Posts Tagged Christian
This sermon was preached on 1/29/17 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It calls out the immoral actions of our government for banning refugees and Muslims.
I grew up in Central Jersey in the 70s and 80s. The family stories get told a little differently every time, as family stories often do, but each of my grand-parents were either the only sibling who was born in the States, or they were an immigrant themselves. Germany, the former Czechoslovakia, Sicily (yes, it wasn’t just Italy, it was specifically Sicily) and my other grandfather I never knew – but my one Grandmother remarried a Spanish-speaking man who sadly died before I was born. My mom grew up speaking a smattering of Italian, Spanish and English. That’s mostly gone now. Many Italian immigrants back then felt pressured to lose their cultural identity to survive or thrive in the States. On my Dad’s side, I come from Pennsylvania coal-miner stock.
Before I was 5, we were renting an apartment in a multi-family tenement on the outskirts of Perth Amboy, a mostly Latino city. Our downstairs neighbors were Egyptian. When I was turning 5, my parents bought a house in another part of Jersey, Woodbridge township. It was a working class black neighborhood made up of mostly multi-generational households. Across the street from our new home, was the lone Jewish family in our neighborhood – and I was the only white child in my neighborhood (The Jewish family across the street didn’t have kids.) Like everyone else around, I grew up with my grandmother and my uncle living with us. The schools drew from a wider area, so I was lucky to grow up knowing kids from every background. I remember one of my mom’s closer friends during my childhood; she was an African woman who was seeking citizenship in the States while her children were raised back home with her husband and mother. It would take her 20 years to legally bring her family over to the U.S. Twenty years to do it legally.
This is my America. German, Slovak, Italian, Egyptian, Latino, Black, Immigrant, African, Jewish, Catholic – and that was just my experience by maybe the age of 8. In grade school we learned about the Statue of Liberty – it was almost a religious sense of patriotism – about what was right and true in the world – what was our story and our birthright. The Lady in our NY harbor said, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
After this weekend, I’m not sure we deserve her any longer, but we can find our way back still. This past Friday, January 27, 2017, on the 75th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day, while failing to include Jewish people in his statement of remembrance, our sitting President signed an executive order banning all Syrian Refugees and citizens from several Muslim states. (We’ll surely learn soon that those nations will ban our people from visiting them in return.) On Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump banned refugees who are fleeing a genocidal government from seeking sanctuary on our shores. This sickens me. This is so far past partisan divides now. If you’re for this horror, you’re ignoring America’s heritage and story and the American Dream. We need to be better than this. Lady Liberty is weeping.
And this doesn’t stop neatly with who gets banned from our shores. There’s a fear that sets in when we begin down this road. One friend of mine, Farah said, “The trickle-down effect is that I and those who look like me will have to start carrying our papers everywhere. It means that I will be hassled at every border. It means that my family will be hassled when they come to visit me. It means that any of us could be detained, harassed and deprived of our rights as American citizens.” We know this to be true, because we see this in our Border states where Latinos – even US citizens – live in fear of harassment and need to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Now we begin this with our Muslim neighbors.
Jewish and Christian Scripture is very clear on how we’re to treat refugees, the stranger and our neighbor. When Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” He tells the story of the Good Samaritan in reply; he tells the story of a foreigner of another religion as his answer to who is my neighbor. We teach our children these values, and this ban wouldn’t stand up to a kindergartener’s test for simple fairness, or any biblical test of righteousness. But we know this story from our past too. One of our members and a public school teacher, (Theresa) reminded me of this yesterday, “A U.S. President did this before… On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana, Cuba with hundreds of Jewish refugees. FDR forced the ship to turn back. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died.”
We are past hyperbole, or partisanship here. This isn’t an election cycle or a political issue; faithful people from all political walks of life should oppose this. This is basic human decency. This is about our religious conviction that freedom of religion, that religious pluralism, is a spiritual value and a human need. We have refugees – green card holders – legal residents – legal residents – who were detained in JFK calling their lawyers and suing the US for unlawful detainment – while they waited to find out if they will be sent back to dangerous ports. The ACLU won a stay, which just means that no one is being sent back right now, but this Executive Order was haphazardly implemented and we still don’t know what will be next. This on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Will we remember?
