Posts Tagged Global Warming

Sermon: When Miracles Happen Anyway

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 12/13/15 celebrating Hanukkah. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility.

 

A few months ago, we had our dog (Lola) off leash in our backyard. I was only partially paying attention to her while I was typing away on a sermon. I looked up when I heard her dash off like lightning; she had spotted the neighborhood bunny and made chase. Between the time it took me to intake breath and speak, she had seemingly teleported across the lawn. As I cry out, “No!”, my dog’s mouth is about to lock onto the now cornered rabbit – trapped in our vegetable patch (how iconic). But instead, Lola stopped in her tracks, closed her mouth – thankfully without the rabbit in in – and stood there watching. The rabbit paused in shock for but a second, and launched itself away in the opposite direction. I bragged to my friends about how well trained our dog is. I trust her even more around just about anything now. She was probably not too sure why she had to stop, but she didn’t mind the forthcoming treat… And that rabbit – that rabbit went back home to its family and spoke of miracles!

Now I make a little bit of fun, but I don’t mean to mock miracles. And I’m sure that rabbit was grateful for it, as was I. As many of you know, I tend to avoid debating the facts of spiritual beliefs. We may all see things differently, and that’s true for our faith tradition, and important to acknowledge from time to time. But I am protective of the impact that those times of miracle and grace have on each of us. We can parse out all the reasons that led up to that scared little bunny making it out of our vegetable patch alive, but none of them would have much meaning to the rabbit. Certain terror – was replaced with hope and possibility, and continued life. Which matters more – the rational explanation of the sequence of events, or that next breath that promises yet another?

We don’t always have control over what happens in our lives. We can be in a state of prolonged hardship or loss in our own lives, or we can feel the pressure of the hard news stories all around us. Those may not be things we can meaningfully influence – or at least not quickly. Or we can be at a cherished place where family and friends are hale, hearty and close by. It’s the everyday sort of miracle we often take for granted, until it passes after a long time… but it’s a miracle too.

The worst hardships aside, we sometime influence how well we can see the miracles before us. There’s another story about a hare that comes from Native American lore. I’m reminded of it by what happened with my dog and the neighborhood rabbit. The short story goes: there was a rabbit one day who was foraging for food in the field when he spied a hawk flying overhead. The rabbit got very nervous and whispered, “Oh, no! There’s a hawk in the sky; it’s going to see me and eat me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. Not sure what to do, the rabbit stayed motionless and waited, but the hawk wouldn’t leave. In short time, even more nervous than the before, the rabbit let slip out, “That hawk is going to see me!” But the hawk did not see the rabbit, and simply kept flying by overheard, in circles and circles. This went on and one for some time, the rabbit still nervous, the hawk still not catching sight of the rabbit. Until, so overcome with fear, the rabbit squeaked out too loudly, “That hawk is going to see me!” Well, the hawk heard the rabbit well enough, then did finally see him. The hawk was well fed that day.

I first heard this story in my teens, and it’s stuck with me since. This month we are exploring what it means to be a people of expectation. How do our expectations frame our lives? We rarely have control over the challenges and hurdles that come our way, but we usually have control over how we face them – at least on our better days. If you’re feeling at your worst and need to talk, I’m here, and this Fellowship is here for you. Those impossible times aside, we are all guilty, from time to time, of calling that circling hawk down into our lives. We have given up on the hope of miracles, even the normal everyday kind, and we fixate on doom and disaster, and we reap what we sow from fear. Sometimes the script in our head is more subtle. ‘I’ve been disappointed by people before, so I’ll be disappointed by this new person in my life as well.’ Or, ‘I just can’t ever get a break.’ Or, ‘I can’t be loved.’ All of these false messages are like the rabbit yelling louder and louder its fear of the hawk. The more we say we’ll be disappointed, or won’t be loved, the less we allow ourselves to see fulfillment or love when it’s right in front of us. Leaving room for miracles to happen, for newness or possibility, frees us from those expectations that limit and bind.

But maybe all this is too much to believe. ‘What has come before is doomed to repeat again and again.’ ‘Hope is empty.’ ‘Miracles can’t happen.’ Our inner “fundamentalist naysayer” – which we probably all have hiding out somewhere inside us – is a prophet of the past speaking a prophecy that is as fantastical as believing in any miracle. It’s as much an act of faith to believe things will turn out badly as it is an act of faith to leave room for possibility. Which act of faith will you choose?

December is the season of miracles. We celebrate holiday after holiday that point toward times of utter newness in the face of abject despair. Despite all the consumer habits around this time, and all the places of disagreement over religion we see throughout the world – I believe these holy days stay eternally relevant because they remind us that hope triumphs over despair – over and over. You can say that – hope triumphs over despair – but the words themselves have less power, less hold on our hearts, than the stories from the dawn times of civilization. The old world was a very, very difficult place – and humanity made it through…. The world these days, is a very, very difficult place, and we’ll make it through – together.

Happy Hanukkah everyone! The original holiday came about in ancient times. A marginalized people, oppressed by foreign invasion and rule, were forced to worship gods they did not believe in. A grassroots, religious and political revolution occurred against a superior military. It would last about 7 years and culminated with a compromise where the Seleucid armies (Ancient Syria and beyond) would restore religious freedom to the Jewish people. But the holiday itself celebrates rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil, that should only have sustained the Menorah for 1 day, lasting instead eight days.

