This sermon works through the theological grounding for why we must ensure women’s reproductive rights.
Mary Oliver from “Morning Poem”
And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is
heavier than lead — if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —
there is still somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —
each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and
answered lavishly, every morning,
Last Earth Day, in 2018, we planted 8 more trees in our backyard, and a bunch of plants, bushes and grasses. We knew it would be good for the earth, and we wanted to make our space more beautiful. I grew up central jersey; although most of NJ is wooded when you look at it from the air, I grew up in the part that was so suburban; parking lots, and driveways, parking lots and driveways. I think I saw another tree cut down every year in my working class neighborhood, and not replaced. I wanted trees. What I wasn’t expecting, is what happens a year after you add that many trees to your yard. Birdsong. When I was writing this sermon, I don’t think I’ve ever heard so much birdsong in one place, outside of an aviary.
Nature is a bulwark, a prayer, a grace, against all the stories of horror that pour daily from out of our government these days. This week’s news – I’m angry – and I’m going to stay angry – because there’s a hundred reasons to be angry. And anger has its use. And we’re all human beings with a range of emotions. We have the capacity and emotional depth to hold all our emotions together – even at the same time. So I’ll stoke my anger for it’s fine use, and I’ll return to the birdsong to remind me that peace can also be in my heart – even when it rages. We can do both, and our spirits need both to stay whole.
“Missouri lawmakers passed a bill criminalizing abortion after a fetal heartbeat is
detected. 4 other states have passed similar laws this year. On Tuesday, Alabama
passed legislature, if signed into law, will be the most restrictive abortion
legislation in the United States, banning the procedure in nearly all circumstances, including rape and incest. The only exception to the ban are cases in which a woman’s health is at serious risk. Other restrictive bans have been passed in Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota and Ohio, among other states. Most have been challenged in the courts.” Additionally, bills that seek to restrict abortion have been introduced in dozens of states across the US, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization. In the first quarter of 2019, at least 28 state legislatures introduced some kind of abortion ban. The Guttmacher Institute noted in April that “although the overall number of abortion restrictions introduced so far in 2019 was essentially the same as in the first quarter of 2018, the extreme nature of this year’s bills is unprecedented.” As the Federal Courts are being stacked with (often unqualified) conservative judges who were egregiously left unvetted by Congress, this is a clear end-run against Roe v. Wade. And that’s terrifying. Some of the states are even threatening to arrest women who travel out of state to have an abortion. Some of the states will even begin investigating miscarriages…. Investigating miscarriages.
I want to pause to read or paraphrase some excerpts from “An Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Abortion as a Moral Decision” crafted by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing. At the time of it’s writing, the Religious Institute was led by the Rev. Debra Hafner, a UU minister. Susie and I made copies of the full letter and you can pick them up on your way out. I know we sometimes feel surround by a sea of conservativism out here, and right now many of us need language to combat the pressures of the world. And we also need our religious home to make it clear that we support reproductive health. Let me be clear – theologically and ethically – Unitarian Universalism supports women’s moral agency, and women’s bodily autonomy. And in the case of medical health and abortions, in addition to women, we support Transfolx and non-binary folx in their moral agency and their bodily autonomy. These draconian laws are an attack on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – something that was historically a conservative value.
Now – for the Open Letter – I think this is vital today to hear the religious argument in favor because we have been brainwashed to think religion has one view on this matter.
“As religious leaders, we are committed to supporting people’s efforts to achieve spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being, including their reproductive and sexual health. We assist women and families confronted with unintended pregnancies or pregnancies that can no longer be carried to term. We are committed to social justice, mindful of the 46 million women worldwide who have an abortion each year, almost half in dangerous and illegal situations. We seek to create a world where abortion is safe, legal, accessible, and rare.
Millions of people ground their moral commitment to the right to choose in their religious beliefs. While there are strong public health and human rights arguments for supporting the right of women to safe and legal abortion, here we invite you to consider the religious foundations for affirming abortion as a morally justifiable decision.
AFFIRMING WOMEN’S MORAL AGENCY
Abortion is always a serious moral decision. It can uphold and protect the life, health, and future of the woman, her partner, and the family.
We affirm women as moral agents who have the capacity, right and responsibility to make the decision as to whether or not abortion is justified in their specific circumstances. That decision is best made when it includes a well- informed conscience, serious reflection, insights from her faith and values, and consultation with a caring partner, family members, and spiritual counselor. Men have a moral obligation to acknowledge and support women’s decision-making.
RESPECT FOR LIFE
The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. We support responsible procreation, the widespread availability of contraception, and prenatal care…
Scripture neither condemns nor prohibits abortion. It does, however, call us to act compassionately and justly when facing difficult moral decisions. Scriptural commitment to the most marginalized means that pregnancy, childbearing, and abortion should be safe for all women. Scriptural commitment to truth-telling means women must have accurate information as they make their decisions.