As a child, we wondered how everyday citizens in Germany could let the horrors perpetrated against the Jews, Gypsys, gays and dissidents occur. How could any people allow the systematic dehumanization to occur to the point where lives were treated as chattel. We now understand that it happened piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit. What was once outrageous became acceptable – pushing further and further back the line of what was considered normal. Denying refugees the safety of our shores is not normal; it does not fit the American Dream, and it’s in direct opposition to our religious faith. This needs to be the next line we draw as a nation and as a religious community.
Religious institutions, at our best, are bedrocks for prophetic witness. And as an institution, we need all hands on deck for what’s happening in our name. We need to call out injustice where it weakens the spirit and the hearts of our people. When worldly greed, fear and hate, take root in our government, we need to make clear the road back to righteousness. Righteousness. In Jewish Scripture, the word we translate in English to righteousness, has lost some of it clarity over the generations. We often conflate it with self-righteous and have a reluctance to embrace it because of that shadow side. In the original meaning of the word, it’s much more positive, and a word that holds us accountable to something beyond just our lone egos. A contemporary translation would be closer to, “behavior that’s in solidarity with the community.” Righteousness means to act in accordance with the needs of those around you – and to do so knowing that your neighbor is your own and you’re your neighbors’ as well. Righteousness. Bans on refugees fleeing genocide is not righteous. Bans on citizens from Muslim countries – except of course their Christian citizens – is not righteousness. That’s base religious bigotry – and base religious bigotry does not get to easily parade itself as a partisan issue – it’s a moral issue, it’s a biblical issue. And those are our issues; that is our call as a religious people.
Our Fellowship has made numerous commitments to the immigrant, to the refugee, to peace. Over 15 years ago we led the move to start the interfaith collaboration that we now call HIHI where migrant men are offered shelter in religious homes throughout Huntington, 7 days a week, during the cold weather months. We do this for many reasons, but it began in the tragedy of a man freezing to death over-night. Politics being what they are, are not always a viable solution for some of our people to survive. That’s why we need religious institutions like ours, to shine a light on what needs to be seen.
As low pay farm-workers out on eastern long island are struggling to make a living, with limited other options, large farming corporations have used loop-holes in the law to take advantage of lower than minimum-wage work. As they continue to protest and advocate for their own rights, last year we used our space to house protest marchers overnight as they walked from Eastern Long Island all the way to Albany. We’ve hosted their art in our art gallery, we’ve educated about their plight from our pulpit, and some of our members continue to work in solidarity – to work with righteousness – for their needs knowing that their needs are our needs. Sometimes, religious institutions become a sounding bell to ensure we all hear what needs to be heard.
Sometimes we make space, or hold space, for others to be heard. Non-partisan, issue-based groups that align with our religious values, are using our building more and more to organize locally. NOW (the National Organization for Women), LITAC (Long Island Transgender Action Coalition) as well as a newly forming LI based Latinx Transgender rights group are just a few who know that our community is a safe-haven in these troubling times. Institutions matter – and when we’re living our values, when we’re responding to our call as a religious community – our institutional values matter. We will continue to adapt to address the needs of each generation – generation after generation.
Together, we make this religious institution possible. Living in accordance with the needs of those around us, knowing our neighbor is ourselves, and we are our neighbor – is the sense of righteousness we are seeking for ourselves, and what we’re raising another generation to value. Before Friday’s ban on refugees and Muslims – this service was planned to be a straightforward kick-off to our annual pledge drive where we talk about our financial commitments to living out our values. Today the tone is different. We’re funding our grassroots spiritual home that commits to making sure our neighbor lives another day. We know that politics and movements come and go – but there are eternal human values, moral values, that we need to ensure are not forgotten in the wider public. We need each other to be faithful to our highest ideals, and strive toward that lofty goal of the beloved community, step by step. And we need to ensure that we’re strong as a community to do that hard work – day by day – generation after generation – together. This is what stewardship means for us; for our generation and the generations to come.
Our social justice, social action, social witness wing of our denomination – the UU Service Committee – was originally begun as an organization devoted to helping get survivors out and away from the Nazis during the occupation of Europe. It’s in our very DNA. Yesterday, the UUA and the UUSC issued a joint call to action in the face of the growing barbarism coming out from our capital. The statement reads, “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence. We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.
As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us. We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.
The time is now.
