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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”:”
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.””
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) 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.
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.”
….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
 My Help Is in the Mountain, from Hollering Sun, 1972, by Nancy Wood
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/21/17. It looks at the spirituality of joy.
We’re slowly realizing that my dog, Lola, is a truly effective life-coach for the Brewer-Geiger household. She’s our resident Zen Master Teacher, always in the moment. If she’s sick, or has to go in for a check-up, she stays happy as she enters the vet, excited for a treat. She’s probably terrified as the vet does the things vets always do, but she has this sort of “if I just stay still this will all be over soon, and then I’ll get a treat. Right, I will get a treat?” And then she’s all licky-face with the vet when it’s all done; excitedly saying good-bye to everyone on our way out.
The other day, on what was probably our first real warm gorgeous Spring day of the year, I was taking her for a 3 mile walk. This usually is a hobby of mine that gives me life; but on this random day the frets of the world were really taking hold. We’re all busy people, and I was at my busiest on this lovely day. But the ‘life-coach’ needed her walk. We’re out, and I’m running through all the things I did, all the things I needed to do, and all the pathways to getting them done as I was stressing at what couldn’t get accomplished. My heart wasn’t in the walk, and my head was surely a million miles away. A short while into it, Lola stops. She turns back and looks at me with her classic wide-faced dog-grin (I know they say dogs don’t actually smile, but mine sure knows how to scrunch her cheeks up to show a killer-grin.) She stops, and turns back, smiles and jumps up and down with a full-body “COME ON ALREADY! It’s gorgeous outside and we’re doing this thing!” It’s the spiritual mantra for joyful living – ‘come on already.’
We all need a dog life-coach some days to get our heads and our hearts back in the same place sometimes. What was I doing? Tasks, and work, and plans, fears and concerns were all distracting me from the moment. Those were my thoughts – a part of me. And they were disconnecting me from life. I was clearly living in the realm of “then” or “soon” or “what if.” That world does not exist. Only the present does. These thoughts steal us away from the sacredness of life – from joyfully living. We excuse our sidetracked minds as merely being easily distracted. But when we turn our focus toward what we are doing, rather than what we could be doing or what we weren’t doing, we become aware of life – our life.
There are several Buddhist refrains that echo this. Some of us may have already heard them, so I’ll quickly recap them. One is about a teacup and another is about washing dishes. When one drinks a cup of tea, they should only be drinking a cup of tea. They shouldn’t be dreading doing the dishes, or hoping to win the lottery. If so, they’ve lost the most precious gift we have, simply being. The only thing they turn out to actually be doing – is nothing. They aren’t even drinking that cup of tea. Now granted, some of us may not particularly enjoy washing our own dishes, and as someone who lived for years in small apartments, I am fully aware of a life without a dishwasher, but that’s life too. If those breaths you spent while washing your forks and knives were taken away from you suddenly, they would be the most sacred thing you could hope for. Yet we rarely pay them any heed. All of our activities, joyful or tedious, are our activities; and mindful presence in them can create a joy through them. Taking these practices to heart, we can gain a sense of accomplishment.
This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of embodiment. We began the month with a music service remembering the great protest movements in our country, and moved into last week reflecting on the original meaning of Mothers’ Day – an international women’s peace movement. Both looked at how we embody our highest values in our lives. As a people of embodiment, how do we live joy more fully into our lives? One of the stories I told last week talked about how our grudges can weigh us down, and stoop our shoulders. I want to talk a little more about that now. Let’s all try that out in our seats for a moment. Maybe you’re already doing it, but if not go ahead and ruin your posture. Hunch down, even more…. How’s that feel?
