Posts Tagged James Luther Adams

When Goodness Happens

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/16/16. It explores our endemic culture of misogyny, and how our theology can help us through to a new creation.

When I was a child, one of the worst insults another kid could make toward a boy was to say they acted like a girl; or threw like a girl, or ran or walked like a girl. “Man up”, meant toughen up. Being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. And the barbs would come from boys for sure – but those barbs would also come from girls. It would be engrained by implicit actions by adult men, and by adult women. As kids we would voice aloud the stuff that we would quietly live by as adults.

It’s sick. It’s a sickness in our culture that strives to denigrate half our population in order to apparently lift up the other half. But it only does so in appearance. When boys and men are raised to think masculinity has only one form, we box in our boys’ potential as we diminish the worth of our girls. No one wins; everyone loses. The pain is merely felt differently for each of us; but the pain is real. And although we’re all diminished, girls’ and women’s safety is put up as the gamble.

And it continues well on into adulthood. The worst excesses get normalized as harmless ‘locker room talk’, when what is actually being bantered about amounts to sexual assault. But we don’t have to go to that extreme to see it in our daily lives. At work, or at our Fellowship, note who takes up room in discussions. Note how we are trained and raised to speak or not to speak. Who gets to repeat the same tired point over and over until folks are beaten into submission, and who struggles to whisper their view even once? Misogyny is a sickness, and we’re swimming in it – we’re swimming in in so some of us normalize it, some never notice it, and some are being killed by it.

We’re living in a culture where several women can accuse a public or political figure of sexual assault, and a mainstream media pundit/newscaster (Lou Dobbs) will punish them by tweeting out the women’s home address and phone number. If we wonder why women do not speak aloud in a timely manner after being assaulted, we only have to look to that to know one of the reasons. How is that even legal?! We give the whole public direct access to the potential victim of sexual assault. How traumatic that is for the victim. But there’s also a way in which that punishment for speaking out gets felt by all women, by all victims of sexual assault (not just women.) They’re put in their place – once again. Misogyny is a sickness that demoralizes, victimizes, and sometimes kills.

Theologically, misogyny is another form of Original Sin. We don’t need to have done anything to be infected by it. Men, women, all people raised in our culture must deal with its imprint on our psyches and on our souls. We’re born into, infected by it, and live lives that replicate the systems of abuse – knowingly or unwittingly – even if we’re also victims of it; because we’re all victims of it. But even if we’ve done nothing to deserve the sin of misogyny, in order for healing, we need to address it. For some of us we’re victims and a whole range of support systems may need to be relied on for healing, for safety, or for justice. If that’s true for you, and you need help, please reach out, and our Fellowship will help in every way we possibly can.

Some of us have internalized it so much, that we contribute without knowing the damage we do – in some ways large, and in some ways small. If I go back to my childhood – being a guy meant being strong, and loud, and taking up space. The flip side meant that being a girl meant being weaker and being a door-mouse. When we find ourselves living by either of those false truths, we need to seek to push ourselves to break free from that bind. Binding lies, break our spirits, harm our world, and risk our lives.

And for the men in the room, we need to do better. We need to be a little more believing of women who say they are in danger. We need to be a little more gracious with the space we dominate. We need to be less permissive of supposed “locker room talk” when we hear it. Women become less safe, and men become less human, when we pretend that language that perpetuates sexual assault is harmless in our personal fantasies. It’s not harmless; it doesn’t further the peace; it doesn’t make space for women to be themselves without fear of harm. We have to do better.

A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. After many requests, I promised I would work through each of the stones in successive weeks. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After today we have one more to cover, but today, I want to focus on the 4th stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another.

Each child that’s born is another redeemer. Theologically, what does that mean for our culture? If every child that’s born is another redeemer, then misogyny is a lie. We’re not better than any other soul because of the happenstance of our birth. Any ethic that lifts one group over another is a spiritual lie that erodes our conscience and diminishes our humanity. Each girl that’s born is another redeemer, and we ought to treat one another appropriately with care and support. Our common humanity is wrapped up in the common redemption of all people. Each of us has the potential to redeem the broken corners of our world.

We just came through the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On Tuesday evening, we celebrated the Kol Nidre service where we sought to admit our failings, and atone for the harm we’ve brought into this world – through our actions or due to our inactions. There was a quote in the service that comes from an 18th century Chasidic proverb. “Keep two truths in your pocket, and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be, “For my sake was the world created.” And the other, “I am dust and ashes.”