I have signed onto that pledge. We’ll have a link to it our Fellowship Facebook page shortly, and if you don’t use Facebook, the link will be in this sermon online as well. (I’ve begun speaking with our Board President, Michael A., asking for our Board to consider having our Fellowship sign onto the pledge as well.) This statement is our roadmap – it’s our mirror to look into as we decide who we want to be – how we live into the deeper call to righteousness. And it’s all hands on deck. I charge our committee leaders to review it seriously and see where their team’s work coincides with the religious precepts articulated in the ethical pledge. As individuals, I charge each of us to (as the Jewish proverb goes) to write those words on the tablets of our hearts. It’s a moral compass we can strive to live up to. Righteousness in the face of injustice is an act of communal solidarity – that’s both individual and institutional.
Maybe you’ve felt like you were in a sort of fog or haze over the last few weeks. So much of what we don’t agree with is happening so fast. Others are feeling the barrage very viscerally; some of us are less safe. It’s got a dispiriting effect. I’ve heard from many of us that there’s a way in which we’re feeling alone, or isolated. Maybe that’s a reason you’ve come through our doors today. In my own house, we’ve been trying to set time aside for doing things that are a bit more frivolous to keep our spirits up to do the work the world needs us all to do. My husband and I are largely focused personally and professionally on causes that feel under attack of late, and there comes a time when one needs a break.
Earlier this week, with popcorn in hand we sat down to re-watch the Harry Potter movies – another movie from the series most nights. He knows he missed one, but wasn’t sure which one he missed. On Wednesday night, we got to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For those unfamiliar with the series that started out as a children’s book but turned into a manifesto for the millennial generation – it’s a series about a magical kid who’s only alive because of his mother’s love. Harry Potter is pitted against a fictional character – Voldemort – who signifies fascism, anger, and bigotry. The heroes of the story are studying in school, and come from School “Houses” that signify courage, steadfastness, friendship, intellect and dedication. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this covers it well enough.
Well at the mid-way point of this book in the series (or movie), Harry is feeling very low. He’s not trusted by the wider magical world. The villain of the story, Voldemort, is still thought to have been defeated years back and gone from the land. Harry is one of the lone voices calling out of the impending dangers with Voldemort’s imminent return. He turns to his close friend, Hermione, and tells her that he feels all alone – that the world has turned on him, that he’s exhausted for not being trusted. Hermione turns to him and she says, “Voldemort, only wants you to think you’re alone Harry.”
We were watching this movie on Wednesday evening, only a few days after the historic international Women’s March, which drew millions of people in the US and countless more across the globe. I’m proud to know that 45 of our Fellowshippers were together at the March in NYC, and I haven’t heard what the formal count for those who made it to DC war. 45 in NYC!
‘In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes,’ we hear the calm, intelligent, caring voice, in that loudly loving Women’s March respond, ‘fascism, anger, and bigotry only want you to think you’re alone.’
I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.
If you’re so moved to take further action on our imminent refugee crisis and immoral ban on religious groups – Muslims – Theresa K. had pulled together language at each table for you to make phone calls to your local representatives here on Long Island. There’s a copy at each table, and more will be back in the Social Hall on at the social justice table. The table in the social hall also has other local actions that our team has reviewed for you to further consider.
 Thanks to Rev. Rachel Morse for lifting this up in social media
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 6/19/16. It addresses the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando.
It has been a painful, difficult week, following the shootings in Orlando. The tragedy that I spoke about last Sunday with news slowly trickling in, has turned out to be more than twice as deadly as we first thought. We’ve known worse attacks in war, and in our history of genocide, and lynchings, but in the modern era, we have not seen a mass shooting like this on our nation’s soil. Most of us are shook up; some are numb. And the LGBT community, particularly communities of color, are experiencing an extended shock response to the trauma because it’s an extension of the all too often reality many of us live in.
I briefly considered doing away with our Flower Celebration today, but the origins of the ritual come at a time in Europe’s history where the worst violence known to humanity was occurring during World War II. Unitarian minister, Rev. Chapek, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain. Remembering those lost last week is incredibly painful; many of us are experiencing the tragedy as if we knew those victims personally. I remember texting a few friends, during our annual meeting last Sunday, who lived there waiting to hear back; and thankfully they were all fine.
But the perpetual state of gun violence in our nation is leaving us more and more raw, and it’s making it harder and harder not to imagine that it could happen down the street. The political noise around each tragedy keeps real conversation at bay long enough to delay till the next mass shooting. It’s a sort of fog of war: as long as we can’t see straight, we don’t know how to react politically to protect our communities. And the issue is complex, but friends, it’s not that complex. We manage to know how to regulate how much Sudafed someone can buy over the counter, we can figure out how to track AR-15’s. What stops us from organizing as a community for sensible laws that don’t allow people on the FBI terrorist watch list from purchasing these military-grade weapons? Is that really a radical thing to suggest?
