Posts Tagged Interfaith
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/20/16 looking at the differences between faith and belief. We also explore the tension between character and values, and how they struggle with broader ideologies in light of a nation with increasing frequencies of hate crimes.
Four years ago, my husband and I were entertaining out of town guests. They wanted to experience the NYC night life, so we took them to one of the then newer dance clubs in Hell’s Kitchen.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 husband 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 Brian. The New York 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. When values become secondary to belief, we walk dangerous ground; ideology then trumps character. Our American roots in 18th and 19th century Unitarianism, saw a direct connection between the state of our soul and the nature of our character. For preachers like Theodore Channing, character was a spiritual value; but character is based not on belief, but on action, values and commitments – living from a moral bedrock. Although coming from different places, we could argue what that bedrock should look like, but truth and facts seemed then to weigh more heavily than they appear to do these last 2 years with the expansion of social media, and the reduction of trust in journalism and Cable News. In a recent survey, only 32% of Americans trust the media these days.
Political gridlock in the House and the Senate, which ultimately impacted the future of the Presidency. Our recent (but frequent) history of voting pledges being demanded of potential politicians over reproductive rights and taxation – we saw this mostly strongly in the rise of the Tea Party; although campaign promises seem to now be able to be dropped at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen; maybe campaign loyalty to established figures matters less than the cult of personality or the cult of simply feeling wronged. These are symptoms of beliefs taking precedence over religious values of compassion, or free-will, or non-violence. Ideology, or party unity, seems to trump common values to the point where folks can’t even see that they are doing that in the slightest.
Since the rise of Christian Fundamentalism in the past 40 or 50 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. And sorting through this difference may become increasingly more important for our democracy as our nation becomes more and more polarized over beliefs – we need to find our way back to our central values.
How has faith shifted to it’s modern understanding? 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 was not originally a core 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.
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.
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. And we are sadly and tragically seeing that expand rapidly, even in the past week since the election. Hate crimes are on the rise. Swastikas and the word “Trump” are being graffitied in tandem on progressive church walls, and in playgrounds in Brooklyn Jewish neighborhoods. When right belief gets confused with right ideology and then right ideology gets connected with race, sexuality or religion, we have a real threat to our democracy and our basic American identity.
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 act with grace – 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 with a former student minister of mine, now a UU clergy colleague, the Rev. Beth Dana. This Sunday last year, I had the privilege of offering the prayer of ordination and the laying on hands for her service of ordination in Dallas, Texas. 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. (Starr Austin and I are leading a 7 part class on Adult Coming of Age, a sort of Credo Workshop on Second Sundays. Check in with her if you’d like to sign up, and 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. Living in Long Island, there’s a high likelihood that you’re stressed by the cost of your rent or mortgage, or the weight of your student debt, or the credit card collectors calling, 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 the school your kids 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. We have a million things that need our attention and care in the wider world; and you probably come here to work toward that as well. Ease down the trappings of the head, and let your heart give more guidance. Let values of love, and care override hate and indifference. Let character lead away from ideology. May relationships overcome intellectual isolations.
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.
And as, maybe we travel to see family for the holidays, or they travel to see us; let us remember this openness over difficult meals. Not an openness to empty unity in the face of difference of opinion, but an openness to get off our fences, or the need for fences in the first place. An openness to finding our shared values that build up our national character. For a healthy unity comes in values, not ideology. Matthew 25, which we briefly quoted in our sermon last Sunday, and I referenced at length today, reminds us what our central values are in caring for those in need (the hungry, and naked, and homeless, and imprisoned, and thirsty.) If you hear an ideology that calls for unity that denies this central value of the teachings of Jesus, it’s a false ideology and give it no room in your heart. Give it no room. Unity at the expense of our neighbor, is no unity, it’s the old lie of power and oppression dressed up in pretty words that ring hollow, and offer nothing but brokenness.
 Matthew 25:32-46
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.