MORAL IMPERATIVE FOR ACCESS
The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by economic, educational, class or marital status, age, race, geographic location or inadequate information. Current measures that limit women’s access to abortion services — by denying public funds for low-income women; coercing parental consent and notification as contrasted with providing resources for parental and adolescent counseling; denying international family planning assistance to agencies in developing countries that offer women information about pregnancy options; and banning medical procedures — are punitive and do nothing to promote moral decision-making. When there is a conflict between the conscience of the provider and the woman, the institution delivering the services has an obligation to assure that the woman’s conscience and decision will be respected and that she has access to reproductive health care, either directly or through referral. We condemn physical and verbal violence and harassment directed against abortion clinics, their staffs, and their clients.
We must work together to reduce unintended and unwanted pregnancies and address the circumstances that result in the decision to have an abortion. Poverty, social inequities, ignorance, sexism, racism, and unsupportive relationships may render a woman virtually powerless to choose freely. We call for a religious and moral commitment to reproductive health and rights; there must be access to comprehensive sexuality education and contraception, including emergency contraception.”
The full letter is much longer, and you can read all of it on your way out. If we run out of copies, let us know and we’ll make more (I think we made 60.)
So this sermon title is oddly titled – “For when I Really Don’t Want to Learn This.” Because of communication and tradition, I come up with sermon titles four to six weeks before I’m preaching. I decided not to toss it out this time for this reason; a lot of us are learning for the first time what a lot of people have known for a long time. It’s always been this bad; just more people are noticing what a lot of people had to live through without help. With rising awareness, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to build lasting interconnected coalitions across issues. When my generation of mentors, and my friends, were dying to AIDS, and there were photos of Reagan laughing at requests for help, I remember all the stories of women, of lesbians, caring for their dying friends. I don’t forget that. Solidarity changes people for the better, even amid the horrid thing. And we have a lot of horrid things right now; we have a lot of horrid things right now. I’m grateful if it turns our hearts to build real and lasting community from this nightmare; though I wish it did not come to this. This is where we are, and it is for us not to forget when it’s our turn to be at ease again.
This is exactly what healthy religious community is here for. As the fascists, and the false theocrats, and misogynists of the world unite to disenfranchise the global majorities (women and people of color) as their last ditch effort to retain power for another 20 years, it is for our institutions to bar their war. So what can we do? I’ll try to avoid the partisan nature of all of this – but I will say encourage more pro-choice candidates – candidates who respect the moral agency of women and the bodily autonomy of women – to run for office. Financially – look for grassroots organizations, in the states most impacted, who support women’s medical health, and fund them. We don’t need to swoop in and lead; we can fund the local people who know best what we need. Get onto google, and see who they are. I’ve shared a few to my facebook page this week.
Educationally – this Fellowship already does a fair bit. Our cluster of congregations annually leads a 25+ hour sexuality education class for our 7-9th graders that is scientifically accurate and life saving for our teens. And most, if not all, of the advisors who lead it come from our Fellowship to help the youth of our cluster of 11 congregations. This coming year, we are hoping to train two more teachers to be able to offer the 10-12th grade version of OWL. And Ken BN and I will be co-leading the equivalent 8 hour class for some of our grade schoolers. It is our religious moral imperative to raise our children and youth to be informed and have their own moral agency; learning from an early age. And we are increasing our already high level of commitment in the coming year.
I know this week has been painful for many of us. I know some of us have lost friends to bad abortions before Roe v Wade was won. This is a time of reliving traumas for some in this room. Be gentle with one another. If you need someone to talk with, please do reach out, I’m here. And we have a pastoral care team with women on it as well, if that would feel better to you. It takes all of us to care for all of us. And to my fellow men in the room; I’m going to ask you to all step up. This has gone far to far, in a really short span of time. A week ago, I didn’t think this was even a threat – probably because sometimes I’m naïve. But here we are. To the men – please be more vocal, more outspoken in the world. This isn’t only a women’s issue. They should lead – and we should follow and echo what they are saying to us. Listen, and then multiply their leadership. 7 out of 10 Americans support women’s rights (it’s horrid it’s that low) but we often think it’s 50/50 out there – because most of us are silent too often. Because we’re silent too often, the misogynists of the world win out. It takes all of us.
I’m going to close with how I began. The birdsong I began this sermon with was a reminder to make time to get out and care for our souls in the peace; even amidst the barrage of all the horrid things. But there’s also another kind of birdsong. The same day I was noticing it for the first time, while my head was throbbing from the barrage, was the second time in two days in my backyard that something else also happened. Every bird in the neighborhood was screaming bloody murder as they collectively chased out a hawk that was either trying to nest, or trying to raid the smaller birds nest. All those tiny birds, chirping and diving in unison, were able to chase out that apex predator; but it took all of them sounding out, and taking to wing. So friend – sound out, sound out, sound out.