That’s my question for our Fellowship: can we organize around this issue? I believe in hope, and I believe in the power of prayer, and I know the value of reading the list of names of those lost to us. And as scripture reads, Faith without works is dead. That’s the bit that I think all UU’s agree with theologically. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we aren’t doing something about those intrinsic values, then that ethic is empty and hollow. I worry about every first responder that needs to go into these places. I’m grateful for the military vet who was on site at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, who saved many lives. And I know in my heart, that there are too many LGBT youth and adults who will now delay coming out for fear of safety. Why do we leave it at that? Can we extend forward our respect and appreciation by working toward reasonable precautions against future harm? While we grieve this great loss, hold-off in coffee hour from worrying about the small details of congregational life that are less than to your liking; hold off from the what if’s and not that’s of life. Use that energy in connecting with one another and imagining how can we be a force for change on this issue that so many of us clearly care so deeply about. The Fellowship can be a crucible for this work, and the world needs us to take part.
It reminds me of the old scriptural adage of sack cloth and ashes after a great loss, or out of a spirit of repentance for a great wrong. I spoke last week about the words of one Rabbi who asked the people to repent of evil before we commit it. Another kind of repentance happens when we have failed to do what needed to be done. We remembered lives lost in our prayer today, and I wonder what I could have done to have prevented that ever from being necessary. And I know this is a community that is big enough to imagine coalition building that extends across difference, to build that safer world. The Flower Celebration originated as a service to draw our eyes back to simple beauty so that we can do the difficult work to address the complex pains of the world. In our hours of despair, may we find a renewal of spirit, to do the work at hand; and not be distracted by the thousand small details in life that keep us from the clear path.
A few weeks ago, I was attending our Tuesday morning silent meditation group, and I heard a classic Buddhist story about a Nun who was carrying a bamboo container full of water. In the water she could see the moon. After some time, the bamboo weakened and shatter, and all the water quickly leaked out. The Nun exclaimed laughing, “no water, no moon” and the story goes that she was enlightened. Traditionally, this tale is one that teaches about some of the classic characteristics of Buddhist understanding. The water and bamboo are the myriad things of the world, and the moon signifies impermanence. When we grasp onto what is fleeting, we can find despair or relief in what begins and ends before us as the water leaks through our fingers.
But there’s another aspect of this story that I find very true. In everyday terms, the water in that bamboo bucket is how we see the moon. We’re not looking at the moon directly; we are seeing the image of the moon in a reflection that draws our eyes away from what is real and true. The moon becomes a story about itself that’s retold dimly from another direction entirely. Everything that we see only through the reflection of the water is reliant upon how we hold the bucket, where are standing or moving at any given time, how long the bucket will last, and even how much water we have over time. The water becomes a story that we tell and retell others to understand the reflection of the moon – not the moon – merely it’s reflection.
This is really true about life. What’s the story we hear in the media, or among our friends, or the one we ourselves tell about what happened in Orlando? Do we have the story memorized that tells us any act of violence by someone who professes Islam, is an act of terror first and foremost and more about the clash of civilizations? Or do we have the story that homophobia can be internalized and cause grievous harm to ourselves and the world? Do we have the story that the Second Amendment trumps all other forms of liberty and rights? Or do we live into a story where we imagine we can never be fully safe? Since (most) or probably all modern mass shootings have been instigated by men, I have a story that there’s a way in which we are raising our boys and men that is fundamentally flawed. Masculinity has been twisted to mean power and aggression. I think that story is right, but it’s still just one way of looking at it.
As we recommit to building the world we dream about, we are going to need to find points of connection with people who have differing opinions than our own. Lives are very much on the line. Despite what we might hear colloquially, surveys show that most members of the NRA are in favor of reasonable precautions around the sale of military grade weapons. It’s not us vs them, rather the lobbyist organization that is the NRA is not in alignment with the vast majority of it members on this issue. We can hold onto a story that says otherwise, but it won’t help move the dialogue forward.
We can hold onto the story that this attack was solely against the US, which is sadly a story that has far too many politicians shutting their eyes and proclaiming. That story falsely tells us that any child of an immigrant is a potential risk. This shooter’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan at a time in our history when that nation was our ally against Cold War Communism. Do we stop immigration from any nation that’s our current ally because we do not know what will happen 30 years later?
