Posts Tagged BlackLivesMatter
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/21/16 after the second vandalism of our Black Lives Matter billboard.
Community, communication, and commitment – three very closely related words that each point in the same direction – how well we are interdependent in the world. It’s the foundational part of our seventh principle – interdependence. We’re reflecting this month on what it would mean to be a people of rootedness, and this week we’ll reflect on how communication – or the lack of communication – helps or hinders our ability to put down roots in our communities.
I want to begin a little more light-hearted and then we’ll inch our way into the more heavy-hearted side of the world this week. A little over a week ago, I had the honor of working directly with 30 of our youth at our annual Summer Camp called Fahs (along with 40 other adults and around 110 children and youth all counted – I was co-leading the 11th and 12th grade youth group.) One of the practices of the camp is that none of the youth or kids are allowed their cell phones during the week. They’re either left at home, or the ones who need to still have them on the car ride in, feverishly are sending their final texts for the long 6 days without social media. I could laugh, except I don’t recall the last time I went fully without a cell phone for 6 days.
So the adults live by another set of rules. We need our cell phones to handle the rare emergency or the frequent updates that happen throughout the day. We’re not supposed to be on them much in sight of the campers, but the Camp Board need to be able to text us at any point. And wow – do they text! For a week where we are supposed to limitedly be on our phones, I received more text messages than any other time in my life! To be fair, the camp board needs to be able to balance out clear communication, and they err on the side of abundance of information rather than someone missing something that might have been critical. But in effect, everyone gets messaged about everything, whether we personally need to know or not. I’d feel better about critiquing the practice if I actually had any clue as how to do it better. That’s the challenge of modern technology – we have all the ability in the world to do just about anything we can dream of – we just haven’t figured out yet what actually works well.
It’s a challenge for our congregation too. We may send out information in seven different ways, and one person will ask why are we inundating the community with info, and the next person will ask when are we finally going to let folks know about that very same thing.
In our reading earlier today, we heard a light-hearted poking of our current culture around cell phones by the writer, Neil Gaiman – always waiting for the next message or update, we miss the sense of reverence in the world all around us. I want to quote him again, this time from his fictional story, American Gods. The character who pens these words is Mr. Ibis (named after a fictional version of a certain Egyptian deity of knowledge and the moon), “One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless. The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.”
Gaiman isn’t talking about social media or newsletter, but part of me wishes he were. And we can all imagine the wisdom there – few if any of us would ever have the time to sit down and ingest all the events in the life of this Fellowship. But if we don’t, we’ll miss something. And if we do, there won’t be the time in the day.
Instead, Gaiman is really referring to the role of story, and the use of symbol. In much of his writing, he alludes to how nothing actually happens the way the story suggests – that none of it is true – but he goes on to tell it anyhow and you walk away feeling that we’ve encountered something more real than the facts. It’s the eternal challenge of religion – do you get caught up in fact-checking the stories of faith, or do you focus on learning the moral and spiritual lessons? It’s a trap for both sides of the ideological theistic divide; both atheists and fundamentalists are guilty of worshiping historicity over impact and meaning.
Do we browse the newsletter, website or e-news at the last minute and decide which events on our social calendar can fit into our tight schedules –if any, or do we prioritize our community connections first and fill up our schedules afterward? Do we put down roots and engage in the life of a community, or do we take Fellowship to be just one more item on our to-do list? And you can be here only 1 day a week and still be engaged – as long as it’s more of an intention than an after-thought. The word “congregation” can be understood as engaged living – a symbol of a thing and the thing itself – or the word can be empty and just another habit of our day while we wait distractedly for the next thing and the next thing. “The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this.” Religious community is a story about what we aspire to be; it’s one way to get there; and it’s where we end up when we arrive. When we remember this, we’re more likely to be doing it right.