Where last Sunday we explored what Hanukkah means as a holder of memory, today we reflect on what it means as a story of hope. We don’t always find ourselves open to hope, newness, or the miraculous suddenly breaking into our routines or times of hardship. Hanukkah reminds us to always keep our eyes open for possibility. We often focus on the story of the oil lasting 8 days as the miracle of Hanukkah. I see an oppressed people living under the yolk of a world super power, who are able to secure their religious liberty, despite all odds. Both motifs in the story of Hanukkah are equally impossible; yet we know at least that the story of liberation was historically true. …Does that crack open a place of possibility in our hearts?

Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. We may feel like we only have enough in us for one more day, but in reality we have just what we need for the season ahead. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning. I think of the hardship of so many refugees fleeing a war torn land – whose normal lives were held hostage by the very same terrorists who threaten our nation. Can they bring themselves and their family to safety? And then we hear stories of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees being given safe harbor in countries throughout Europe. We hear of Prime Ministers as far away as our northern border – Canada – coming in person to welcome the refugees to their new home. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

We weep before the shooting tragedy in San Bernardino where an enraged married couple did the worst to their community. This time the shooters were Muslim. Other times they have been Christian, but this time they were Muslim. But this time, our Muslim-American communities responded to evil with good in a huge way. Time Magazine reports, that “hundreds of Muslim-Americans have raised more than $150,000 for the families of the victims… to ease the financial burden on grieving families.” Tarek El-Messidi, the fundraiser’s director said, “This is exactly what we need. This channels all of our frustration, all of our anxiety, all of our fear into the constructive act of kindness.” Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

If recent history showing us super storm after super storm has not been enough to convince you of the science of Climate Change, something that is exhaustively documented and agreed upon by 97% of the world’s scientists through the careful research of millions of points of data, this past week in New York has been utterly stunning. I was in sandals and a t-shirt on Saturday – in the middle of December I was in a t-shirt and sandals. And today I’m regretting wearing a sweater under this robe. The last time we saw local weather like this was in 1923. And most of the world is seeing rising temperatures more frequently and notably than we are in New York. And it’s scary and hard to face a world that is so rapidly changing. And at the same time on Saturday, as I was walking outside in a t-shirt and sandals in the middle of December, the Climate Talks in Paris reached agreements between 190 nations to slow down our activities that contribute to global warming. One hundred and ninety nations came to an agreement in the City of Paris – just a short time after the city was ravaged by terrorists, the nations come together to develop an accord for all our safety and well-being. Hanukkah reminds us to keep the oil burning.

And we’ll end our service today with where we began. Our children crafted thank you’s for our hard-working volunteers who have diligently strived for (what is turning into) 3 years on our major grounds capital improvement – our parking lot. It seems like an unexciting thing – a parking lot, but for 40 years (I sometimes think literally 40 years) we’ve been trying to make this a reality – for safety reasons – for reasons of access and expansion of services – and to ensure folks can visit their loved ones in our memorial garden. And with all the permits in place, we break ground this Spring. It’s mundane. It’s everyday. But it’s also something that we had given up believing we could ever accomplish. Sometimes we need to remember to keep the oil burning.

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Swimming Upstream

This sermon was first preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 1/4/14. It looks at the possibilities of a new year and the differences between desire, greed and yearning.

 

Here’s a short story that I share with you with permission from its source. I’m very grateful for their sense of humor and willingness to share it with all of us. It’s a story about themselves and a long-time former member of our Fellowship I’m changing their names since this will be posted online. “Rita and Bob went to Town Hall to take care of some business pertaining to the Fellowship building. Rita parked her red Toyota Celica in the crowded lot.  When they went back to the car, her keys didn’t work.  Bob, being an expert at just about everything, worked diligently to break into the car – the way a thief would!  After Bob broke into the car, Rita put her hands on the steering wheel and exclaimed to Bob, who was sitting in the passenger seat “This is not my car, Bob!”  They bolted out of the car, closed the doors and looked for her car.  It was on the other side of a white van that was parked between her car and the stranger’s car that they had just broken into!”

I imagine we all have moments like these in our lives – maybe not so humorous – where we struggle and struggle to make something work in our lives, or to get through a difficult task, and all the energy is for nought. It might feel like we’re swimming upstream at a time in our lives when we’re called to do the hard thing, or we might just wind up working on breaking into the wrong car.

I’m trying to learn to tell the difference; whether when I’m facing a hardship, is it a necessary or unavoidable difficulty, or have I just gone to the wrong spot. Sometimes we can’t tell the difference until we’re sitting in someone else’s driver seat. But it’s a question we’ve begun asking ourselves in my own household when we face something challenging in our wider lives, and it’s a question that I haven’t always been prone to ask.

Maybe it was my working class upbringing, or maybe it was my German Lutheran Dad’s work ethic, but I’ve always known the message that life isn’t always easy and you have to put your back into it sometimes – sometimes for a long time. Many things we yearn for can fall into this category. Getting through high school, or college take years of hard work, and now these days, a lot of debt to show for the higher education degree most jobs require.

Getting through a life-changing illness – either in body or in mind – can be a place of yearning where endurance and hope are the saving virtues. Our lives are in the hands of other people, even if we’re the center of the story. We have to rely on the wind, from this morning’s wisdom story, to take us across the dry places in our lives.