This wisdom speaks to us based on where our ego and where our sense of self lie. When we’re allowing the world to step on us, and destroy our sense of worth, we need to remember that for our sake was the world created. When we’re doing the soul-crushing of another we need to find more humility and remember that we’re dust and ashes. Misogyny confuses the world into thinking those two proverbs apply distinctly based on gender; as if the world were created only for men, and women were but dust and ashes. If that feels extreme, take a closer look at how men and women are spoken of in the general public, on the schoolyard, and in your work meetings. I don’t think it’s that far off how culture functions at its worst. And it functions at its worst far too much.

But if each child that’s born is another redeemer; if we each have worth and we each having a saving agency to bring to Creation, then that potential for goodness is inherent. That potential for goodness also obligates us in the face of a world full of struggle. If we have agency, goodness obligates us to use that agency for the betterment of one another. To do otherwise is to turn our heads from another’s needs; to become complicit in systems of oppression and indifference that churn through the lives of our children and adults, and through our own lives. The demand this fourth stone places upon us is the perennial question: Do I live into this holy work? At times of hardship, it may be enough to simply try to survive, or to heal. But when we have the capacity to ease the suffering of those around, goodness obligates us to live into this holy work. At those times of strength, living into this holy work means taking seriously when another speaks up about violence or coercion done to them. And to be sure, when we’re going through those times of hardship, living our authentic self is the first step to living into this holy work.

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Choose Hope

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/9/16 for Rosh Hashanah. During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after times of hardship? 

There’s a notion – I’m not sure where I first encountered it – that makes a distinction about the evolution of science and the evolution of ethics. It suggests that they differ in one notable way. As science unfolds, it progresses on what came before. Each generation is faced with new learnings that are rooted in old learnings, and the body of scientific knowing gets passed on to the next generation to pick up from where prior scientists left off. Barring catastrophes like the Dark Ages, science isn’t lost, it perennially moves forward.

Ethics is a different creature. Although our scholars in the field may function in the same way, building off what came before – as a people – each generation needs to learn and relearn the same lessons. Why is war the worst solution? Why are basic civil rights a thing each generation needs to fight for over and over? Why do we enter and return financial crises that we knew would occur – the proverbial market bubbles that we force upon ourselves again and again? It’s because as human creatures, our communal intellect may be willing to build off the lego blocks of past advancements, but our hearts have to start from the beginning with each new generation. For communities, ethics is learned from the ground up, and science starts from the shoulders of past giants.

Now that statement has a way about it that’s painted in broad strokes. Even if science can give a clear answer – like on the question (or non-question) of climate change – ethics deeply influences our ability to accept it as answer. Likewise, we seem to be able to make the processing power of computers multiple by 1.5 times annually, but ethics seems to stall our improvement of fuel efficiency and our choices to even research renewable resources. But the basic notion is still accurate – we have all the resources to transform the world, but we don’t always choose to do so.

Spiritually, there’s a way in which that feels exhausting. We have all the capacity to affect the changes we need, but we often don’t have the moral courage, or maybe the moral willpower, to pass on the lessons in ways that seem to match. But we can choose to flip that script. A month ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Today, I want to focus on the 5th stone in Adams’ theology (after today we’ve got two more stones to visit.) That fifth precept paraphrased is: “We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.”

Despair sets in when we think we can’t affect change. That’s either rooted in cynicism, or that’s rooted in facts that paint a bleak picture. Let’s look at both. Staying with the science road, history tells us that the facts of science seem to indicate we have all the capacity we need to affect change in the world. From polio, to penicillin, to the moon landing, to the ozone layer – give us a challenge that we can unite behind, and give us generations to accomplish it, and we can do it. That’s the fact. Cynicism looks at perfect outcomes and pretends that those perfect outcomes are the new benchmark to follow. If we don’t meet the benchmark of perfect, then the solution is flawed and what’s the point. There’s some interesting blogs out there wrestling with our political situations and the impact of cynicism that I won’t go into here, but there’s a lot of thought out there on this topic of cynicism that you might want to look into on your own.

Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world. History presents both an onerous and a hopeful record. Each generation must imprint humanity’s moral progress upon the tablets of our hearts anew. We can choose to look at that with despair for the effort, or we can choose to look upon that with awe. We have the capacity to impress humanity’s moral progress anew!!!  It’s a matter of will; it’s a matter of personal and communal choice. That’s our spiritual charge as a religious community.

