Archive for February, 2018
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/25/18 as part of a service for Black History month. This kid-friendly homily talks about the complexity of the stories of Selma in the US and Apartheid in South Africa.
Today, I’m going to talk about some short personal stories. Some of you might remember parts of them, because I’ve talked about them before in various ways. But I haven’t shared them when our children and youth were present. As part of Black History month, as a nation, we have to do a better job of telling the wholeness of our stories – including the uncomfortable parts. There’s a lot in our history that I didn’t learn till I was an adult, and that didn’t serve me well – that doesn’t serve us all well. I think, in part, it leads us to where we are today – where so much of our nation is divided because we didn’t learn the same histories. It’s one of the reasons why having good schoolteachers, is so important. They nurture good citizens. And these days, our teachers need all the extra love and support we can give them.
Three years ago, I was in Selma for the 50th anniversary of the march that inspired the Voting Rights Act. I got to hear the stories from the people that were there. (We have one Selma veteran in our congregation as well.) I’ve heard 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 about 6 or 7 years ago, when 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. 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 Rev. Clark Olsen to travel and represent his 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. None of us are too young, or too small, to make a difference. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings. You are part of that, too.
Unitarian Universalism often sees itself as on the right side of history when it comes to social justice, but we’re still human, and we’re far from perfect. When I was in Selma for the anniversary, 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. To paraphrase the thinking of the time – ‘Why would the congregation 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 these days (at least most of u do), 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 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?
Earlier, we heard a quote from Nelson Mandela. A shorter part of it went, “But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” I hold that with me when I get exhausted from all the work we need to continue to do to make the world a more loving, just place. Because there is more to do, does not mean that we are failing – there are many more hills to climb – and there probably always will be on the path to the promised land.
Nelson Mandela lived a life that we should celebrate, even through all the pain and loss. Going from serving 27 years of a life sentence for speaking out against a racist, genocidal South African regime to serving as that country’s president – is a story that will be a bastion for human perseverance for the ages. We never know where we will go, or what changes we can affect.
I once got to see Nelson Mandela. It was just a few years after he was elected President. I was an undergraduate studying abroad at Oxford University, and he was speaking at the University about peaceful struggles, about apartheid, about reconciliation. I didn’t get to hear him talk. I just got to wait in the streets as he passed by triumphantly. He was coming to talk at one of our world’s greatest institutions for learning, and he was received by streets packed with people as if it were the Thanksgiving Day parade in NYC.
People wanted to witness his presence. We knew that the world was a different place because of this soul. We knew that peace was just that much more possible because of President Mandela. I think deep down in our souls, we also knew, that this human saw extreme suffering and saw extreme joy. And he brought extreme joy, and extreme relief, to so many people living in bondage. Whether it be the bondage of the oppressed, or the bondage of the oppressor. He showed us a way forward that involved peace and reconciliation.
His methods involved truth-telling. Stories of those abused, and stories of those who did the abusing. His Truth and Reconciliation Commission involved brave moments of authenticity – and those brave moments allowed a nation to move through the pain through extreme acts of attentiveness. (When we hear people say it’s too soon to talk about some tragedy in the world, I remember Mandela and how the only way that nation could move forward, was to talk openly and honestly.)
… And at some small corner of a street, in a country that was a world away from South Africa, all of us were there celebrating alongside. We’re human. There is something more to this life than empty stirrings. We’re witnessing a life that reminds us how to live. All I can say that happened was that he smiled, and waved. But that would be painting the most surface of pictures. It’s in moments like this that we remember our connections, our actions, and our strivings – have impact, have meaning, and have relevance – to the people around us, to the generations that follow us – and sometimes to the world beyond our quiet streets.
Not to romanticize our public honoring of President Mandela, our own nation was not always a supporter of him. Though no evidence ever directly tied violence to his actions, the NY Times does write that, “in 1961, with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.” We can decry acts of violence, but as a nation it’s hard to critique another country’s revolutionaries when our own patriotism is rooted in similar actions. Mr. Mandela served a life sentence though for something else. What began with being “charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport” according to the NY Times, ended with “sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.” Mr. Mandela’s appeal to this was “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
His life was a life of substance and dream, hope and rigor. Or in Mr. Mandela’s own words, “There is no passion to be found playing small in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” And a life that our own nation had extreme conflict and varied responses to. Although our President Carter put pressure on the South African government to release Mr. Mandela, the next presidency reversed that policy. In 1986, President Reagan said, “In defending their society and people, the South African government has a right and a responsibility to maintain order in the face of terrorists.” Far from a terrorist, Mr. Mandela would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. What a difference. 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?
These stories are important. When we hear folks say that racism is over, or people are playing the race card, or all the bad things are ancient history – they’ve forgotten our history – the good and the bad. Ruby Bridges, who we heard about earlier, is only 63 years old. Now to some of us that sounds young, and to some of us that sounds old. But her story is one that happened in many of our lifetimes – right here. Many of use lived in a world that was segregated. That’s not ancient history. And the story of Nelson Mandela happened in my childhood. I was a kid, when our then President called this future Nobel Peace Prize winner a terrorist. That’s not ancient history. And every one of these stories of hardship is also a story of hope. In everyday people, doing their part, to make the world a better place.
let folks know to stay for the the Equal Exchange short video. #1018 Come and Go with Me
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 2/11/18 as a kick off to our stewardship year. It focuses on the power and need for a progressive religious voice.