My own road from working in Information Technology to Community Development to the Ministry was like this. I left a lucrative career, at the age of 28 – making about the same amount of money my dad was making after a lifetime of his work – because it wasn’t personally fulfilling. I yearned for something else; I felt a sense of call. Five years of graduate education and what would amount to a mortgage – in most parts of our country – worth in education loans was a surreal choice to make – especially considering my roots. But, I know that choice to swim upstream was the right choice for me – I didn’t break into the wrong car.

How do we know when it’s the right choice or not? There’s a graphic novel series that I’ve read where the anti-hero of the story (in this case Lucifer himself) talks about the difference between desire and greed. To paraphrase: desire is to need what we can never have. Greed is to need what is readily available. To add a third type of wanting to that scene, I might say yearning is to need what is right, but not yet at hand. We yearn to find or fulfill our purpose; we yearn for justice; we yearn for a caring, loving, kind world. So when we’re struggling hard for something, maybe we can ask what type of “want” we’re trying to fulfill this time as a starting point.

In my own life, when I run across something that’s deeply tied to my sense of purpose, or part of the bigger vision of my life, I’m willing to put a lot of energy into swimming upstream. These days though, I walk away from other stuff that saps my time and energy. I watch for patterns. Once a project has enough unexpected hurdles, unless its essential to home or health, I drop it. We can only manage so much before the frivolous winds up veering us down the wrong path; sapping our ability to accomplish the things that fulfill our purpose.

Occasionally, that which saps our ability to be effective in life are not complications or hurdles in life; sometimes they’re misinformation. I’ve gotten into almost daily habit of watching Fox News. It happened by accident really. There’s a local diner that I like to goto where I read while I eat for about an hour to hour and a half every day. For a long time I thought they changed their news station depending on the time of day. Fox, CNN or the local 12. But after a few months I realized that the pattern was almost entirely just Fox. Apparently, the owner requires the waitstaff to put Fox on, and they can only change it when clients ask to put something else on – or if there’s a major sports game on.

In the beginning, I let it get to me. I couldn’t believe a store owner would play politics like that with a station that factually gets the news wrong 80% of the time (and there are numerous non-partisan reviews that verify Fox is wrong, misleads or outright lies 80% of the time.) To be fair, the same reports find NBC to mislead about 60% of the time. So in the beginning, I would ask to have the station changed to the local news. Over time though, I just let it go and watched. I’ll read the NY Times, and Washington Post for the same reason. And periodically hop over to the BBC or other European news to see what we’re not being told.

What I see reading or listening to all these sources, is that the people that only read or tune into the station that matches their worldview, never hear what the other side has to say in a way that expresses that view with integrity. I feel like this is the major source of our nation’s swimming upstream over the past decade or two. We don’t hear the other side’s points, and if we do, they’re shared in mocking tones. It also oversimplifies complex situations because nuances of view are tossed for the sound byte. We see this in NYC’s current struggle between the Mayor and some Police Union leadership.

It also tends to contribute to false balance – where one reasonable opinion is pitted against a ridiculous opinion as if they are equal in value. We most notably see this with reporting on Global Warming, where world scientific expert opinions are considered with equal “value” with politicians who have no scientific training and are relying on personal opinion and anecdote to challenge 98% of the scientific community’s consensus.

Pope Francis is expected to charge our world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to commit themselves to the Global Warming crisis after a trip to the hurricane-ravaged Philippines soon. And in September, he’s slated to speak to the UN General Assembly as plead for more serious action. If all of this happens as expected, it fills me with a deep sense of hope over this crisis that has felt like swimming upstream for so many of us.

However, if you heard it reported on Fox, the story was told very differently. In the most mind-numbing twisting of news I may have ever heard, the TV station reported that the Pope was going to call Catholics to action over Global Warming, but they described it as something that reinforced “some critics” concerns over “religious fervor” which has been the foundation for those that believe in climate change. Climate change – that which has 98% of world scientists in agreement – is now magically a sentiment of those with religious zeal. When in fact, it’s been strong religious groups who believe global warming is God’s will, and man had no influence on our planet, that have stalled some of our actions to remedy this crisis saying that we can’t flout God’s will, so let’s let it burn as the bible has foretold.

If desire is to need what we can’t have, and greed is to need what is readily available, and yearning is to need what is right, but not yet, then global warming brings out all three in us. Our desire for the myth of limitless resources without repercussion and our greed for that which we yet have so much of, are making our yearning for a world that is whole and balanced all the more difficult to realize.

As we begin a new year, and prepare to swim up whatever streams come our way from time to time, we should remember something about endurance. Sometimes the world is a difficult place, and sometimes our personal situation is very stark. But not everything is hopeless. Not everything is simple. And we often need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, or tune into more than one voice. Our nation is wracked with many serious, or life threatening problems right now. But we also have many stories of success, change and transformation. Our national debt is declining drastically. For those who benefit from stocks, they’re soaring to record highs. Unemployment is down. We have movement away from some Cold War policies toward our nearest neighbor, while reaching out with environmental agreements with foreign powers. Ebola never spread here – not from ISIS, not through Mexico. And with Pope Francis expected to join his voice in world leadership toward serious climate action, things may look very different. When we yearn in difficult times, sometimes we need to remember not to listen too fully to the voices of strife and confusion; or at least not allow them to be the only voices we hear. When we only listen to them, our hearts and minds may not be ready to do the work of building upon the many successes the past year has gifted to this new year.