This week held some particular challenges for our Fellowship. Our Black Lives Matter billboard was uprooted from the ground and tossed to the side. Someone came by and pulled both posts out from the ground that our youth group installed. It happened overnight, to avoid anyone seeing who did it. The Hate Crimes division of Suffolk County police came for the second time – the sign was originally vandalized 6 days after we put it up back in June. The good officers, without us realizing they were doing it, and without being requested, actually reinstalled the sign for us in the ground. It was a beautiful act of grace, and a clear sign of their high level of professionalism. They then offered to attend some of our events, and mentioned that they offer community forums. We plan to take them up on their offer in the near future. But community connections didn’t begin there. Back in July, after the terrible shooting of Dallas police and transit officers, our Fellowship held a vigil in the evening, and our social justice co-chair, Steve Burby, dropped by the local precinct with a note of support and some pastries. Putting down roots, and building community, means that as we speak the hard truths that are impacting so many in our nation, we still maintain and foster connections that seek to preserve and make all of us safer.
But this part of the story also tells us that the dominant myth that it’s us vs not-us, that gets told and retold, isn’t really true. No community or group is a monolith and many of us are trying to extend a hand, and find a way forward through a very difficult issue. Every letter we receive, or email, and the painful slog through the comment section of any news article about our Black Lives Matter sign vandalisms – reveal some serious mischaracterizations. And they’re emblematic of a culture – where despite having more access to information than any generation ever before – we are woefully ill-informed about matters that we disagree with. If we disagree with a topic, we will enter into a bubble of isolation, that will protect us from any data that will conflict with our world view. News blogs that have the comments sections turned on – originally designed to increase communication and public discussion – have since become the sole province of trolls and what Time just called this week, “The culture of hate.” Discourse is silenced as the will to hate, or the will to silence diverse and lively honest discussion has taken hold.
The vandalism of our Black Lives Matter sign, was covered this week by Newsday, News 12, and I was also interviewed by Fios TV news. In a pique of irony, the Newsday article online is only viewable by those with a subscription to their service; but anyone logged into Facebook can post comments on the news article… whether or not they were able to read it. We have all the technology in the world, and we don’t know what it means and how to use it. One’s opinion – uninformed or not – is readily available to all, but the actual facts of the story are not.
At the top of our Fellowship letterhead, we have three words. Openness, Mindfulness and Reverence. Most of my sermons will explore these topics every week; sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly. But they are foundational to community, communication, and commitment. We can’t begin to have a healthy community without openness; from the cliques of high school to the barriers of gated communities – groups form that bar certain people from entering, and those communities are less for it. Mindfulness and reverence may seem esoteric, but there’s a core of truth to the idea that once we stop seeing one another with a sense of appreciation, and even the occasional awe, is the moment when we stop being able to relate to one another as fellow human beings. Without reverence, maybe we can interact with others as if they were cogs, or pawns, but we cease to be able to do so as people. The excesses of the comments section of the internet is the logical conclusion to a culture that is closed to difference, and apathetic to others’ worth and dignity.
As we close this service, I invite you this week to take stock of your practices in our community, your neighborhood and maybe even online. Where are you mindful? Where have you become closed? Where do you allow yourself to be open to a sense of reverence around you? I can’t easily write out an exhaustive map of how to build the beloved community, but the story is the territory, and we tell that story, as best we can, week after week.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 8/7/16 and looks at the impact nostalgia has on our sense of selves.
A few weeks ago, we took a trip down to DC. My husband had a non-profit work conference and I decided to tag along. While he was in workshops, I was visiting our national museums, and the national zoo. We only got to see three museums together, since he was in meetings all day. The Air and Space Museum, the American History Museum, and the Natural History Museum. There were some awesome exhibits, and there were some extreme disappointments. The IMAX movie about gophers would have been more riveting than the summer blockbuster, Independence Day II, not even the IMAX in our nation’s capital could save that rotten tomato. I wanted to show him the Star Trek Enterprise that I remember hanging from the ceiling; but sadly it was smaller than I recalled and tucked away in a corner. But my husband is an Air Force baby (born on one of our bases), so getting to see the history of air flight, and much about our armed forces, was still rather amazing.
But the American History museum was my prime goal. I used to visit the Smithsonian twice a year throughout most of my twenties. In my college years, in addition to religion, I studied Anthropology, Archaeology and World Art History. I couldn’t get enough of seeing the things I read about in person. But contrary to all that, the most engaging exhibit in my memory was the section on TV History. Cultural relics from the small screen ensconced behind glass for the generations. Maybe it didn’t make a lot of sense, but Archie Bunker’s and Edith’s chairs – Kermit the Frog – the Ruby Slipper from the wizard of Oz. All those small pieces of culture stood out as amazing to me twenty years ago when I finally got to see them in person.