Walking around as most of us do – slightly stooped, shoulders slightly curled forward and our breath fast and shallow, just feels bad. More importantly, most of us are completely unaware of the connection. (ok you can stop hunching over now.) I don’t know if you’ve had this sort of experience before; for myself, during the latter part of my years in computers, I began to suffer an odd numbing sensation in my arms. The obvious guess was carpel tunnel; but that turned out not to be the case. I was so extremely stressed out, that it crippled my breathing. I simply was not getting enough oxygen into my body. The final prescription by my medical doctor – was to start breathing. (That was a rough prescription to turn into the pharmacist. She had no idea what to do with that one.) And then the miracle occurred. I could feel my arms again. If the meditative washing of the dishes isn’t an end in itself, which I believe it is, it’s also a good practice for our overall health. I know it might seem trite, but I swear, after trying this out for a few weeks, you start to find joy and even wonder in all the little things. In fact, the things that you previously enjoyed seem all the more sweet.
There’s something more to this practice than our health and awareness. A central tenet of Buddhism is attention to our breath. Buddhism recognizes a link between all of us when we touch this awareness. The symbolism is expressed in what Buddhists call “the Bodhi Spot” or the place where the Buddha obtained Enlightenment. He attained Enlightenment at the foot of a tree. This spot, for us, is not a geographic place on earth. That “place” is reached by all of us when we encounter the “moment – between the moments.” When we put aside our thoughtful distractions and become fully present in whatever we are doing, we all enter that same space together. It’s a joyful way of living into our 7th Principle, “We are all part of this interdependent web of life.”
Often the lack of presence keeps most of us from ever entering the same world as all but a rare few people. We drive past thousands of people every day living in Long Island. For folks who commute on the LIRR to NYC, they’ll walk by even more folks. We’ve all experienced this; whether in the crowded street or the bustling mall. You remember a few faces an hour later, but for the most part, they weren’t ever there. We were certainly moving along, as were they. But we’re often more focused on our daydream world than the streetscape. I even think it highly unlikely those few whose faces I can recall, would remember mine. And they probably wouldn’t remember yours, either. If we missed that many flowers in a garden, we would think we missed the point of the stroll. It’s as if we aren’t even in the same space together, despite our bodies. Too often, we’re not here. It’s a loss; a tragedy that we’re not here. It’s important to recognize this. Living in this massively populated modern world, we may not be able to engage in deep relationship with each passer by, but we can attempt to experience their presence in our midst. And it’s also important to identify when we carry this anonymity into relationships that we can foster.
Besides the Buddha’s tree, there’s another garden story that comes to mind. It talks about how rarely we’re able to be ourselves around others. How we focus more on what others may think, rather than just being ourselves. I’ll confess – I’m not about to offer you the traditional interpretation of this tale, but I expect you’ll come to appreciate this reading of the text a bit more than the conventional view. It’s the Garden of Eden story.
Genesis 3:1-7 is the classic biblical verse where the serpent convinces Eve to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The crime scene culminates with the expulsion from the Garden. God then barricades paradise with angelic Cherubim and fiery swords. In a Christian context, it is often sited as the moment of original sin, although that interpretation doesn’t begin until after the Second Century C.E. And Jewish commentary doesn’t traditionally read sin into this passage. God warns Adam and Eve that if they touch or eat of this tree He will punish them with imminent death. The original language implies a criminal “death penalty” sentence. Ultimately, however, God does not execute the first couple as warned. Rather they are sentenced to a life of suffering and eventual death in exile from the Garden.
That’s the fairly straightforward reading of the passage. I’d like to suggest another way of looking at it that might be more helpful to us as Unitarian Universalists. The moment humankind internalizes the duality of good and evil, as seen through the eating of the fruit, we became aware of our separation from things. Nakedness in the garden is only a concern if you believe that the other things and people around you may bear a judgment about your nudity. A sense of embarrassment or guilt would also raise these fears. For the first time, Adam and Eve didn’t even want to see each other naked. “I don’t want him to look at me.” “I don’t want her to see me like this.” Until this point, from the little we have to go on with this myth, Adam and Eve did not fear or think about things. Presumably they only did things in response to the world around them. Thoughts likely existed for the couple, but they were evidently not controlling influences on the first people. In this idealized Eden, prior to the fruit-tree crime, humankind effectively lived in the moment, each moment. Before the fruit from that middle tree, nakedness was just nakedness. No positive or negative value was placed on it. No shame, no fear, no embarrassment. It simply was.