During this time of High Holy Days in the Jewish liturgical calendar, how do we begin again in hope after seasons of hardship? As we are coming to the end of these days of awe, can we take their lessons and apply them to the choice for hope? Do we look upon past choices with despair, or do we choose to look upon them with awe? In this month of imagining what it means to be a people of healing, how do our choices impact that imagination?

I was hosting our annual Fall Chapter meeting of the UU clergy group for the Metro NY area on Wednesday. Our regional lead for the Central East Region, the Rev. Megan Foley, was leading worship for 40+ clergy and she had a metaphor that’s really helpful here. She spoke of earlobes and nostrils. I’m going from memory, so I’ll get the gist, rather than quote – but I thank her for getting me to think in this direction. In the body of life, we all have a role. If you’re an earlobe, your role is to be the best earlobe you can be. It’s not to create more earlobes; it’s not to make the nostril over there act more like an earlobe. You may want to put in some effort to help the nostril be the best nostril it can be, but that’s as far as you should go from your role as earlobe – because the world still needs someone to be an earlobe.

That metaphor got me thinking a lot about our mission as a religious community in the face of hardship and hope. We function as a group of individuals; but we also function as a group of groups. There are bodies (committees) that help move forward our social justice work; who help to maintain our grounds; who run our cold weather men’s shelter; who teach our children and who care for our ill. We don’t need our membership team to take over our memorial garden, but maybe our membership team can help identify folks who are well suited for caring for the grounds that are the final resting place for our loved ones. Our Board of Trustees doesn’t need to figure out the solutions to a better office system, but maybe it can help our volunteers who do that with our staff, to better set policies around responsibility and authority that we all learn to follow and honor.  In a community as large as ours, the minutia matters if we want to achieve our common purpose. The earlobes and nostrils of fellowship work lead to a common purpose.

Our mission: In religious community, we nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world.  Those are the words, but the impact is larger. We care for our members in times of crisis as best we can, when we know of the challenge; we offer a shelter in the cold weather months and grow vegetables for the pantry in the warm weather months. We partner with non-profits the world over to offer funds in times of need, and we send our people abroad to help communities that we’ve partnered with – and those communities send their members here – speaking from our pulpit – to deepen our connections. We collaborate with the NAACP for their work in the community, and they collaborate with us in our work in the community for justice and anti-racism. We maintain safe space for members of AA, and Al-Anon, as well as a rehearsal space for Long Island’s LGBT Choir. And the list goes on and on – and that list takes a ton of minutia to happen. We need earlobes and nostrils – as unexciting as that work sometimes sounds – makes the life-saving and life-affirming ministries happen. In these days of awe, it’s not just the sublime sunset, or the quiet of the garden that affirm our spirits, it’s the mundane everyday task that takes 25 years to build or rebuild our grounds – that also affirms our spirits and blesses our hands to do the work ahead.

If our mission statement were three words what would they be? Community, Individual and World? If that were it, it would mean community draws the individual into the world. That’s true – and that’s one of our goals. Maybe, Nurture, Caring and Healing. In a too often broken-feeling world, healing can only come when people choose the path of compassion and support. That’s true too. What I see as central to our mission is the reality that we need to be drawn out of our individual concerns into an accountable community that chooses to heal these corners of the world through care and justice. Sometimes that will be hard; sometimes that will be uncomfortable; sometimes that means that our individual opinions will be in conflict with another’s views, but we do so together.

I’ll close with a matched theological demand to James Luther Adam’s 5th stone. I see the matching demand of progressive faith to be this questions: Does it remind me to live with hope? When we are faced with a belief that challenges us, or leads us to despair, our faith tells us that it’s misleading. If our faith truly teaches us that – Our resources, both sublime and mundane, hold all the capacity we need to transform the world  -(and it does) – then any theology that seeks to cause us to forget hope is a theology that is misleading. Hope doesn’t mean easy; it doesn’t mean perfect; it doesn’t protect us from having to endure through periods of exhaustion or boredom or minutia – but it does make sure we face the world with a healthy sense of awe and possibility. Awe and possibility.

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The Promise of the Unknown

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 9/25/16. It explores the painful sense of our national “new normal” of violence and unrest.

We are coming to a close this month reflecting on what it means to be a people of covenant. One of the more precious forms covenant is the one we share with one another person; our marital vows. Some of us have never been married, some never plan to, others have been there and moved onto other roads, and the rest of us are walking that path right now. The marital covenant is in some ways personal, and in some ways universal. And if you have a family through it, it turns out not to be just about those who got married. A whole other set of obligations and expectations arise. But I’ll begin with my experience.