I remember visiting it twenty years ago, and the exhibit circled round and round, with artifacts from the golden years of Television. You couldn’t get through it in less than 3 or 4 hours if you took the time to read it all. But this Summer, we get to the museum, and the whole layout is so different. Everything looks more polished, but I don’t recognize much of what I’m seeing, beyond maybe the steam engine on one floor. Good museums change their exhibits regularly, so there’s not an issue there. But soon we’re circling and circling and can’t find the TV History section. We ask guides, and I’m starting to think we’re in the wrong museum; that maybe there was a museum that was entirely dedicated to TV and Radio. But one more guide insists that’s not the case and points us in another direction. We double back three times, before Brian spies the ruby slipper.
…It’s just not the same. There’s a lot less there. The lighting is dim, and all the relics from that era can fit in a room that’s maybe only a little larger than our social hall here at our Fellowship. This isn’t a three hour exhibit, it’s more like 15 minutes. We never found Kermit, though Edith’s and Archie’s chairs were there, as were the ruby slippers. It felt a little ironic that I was pining for a time when our yesteryear relics shined a bit more than they do now. How we remember how things once were, has less glamor than it once did.
I know it has more to do with the reality that as time rolls on, the shows that I remember from my childhood – even if some of them were already in repeats – may not even be known by the generation that came after me. I think I saw every episode of Lassie three times, and anyone born after 2000 won’t even know that’s a dog. Time rolls on. But it struck me. At a time in our nations’ life, where many of us are pining for nostalgia, as all too often things feel like they’ve gone off the rails, losing the relics from yesteryear felt more like a punch to the gut than maybe was all that rationale. The wrestling with nostalgia may be counterproductive, or even misleading. Shows change, cultural reference points change – that doesn’t mean we’re worse off – just that history is making room for those who come after us.
…July was another rough month for our nation as we heard the tragedies in Dallas and throughout our country. A black man shot in his car over a broken tail light. So many police officers, and transit cops, gunned down by a US war veteran – while they were peacefully doing their duty protecting civilians who were protesting the earlier police shooting. That’s a police force, at its finest, doing the most American Civil service we can imagine – protecting free speech – and their lives are lost….
This month we’ll be reflecting on the spiritual discipline of rootedness. Where do we find grounding in times of crisis; how do we find connection in an era that feels like we’re further apart than ever; where does upheaval help us to find our footing again. At the mid-point of this season of sun, I want to reflect on the lessons of this time of year – what it would mean to be a people of Summer. It’s been my favorite season more at least 20 years. You look forward to it for much of the year, and then in a blink – half of it’s gone away. I’ve recalled before from this pulpit about childhood summer days that seemed to stretch on to eternity, and as the years go by, and we get older, finding those never-ending days in the Summer sun seems more and more elusive. And I don’t mean, whether you can get the time off, or the time away. Even on long days at the beach, as we age, I think time-spreading out seems more elusive than in yesteryears. We are so often, more a people of nostalgia, than a people of summer; living into what was as some mythic time of ease and perfection, rather than living into the day that is before us – which we should rejoice and be glad in it.
We hear so often, folks lamenting how things once were and why can’t we go back to that. Well, that’s nostalgia speaking. Things aren’t worse these days, we’re just hearing and seeing more of what always happened, through the advent of cell phones, and cameras in every hand, and Twitter poking national media’s attention. There are regular tv newscasts now that follow what Twitter says, because posts on Twitter often are the first sign of a news story. With all the instant access news, it feels like things are much worse than they once were.