We are people of stories. That’s often what makes us human. Myth, and story-telling, is the heart of my vocation in many ways. We can communicate the depth and breadth of humanity in story. But a good story helps crack open meaning and truth. As religious people, it’s our challenge to get better at telling what’s a good story that brings our humanity out to the surface, and which stories trick us into believing in the reflection of a moon.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
We gather this evening, in peace, in sorrow;
in grief, and in pain.
We bear witness once more to such a deep,
human loss for all our communities.
We mourn the death of 49 lesbian, and gay, bisexual and transgender people;
Bright souls with parents, and siblings;
some in the vibrant youth of their lives,
others who lived for decades, getting to see our nation,
too slowly turn toward equality for all,
and at least one – who was in great personal pain – who brought that tragic pain to bear upon so many others.
We bear witness to the parents who will no longer see their children come home; parents who will not get the chance to celebrate their sons’ or daughter’s plans for marriage or for children of their own, for a long life denied them.
We have no words in the face of such loss….
Mother of Grace, we pray you write this grief into the tablets of our hearts,
so that we may no longer go into this world complicit with the quiet hates that embed our streets, and schools, offices and houses of worship.
As we have seen so much loss, teach us to hold tight to one another,
while we can, and live into this world with Your sacred trust; with respect and compassion; especially when it’s hard to find.
Move us out of inaction and complacency,
and use us to build the Beloved Community on this earth.
And turn us away from fear, and easy blame.
May our people not look to the actions of one man,
and blame the whole of his religion.
Ever teach us to question any lesson that ends in fear, or hatred;
that lifts up the differences over our common humanity,
that divides us and makes us forget we are all children of God.
We pray for a healing of the toxic masculinity that puts all of us at risk;
may we raise our boys into men whose hearts are stirred by justice and forbearance;
men who find strength in solidarity rather than in power,
who find self-acceptance in compassion rather than insecurity from fear.
Where we feel helpless before the enormity of it all,
remind us that our work in raising families and communities grounded in Spirit and centered in love,
is the very work that each of our faith’s call us to do.
We are the hands of the Holy on earth,
and may we ever reach those hands out to one another,
in times of loss and in times of celebration,
building and rebuilding our world.
Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and one transforming and abundant love,
May we enter into a time of reflection this holiday weekend.
Taking stock of the meaning of freedom and independence,
in a country that was founded, as always, with complex motives and practices.
We are a nation that strives toward the fulfillment of democracy,
rooted in an ethic of morality;
yet our history is marred with slavery of millions,
and the genocide of indigenous nations.
Teach us to be humble where we are strident,
to be active when we become complacent to oppression,
and hopeful when we find ourselves held back,
or held down,
by the greed or fear of others.
The discipline of democracy is a spiritual one,
Remind us to practice it daily,
in our communities,
and in our families.
May we not become silent before another’s power,
and may we not, in turn, silence another through our own will.
For faith, and freedom, and independence,
are not just for ourselves alone;
they are lived in community.
We know their blessings come along with
disciplines of accountability,
and of living and letting others live as well.
We hold in our hearts this hour all the women in our nation who are now subject to the religious whims of their secular bosses. May our nation not go too far down this road. We pray that our leaders learn to lead and govern once more, so that our country will not stray from the path it was founded upon. May we not confuse religious freedom with Christian Theocracy.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on April 7th. It deals with the difficult topic of gender, violence and public discourse.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. We heard a moving rendition by Melissa Paul this morning as our anthem. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.
There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.
I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep, this week, this month, this year seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.
A case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last month, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.
Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.
Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.
In my Good Friday homily last week, I reflected on how that day was the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. I want to return briefly to part of it because the message of Good Friday is important here – and as I was reflecting on the Passover week, stories like Steubenville were center in my mind. “On Good Friday, we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of that day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose. The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. What is this death? It returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. They can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods.”
“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going
I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.
Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.
“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.
Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.
Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.
“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.
We gather this hour to celebrate the most extraordinary story birthed in the most ordinary of moments.
Where we find the promise of life within the face of a baby.
Where our heroes, a mother, a son, and an adoptive father are travelers, homeless, and resting for but a night.
We can imagine all too well a time, where the powerful fear a message of compassion, of peace, of simplicity –
when it is wrapped in dirty swaddling clothes, sleeping in a food trough among the animals and the mess of poverty.