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Sermon: Living the Dream

This sermon was preached on MLK Sunday, January 19th, 2014 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington. It reflects on the difficult social justice lessons of the year past.

The past year has woven a mixed tapestry of social justice progress and heart-breaks. Certainly, this is not a new outcome for any year. To honor one of our nation’s heroes of social progress, I like to take Martin Luther King, Jr’s holiday to reflect on the work of the year gone past. There are ways in which many of the disparate outcomes connect with one another, and it’s important as citizens to understand the interconnectivity of oppressions. Our faith teaches us that all things are interdependent, and this includes all oppressions. Sometimes, when we assess how different issues are connected, we can unravel the solution for them all – or at least better discern the true source of the problem.

June 25th – in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the United States rules that parts of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act were unconstitutional. Even though Congress periodically reviewed the timeliness of the precautions implemented to reduce racially motivated blocks to voting, the majority opinion would claim that the Voting Rights “Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.” In conflict with this assessment, Congress, which according to the Constitution, has wide powers to legislate the voting process, last reviewed the Voting Rights Act in 2006, only 7 years ago. Suggesting racial discrimination is radically diminished, the majority opinion would conclude with the words, “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.” Eighteen days later, on July 13th, George Zimmerman would be found not guilty in the murder of the black teen, Trayvon Martin. In a rare turn of events, the court of public opinion would perversely put the dead youth on trial to defend himself posthumously against a White Hispanic man with a restraining order against him for domestic abuse. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose.

Within 6 weeks of the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, 6 Southern States would pass or implement new voting restrictions. And we need to remember that “(s)ince 1965, the Justice Department blocked at least 1,150 discriminatory voting changes from going into effect under Section 5 of the VRA.” The Rev. William Barber, NAACP North Carolina president, speaking about the assault on voting rights would say, “In some ways, these tactics are not Jim Crow. They do not feature Night Riders and sheets … This is in fact, James Crow, Esq. Jim Crow used blunt tools. James Crow, Esq. uses surgical tools, consultants, high paid consultants and lawyers to cut out the heart of black political power.”

Two days ago, “a Pennsylvania judge struck down the state’s voter ID law Friday, finding it puts an unreasonable burden on the fundamental right to vote…. (due in part from) the law’s challengers (who) brought evidence during the trial that as many as 750,000 Pennsylvanians—disproportionately black and Hispanic—lack a photo ID.” According to MSNBC, Judge Bernard “McGinley also found that the law was not motivated by an effort to disenfranchise minorities–even though a top Pennsylvania Republican said in 2012 that the law would help deliver the state to Mitt Romney.” … Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

In a recent conversation I and several colleagues had with our national social justice community organizers, the Standing on the Side of Love campaign, we reflected on where we are six months after the Summer rulings. The whole conversation will be available on Monday, but I want to quote my colleague, Rev. Michael Tino briefly. “People of color are “made examples of” by overzealous prosecutors while white people are routinely “given breaks.”  People convicted of felonies are denied the right to vote–and thus the basic way American society gives anyone access to power.  When the Trayvon Martin case has faded into unfortunately distant memory, people of color will still be facing an inherently unequal justice system. I feel like if we focus on specific cases as if they were exceptions to a larger rule, we miss the broad patterns of injustice that are replicated every day.  We need to force ourselves to see the patterns.” Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

The horror that was the Sandy Hook shooting that left 26 dead happened on December 14th, 2012. In the year that followed, the US experienced 23 more mass shootings where 4 or more people were killed in a single incident. There were “at least 24 school shootings claim(ing) at least 17 lives” in that same time. This past week we have learned of a movie theatre shooting where a retired cop shot a dad for texting his 3 year old daughter during the previews. And on Tuesday, “a 12-year-old boy opened fire with a shotgun at the middle school he attends in Roswell, N.M., striking two among the dozens of students who were gathered inside a gym waiting for the first bell to ring…”. And on Thursday, a supermarket shooting leaving 3 dead, perpetrated by a man with known mental illness yet still able to get a gun. Dalia Lithwick, a court and law columnist for Slate, would write “We just make a decision to treat armed killers in schools as we previously treated fires and tornadoes: as acts of God instead of failures of legislative and moral courage… And so this is what we have tacitly agreed to do now: We ask our kids to pile themselves silently into their classroom closets, and we tell them this is what ‘freedom’ looks like.”

There’s a question that’s floating around social media that goes, “How did asking white people to pass background checks to buy a gun become more offensive than asking minorities to provide photo ID to vote?” It brings us back to my recurring questions – Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose? Why should we be more restrictive concerning our right to vote than we are restrictive of our right to bear arms? Why is it that minorities’ access to equal power is more threatening to some people than anyone’s access to a deadly weapon? How did citizenship become more terrifying to us than mass murder?