My husband and I have been together for almost 6 years, but we’ve only been married for just under a year and a half. So in some ways the relationship feels in the early years, and some ways it feels like a well known road we’re traveling together. It begins though, grounded in a sense of the familiar. Most of us enter marriage – for those who do enter marriage – into a covenant with someone who we know well. We think we know what to expect, and we think we know how they’ll handle the hurdles on the road ahead of us. Sometimes we’re right; sometimes we’re wrong; but we’re making that commitment based on a history that has told us something about our relationship.

There’s a way in which we can throw all of that out once we’re married. Things do change. The new extended family acts differently; sometimes it’s more confrontational, sometimes you’re welcomed with open arms to new cries of “brother!” I’ve married close to 90 couples and I don’t think I’ve every recalled a time when siblings didn’t say something to that effect – often for the first time. Something changes because of the ritual and the commitment. I’ve even seen this for couples that took a long time to get married – like 7 or more years before settling down. Even in those extended dating relationships, siblings started to act differently once the relationship turned formal.

Marriage can offer a promise in the unknown. Whatever comes our way, we’ll deal with together. That’s the ideal, and recent divorce rates prove that not to be fully accurate about half the time. But there’s still a reason to have hope in it. When we are entering into that relationship, we’re often doing it knowing a history, and there’s good reason to let history teach us what we might accomplish together on our better days; especially if all those involved have a similar sense of how to honor the covenant they’ve made with one another. I know that’s too often a big “if” but it’s still worth mentioning since it still works half the time – even today. But when it does work, it works because of a shared history that has meaning, value and purpose. The road ahead is a little bit less unknown because we know what’s come before – it should be less of a surprise. In these cases covenant can help us keep on track.

But what about those times when the track record isn’t so good. I’m looking right now at the broader world. I’ve tried to keep the tone of the sermons this month lighter than what the world news might indicate. And there’s a certain impossibility to that, particular with our In-Gathering service falling on the 15th anniversary of 9/11. But I know how world-weary so many of us are in light of world events, and national politics. But the last 8 days have seemed to be particularly maddening, even for our “new normal” in world affairs. I know I need to work from there, and we’ll find our way to what the planned sermon topic “the promise of the unknown” may teach us.

Last Saturday, my husband and I were supposed to be going to a friend of his’ birthday party in Manhattan on 23rd and 8th – a block from where the bomb went off – around the same time the bomb went off. Earlier on I decided I needed to cancel. I wasn’t fully ready for Sunday’s worship service, and I’m usually in my pajamas anyway by 8pm on a Saturday night. Sunday’s a big day here every week. Around 5pm, Brian decided that his head cold was turning into too much, and cancelled also. I think about the Chinese folk tale I told earlier this service, where we never know what good or bad may come from the next thing that changes our course, and it’s sometimes better not to place judgement on it till we get further down the road. We can get real depressed over any disappointment, and not always see the bigger picture.

I know for us, we were a little bummed to be missing the birthday celebration, but when the news came along around 8:30pm that an explosion occurred, we seriously began to wonder would we have been on that street at that time. There would have been a very good chance of it.  …And we still have to live our lives without being mired down in the what if’s of the world. But a broader perspective, can sometimes help us through.  The Late Night TV circuit would joke that New Yorkers were largely more upset that they couldn’t get their rental cars back in time, or the subway was running slower than usual, or even more notably being woken up at 7am to a screen alert on their phones about a suspect for the bombings. …Sometimes cynicism is part of the broader perspective.

The suspect was ultimately identified by other New Yorkers who found another pressure cooker bomb when they were busy stealing the suitcase that was in it. (Classic New York.) But despite it all, this is now a new normal in our sense of world affairs. The alleged bomber managed to set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police, before finally being taken alive into custody.

We also heard this week about two more unarmed black civilians – who apparently were also not in any way being confrontational (one was a disabled man reading a book in his car waiting for his kid) – were shot and killed by police officers. I saw photos Tuesday night of Charlotte, North Carolina with police in riot gear and reading updates from a clergy colleague of mine who was talking about the peaceful protests of the executions and the riot gear response. She spoke of the first time being targeted with teargas as a peaceful clergy witness. We’ll undoubtably learn more over the coming days, but this too is the new normal for our sense of world affairs. As an informative aside, this morning I woke to the news that in Knoxville, Tennessee there were riots with people burning furniture – apparently Tennessee came back from a 21-0 deficit to beat Florida 38-28 on Saturday in Knoxville. Police were onsite but not attempting to stop the public destruction.)