This sermon was preached at the First UU Congregation in Brooklyn, NY as Rev. Jude’s last sermon as the Minister of Lifespan Religious Education. It was also our annual Coming of Age service.
Five years ago, when I began working with our congregation, our Coming of Age youth were in 3rd and 4th grades. Some had siblings who were in High School; some had siblings who were in Kindergarten at the time; some weren’t part of our congregation yet. Five years of religious education classes on UU history, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, stories from faith traditions around the world, and roughly 35 classes on comprehensive Sexuality Education later, these youth entered a Coming of Age year working with their advisors and mentors. Some joined us later and had an intense immersion into how we do things here. By the age of 13 to 15 most of these youth have attended more religious education classes in the UU tradition than all but a few of our most dedicated adults. We don’t make “earning” the designation of “youth” easy here!
We make a big deal of entering the teenage years, because it’s really a big deal. Our newest youth are no longer children. More is expected of them here, and they now expect us to offer them more responsibility, more opportunities to lead, more freedom to explore and learn in our community. They’ve just crossed one of the big thresholds in life. The first few thresholds roughly go like this: Out of Diapers: Check. First Tooth under the Pillow: Check. First D on homework: Check. 200th argument with Parent: Check. Learned how to show-up when people expect you to show-up: Check (That last one is a much bigger deal than it might seem like right now. But believe me, showing up is half of what we’re here for in life…. And it’s not always that simple to do.) And today – making the first, best guess at … what the other half of life is all about. In our tradition, we ask our youth to begin to sort that out for themselves, rather than learn what we’ve all figured out and repeat it back to us. That’s a really good thing for us to do – because if they had to memorize all our different answers it would take them another five years before they would come of age. It might take them that long if they had to memorize all of my different answers.
I’d like to offer my own faith statement today as well. In a way, I offer a briefer version of it every time I give our benediction. The benediction you’re familiar with is an edited version of the words of the UU minister, Rev. Robert Mabry Doss – it’s #700 in our grey hymnal. “For all who see God, may God be with us. For all embrace life, may life return your affection. For all who seek a right path, may a way be found, and the courage to take it, step by step. For this is the day we are given. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I began using that benediction at a District Bridging ceremony about 7 years ago. I was the Adult co-Dean of the weekend long youth conference and we were coming to an impasse in how to lead the service. After all the worship planning was nearly done, I raised my hand and said, “But no one’s mentioned God anywhere in this service.” One youth responded to the affect of: Well we want to be welcoming of all beliefs, so we don’t want to put anyone off who doesn’t believe in God. … I remember saying, but some of us DO believe in God – how is that welcoming to us? It led to some really great discussions; some changes in the service; and the selection of this benediction as the close. So it’s special to me because of that story – because of the connections that were made that it points to.
But it means something else as well. It means that when I talk about God, or she talks about embracing life, or they talk about finally finding the way forward after a tough run through whatever makes the ego twinge – that we all mean roughly the same thing. I don’t mean to say that when everyone talks about God – all they mean is life embracing life. Some people have a different religion than me – in fact most people do. But when we talk about God here – at our core, we’re talking about connecting to the Holy. Not defining the Holy. Not building neat fences around the Holy. Not having tedious arguments about the specificity of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We’re talking about getting past our heads, into our hearts, and relating to that which is beyond merely our singular selves.
We’re not about our individual growth – only. We’re not about consuming the resources our pledge money supports. We’re not about thinking big thoughts – only. We’re about finding ourselves again; helping our neighbor do the same; and trying to figure out how together we might heal the places of brokenness in our lives and the world around us.
I’m at the center of my story, but I know there are a lot of centers all around me going through all their stories. I choose to find meaning in that. I choose to find value in all our connections – human, or ugly pigeon, or the orange salamander I saw on a recent hike in the woods. I get a little edgy when folks want to pin my views down for careful examination – I know the pins don’t do well for the butterflies on a wall, and they’re rough on spirituality as well. Not because the light of reason proves our faith wrong, but because too much intense heat will wither any plant.