On Thursday, January 9th, “West Virginia schools and restaurants closed, grocery stores sold out of bottled water, and state legislators who had just started their session canceled the day’s business Friday after a chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston shut down much of the city and surrounding counties even as the cause and extent of the incident remained unclear.” 300,000 people were affected. “According to Department of Environmental Protection officials, Freedom Industries, which owns the chemical tank that ruptured, is exempt from Department of Environmental Protection inspections and permitting since it stores chemicals and does not produce them, The Associated Press reported.” 300,000 people, in our country, have lost access to water. They can’t clean their clothes, wash their dishes, or take a bath because we’ve written legislation that allows a corporation to function without regulation because of a technicality. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy reports that “three in 10 West Virginia kids under age six live in poverty.” The future of this state’s citizens is mired in poverty and we choose to privilege corporations’ short term ease at the expense of our children’s (and thereby our nation’s) long term welfare. What say do those kids, who can’t take a bath, or drink from the faucet, have in the face of the overwhelming power and wealth of unregulated corporations? Why would we further empower the powerful and risk the lives of the weak? Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

My last example today happened also on Thursday. A leaked UN report on climate change indicates very bleak findings. It reads, “Nations have so dragged their feet in battling climate change that the situation has grown critical and the risk of severe economic disruption is rising, according to a draft United Nations report. Another 15 years of failure to limit carbon emissions could make the problem virtually impossible to solve with current technologies, the experts found.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008, 42% of the world’s Carbon Dioxide emissions come from China and the United States. With both nations’ proclivity for competition, financial gain, and industrial power – there are many eerie flashbacks to the Cold War and threat of Nuclear annihilation, only this time the risk will come from economic warfare’s spillover effects upon our planet. Which nation will slow down the industrial race first? How do we get both our country and China to “disarm” our weapons of mass greed? All throughout this, the  enormously wealthy few decide the environmental fate of a planet. Who gets to keep their voice? Who gets to choose?

Those two questions gird the theological question of the morning. The legacy of Rev. Dr. King teaches us that every person is entitled to fair, equitable treatment. Every person is entitled to their voice having a reasonable say. Every person is entitled to safety in our society. Our principles reframe these teachings in our own language around worth, dignity, democratic process and global community. All of these crises can easily be swept aside, and we came blithely blame the lack of public interest, or commitment to civic duty, or proclivity for Reality TV over educational documentaries.

I think in some ways disinterest, misinformation, or denigration of education are to blame. But they’re blimps compared to how systems of oppression dictate allocation of power. We have corporate lobbies, that privilege short term investor gains over long term environmental catastrophes – as if the costs of clean up or the costs of medical treatments were imaginary things. It’s an outbreak of Corporate Affluenza. They’ve never had to deal with the repercussions of their actions before, so they shouldn’t be expected to have the maturity to deal with the fall out of their pollution of our water and air now.

We have a gun lobby that dictates the safety of our children. Although the second amendment is often cited as the main reason for the strength of the gun lobby, I believe it’s more rooted in wealth. In the year following the Sandy Hook shooting, gun makers’ profits went up 52%. There is a financial cost to big business in order for our kids to have safe schools. It’s not profitable – for the select few – to make choices grounded in common sense.

And so long as minorities continue to tend to vote in such ways that support the interests of the working and middle classes, or merely support the interests of common human decency, their votes become dangerous to conflicting special interest groups – groups that are not interested in common human decency. It is horrifying to me, that our nation will lift up the life of Nelson Mandela, a leader who fought to ensure everyone had the right to vote, a leader who strived to help his nation move past a time when voting centers in black communities were dealing with bomb threats and actual bombs – that we would enshrine him and then dismantle our own bill of rights for the very reasons Mr. Mandela dedicated his life against. Freedom does not mean the right to do whatever you may wish, whenever you may wish it, to whomever you wish to do it to. That’s call anarchy. Freedom, in our faith, means recognizing how we are all interdependent and living with compassion in light of that fact. It’s not about removing our inhibitions. It’s not about ignoring our accountability. It’s not about maintaining an ignorance of the ramifications of our actions. Freedom, real freedom, is living and letting others live too. Sometimes freedom means accepting mild, reasonable limitations on our sense of entitlement in order for others to have a fair chance at the same free life. Freedom is another way to say communal maturity.

It can all feel so overwhelming. Ministers hesitate to dwell too long on the difficult news of the day because it can so easily instill a sense of dread, or fatalism, that’s contrary to our religious truths. We must be diligent in remembering the words of the great Unitarian preacher, Theodore Parker that were made famous to another generation by Rev. Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Despite all the tragedies of the day, people’s concerted efforts, over time, have meaning and substance. They define our humanity, as much as one’s apathy draws fences around our souls.

Both of our stories this morning teach us that our efforts matter. The kids’ story of the mouse and the bird counting the snowflakes. It may take that millionth snowflake to finally fall, but that branch will then come down. Or our second story where there’s always another building that must be built, but it doesn’t mean we stop building because we’ll never finish. It’s the stories we live and breath that create lives of meaning and substance and integrity.

Our hymns this morning reflect the spirit of global civil rights movements. Our first hymn, Lift Every Voice and Sing, is often called the Black National Anthem. It does not tell a story that expects overnight solutions. It sings of endurance through the long road. And for those of us who may not come from a life situation where this song speaks to our pain, but may come from a heritage that was the source of the strife, it reminds us that we need to be cautious with our power; we need to be mindful of how we choose who keeps their voice and who gets to choose. The choir offertory, Precious Lord Take My Hand, was Rev. Dr. King’s favorite gospel hymn, and we sing it today in honor of him. Siyahamba, was a South African freedom song during the long, painful struggle against Apartheid. We are marching in the light of God, and the song is sung with joy and life! Joy and life in the face of extreme adversity. It teaches us that people can find celebration within themselves even at the worst of times so long as we remain open to the awe at the center of life. It’s another spiritual discipline to foster with care and attention.