Police deaths are actually at a historic low. Despite partisan politics, every president – every single president since Reagan, every single president, has presided over a period of history where police killings were less than their predecessor. Yet, there’s a story that says we’re at our most violent. Every death is tragic, and we need to reach no deaths. That’s the truth, we need to. But we’re also not getting worse, we’re getting much better. But that’s not how we feel. We feel like it’s worse. There’s a way in which that’s real for some people, especially anyone who has lost a loved one, or fears for the loss of a loved one. That’s very real. And there’s a way in which that’s a form of nostalgia that makes it harder for us to do the work we need to do, in order to make it better for those who are serving and living today in this world. We can’t fix something that’s broken, if we don’t address it as it is – as it really is and not as we think it is.
Communities of color have had to face this reality since their first days in our nation, whether they were born here, immigrated here, or forcibly taken here, or were kicked off their own land. Waves of white immigrants have experienced challenges like unwelcome signs, housing and employment bias, and so on. But within a few generations, white immigrant families integrate and dodge the bias by being known as white, rather than Italian, or German, or Irish. But beyond us simply being more aware of the violence on our streets because of cell phone cameras and Facebook poking the attention of newscasters faster than they can follow on their own, there’s a sense among white communities across our country that somehow whiteness is under attack. For a long time, I mostly saw it the pains associated with having some of your privilege taken away and confusing that with oppression. But a July 25th New Yorker article had an interesting story about the advent in popular culture of putting real and mocking faces on what we derogatorily call “white trash”, and compare that to “proper” elite whites. Urban centers are taken seriously, rural communities are taken as a joke. Enough decades of that, and we have a problem in our national identity. If whites in urban centers advance, and whites in rural centers stagnate, it gets worse. Maybe we’re starting to see that in some parts of our suburbs as well, right? And when we live into our identity of a people of nostalgia – we remember back to all the black and white TV classics, where middle America seemed to be the best of us – we want to go back to how things were then; with a vibrant middle class, a one family income, and no cell phone cameras showing us where the fire hoses, and the shootings, and beatings are happening in real time. From the fire hoses that lead to Selma, to any story we hear about daily in our news feeds today – They’ve been there all along – now we’re just talking about it more – or maybe I should say all of us are talking about it more; because communities that have lived through oppression have always talked about it.
When we live into being a people of summer, we don’t stick with the notion that the days only stretched out into eternity when we were children. That’s a trick of our monkey mind. We’re letting the part of ourselves that are weighed down with responsibility and obligation rule our down-time even when we don’t have those obligations – we keep them with us, and our days become shorter and more fret with anxiety. It’s the classic trap we’ve all done. Sunday comes along and you lament you have to go back to work on Monday so much that you lose much of the joy of the day off because we’re already living into our next day of work. Rootedness is a spiritual discipline. Being rooted in what’s right before us – for good or for bad – is the most spiritual way to live. When we work, we work; when we rest though, we get to rest. Nostalgia for what was – even knowing in all likelihood it never really was like the way we like to remember – only keeps us from rejoicing and being glad in every new day.
This Thanksgiving sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington following the shootings in Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and the protests in Chicago.
Last Sunday, I was in our large church in Dallas, Texas, celebrating the ordination of a colleague into our Unitarian Universalist ministry. We knew each other from our campus ministry days, and from a few years where she was a student minister at my former church in Brooklyn. It was a privilege and a joy to be there.
It was a whirlwind trip, Saturday through Monday, so I didn’t get to see much of Dallas at all. But the church itself isn’t too far from what’s known as the gay neighborhood, which led to a few conversations about recent local news. There’s been a spate of hate crimes targeting gay people in that area. The Dallas UU church is centered between two larger sections that are quite conservative – so it stands out.
I’m finding the news of the world often very demoralizing of late. I imagine I’m not alone. And hearing first hand about some of these local attacks, was dispiriting. But then we celebrated the ordination of a young, married, Lesbian woman to this 1200+ member church in the heart of conservative Dallas, (and me – a gay male minister is offering the pastoral prayer and laying on of hands) and I began to think – we have come such a long way. Maybe it’s not all that hopeless after all.
The Dallas church has a large quilted art piece hanging from its central wall in their sanctuary. It’s a large square that is made up of four sections – each comprised of smaller squares. They take it down from time to time, and I was told, can rearrange it in various ways. Each square on its own, looks just like a few splashes of paint that begin and end with no sense. But put together, to me, they resembled an artistic rendering of fish-like swirls that was quite compelling. It all depends on where you look, and how they put it together that season.