What does the exile from the Garden mean in non-mythological terms? Does it simply signify the pain in child bearing or the sweat in manual labor the bible details for women and men? Although myths do seek to explain the source of everyday things, they also reveal deeper truths that we too often dismiss beneath the fable. Moving beyond nakedness, one could consider any emotion we experience in light of the Garden; for instance – fear. All of us have experienced it at numerous times throughout our lives. We’re afraid of the next meeting we have with our boss. Or we’re scared of the results of some serious medical test. We might just need a high grade on a big exam to pass a rough course. Or it might be the truck careening into our vehicle. When we’re separate from the Garden we think about our emotions. Fear no longer remains simply fear; rather it grows into a sort of dread.
The constant cycling of our worried thoughts can paralyze us. What will the medical results be? How long will I live? How much pain will I have to undergo to treat my illness? Am I going to get into that good school next year? All of these are genuine concerns about our future. But generally, when we worry, none of them are in the present. Usually, we worry about things that might happen. We create a world that might be – and for the vast majority of us that world is quite unpleasant. Despite popular sentiment, worry is not a useful means of intelligently planning for the future. If the results turn out to be favorable, we’ll have lived through the experience once through our thoughts. If they turn out to be negative, we will be putting ourselves through that dreadful space twice. Living in our world of thoughts about the real world – that is our separation from the Garden. That is our original sin.
In our world of duality, one state only exists in relation to another. Knowledge of good comes with the expression of evil. No longer is it just the world inside the garden, but now there is the world outside the garden as well. Where there’s sin … there’s also grace. But what does grace mean to us? … It’s just being naked. No shame, no guilt, no fear. Worry is not graceful. It’s also not fear. Despite the cherubim and the flaming sword, that now bars entrance to Eden, we can return to the Garden in our life; although the metaphor aptly describes how tricky a proposition that is. We need to separate worry from fear. Fear is the emotion we experience. Worry is what we add to it with our thoughts.
The next time your afraid, just be afraid. This doesn’t mean you ignore the car in the road speeding toward you. But it does mean you don’t consider the cars that missed you, or the other cars that might hit you later on. You just get out of the way.
Most of us will eventually get out of the way; but we’ll do our best to consider all the rest along the road. It’s more than just a lot of energy spent on realities that won’t come to be. It comes back to not living in the life we do have. Instead we’re sleepwalking through fantastical dreams that are both good and bad … but not real.
The self-awareness we gained in the Garden is a gift I deeply cherish. I appreciate the understanding I have over that of any other animal. I even tend to like all my emotions, whether they are full of love and joy, or weighed down by anger. I remember a time when feeling anything was particularly difficult, maybe you remember a time like that too, or maybe you’re feeling numb today. It’s a very hard place to be. Our full and fully present, presence of mind, is the spiritual goal. But just like the first “Fall”, that self-awareness can sometimes feel like more of a burden than a blessing. And yet – joy – can be found in between the moments of hardship and pain.
Adam and Eve grew in wisdom by eating that fruit. They also forgot that everything was OK as it was. After all, they had been running around naked for sometime doing quite well for themselves until then. We can have it both ways though. We don’t need to sacrifice our wisdom to return to the Garden. In a way, we can even return to that state of innocence along with self-awareness. Our experiences are not lost to us with this return. But we do have to let go of our dark dreamings. The innocence we return to is not synonymous with ignorance or even lack of experience. It’s the sort of grace that flows when we’re naked without shame. Sometimes, we can even choose joy, when we allow ourselves.
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.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/26/17 and looks at how adulthood is defined by the risks we take, and how we own the choices we make.