Even the act of coming together in community is part of our spiritual work. One of our mid-twentieth century theologians, the Harvard professor James Luther Adams, would often espouse voluntary associations as engines of social progress. Voluntary associations could be congregations or they could be any secular group that further a social good – conservatory groups, educational partnerships, civic groups, etc. The work the groups do is one thing, but there’s something about being in a voluntary group that changes us. When we commit to remaining in relation to the people around us, we continue down a spiritual path. It’s not always easy to work with strangers. The democratic process isn’t always pleasant or even enjoyable. Our neighbors can be frustrating. We might not see eye to eye and still have to come to a consensus. In Unitarian Universalism, that discipline is our religious path. We’re saying that we’re here for the long road ahead. We know it won’t always be easy, but our humanity is rooted in our interdependence and by definition, that is one thing we certainly are not equipped to do alone.

If we live our lives where we only interact with people that look like us, think like us, and talk like us, we are cutting ourselves off from the religious truth of interdependence. If our congregation as a whole does not partner with communities that reflect identities other than our own, then we are cutting ourselves off from that truth. If we act primarily out of self interest and not out of communal health, we are cutting ourselves off from that truth.

We can’t individually tackle each of the major crises I’ve spoken about today, but there are people here who are called to focus on each of these needs. Find each other, and commit your energy to the shared work, even if it’s only 1 thing. On this social justice national holiday, dedicate this coffee hour to this task. Teaching ourselves and our children that our central identity is that of a citizen, or a person of faith, or a human being and not as a consumer, a bystander, or merely self-interest – is the primary task of in our life. It defines our character and the scope and breadth of our dreams.

I  mentioned our national community organizing campaign earlier – Standing on the Side of Love. If you check out their website, Facebook page, or twitter account (StandingontheSideofLove.org) you can sign up for their 30 Days of Love campaign. From MLK weekend through Valentines Day, they’ll offer different resources, reflections, family actions and more each day. If you don’t know what to do next, but want to do something, this will be a great place to help discern your call in this work as an individual, as a family, or as a congregation.

We can do this together. Together is the only way anything has ever actually been accomplished. Doing it, or making it alone, is the American lie, not the American Dream. The American Dream is Rev. Dr. King’s dream, and that was no singular vision scripted by privilege or power. And the world needs to see you, so very badly this hour.

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Sermon: Our Stories

This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at how we can reclaim our public voice for social justice.

Our day has finally come! There’s a case right now before the Supreme Court that will rule on the nature of public prayer in civic settings. Specifically, it’s looking at the matter of opening government meetings with sectarian prayers. The local town claims that no bias toward any particular religion is being held despite the fact that almost every public prayer is led by Christian clergy. “In a friend-of-the-court brief filed (a week ago) Friday, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Supreme Court that prohibiting Christian pastors from delivering a prayer to start official town meetings would effectively impose Unitarianism on the nation…. We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church (they go on to say) but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.” [1] Our day has finally come.

When I read this, I should have cried, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Imagine it: The Unitarian Theocracy has come to power! The Southern Baptists are taking issue with a secular request not to mix civic duty with religious practices – a request that was based upon the fact that almost no non-Christian traditions were invited to the table – and are equating this with our Unitarian Universalist pluralistic attitude toward public faith. They’ve created a good story. The Southern Baptist Convention are adjusting the facts to suit their preferences. … Imposing Unitarianism… let’s rewrite that story. What would that actually sound like? (1) You will be open to diversity of opinion. (2) You will make room for multiple religious voices at the table (3) You will support, engage, and nurture the democratic process ensuring that all people have a right to vote, access to voting, while faithfully seeking to eliminate obstacles to full inclusion in the democratic process. (4) You will not confuse your desire for unlimited personal freedom to do whatever you want, as a legitimate example of a real limitation on your freedom (5) We are all in this together, so we might as well act like it.

(6) You will not impose your religious views on anyone else as a matter of government – except for every one of these rules of course – which require you to act against your personal and cultural faux-American, faux-Christian tradition of being bigoted toward anyone different. Now that’s my kind of theocracy!

But it’s not. It’s not a theocracy in any real sense. Personal freedoms are not lost to any real religious authority. Just like claiming one’s freedom of speech is impinged upon when mandatory prayer at the start of a civic activity is removed. Mandatory anything – by definition – is what a real loss of freedom looks like. But we’ve allowed ourselves – to take serious – twists in language that tie us up in knots. Freedom begins to mean – only my personal freedom. Theocracy begins to mean – I can no longer impose my religious views on others. East is West, and Up is Down. Science-Fiction authors have been writing about this for at least the last century. It’s why books like 1984 and A Brave New World continue to be required reading in High School. (I sure hope they are at least….)

In short – the Faux Cultural Christian Right in the U.S. is very adept at wielding propaganda. And we need to get better at re-telling the story as it actually is happening. And we need to re-learn how to do this retelling in the moment that doublespeak happens. Not a year later; not in the safety of our dinner tables; not solely on our Facebook walls. When it happens. In the moment.