Our video screen presentation this week has an image of a heart made of up many other images in each tiny quilt-like square. It reminds me of that kind of quilted image in the Dallas church. Looking casually, it’s a heart, but looking more closely, we see the pattern through the particulars. It all depends on where you look.
Amidst the sea of pain in the news, I’m trying to look for the stories of hope, the stories of the helpers, the places of change and healing. But not so much that I fail to see the places where I need to be the story of hope; where I need to take on the role of helper. Many of us can swing too far in either direction. We can lose hope or purpose before the crush of the challenge of it all, or sometimes we can hide behind the ease of just finding the stories of good and forget about the hardship. The spiritual challenge is to not lose sight of the bigger picture, while at the same time, striving to gain strength from the patterns etched by those of good faith and good action.
All of this month, we have reflected on what it would mean to be a people of ancestors. What patterns do we find in our history, that informs the pictures we see today? I’m guessing that many of us may have had Thanksgiving meals with family members who interpret a very different pattern than you might. Why do we often see such different images?
The stories that speak to us, the ancestors that we shy away from or that we are drawn toward, impact the quilted patterns we come to understand today. Take our reading from earlier. The poet is trying to convey that what is good in the world, is in some way eternal. Good intents, or actions – prayers of those who act with good faith, and for good purpose, never quite leave us. It’s language that we often draw from for our memorial services. Like a pebble in a pool, our actions have rippling effects, often beyond where we can see in our own lifetimes. We may no longer be here, but our impact is lasting.
The poem references how we are free to absorb that which is good, not the rules but the spirit, of what came before, and transmit that through our world. Our faith, at its best, strives to do that good work. What did our religious forbears strive for on their better days? Can we carry that on, and learn from their mistakes and their low points?
But that question only works, simply at least, if we are coming from a place where we are not too heavily scarred from a religious past. We can all too easily draw to mind historical atrocities, and current atrocities, done in the name of religion. They ripple on through the world as well, often just as strongly. The poem I read earlier, can we heard as a balm in a difficult time for some, and rose-colored at best for others. It depends on where we view it from; how our life, and our heritage, have arranged the quilted piece.
So maybe it’s both. Places of spirit never lose their power, for good or evil, so long as we choose to carry on their torch – for blessing or curse. And we all make that choice – intentionally or otherwise. We carry and multiply the impact of the work of our ancestors into the world today.
But we must be conscious of that history to understand how we knit our world together; imagine it and reimagine it. As we finish our national holiday of Thanksgiving, we exercise our annual complicated retelling of one of the worst times in our nation’s history. And we often forget the really positive aspects of it, while we try to forget the atrocities done to the Native Americans.
We began as a people who were religious refugees from Europe trying to start a new life, free from religious persecution. We brought war and genocide, so we try to tell the story in a new light. That doesn’t go away, no matter how hard we try to tell a white-washed version of it to our children. We can’t change that history, but we can make new decisions based upon the lessons of the past – if we allow ourselves to remember those lessons.
As we learn of the plight of Syrian refugees, we would do well as a people to remember our nation began with refugees. Slave and immigrants would make up most of the rest of us, but religious refugees were the first. It’s a twisted form of xenophobia to demonize religious refugees seeking sanctuary, considering where we came from.
But it depends on how you look at it. Not all who oppose offering our safer shores to families fleeing terrorists are white or Christian, but it’s safe to say a good many people who are responding with fear and xenophobia are – certainly who we are seeing saying so in the news. …Recently, white Christians ceased being the majority in 19 of our states. White Christians have become a minority in states like Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Lousiana, Florida and Georgia to name the places that might be more surprising to us. I can’t help but wonder what impact this has on our national fears and anxieties? As some of our traditions change, or who we see on the streets change, or how normative our own cultural practices are any longer change – do we become more fearful of difference?