I’m not in a place this week where I can stomach too close an examination of every detail and sort out who was at fault and who wasn’t in Tusla and in Charlotte. I hope our judicial system will rise to the occasion this time. But I do want to reflect on the road that’s led to here and wonder what it promises for our unknown future ahead. We know of one story (the Chelsea and Seaside bombings) where an alleged bomber can set off 4 bombs, get into a shootout with police, tragically injure two police and still be taken into custody. Whereas a disabled dad waiting for his kid, reading a book in his car, can be shot dead as a threat. There’s a disparity there that is hard to miss and even harder to white-wash. Even if we learn tomorrow that there was more to the stories in Tulsa and Charlotte, we still have to wonder how can a suspected terrorist get into a shootout and still be taken alive, when these other black men are shot on sight? What’s the difference.

That disparity, that tragic tension, is where I challenge us to go when folks argue that everything is working as it should; that things are just; that everything is a simple right and wrong, and those in authority or always right. Don’t walk away from that tragic tension too soon, or we will continue to be faced with new tragedies.

There’s clearly a sense that our new reality is faced with daily turmoil and heightened moments of rage and violence. Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a poll “that showed that 63% of people say that the Civil Rights movement pushes too fast; that 58% said they were violent; 58% said they hurt their own cause.” You would think I was talking about today and the Black Lives Matter movement. But I’m not. I’m talking about the Civil Rights Movement of 1964. Some of you were alive and very actively engaged in that movement. Were you violent? Were you hurting your own cause? Were you pushing too fast? Do those words echo what gets repeated over and over in today’s news and over the broader family dinner table?

We never fully know where our next steps will take us. And all too often we rewrite history once it’s past us. The same folks that may have critiqued Martin Luther King Jr. for moving too fast, or hurting his own cause, or being too violent (as if he were ever violent in the pursuit of civil rights), may be the same people who look back at that movement and extol its virtues of pacifism and justice now – as the quintessential application of our freedom of speech. Will we recreate that same short-sighted error again in this generation?

Two Sundays ago, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. He was one of our Unitarian theologians who was physically active in trying to stave off the rise of Nazism in Germany before he moved back to the States. In short regarding the piece about the five stones, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. After popular request, I will continue to lift up a different stone each week till we cover all five. Next month I’ll get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 1st stone in Adams’ theology. That precept paraphrased is: “Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth.” Revelation is not sealed – the promise of the unknown. How can that be true in the face of the weekly tragedies we continue to be plagued with?

Some of that is mediated by the question posed by comedian, Stephen Colbert, (paraphrased) “How can these things continue to happen when we continue to do nothing different?” Our theology states that Revelation is not sealed; it doesn’t say that if we continue to act as if nothing can change, or nothing new can come about, that newness and healing will spring forth on it’s own. That sometimes happens – we call it Grace or a miracle or just good dumb luck. But systems of oppression or systems of disparity, don’t change through dumb luck; they change through intention and attention.

And there are cases where our actions are different and it changes the world. The NY times reports “The number of people living in extreme poverty ($1.90 per person per day) has tumbled by half in two decades, and the number of small children dying has dropped by a similar proportion — that’s six million lives a year saved by vaccines, breast-feeding promotion, pneumonia medicine and diarrhea treatments!” The UN is meeting this week discussing their plan “to eliminate – (yes eliminate) – extreme poverty by 2030, and experts believe it is possible to get quite close.” The history of the world says neither of these things are possible, but revelation is not sealed and there are new ways and news truths forever in our grasp if we treat it so.

If we were to live as though we believed that revelation was not sealed, we would commit to a spiritual discipline of openness; with especial care to was the weakest or the most abused among us have to say. In the Christian tradition, that was what Jesus was most known for – caring for the least among us. The meek shall inherit the earth. As we move further and further into cycles of struggle and power and suffering, we denounce our birthright in this one, precious life. How do we return? To some openness can come across as weakness. I find that it takes a lot of strength to listen to what we may not agree with, and decide for ourselves a new path.

Sometimes what has come before teaches us how horrible what may some day come. Sometimes what came before teaches us how beautiful the possibilities can be. Depending on where we’ve come from, we’re going to imagine a different future. But if we believe our theology that says revelation is not sealed, each new page offers another possibility. Will we act for the world we aspire to, or will we accept the dominion of the past?