A few days ago I was chatting with a colleague who was lamenting the pain he was feeling from a likely pinched nerve. He basically asked, ‘is this how you know you’ve turned 30?’ I told him that I knew I had turned 30 when older friends starting saying, “Oh, just you wait…”. Then I knew I was 30. I’ll add now that 40 has the same, “just you wait” but the tone these days imply a healthy dose of “welcome to the club.” Adulthood isn’t for the feint of heart. But aging and growing up, aren’t just a range of pains; they are a series of risks that define a life.
Growing up is a risk. We risk our selves, we risk our comfort, we risk change. Nothing of this we really have a choice about, the river of our lives will keep flowing so long as we are here – but we do have choices over how we respond to it. I think the hardest part of all this is in the lessons we learn for ourselves. We heard a bit about that in our Wisdom story earlier in the service about Nasruddin and the boy who ate too much sugar. How often do we find it easier to tell people how they should live their lives than we do in changing our own behavior? The boy is definitely eating too much sugar, but Nasruddin takes a month to tell him, because he first has to learn to stop eating so much sugar himself. There’s a certain integrity in not giving advice you can’t yourself follow; but if we’re honest with ourselves, we rarely hold back from teaching others what we can’t ourselves do. It’s a sort of projectile-adulting onto others where we can’t ourselves adult. We’ve all seen it, and we’re probably all guilty of it – over and over again.
On Thursday morning of this past week, I attended a collegial breakfast with 20 or so local Huntington area clergy – Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and interfaith. Imam Mohammad spoke at length about scripture, its messages and the subsequent choices we make from it. There was an overall focus on remembering one of the hardest lessons in life – that doing what’s right, even if it’s hard, is worth it in the long run. For the Imam, if you follow the teachings of Scripture, God will find a way. What I found profoundly true in his words is the notion of risking our values into our lives. We don’t have control over all things, or even sometimes it feels like control over almost anything, but we can make value-based choices that help build the Beloved Community in our corners of the world. We can also make value-based choices that build rancor and hate. Even when we don’t have control over much in our lives, those are our choices we still have to make.
Part of the Imam’s teaching circled around the tragic misappropriation of the Koran’s teachings to foster terrorism. Even though the Koran specifically teaches against suicides, killing outside of self-defense, and generally calls for being accountable to our neighbors, some will take it to fulfill their own cultural worldview. As I spoke at length last week about how our own national American cultural Christianity sometimes subverts the bible to meet their own ends, Islam wrestles with this same challenge.
But it was also heartbreaking to know the Imam needed to clarify this. He even went on to say that Islam needed to own their problem where some are taking the Koran’s teachings in vain. In that spirit, I would say the same for white Christian men in the US. White Christian men cause most of our homegrown terrorist attacks; the evil of the KKK is certainly rooted in a misappropriation of cultural Christianity. This is far more serious than the cute story of sugar-habits we heard earlier but it remains instructive, before we tell others how to fix their problems, we need to own our own. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that as we point out the faults in others, we still need to attend to our own. We can’t continue pointing a finger at other groups without sorting out our own home, or it becomes a tragic distraction from the crises we cause or allow to go unchecked.
This is heavy on my heart this week – owning our own faults – probably the most critical aspect of real adulthood. If you follow me on Facebook, you probably have already heard this. I am going to take the liberty to share with you part of a public letter 6 of my colleagues and I crafted this week, that impacts our denomination and our relationship to institutional racism. There has begun a major public conversation around this, and it’s important that our Fellowship’s members are fully aware. Here is an excerpt from that letter.
“It is, once again, time for us to recognize how racism defines our own institutions and to work toward the demolition of this dangerous, debilitating system. It has come to our attention that the hiring practices of our Unitarian Universalist Association favor white people. With the recent hiring of a white, [cis] male minister, the entire Regional Lead staff in the Congregational Life department is white. Of the 11 people on the President’s Leadership Council (consisting of all department heads), 10 are white. The one exception is the Director of Multicultural Growth and Witness. Of the entire UUA staff, there are currently only two Latinx religious professionals, one of whom is Rev. Peter Morales whose terms ends in June.