A child born of a yet unwed mother, a father whose ties are solely love, and a lifestyle that can only be called migrant.
From the midst of vulnerability we learn a new way.
A love that moves our hearts,
a vision of peace in an age of violence,
and hope where one would never expect to find it –
begins in the quiet solitude of family,
with the meek of the earth,
with the people that must find another path,
knowing the principalities and the powers
can never satisfy the least among us.
May the Christmas story birth in all of us a sense of possibility,
a renewal of faith in the breadth of the human spirit,
despite all the failings of our world.
That with every child that’s born,
this wonder is made known:
We are given a gift that is our own.
This sermon was preached on 9/30/12 at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn. It takes a look at what we mean by the words faith and belief, and asks the question how do these differences affect our way of living.
Last month, my partner and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience our night life, so we took them to one of the newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen. Now, I used to go out dancing pretty regularly in my twenties, but as the economy changed and the clubs died out, I slowly got out of the habit. This was probably the first time I had gone to a major dance club in over ten years. We got there and I simply couldn’t handle it. The sound, the vibrations, the smoke were all bad enough, though manageable. The twenty foot tall wall of LEDs was too much for me to handle. I started feeling like the beginnings of a seizure were happening – seriously. I left quickly and got into a cab.
On the car ride home, the cabbie was the friendly, talkative type. Now there are three places in the world where I try very hard not to reveal my vocation – bars, airplanes and yes, taxis. Despite my best efforts at dodging, he quickly zeroed in on what I do for a living. Ministry. The next 20 minutes were filled with conversation around theology, meaning, values, interfaith dialogue and my views on homosexuality, women’s rights, immigration, etc. Remember, I’m still feeling all sorts of wonky from the fading sensations induced by flashing lights and vivid screens. But I do my best. The driver was raised Catholic; came across as a progressive person of faith who felt a bit distant to organized religion, but remained a Christian.
My partner, Brian, left the club shortly after me to make sure I was doing ok. He got into a cab and met a driver who was the talkative type. The cabbie also quickly zeroed in on Brian’s religious tradition – Pagan. They had a similar conversation around beliefs, practices and religious community. This driver turned out to be a practicing Pagan. When the taxi driver dropped him off, he said to Brian, “Funny, I just dropped a minister off at this same apartment a little while ago who came out of the same night club.”
It amazes me that the cabbie was Christian-sounding to me, and Pagan to my partner. The NY cynic in me wonders if part of that was playing to the tip. But there’s another side to it as well. The driver’s religious upbringing was still a large part of his values. Particular beliefs aside, he maintained the Christian sense of compassion to strangers, helping those in need, the Golden Rule, the Sermon on the Mount. All of that came up explicitly or implicitly in our conversation. (We were both fast talkers.) And he held another set of beliefs as well. Does he get to do that and still call himself any particular religious tradition?
Yes. Yes, he does. There’s a difference between the words faith and belief. I feel this difference is both the source of unrest in our world, and the potential for healing. Political gridlock in our House of Representatives. The tragedy rolling through Libya ignited (in part) by a demeaning youtube video. Voting pledges demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence.
Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 years, we’ve tended to conflate the two in the United States. For example, “You’re only a true Christian if you adhere to these strict set of beliefs.” But that’s a modern sense of religious life. It’s also a Western sense of religious life. I will also suggest, it’s not in line with central Christian teachings.
How is it modern? Historically, the word faith, as it appeared in the Bible, tended to be translated more with the sense of trust than belief. When the Jewish people were delivered from Pharaoh, and the importance of faith in God came up, the prophets weren’t trying to make the people believe that God existed, they were trying to convince the people that they could trust God to deliver them. In the biblical world, God was a given. The lesson to be learned was one of hope. Hope in a future, hope in a way forward, hope that the way of cruelty and tyranny was a thing of the past. Faith demanded a new worldview, a new orientation to life, a letting go of baggage and an unclenching of our hands for a future of possibility.
The conflation of faith and belief is also a Western notion. In the East, millions of religious people can be categorized as having a “dual-belonging.” They hold to the religious values of two or more traditions simultaneously without intellectual conflict. In some countries, it is common for babies to be dedicated with Shinto practices and the dead to be honored with Buddhist practices. It’s both/and without the stigma of hypocrisy. Why is that? In many Eastern traditions, beliefs are seen to be ephemeral, secondary, or nuanced. Practice, actions and personal dedication take precedence. The way a person lives their life matters more than views on any particular thing.