I see these five stones as precepts of our faith that offer concurrent demands upon our actions if we’re going to live ethically as engaged Unitarian Universalists. The matched demand to this first stone is the question: “Does this action or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit?” If we continue to accept the new normal as fact and immutable, do we leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Our faith demands that we don’t accept the new normal. Our faith challenges us to continuously experience life in new ways as we make room for the continuing evolution of the human spirit. It’s not a cold creed or set of belief; it’s a call to action to make this truth so. Stay informed; stay engaged; lovingly call your neighbors to face the hardships of a world divided by power and privilege – and do so so that another soul may live and grow to their fullest potential.

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Out of Isolation

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/18/16 and looks at the role of community in light of the personal ego.

 

I have a small garden that wraps around my terrace – think herbs and some wild flowers and grasses. When the weather is nice, I write my sermons from there. It’s probably why I have so many nature references in my sermons. My dog will lay down in the shade of one of the flower boxes, and my cat gets the proverbial popcorn and watches the “Nature Channel” in my garden. Everything is extremely fascinating to our cat – Toby. He’ll stare at ants like they are alien creatures, but won’t go too close or engage. Bees on the other hand – bees turn him into a jerk. He’ll stalk them and swipe at them if they linger too long on a flower.

At first I was horrified – without a clue as to what to do about it. I have a mild allergy to bees, so I’m not going to get too close to intervene, but they also don’t deserve that fate before the claws of my cat. In another feat of dog-training magic, I’ve figured out how to train our dog to tackle the cat when he goes for a bee. It was based off an earlier essential lesson in tackling-the-cat when the cat scratches the furniture. Basically, we’ve trained our dog to tackle small cats on command. I think it’s fun for everyone really, but I’m sure the bee appreciates it as much as my couch does – I dare say moreso. Enough times being tackled by the dog, the cat is becoming increasingly hesitant to swipe at bees (it doesn’t seem to stop him though from destroying our furniture though. Can’t have everything I guess.)

Bees are interesting creatures. The common wisdom is that they defy all laws of aerodynamics in order to fly with their wings that should be too light for their bodies to get lift; but they still do. They live cloistered away with several thousand of their closest family members. They work tirelessly, so that the next generation which they may not live to see, can be born in another season. How many millions of worker bee hours does it take to produce one jar of honey for our toast and tea? …Then they return, again and again, to the field, to gather more and more food for the honeycombed table.

From the perspective of us humans in the northeast, they are gone for half the year, isolated from the cold and inclement weather. Even raindrops can be a challenge when you’re that small. When I water my garden, they head for the hills. Then as the weather turns to spring and summer, they fly back out of seeming isolation, and live fully in the wider world. Food, and garden hoses, and allergic bystanders, and yes, even psycho-killer felines are here to greet them as they return. It’s a microcosm of the world we live in, and just as true.

We all have our times of quiet, introversion, renewal, in between the periods of work, or study. For the bee, it’s the call of physical nourishment, that brings them out of their quasi-isolation from the world. No matter how much we hunker down, at some point, the reserves run dry and it’s time to go back out for connection.

This month we are imagining what it would mean to be a people of covenant. Maybe you know the word covenant mostly from Jewish and Christian and Muslim stories about God and God’s people. That understanding is about the promises we are given, and the promises we are held to, in light of the demands and support given to us by God in those stories. I plan to discuss that even more fully next month in one of my sermons – how goodness presses obligations upon us. But for today, I want to focus more on what promise is held in covenant. Community and covenant draws us out of loneliness into a shared humanity that defines our lives.

Our Fellowship crafted a congregational covenant – that can be found on our website, and in our membership directory. It has several points to it – and we hand it out to all new members who formally join our Fellowship. And if you’re considering joining our Fellowship, please do reach out to me after the service, or later in the week if that works better for you. But the essence of the covenant centers around our desire to be accountable to one another. In a secular world where consumerism and convenience trumps a sense of a common ethic of mutual support, it’s imperative for religious communities to stretch out to, and within, one another to build the common good. Covenant is about building the common good – or what Martin Luther King Jr commonly referred to as the Beloved Community.

Last Sunday, I spoke at length about the theology of James Luther Adams and his concept of the five stones. In short, he was looking at the story of David and Goliath and reflecting on what the 5 stones David used would be in modern language to combat oppression. Right now, after popular request, I’d like to focus on one of those stones. Next month I’ll try to get to the 4th and 5th stone. But today, I want to focus on the 3rd stone in Adams’ theology – and go a bit further with it than I was able to in last week’s sermon. That precept paraphrased is: “We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression.”