The “Ends Monitoring Report” from April 2016 reports that, of the categories of employment within the UUA, people of color were no more than 11% of any group other those considered “Service Workers”. “Service Workers” represent the bottom of the organizational chart and are therefore the lowest paid and represent those with the least power. People of color represent 84% of that particular group. In no other category are white people fewer than 75% of the total.
The practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us. It is imperative for the fulfillment of our faith that we strive for the manifestation of a just society. It is in our communal spiritual path that our faith is powerful and the demonstration of that faith is made known insofar as we are able to realize justice in our own institutions, using that as a mirror for society at large.
The ongoing dismantling of white supremacy in our system is difficult. It requires a reimagining of our own culture and an openness to the myriad ways marginalized peoples will challenge the status quo. But, there is a grace found in our willingness to disassemble generations of assumptions found in white culture. It is in this process we might find our greatest joy and the deepest fulfillment of the promise of our faith. Unmasking white supremacy lurking in our system and within ourselves is a necessary first step toward our shared liberation. Without it, we continue to live in the stagnation of white dominance.
The purpose of this open letter is to call attention to current hiring practices of the UUA (recognizing that our own UUMA is not exempt and that we have not fully considered practices of our other major UU institutions) with the hope that hiring practices will change and a system of monitoring the success of creating a multicultural staff will be part of a public conversation. While members of this group have started a dialogue with UUA staff responsible for hiring, we are hoping this letter will ensure transparency in the process. With regionalization, ministers and congregations are that much more distant from the inner working of the UUA making clear policies around hiring practices all the more necessary. In addition to the policies, we require specific metrics to measure the success of those policies and an accounting at each Ends Statement Report. We call on the UUA Board to reconcile the results of each year’s hiring with the goal of increasing racial diversity on our Association’s staff.”
In our denominational election year, this has already become a national conversation- and our group cited above – are only one of many groups of people working to draw attention to the crisis. I am glad that all three of our candidates for UUA President, have already weighed in on action steps they would take – to varying degrees of specificity. The groups and individuals working concurrently to address this issue appear to all hope for open communication. I’ll be encouraging our own Board and Social Justice team to reflect on this. As part of our religious commitment to democratic values, our Fifth Principle, our congregations can weigh in, and communicate concerns to our denominational Board (email@example.com) which will be discussing this issue at length at their April 21st Board meeting.
I’m also mentioning this in relation to our own work toward unlearning racism in our community and our nation. We need to fix our own denomination if we’re going to try to fix the world. Otherwise we come across as strident and pedantic, not transformative. In our own Fellowship, I’m working with our Sunday Programs team to intentionally bring in more preachers who are women and people of color. Too many years we’ve had mostly white men speaking from our pulpit – and our team is working together to change that this year, and in the years to come.
I want to close by telling you a folk tale that I probably shared once before during our wondering portion of the service – maybe about 2 years ago – but address it at length this time from an adult perspective.
(Tell story of The Stream.)
When I talk about this story with kids, it’s a way of approaching change, and trust. But today, we’ve looked at the harder part of the risks in adulthood – owning our own shortcomings, fixing the world around us by starting with ourselves. And that remains as true for ourselves as it does our Fellowship; as it does our denomination, or our nation. But reflecting on adulthood, for me, resonates with an odd sense of looking to what came before, and wondering about what will come next. As we grow up and mature, so many stages in life feel so different than the last. Try to remember back to leaving elementary school and entering into junior high for the first time. Maybe you felt so big, or maybe you felt at such a loss. But there probably weren’t going to be the simple boxes of milk for snack time any more. The world was different. It only got even more complicated as we graduated, maybe we married, or had kids. The aches and pains come as we age, but adulthood is less about growing older, than it is about adjusting to new challenges, tougher risks, and different landscape after different landscape.