It’s a tension between our intellectual side, and the deep-felt need for many of us to encounter a real spiritual passion. I prefer to err on the side of not drying people out. So I tend to preach about what we mean; what we’re pointing toward – and not get caught up in the details. To be honest – details that in other faith traditions would be of immortal importance. My view is this: we can talk about what exactly is going on when our community gathers for prayer after a time of silence. Calling out names held in our hearts; lighting candles in chapels, or sitting in meditation. We can talk about it, or we can experience it. We can’t do both.
There’s an inclination here to talk about what I believe exactly, but I feel that that’s outside the map that faith draws. Faith is our drive; it’s how we live, how we love, and how we dream. I really feel that the rest are details. Details that have changed a lot over my life, and I imagine will continue to change. But how I live, love and dream – I hope that continues to deepen throughout my days. And yes – as the benediction says, This is the day we are given, let us rejoice and be glad in it. For me, that’s the core of faith right there. A very hard tenet to follow all the time. I’ve failed at it a dozen times … just this weekend.
As most of you have heard by now in letter, or email, or Facebook, or our Annual Report – I will be leaving First UU after next Sunday, June 9th. Starting in August, I’ll be the leading minister at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. I’m grateful for my five years here at the congregation, and I’m definitely going to miss Brooklyn. Assuming the purchase and closing goes well on our house, Brian and I will be moving into our new home at the end of July in Huntington. I thank this community for being with me at the start of my work in the ministry. I have learned so much from you all – not that it was always easy or smooth – but I don’t think New Yorkers do easy or smooth very well – do we?
I have a lot of faith in this community. I don’t believe that Brooklyn will do everything right all of the time. You’ll continue to have some great successes – as all of the awards the congregation and members received this past District meeting indicate; as all of the work we do in the community points toward; as the radically growing Sunday attendance reflects. And you’ll continue to make some of the same mistakes. One bit of parting advice. Be mindful of how new members and newcomers get integrated into leadership and committees – or how our newest youth get welcomed. Sometimes we have a tendency to want new folks as part of our work, while at the same time insisting that they lead things in exactly the same way folks have been leading for the past 40 or 50 years. One of the ways to tell if you’re doing this as leaders is to notice if you’re on a committee that sees a lot of new people come and go – especially if they leave your team mid-year – take stock of that. Seriously. It doesn’t do us any good – and it doesn’t make our work in the world any stronger. Views, habits, styles change over the decades. Be nimble. Please, don’t be distracted by the form new leadership takes.
When I leave, I need to honor my covenant with my fellow clergy. In order to allow your next minister a real chance to develop a healthy ministry with you, aside from officiating at some non-member weddings, I will be away from First UU for a least a year after the permanent MRE gets settled. Afterward, with permission from your clergy team, I can visit. It’s not meant to be cold or willfully distant; but rather to allow the new person to be your minister, while I become another congregation’s minister. … I promise not to turn my face if we run into each other. But it does mean I won’t be talking about your RE program with the RE Council, or preaching here in the interim. It will be the new minister’s program, and I need to let go. Although when Brooklyn wins its next set of awards at another District Meeting or General Assembly, or I read about future successes in the rebuilding of Red Hook, I’ll be cheering you on from my seat.
Although I’ll not be departing till next Sunday, this is my last time in the pulpit. So I get the joy of giving out one more gift to a group of teens who are formally leaving their childhood years behind them. I’ll ask our Coming of Age youth to now please rise. Our Advisors will give them each a present now. While they’re handing them out, I’ll explain. On the back of the object is a classic quote from one of our best known Unitarian philosophers… – Dr. Seuss – from his great literary work, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” The inscription reads, “You have brains in your head; You have feet in your shoes, You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.” The gift itself is a compass. The compass means a lot of things in the Coming of Age program. But I’d like to tell our youth now that although the compass always tells you which direction you’re facing, remember that you’re always the person that’s got to read it. There will be many times in your life that experts, and ministers, and politicians, and guidance counselors will tell you how things are; where you’re heading; and how to get there. Even if they’re right (and sometimes they will actually be right) you’re the one that holds that direction for yourself. You’re the one that needs to make your best decision. Just because you might know where true north lies, doesn’t mean you have to go there. For good or for ill, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
 “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss
Originally spoken on for a memorial service on the 9th anniversary at the First UU in Brooklyn.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names and One Transforming and Abundant Love, be with us now.