I call this recent mindset “faux cultural christian right” because as a powerhouse, it’s only a recent phenomenon. It was birthed with the evangelical movements that grew post Billy Graham. Christianity in the U.S., as a political force, was primarily liberal until the 1950’s. In the 1820s-1840’s – the Unitarians controlled the New England court system. In 1850 the Universalists were the third largest denomination in America at 5 million members.  The Social Gospel movement of the 1920’s was mainstream Christianity and it was very liberal. Essentially, this movement said that Jesus taught us to care for the poor, so we should act like it. Even the Neo-Orthodox movement that rose out of the horrors of WWII, led by great theologians like Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, were theologically conservative but socially progressive.

I call it faux and cultural Christianity, because its social message does not reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It’s a simple fact. You can’t find a lesson of hate, isolation or consumerism anywhere in the actual teachings of Jesus. Anywhere. He never said anything like it. One does not need to follow Jesus of course, but if you’re going to speak in his name, you ought to quote him right at least.

Just because the right wing of American Christianity is dominant in public debate for the past 40 or so years, and it’s only been 40 or so years, does not mean that they get to define Christianity, or religion for that matter. But that’s exactly what we allow to happen, when we indignantly sit in our disgust of barbaric views that foster bigotry, racism, homophobia and xenophobia…. And too often we just sit quietly…. As a religious people – we are not called to silence, we are called to voice. Our principles teach us that we have promised to act as though each person has dignity and worth, and to do so with equity and compassion. They tell us that acceptance, inclusion, and responsibility are spiritual matters. The promise we made when we joined this faith included taking democracy very seriously. It’s a sacrament of sorts for us. Because when the democratic process fails – dignity, worth, equity, and inclusion are all at risk. And we can not live the lie that we are alone in this world; that we have earned everything we have ever achieved by ourselves; that the earth does not need us, and we do not need it. The great lie tells us that we are an island unto ourselves, and that’s quite fine thank you very much. That’s not what our religion teaches us, and it’s not what it demands of us. Each of these principles demand a strong voice from us this day. And we need to re-learn to be very public about telling our story. Or we allow others to say Up is Down, and East is West. We become complicit. We become complicit.

Stories have power. They shape us. I want to share another story with you now. I grew up hearing stories about the March On Washington. As a child, this historic moment seemed immense, and far removed in time. Yet, it ingrained itself in my young conscience. Rev. King’s watershed speech galvanized an ethic that not only challenged the institutions of his time, but offered a path for the next generations to mature into. From this grounding, we as a people struggle, grow, and heal. He did so by re-telling the American story. He made The Dream bigger and more inclusive. He basically said – ‘you know all those things we said about freedom and equity – well let’s start meaning them.” And the work must continue.

August 24th marks the 50th anniversary of “The Great March.” Brian and I will be heading down to DC to join one of our largest congregations – All Souls, DC – in Standing on the Side of Love. Our weekly eFlash has more information on how to join. You can also follow that link to read the letter I wrote that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign sent out to the denomination on Thursday inviting us all to DC.

Wherever any of us are oppressed, we are all diminished. Whenever we remain complacent, we are complicit. When we are unmoved, our faith calls us back to a place of compassion. We are all our relations. We still have a dream. May the next generations be inspired by the course of our hearts. I hope to see you in DC at the end of this month and take part in the re-telling of our American Story for this generation.

Just like our nation, what we say about ourselves influences what we become as a faith community and as individuals. If we speak only about ourselves as a thoroughly-reasoned people, and not as an empathetic community, we will sound more intellectual than heart-centered. If we neglect our commitment to the public sector, the public sector will expect us to sputter quietly in the night. If we stew in our terminal uniqueness, we will sit alone at lunch hour.

What are the stories we need to retell in our own congregation? Where are we silent when we ought to speak up? What would reclaiming your commitment to voice in this Fellowship look like? Consider it. You may have different answers than I will, or the person next to you will. I’ll suggest a few, by starting with the most individual and working my way up.

When are you silent when you should speak up in this community? Sometimes folks gossip in life. Sometimes people are critical of one another behind each other’s backs. This happens in our families, in our classrooms, in our social circles and yes, in our religious home. It’s a fact of human interactions, and always continues. I challenge each of you to challenge it, when you witness it, with love and compassion. Not with finger pointing; not with a judgmental tone; without the classic “ah, gotcha!” You can say things like, “Well, Billy’s not here right now, maybe you can bring it up with them directly.” Or, “That’s not my experience of them.” When we’re guilty of guerilla tactics of critique we need to ask ourselves “Is this kind? Is this helpful? Is it even true?” I would further add – “Is this actually what we’re here to even do?” Gossip is the same as behind-the-scenes critique.

Sometimes in our circles we’re called to not remain silent for more serious matters. Someone in earshot makes a racist comment, or a homophobic comment. It could be in this building, or at work, or in home room at school. If we say nothing we are complicit. Anyone hurt by the comment will be further hurt by our silence. We don’t need to enter into an argument. We could just say aloud, “That’s not my view” or “We don’t appreciate hateful words like that here.” We need to make a spiritual practice of responding with compassion – in the moment. Not waiting till later. Not thinking it’s not our place. This is our home, and we make of it what we wish to see.

What about the bigger picture for our congregation and our community? What old stories need retelling? Are we actually broke? People believe in God now! No one believes in God now! Do we really want our parking lot to greet the bottom of our cars every time we enter or exit? Do more people really not want to take part in the leadership of this community? Are children welcome in our religious home? What does membership in our congregation mean? What is our purpose?