The stream remembered a wind that it could trust. Each new stage in life that comes knocking on our hearts, echoes a truth we heard some time in the past. The lessons and memories that came before, we carry with us past every desert, and over every mountain. What may come, surely might not be easy, but we’ve seen newness before; we’ve overcome hardship; we’ve been the new kid in the classroom. Life is a series of landing on distant shores, after so much that changes our visible life – we age, we mature, we weaken, we grow stronger, we break. But the essence of the stream stays true through it all – even if we feel defeated and torn down – our eternal stream runs through it all. Life that has walked, and crawled, and flew through millennia on this planet, is the life that beats in us today. That life can learn to remember, once again, a wind that it can trust, through all the dry times of our lives, until we can run free again, after the next challenge, and the next.
 Rev. Peggy Clark, Rev. Dawn Fortune, Rev. Jude Geiger, Aisha Hauser, Rev. Robin Tanner, Rev. Julie Taylor, Rev. Erik Wikstrom
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/19/17. It explores what the “Alice in Wonderland” story can teach us about a world that’s turned upside down–and how we can turn ourselves right-side up again.
I had originally planned to preach a lighter sermon this week, after several heavier weeks in the pulpit. With the turning toward Spring, we hoped for a more airy service; but in light of our national news this week, that would feel too tone deaf. But we decided to keep with our originally planned story earlier in the service around Alice in Wonderland – specifically about the March Hare – because the mad antics of this most famous children’s story remains relevant despite it all. We heard earlier about the light-hearted origins of the “mad as a March hare” reference that led to the famous storybook character, the March Hare. The Tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland would have been a shocking vignette for Victorian England; propriety mixed with mad-hatted rudeness. The recklessness of this tea-party inverted all the social norms for the day. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time. Hold that image in your mind as I speak today. We’ll come back to it soon enough.
Several years ago, my husband and I were driving from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR; but maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianty doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment where I lamented, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.” (Yes, this is exactly what car trips are like when you’re married to a minister.) Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
This sermon has become largely about how our nation has gone astray from the basics of religion – with the aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, that’s how I always was taught to understand what it would mean to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelation. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent. Too often, it’s leveraged to further partisan aims or issues over actual scriptural truths.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or more likely some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, and that false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said; that we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up. I get very worried we’ve lost our way when we’re discussing cutting support for school lunches for hungry kids, or food delivered to seniors who can’t get out on their own – programs that have bedrocks of our safety nets for generations.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. One of the major Baptist news feeds this seek, just called out the national desire to spend more on ways to kill people with our military while cutting back at feeding our elders. I would say that this shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind a partisan smokescreen; the Baptist press simply called it “sin.”
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the partisan politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Anyone remember that 1975 classic movie called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward. The reality of the 1970s white flight would come to vividly impact housing choices out here in Long Island – to this day.
The movie “Network,” had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe this all needs to start with anger. I believed that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger. Nowadays, I’m less certain. Anger is a real emotion that speaks to the injustice in the world; it’s telling us something. But we can’t stay in anger. When we dwell in anger, it’s a warning sign. Dwelling turns into that sort of up-is-down version of Christianity — don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. That’s a false teaching.
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now at the tail end of a recession, where not everyone has returned to employment. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us, and the subsequent return to living the values we already know. What are our golden calves in 2017?
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? Would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. If you came early this service, you saw pictures of our Grow to Give Garden. If you haven’t taken part yet, I encourage you to reach out to Beth Feldman who leads our warm-weather food ministry here.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 10 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming to an end, this shelter closes till the end of the year though.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up. Our pastoral care associate, Gerri Farrell, and I are beginning to work with LI-CAN on Long Island to explore how we can make headway against the opioid and heroin epidemic. If you’re interested in helping, please do reach out. And others are helping with undocumented people who are being called to court – to walk and witness with them during that scary time. If you’re interested in being trained to be such a witness – reach out to our social justice co-chairs, Diana Weaving or Steve Burby. There is much to do locally.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In light of recent US Budget proposals, I worry around some of our national choices, and how far afield we’ve gone. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
I’ll close with the words of the poet Marge Piercy who we heard earlier this service. She responds to this madness with, “It goes one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say No. It starts when you say We and know who you mean; and each day you mean one more.”