We sensationalize everything into a war of civilizations. We can’t seem to make it through one December without someone crying there is another “war on Christmas.” It’s a tired thing to say. I know folks are responding anxiously to what they imagine is being lost, but frankly, that’s not what war looks like, and we’re not losing Christmas because some silly coffee cup is only red and white, rather than red and white with snowflakes and sleds. We’re not losing Christmas because someone wished you Happy Holidays. It’s not an attack, and it’s probably not about you. And before the Outrage Machine was birthed on Fox News, in my childhood I recall hearing Happy Holidays and no one felt attacked for it. But nowadays, we can make anything into an attack, and make anything into something about us. The casual public outrage even gets rewarded with media attention, viral YouTube posts, or shares and likes via blogs and Facebook. Outrage becomes a sort of false ideal we worship. Maybe outrage is the real war on Christmas – but I’m not going to call it a war, because it’s still not that.
I see it with my own social media usage. You may have noticed that I’ve largely taken a break from blogging for the Huffington Post. I was finding that the more moderate, sensible, middle of the road stances I would take would get close to zero attention. In order to be well read, I would have to make sure to use media buzzwords and current lingo. Bonus points if I could flip some dominant narrative that was pervasive in a sensational way. In some ways, it’s how we’re wired. But I think it has more to do simply with just what sells better. If it’s not provocative enough, why would I bother spending time reading it? Maybe apathy and hyperbole are the real war on Christmas. But I won’t use the word war, because it’s definitely not war.
How we look at it, where we come from, which ancestors most influence our better angels, and who we identify with more, greatly determine how we see that quilt. This past week has been full of so many stories of grief and loss. There were 5 peaceful Black Lives Matters protestors shot in Minneapolis by White Supremacists; one of my colleague’s adult child was standing in between two of the shooting victims when they were shot. It goes from a story on the news, to a story that involves friends and their safety. That affects how I see the pattern on the quilt.
There was a massive Black Friday protest in Chicago by the Black Lives Matters movement in response to a very horrific video that the City was required by a judge to release to the public. And in Colorado Springs, a white domestic terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic. Three people were killed, including Officer Garrett Swasey who was there protecting civilians. Four more civilians and five more police officers would be injured as well. Even though the gunman was overheard spouting “no more baby parts”, the media would be reticent to say anything more than “his motives were unclear.” (deep sigh.) What stops us from calling a spade a spade when atrocities are committed by white Christian men with guns on our own soil? How does that affect the pattern we see?
Depending on where one comes from, people are describing all these stories in very, very different ways. Are they about social justice? Police brutality? Lone gunman with mental illness? Reproductive freedom? Domestic Terror? Protecting children? Gun rights? Supporting our Police? We as a people need to get better at separating out all the competing political interests. We as a religious community, are called to discernment and action. Ethically, I don’t believe we can wash our hands of it all and pretend it’s happening far away, or that we don’t have a responsibility in changing our nation’s ways and laws. There is a pernicious and deeply disturbing trend where we scrutinize and villianize every action and motive of people who are not white Christians, but we forgive or ignore the most egregious of excesses of those who are white Christians. And when we finally and rarely acknowledge their wrong-doing, they are effectively absolved of being white Christians – as if it didn’t count that time. Why does the white Christian gunman’s life matter more than the lives of their victims?
We all know the story of the Thanksgiving meal with family we haven’t seen since the last Thanksgiving. We see parodies of it on Saturday Night Live almost every year. At the mythic – but real – table is seated every walk of life, every good or bad social position. (For the purposes of this story, you can fill in the good or bad social positions however you like.) Part of our national challenge is recognizing that we all are hearing the same stories; we are looking at the same image, but we are putting the patterns together differently dependent on so many factors. For some, Thanksgiving is bracketed by a fundamental change in cultural practices, a perceived attack on social norms, and a very real loss in power and privilege and dominance.
Thanksgiving for the rest of us, may reflect a growing awareness of how hard we can make life for too many people. Or maybe, we’ve always lived in the reality that things were just not quite equal for us. But like the quilted image of the heart in our service, the image we see is still made up of many, many other snippets of images or stories that craft the whole. When we cover up part of those stories to make sure our impression of the image remains unchanged, we’re just lying to ourselves. When we white wash what happened in Colorado Springs, or we pretend the gunman was a lone actor when he’s Christian, but any single Muslim terrorist is an indictment against a whole people, we are just lying to ourselves. If we need to lie to ourselves over silly coffee cups and a war on Christmas, it’s one thing. But doing it when people are fleeing our enemies and just trying to find a home for themselves, their children or their friends; that goes far beyond lying.