From a Christian perspective, and this is the most radical thing I’m going to say today (I think), linking the adherence of belief to the practice of faith is not a Christian value. In one of the most well known passages of Christian Scripture, Jesus tells a parable about the end times, of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. The values that were critical to Judgment Day were not about belief. They were about acts of compassion. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…..” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” In other words, we can find the face of God in every person we meet, and how we treat each person becomes an encounter with the Holy. That becomes the utmost priority. Central to the Christian story is an opening of our sight to find the sacred around every corner.
Some of you may be thinking, “well that sounds lovely, but I’m not Christian, so what does that have to do with me?’ I believe the connection we often make between the use of the word faith and the use of the world belief effects how we engage with religious life. If religion is about hollow views we no longer espouse then we’re less likely to allow our hearts to stir before the sublime. Our heads take over, and we get trapped up here (pointing to my head) rather than responding from a place of warmth (hand over heart.) We’re reading a few words ahead in our hymns making sure that whatever we’re saying matches exactly our opinions, rather than being present for the connection of the spiritual communal act. (By a show of hands, who else has done that before? Please, tell me I’m not the only one.)
This cuts both ways. If one’s faith is entirely dedicated to adherence to right beliefs, when those beliefs are challenged or insulted, so too is one’s religious life. Such an affront to the mind’s assessment of right and wrong can result in extreme emotional responses. It doesn’t take a long search in the news to learn the range of those tragedies.
In Unitarian Universalism, we’re asked to embody our faith through our relationships. It’s an act of faith to assume the worth and dignity of one another, and to live in a way that matches this given. It means sometimes tamping down our egos so that compassion and equity can take precedence. Even harder, it means that when another is not acting with grace, that it doesn’t prevent us from continuing to – ourselves. In this way, faith can almost be the opposite of belief. Belief keeps us from living our faith – or rather I should say that strict adherence to our beliefs have a cost to them. What’s foundational to our religious tradition is a sense that there is an awe at the center of life, and we should live as if it were always obvious.
I was talking this week with Beth Dana. Some of you may remember her from her year and half with us working as our Seminarian-in-Residence. She is doing well in her student ministry position in Texas and will be going for review in December to be qualified to move toward ordination. We talked a bit about this sermon topic and she mentioned (with amazement) how many folks have said to her that they used to feel like they needed to check their brains at the door when they went to a church, and with UU they didn’t need to check their brains any longer. Beth is a life-long UU, so she never had the experience of a religious tradition that didn’t match with her intellectual understanding of the world. I think it’s a common experience for converts though. It can be a very freeing experience to finally find a religious home that allows for science and reason in its core values. If you join me for my four week Credo Workshop starting this Thursday, you’ll have the refreshing chance to get support while working through your own beliefs in light of our UU tradition.
The free and responsible search for truth and meaning is a central pillar to our 7 principles. That being said – I want to challenge you by saying, “Check your brain at the door.” (W’oh, we might have just had our first UU heresy spoken from this pulpit.)… “Check your brain at the door.” I don’t mean stop being reasonable, or begin accepting of what anyone tells you as truth. I mean lets put a check on our brains – they’re in charge most of the time anyway. Let’s not give them a free ticket to running all aspects of our lives. If you live in NYC there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your apartment, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, or that ridiculous waiting list for that daycare center your kid needs so that you can work, or a long stretch of unemployment, or the next regional test to make sure you get into the school you want to get into, or your incredible work schedule, or the demands of your vocation. Just saying all these out loud raises my own anxiety level. These are all rational problems that require rational solutions to them. The technical steps we take to addressing them are matters for the brain.
When you walk through this threshold, I want to ask you to let another part of yourself take the reigns. We often think of this in terms of the heart. I would go a step further, let your soul come to the forefront. Let your guard down a little. Let go of your assumptions around the worst of religious life, and leave space for the best to grow here. I don’t mean to start buying whatever foolish thing someone says, but rather, allow who you are to shine without the running internal monologue categorizing everything.
Robert Frost once said that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Good rational boundaries are helpful. But living perched on that fence all the time also makes it hard to go play in your yard. We might not have fundamentalism of the right in our congregation, but we sometimes have fundamentalism of the left. Take a step back from your beliefs, and search for the openness of the yard. That openness is what religion is about. Openness is what faith is really about.
 Matthew 25:32-46