Two weeks ago, I was using some vacation time to co-chair our UU Ministers’ Association’s triennial conference called The Institute. There were over 350 of our ministers in attendance at this week-long program of workshops on ministry, worship, and a few talks. We live-streamed the seven worship services that I coordinated, or took part in, and I expect to be able to send out the online links of the recordings in the near future for those that missed them. They included some of our finest preachers, with the award winning music director, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout tying the artistic thread through the week, and culminating with the preaching of Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ – the UCC’s largest church in the US, and where President Obama is a member.
It was a stunningly beautiful week. Although we’re all in the same line of work, clergy rarely get to hear each other. Coming together to workshop, and worship, to deepen our collegial ties, and learn in community, is a powerful gift. I was honored to be able to help in the ways that I did. Co-chairing the production of seven worship services in a week, however, was utterly terrifying. Something being an honor though, doesn’t make it devoid of stress, pressure, or the abject horror of speaking in front of your colleagues – all who you’re absolutely sure are wielding their finest internal worship-critiques as they sit facing you. Some of my mentors were in the room, my friends, the people I went to seminary with. This only happens every three years, and many of our ministers are starving to be able to attend worship, without leading worship. The pressure was immense.
Now, I’m not one of those people who have that anxiety dream about talking naked in front of crowds….Thankfully. The dream I return to time and again, is the one where I’m just about to graduate from college, and realize there’s one more final I need to take in a class that I skipped going to, and didn’t do any of the homework for. I can’t possibly complete everything I need to in the time remaining, and I’m going to have to return for another semester to make up that class. And it was a class that I absolutely had zero interest in – which is why I was skipping it in the first place. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. The Institute I co-chaired also felt a little like that dream. How are we ever going to pull off all the thousand things?! And yes, it was still an honor.
The other night, when I was up late with insomnia, from all the stresses of the world that we’re all living through right now, I found myself scrolling through Facebook. Because, of course, staring at an electronic screen at four in the morning is the surest way to go back to sleep quickly… I came upon a quote that put a lot of this in perspective. “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” Sure, there are things in the world that come easy, that are also meaningful, but we would all be kidding ourselves if we pretended ease is the norm. So much of worth in the world, takes our diligent striving, stewardship and care. When things are hard to accomplish, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing it well; it may simply mean that it’s worth doing.
This draws me back to our religious community. Things aren’t always easy. Religious community is made up of humans, and we’re not all perfect, we’re not all shiny all the time, and we all bring with us our personal stories of hope and pain, loss, and possibility. We step on one another’s toes, we need to repair the roof, or the window, and money isn’t always easy to find, and we certainly can’t do everything – but we grieve that we can’t do everything nonetheless. I recall the wise words of our resident sage, Bob Bader, that brings us back from the precipice of wanton pining for a perfection that never existed. To paraphrase Bob, We like to think it was easier at some time in our past, but it was never easy; it was always hard work. Religious community is not easy, it’s hard work. If we want easy, we can do brunch instead, or flip through the Sunday Times, (or as one dear member here reminded me recently, we conflict with Jake Tapper on Sundays.) (And as an important reminder, for folks considering just that, you can still make it to brunch and attend our services. And the Times can be read whenever you like – but we’re here at 10:30am.) We’re doing something hard here. It means we’ll be uncomfortable from time to time. Discomfort sometimes is the price of a meaningful life.
I think about all the accomplishments in our Fellowship’s history building upon one another – and often only shining their benefits onto a later generation of members. Back in the 80’s when we expanded our building to build this room where we all gather, we laid the groundwork to grow in membership, but we also laid the groundwork to help the community when the need was great. The Huntington men’s shelter – HIHI – was started by this Fellowship, after a tragic death on the streets. It’s hard to say if we would have been in a place to do that ministry if we didn’t have the larger space we have now. What was started as a simple (or not so simple) grounds and capital project to expand our worship hall, 20 years later became the foundation for saving lives in the wintertime. But if you ask our leaders back then (like MJ) if it was easy, I’m sure she would smile and shake her head no. It wasn’t easy. It was hard, and uncomfortable. But it was worth it. As the poet said earlier in our service, “Wrongs don’t work themselves out. Injustices and inequities and hurt don’t just dissolve. Somebody has to stick her neck out, somebody who cares enough to think through and work through hard ground, because she believes and has something personal and emphatic to say about it.” And as another leader reminded me yesterday, those days were also exciting to be part of!
As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world. Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?
Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.
In part, membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.
I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.
And we’re not just about outward acts of justice. Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. I don’t have kids of my own, but I want to live in a world where those are the kids we’re raising! That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming. That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.
And what sets us apart the most – is the spirit at the center of our faith. Religious community is a spiritual journey, long and winding, with many choices and forks along the way. In all the great odyssey stories, the hero travels far afield only to return to where they began, and ultimately find themselves. The biggest part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to find ourselves again. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.
When I say life calling to life, I mean knowing in our bones that things matter – that life and relationships matter. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.