Many of these answers will take the better part of the next year to define and redefine. I have some impressions from the many conversations I’ve had already, and look forward to learning more from each of you. The Board began some of these reflections last Sunday with me in our 6 hour retreat after services, and the Board will be intentionally seeking more and more inclusion in the months to come. I can’t answer each of these questions for myself yet, but I would like to look at one right now.

…The Parking Lot… Everyone get comfortable in your chairs. Stretch if you need to. Take a deep breath. Really. Ok, you can keep breathing. I know this has been a challenge for somewhere between seasons and eons. Everyone has a different view about exactly what’s going on. The facts are three-fold: 1) We have a parking lot (can we all agree on that? by a show of hands, how many of us agree that’s true? ok, good.) 2) the parking lot needs to be repaired because cars have been driving on it and parking in it for a long time and the laws of physics and geology remain true even here on our sacred grounds and 3) repairs cost money. What appears to me to be the dominant story is that we are short money. We could probably get enough money to do basic repairs – assuming we can agree on what the word “basic” means – or we could agree on what the word “what” means for that matter. Some in the community weigh environmental concerns more highly than fiscal and are holding out for doing this in the ecological manner. Namely – semi-porous materials that help tremendously with drainage. And the dichotomy that’s created sounds like, “we’d be able to move forward if the environmentalists would just stop blocking the process.” I’ve heard this already, and it’s not the best way to phrase the situation.

We need a new story. We have groups here that are more ecologically minded. We have award-recognized conservationists in our midst and on our Board. We have others that are focused on community gardens to help with the problem of hunger in our community. We have others that specifically are called to upgrading our beloved building to Green Sanctuary status. And we have others who would love to see an eco-friendly driveway. And our religious principles – namely our 7th – tells us that all things are interdependent; that we are part of the world and the world is part of us. What if that became our new story?

What if we allowed the spirituality of environmental stewardship to be a real demand on our lives? There’s certainly the need. We have members who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy. I remember being trapped in my 10th story NYC apartment with the East River in front of our door (Three avenues, the FDR and the East River Park further in than the East River should have been.) On July 22nd, while Brian and I were busy closing on our new home in Huntington, people were taking photos of The-Day-the-North-Pole-Became-A-Lake. Global Warming will continue if each of us continues to do what we’ve been doing. 99% of scientists agree. When was the last time 99% of people agreed on anything?

We all know the definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. Some changes will be easy. Most of them will not be easy. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be. Yesterday was the time for action, but we’ll have to do with today.

As some of you know, I was an Urban Planner before I was a minister. I mostly worked in the area of affordable housing and health insurance outreach, but we all got trained in the basics of everything Planner-related. Like the ministry, Planners are a rare breed of specialized generalists. So with that background known, I say this, the environmental benefit of doing this right, is actually significant. It’s not a token act. It’s meaningful. It’s also good for our collective spirit.

In our social justice and social service work we come together well when we work toward ending homelessness and hunger. I believe we have a critical mass of drive and purpose to do this collective action with environmental stewardship as well. It’s certainly in our religious values. It certainly needs to be done. And we have a real opportunity for local, meaningful impact in an area that affects all of us generally – and an area that has affected some of us tremendously – at the price of our homes.

Sometimes we make good decisions informed by finances. And sometimes we allow money to make us forget our principles. When Brian and I walked into the VW dealership to lease a new car, we walked in with the express intention of leasing a hybrid. Somehow, the agent convinced us not to buy a hybrid. As a lease, we would never make back the money in gas that we would spend in getting a hybrid. Right now, it’s only cheaper if you drive a lot, and we won’t be driving a lot. It’s only small comfort that the mileage on the non-hybrid car is better mileage than I’ve ever had in my life. I went in to make a principled purchase and I walked out doing otherwise. I forgot my center. I hope we can find our center and make a principled decision. And although “no decision” – is a decision – it’s not going to stop the ground greeting the bottom of my new lease every time I enter or exit the parking lot.

Folks can respond – ‘well, where is the money going to come from?’ And I would respond, that’s the wrong first question. The right first few questions are – As a religious community, what’s the principled choice?  How will this energize us as a community? How will this define us? Who will join our community because of the potentially very public leadership we show? Will it help us find our voice? What story will we now be telling?

I have faith in this community. I believe we will actualize our center in the years to come; that we have a purpose and we will embody it with life. Because I believe in our story, I will be pledging 5% of my income as your minister to the works and ministry of this Fellowship. It will come directly out of my paycheck before I ever see it. I wish I could pledge more, but with the state of student loans in our country right now, and the crippling cost of seminary and graduate school debt, I simply can not at this time. But I want to make this choice, because it feels right. I want to contribute to our impact on the world in every way I can.

You see, the money will come, if our purpose is right. The money will not come if we focus on wondering where the money will come from. The money will come when we recognize that our religious community is saving lives as well as mending souls. We are helping to house the homeless – in this very sanctuary. We share in the responsibility of feeding the hungry in our community. We can tell our story as the people who show up to witness when advocacy for justice is required. We are literally saving lives, when a teen desperately needs to hear that they are whole, and sacred, just as they are – for who they love. We are literally saving lives, when we respect the choices people make with their bodies – even when the body they are born into doesn’t exactly match the body they feel they fit into. We are literally saving lives when we seek to change the tenor of public discourse. From all the horrifying news stories abounding we know all too well the public lynching trees are far from gone in our country. We have much work to do. We have a purpose. We are a saving faith, in a very literal sense. Go. Tell our story.

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