The road our country is walking has been a long one, and many of us are tired; some our comfortable in their lying to themselves; and some are weary from abuse. But our road is not yet over, and we have much more work to do – together. As we close our service this morning, I’ll bring us back to the beginning and the story we heard about the white raven becoming black – their feathers scorched by their sacrifice to save the Sun for all humanity. Beneath the crush of all the world weary stories we hear, we can come to feel hopeless. I recognize that, and I feel that myself from time to time. I’m going to say something unpleasant, but I think true: sometimes feeling hopeless is a luxury we can’t afford.
We have people who need us – and some of those people in need are in fact us. We have refugees in dire need – who factually have zero ties to terrorism beyond the simple truth that they too are victims of terror. Time and time again, we have black civilian youth who have toys in their pockets, and sometimes knives in their pockets, who are gunned down with impunity, while we watch white christian men with guns who shoot civilians and who shoot cops, who are taking into custody to stand trial – sometimes we even protect them with kevlar armor. That clearly is not the same treatment. We have people who need us. We have clinics across this nation – who offer life saving health care to women – literally under fire because demagogues on the right fabricate videos that imagine human baby parts are being collected and sold on some fantastical science-black market. We have people who need us. We may be weary on this long road, but being hopeless is a luxury we can not afford.
On this very difficult Thanksgiving, may we find gratitude for the strength we can draw from one another, and a common purpose in building the world we dream about. Take heart. Be rooted in love, and continue to show this torn world that there is another way. The world needs you to.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We pause in our nation this week to remember all the people, and things and dreams we are grateful for.
We try to take less for granted,
amidst a world that too often teaches us to always grasp for more.
Help us to enjoy what we have, who we know, and where we are,
before seeking to find solace in having what we do not yet have.
May this practice of gratitude teach us to war less,
to judge less,
to argue less.
May we learn to raise peacemakers,
and to welcome strangers into our towns,
and friends back into our lives where we have lost our priorities.
We continue to pray for refugees seeking a safe harbor;
may our nation’s hearts grow wisdom in their hour of need.
We pray for the people of Chicago and Minneapolis,
who struggle toward justice,
at a time where White Supremacy stretches into the light.
We hold in our hearts the people of Colorado Springs,
and the good workers at Planned Parenthood clinics across our nation.
We especially remember, Officer Garrett Swasey, who was a good man,
and a brave officer. May all the people affected find healing where they may,
and strength for the road ahead.
And may our nation cease the demagoguery that feeds fear and hatred and misunderstanding.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/4/15. It explores the role beauty can play as an inspirational role model in building a diverse, justice-centered community of hope. This reflection looks at recent events in Baltimore and the ongoing need to remember that BlackLivesMatter.
I was driving home the other day and was stopping a few cards back from a red light; when to my astonishment a mated pair of geese used the red light to cross Route 110 down by the Walgreens. To my even greater astonishment, when the light turned green, and the geese had not yet finished crossing, the Long Island drivers patiently waited – stopping traffic in all directions. Yes – Long Island drivers stopped patiently and waited. You could still tell the geese were New Yorkes though, because when the light changed to green, one of them did a little hop in the air and flared its wings and hiss-croaked at the cars to wait – and it worked.
This really stood out for me. Our local drivers can be some of the least patient people around. I see folks on cell phones; or routinely rolling through stop signs near where I live. I see drivers who are always in a rush to get to wherever they’re going, and often they look unhappy about the destination, even though they’re still in a rush to get there. And there’s often a rudeness around right of way and lights and turns. But you add two geese to the picture, and we become civil human beings again. The natural world somehow reminds us about the preciousness of life in a way fellow humans behind a wheel don’t seem to. We can be very good at dehumanizing those around us when we fail to see them as equally living precious beings.