As I paraphrase it, community has a corrective effect on systems of oppressions. Theologically, covenant is the antithesis of oppression. You only build a covenant when folks come to it with equal footing, and when we have equal footing, we can hold one another accountable from an equal place. So when we talk here about someone falling out of covenant, we’re talking about a situation in our Fellowship, where one person is leveraging their power, or their feelings, over and beyond the shared agreement of how we work together collaboratively. It’s referring to a situation where the individual ego is leading over another person’s worth, or another person’s pain. And to be fair, we all fall for the tricks of the ego. Falling short of our covenant doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, it means that you’ve let your ego run before the rest of us, before all of us, and that’s something we all do from time to time. We all do it. It’s human, and it’s our quintessential challenge to overcome as humans. As UU’s we choose to face that challenge together; publicly, and to do that together publicly fosters some awkward moments. So when we fall for it, and someone points it out, try to hear it with love, and begin again and again. It’s being human at our best.

Last week, I also spoke about demands that our faith places upon us in relation to those precepts – those “stones” Adams proverbially spoke about. The matched demand to this third precept would be the theological question, “Does this thing or value before us, seek to bring more harmony and more equity in our relationships (– even if the work is very difficult?)” What does that mean though in every day language? When we’re trying to decide on an action, or a belief, or a value, or an angered reply to something someone says or does in our community – the essential question follows: Does our response bring more harmony and equity to our relationship? If the answer is yes, great. If the answer is no, then we are straying from the religious path our faith challenges us to adhere to. When we ask ourselves if our response or actions bring more harmony or equity, and the answer is no, we’re falling prey once more to our lone ego. The domain of the ego is isolation, and community calls us out from that lonely place. I believe that progressive faith calls us out of isolation, to do much in the world, but it also calls us out of isolation to spiritually mature through our attachment to ego. And it’s in that maturing through our attachment to ego, that we also begin to do much good in the world.

See that? We sometimes joke that we can believe anything. I don’t agree with that, and if you think I’m wrong, then next week let’s plan for me to preach about whatever I personally feel like and see what happens. Because we can’t. We can’t believe anything. We’re not about belief, but we have central values that are very specific, even if we don’t always see it. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring together what demands our theology places upon us. Our actions in the world, as UUs, as religious people of faithful purpose – demand that we act so that we nurture harmony and equity in human relations. When we act from anger, or ego, we’re being very human, but we’re falling short of our theological convictions. We’re not evil for doing it necessarily, but we have fallen short, and our faith calls us out, calls us in, and calls us for more.

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The Five Stones

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/11/16. It addresses a faith with no creeds.

 

I’ve told this story about how I found UU before, so I’ll be brief, but it’s important for today’s wider message. I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology. For those of you going through a tough time with school or work, try to remember that you never know how things will turn out. Some of the worst times of our lives, still find a way to end eventually, and there can be something new in store for any of us.

In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to inform the spirituality of the services overtly. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me. I didn’t need an answer, I needed a space to find myself, and live into community.

The next congregation I was a member of, couldn’t have been further afield in style or expressed theology: All Souls in Manhattan. Largely toted as NYC’s only New England Style white-steeple church. A 1500 member churchy-church, with an organ, actual pews, multiple pulpits, and monthly communion services. I joined there while I was in graduate school.

Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Openness, mindfulness, reverence – have become central in most of our congregations. All of our communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.

I’ve long identified as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending our Fellowship for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!)

Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”

Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Some years ago, I was attending an annual conference of religious professionals in Williamsburg, Virginia. One Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a former professor of mine when I was studying in England, and who became a dear friend of mine over the years when he moved to the States. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it had been over 20 years since I had attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.

That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend once asked me, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. (The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!) But that’s not the case.

I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.

After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.

What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.[1]

This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?

Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.

[1] This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.

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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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The Five Stones

This sermon was first preached at First UU of Brooklyn on Sunday, October 28th, 2012. It seeks to define a central UU theology.

I was 19 when I found Unitarian Universalism. In some ways, I share the usual story for converts to our faith. In my case, I was a devout Catholic who had come to accept that there was no Hell, that God was loving, and that homosexuality was not a sin – but an expression of love. In other ways, my story was unusual. I found a UU Fellowship in northern NJ through a job. For a host of reasons, I dropped out of college in my first year studying environmental science. After getting laid off from a part-time job at a chain bookstore right after Christmas, I got word that a church was looking for a custodian. Over the next three years, that job expanded into their events coordinator (think weddings and art shows.) I was still pushing the mop, I was coordinating weddings, and I was back in college – this time studying religion and anthropology.

