here is perfect? So no plan will ever be perfect, but we still need plans.) I totally see how we’d want to make sure everyone was happy – but in the interim it became harder and harder for folks to park as our grounds got worse and worse. I remember the last winter before we really got the repairs moving, I fell on the ice 4 times. Something had to be done. This time around, we kept our focus on the vision for what we wanted, and did our best to accommodate all our wants without demanding perfection. And in the coming months we’ll celebrate our success and re-dedicate our grounds. (And I’m happy to report that so far this Summer, I haven’t fallen on any ice, even once.)

But possibility isn’t only about casting a vision, or setting goals. Sometimes, it helps us gain a new perspective. Our second reading, by Robert Fulghum, is looking at how possibility does this very thing. Of all the inane, weird things for college students to do for a philosophy class, eating a wooden chair probably ranks up somewhere (at least near) the top. But I love the new perspective it gave them to look at things in a different light. How do you take the small monotonous things we do in our daily lives and turn them into something new and wondrous. They took their 15 miles a week of running in circles around a lake, and imagined what that look like if they went in a straight line in our minds at other places in the world. They started to do a virtual tour of Europe – all from beginning with eating a chair for a philosophy class. As Fulghum ended his story, “For all the goofiness of the project, these young men are learning patience and perseverance.  Some things cannot be had except on a little-at-a-time, keep-the- long-goal-in-mind, stay-focused basis. Love and friendship are like that. Marriage and parenthood, too. And peace and justice and social change.”

I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, for those who follow me there, that I was remembering one of my undergraduate Religious Studies professors who forced us to write a 5 page paper every week for many of his upper-level classes. I recall being blown away at how tiring that was after 3 years of doing it. It’s funny how as I begin my 10th year in the ministry, and 5th year of writing weekly sermons that are twice as long as those old weekly assignments, how nostalgic I get for the days of upper-level religion classes. But like the philosophy students eating a chair, leading them to take virtual geography tours, in increments that match their weekly jogs, this memory got me thinking as well. Over the Summer, I started taking a serious look at how much I’ve written. Even conservatively, I’ve written over 200,000 words since I came to our Fellowship in sermons alone – not counting the blogs, or the prayers, or the other liturgical writings I craft from time to time.  We’ll see what comes of it in time, but I’m beginning to sort through some other writing projects to see if I can work toward longer pieces for publication. Maybe that will bear fruit in a year, or maybe in 5 years, or maybe never; but it’s got me thinking in new ways – and that means more creativity.

I say this in part aloud as a little kick-start for myself; but more as a wondering for each of us. What is your 15 miles around a lake every week? What is the routine thing you do all the time that might be looked at in a new way? What may come from stretching the possibility into something new? This week, I encourage you all to look for that routine thing you do all the time, and imagine applying it in new directions. Maybe see it as a mid-year tune-up. Or those of us who are on the school cycle, this is the real new year’s time anyway so make your resolution. But don’t get too hung up on making it hard – aim for new or different – and see if it creates new space in your life – where there was mostly routine.

I’ll close by returning to our first reading from today, the poem by Rumi. It’s talking about the quintessential question of faith – the nature of life, longing and God. “So! I’ve heard you calling out, but have you ever

gotten any response?” The not-knowing, the uncertainty that descends upon the man that once prayed nightly, is a painful loss for him in the poem. Possibility reflects this existential crisis for all of us in our daily lives. When we’re reticent to try new things, or to break out of a rut – in a way, we’re responding to the uncertainty of the future – maybe informed from our own past. Our inner New Yorker film critic resurfaces, “Things didn’t work out before – or – there’s a lot of mitigating factors on what we’re trying to accomplish- or – I fail so often.” Maybe some or all of that might even be true – but it’s not helpful if change is what we seek. The inner criticisms, even if valuable for course correction heard in reasonable doses, turn into the cynic from the Rumi poem when they become callous to our potential.

“This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.” When we’re stuck, or dry, or uninspired, hear these words. Use your longing for a new way, as the evidence of the return message.

 

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