Why don’t we do that with the geese though? I think there’s something about them being different; they’re not what we expect to find on a road and they snap us out of our humdrum. When we see them in a park making a mess, we may not appreciate them, but when they’re strolling by on the highway, we perk up. Maybe it’s novelty, or newness, but we take note. They remind me of the vase in our story earlier in the service. Sometimes, something that’s beautiful or precious can change how we interact with everything around us. We can add a new vase to a room and want to find it flowers, and clean the windows so the light shines on it better, and maybe redo the paint that we finally notice is chipping because we’ve added just a spot of beauty to a place.
Maybe the geese are like that for the Long Island driver too. “Ooo, maybe I should be my best self right now because the geese are visiting.” It’s certainly true in my household, maybe it’s true in yours; when guests are coming over, the house magically becomes spotless as if we always lived like that. Maybe people can be that for us too – vases that call us to our best selves because they bring attention to what we may have took for granted.
I was reading through a booklet from our archives that Lois Ann brought to my attention. It had a story in it just like this. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.
Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of beauty?” What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them?
We can use a few more new vases here that remind us to be our best selves. We have some projects we need to work on – especially fundraising – which for those who missed our congregational meeting last Sunday – is being led by folks like Ben, and Jenna and Ralph and Barbara. But we can use more. Do you have a vase you can share there? If you missed our welcome this morning, Kim had a generous offer of a one time financial gift to help close our short-term deficit budget. Can you join her in her generosity so that we don’t have to slow down our good and necessary work in the world? I believe our shortfall is an anticipated $500 per household. For some of us that’s impossible, and for others it’s possible. If you can, I would contact (a Board member, or whoever you spoke with on Canvass.)
Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us, as in the case of the intrepid geese on route 110. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building. I have Baltimore in my heart today. I imagine many of us are struggling with the impossibility of the situation; of the pain and the images. The situation is too raw, and we are still short on some facts, while certain news stations do a very shoddy job of reporting. Having colleagues I know serving the communities in Baltimore, I know not all we’re hearing always matches neatly with what actually happened. Time will surely tell us more. But I want to reflect now on the bigger picture, and wonder where beauty may teach us a life-saving message in a time of crisis.
A few days back, wisdom surfaced from the most unexpected of people (a baseball executive) in the most unlikely of places (twitter.) I’ll recap a short part of it, as I read through MotherJones. A few days ago, “when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people’s actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties. [He wrote]….speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”
Strong words, and words that come unexpected from an executive on a baseball team who lives far above the financial reality of the average American. I imagine some of us could argue with some of his points or perspectives. I don’t want to go down that road today. I share his words because however much you may or may not agree with Mr. Angelos, he paints a picture that is all too real for many of us. We have many folks unemployed or underemployed in our congregation. We may have adult children who are struggling with keeping home or job where they live. The shrinking stability of the middle-class is a very real pressure for many of us. And if it’s hard on the middle-class, it’s impossible on the working class. I see my own dad who served in the military and has worked every day of his adult life. He turned 70 last year and will continue to be working full-time for the foreseeable future. It’s very hard on hard-working Americans right now. So let’s remember this when we hear these very hard stories coming out of Baltimore – a city with communities that in some cases face unemployment rates of 30%. Let’s imagine for a moment what that hardship would be like for communities that faced that generation after generation, and then felt the belt tighten even further.
But where does beauty come in, and how can we be a people of beauty in light of these hardships? Our recent national trends of devaluing education, while increasingly funding prisons and for-profit prisons is a marker of the opposite of beauty. Shipping jobs oversees, funneling profits to the few, segregating where folks can live; prioritizing punishment over nurture – are all the opposite of beauty. Diversity, equity, and justice – are what beauty looks like in the public sector. We do well when we raise our people to find beauty in those virtues.
We have those struggles here on Long Island too. Earlier this week I attended a forum put on by the Suffolk County Department of Planning for area clergy. One person there was lamenting the lack of millennials in our area and they said, “We’re losing our millennials because they can’t afford the property tax.”
To which I responded, “We’re losing our millennials because they have $100k in debt from college; they don’t have $100k for a down payment on a house. And we won’t build enough rental stock for them to stay. The same practices we used in Levittown to keep out People of Color are now the same practices that are making your kids unable to stay here.”
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.