Help us to enter this new year with a spirit of renewal. Open our hearts to the possibility of abundance. Open our hands to do the work of what the year brings to us, with meaning and integrity; with care and love. Prepare our lips to speak with truth and care.
All of these blessings will be needed to prepare the road ahead for justice and healing. We pause once more, as some do every day, to remember the lives lost 9 years ago on a Tuesday morning. We mourn the friends we can no longer greet. We hold in our hearts the families that are missing a parent, or sister, or son. We acknowledge that a new generation has seen its innocence of worldly anguish pass away.
Knowing that each of us must wrestle with memory and loss in our own ways; we pray for the strength of heart to face these difficulties with integrity. That we know, deep down, that a warm community sits all around us ready to stretch our a hand so that the way ahead is a little bit less cumbersome, less solitary, less strange.
May our memory and our grief not alter our prayerful convictions for a world of hope and love. May the harm done that fateful day not deter our spirits one inch from a path of building that world we dream about. May we not learn to become creatures of reaction, recreating harm in the world around us for the harm done in this City.
This morning we keep close in our hearts the families and friends we once knew. We rejoice in those stories where a parent, or brother or daughter arrived home late at night to a welcoming grateful family. We also rejoice for the congregations like ours, spread throughout this country, who have learned to break bread and share in worship across religious aisles; who appreciate the shared messages of love and healing that are taught by Christians, by Jews and Muslims; by religions the world throughout. It is in this spirit, that the world may see peace.
Ten years ago today, most of us woke up to a Sunny clear sky. I remember not a cloud in sight. It was a shade of blue that many of us can recall vividly still. It was a Tuesday morning, and kids were just starting school for the year. Not all of us were born yet though, and some of us might be too young to remember. I was working at a University in Northern Jersey then, and remember meeting new college freshmen who were away from home for the very first time.
At 8:46am, when kids were in school, and some folks were at work, a group of terrorists – who also identified as Muslims – crashed the first of two planes into the Twin towers of the World Trade Center. About every 20 to 30 minutes we would learn of another such tragedy. The second tower and then the pentagon and finally Flight 93 which crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The news was all confused for some time, with conflicting stories. I remember not believing it when I first heard about it from a co-worker a few minutes before 9.
Some stories would remain confused to this day. People would say that all Muslims (or followers of Islam) hate America. The truth is that although some people are filled with hate, the core of the Islamic faith that I have come to know in the United States calls for peace. Some would say this was the beginning of a religious war; but the truth is that victims on that day came from all religions: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Paganism to name a few…. Sometimes people hide behind their lies about religion to further their political goals.
We mourn for the loss of those almost 3000 lives, and we gain strength from the stories of hope and renewal. I am inspired by the tales of all those firefighters, police and EMT’s who ran toward the towers to help when everyone else was trying to get as far away as possible. Or the passengers of Flight 93 who wrestled with their hijackers, not knowing what might come, so that even more harm did not happen to innocent lives on the ground. Or the story of our own congregation. Led by our minister at the time, Fred; we crafted an interfaith service on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade overlooking the World Trade Center. That Tuesday evening, members of the churches and synagogues and mosques all around here gathered for a candlelight vigil together. At a time when fear was the easy answer, First UU reached out with love and compassion. It is these stories of hope that we honor those who are lost to us. Not by the clutching or grabbing of anger and fear, but by the reaching out of loving hands do we rebuild and strengthen community.