In many ways, the Morristown UU Fellowship was the last place I would have imagined myself joining. They were a staunch atheist fellowship that had severe allergies to theological language – and I very much believe in God. H forbid anyone use the G word. And the J word was right out! Buddhist influence wasn’t wide-spread enough yet in the mid-nineties to enhance the spirituality of the services. And yet there was a lot of heart in their meeting space on Sunday morning. There was a there – there – that I couldn’t exactly place at the time. If I’m honest with myself, my younger self appreciated the stark contrast to conservative Christian teachings that I hadn’t yet worked through. It was a community that was wrestling with the nature of being. And that was enough for me.

First UU of Brooklyn sometimes feels like a time warp from my first congregation. Morristown’s simple late 1900‘s Quaker-style meeting space with no decor is replaced with gorgeous 1844 neo-gothic architecture. Meeting hall announcements of joys and concerns for a few dozen people are replaced with ritualized candle lighting for just shy of 300 folks these days (Hurricane Sandy withstanding.) Longer 25 minute or more sermons with simple music and almost no ritual versus Brooklyn’s worships where ritual and music is the centerpiece of our Sunday expression – much to my delight.

Both settings are Unitarian Universalist. Both hold the same values. Both are seeking a faith path that is open to hope, possibility and joy. Both communities have religious humanists and religious theists among us. Trappings are the substantive difference, not content. All of our congregations have a central UU theology – in some locations it’s more clear and others it’s simply felt beneath the skin.

I identify as a sort of hybrid UU. Denominationally speaking, most of us are converts and some of us are life-long UU’s. I have converted to this faith, but I did so right at adulthood – so in many ways this feels like my life-long choice. By a show of hands, how many of you have been attending First UU for 2 years or less? How many of you have been a UU since childhood (prior to turning 18?) How many for 30 years or more? (I love watching the changing demographics!) Now I’m guessing that the folks that have been attending for 2 years or less are thinking – “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.” I think it would be safe to guess that the folks who have been UU for 30 years or more are thinking, “Oh good! We’re finally going to hear someone tell us what the central UU theology is.”

Being a non-creedal faith is both a strength and a challenge. Folks are reticent to assert theological claims when we have no test of belief. We don’t want to make any theological truth statement because we appreciate that we all see the world differently and that’s not what we’re about. Last Sunday, I missed our congregational meeting because I was attending an annual conference of 170 religious educators in Williamsburg, Virginia. Sunday evening I attended worship at their local Episcopal church – which was led by a dear friend of mine. They got to the point in the service where the community recited the Nicene Creed. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a minute or two long creed with some very specific theological details in it (just about none of which I actually agree with.) My UU colleagues next to me were visibly shocked (one actually jumped – and he’s not a jumper by nature) when I began reciting it from memory. For context – it’s been 21 years since I’ve attended a Catholic Mass, and left the Catholic church in my high school years. …We have nothing like that. Although I imagine we could begin the practice of reciting our 7 principles as a covenant and it would fit that role. Our principles are promises we struggle to keep with each other. But they’re action statements – not creedal assertions.

Our UU theology is rooted in our six sources. But our sources themselves are not strictly a theology. Our sources are not an interfaith smorgasbord, although we sometimes treat them as such. “I prefer the course of cultural Christianity and a heavy dose of agnosticism please.” They ground us in our religious meaning. Any theology would need to reckon with them to be true to our core. Here they are more simply put: Transcendent mystery and wonder moves us to a renewal of spirit. Prophetic deeds challenge us to confront systems of oppression with compassion. All world religions hold wisdom to inspire our ethical and spiritual lives. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Reason and science warn us against idolatries of mind and spirit. We are part of this world and ought to live in harmony with it. (Ok, maybe that could work as our Nicene Creed. I think I’m going to work on that.) None of these sources answer whether we ought to believe in God or not, but frankly – that’s not what our theology could ever look like again. But our Six Sources are rich in very different ways. They give us space to be true to ourselves, to learn how to live into community, and hold a rich depth in themselves. And we’d be hard-pressed to come up with a reason to disagree with any individual source – except for maybe how we apply them.

That’s a framework though, and not a theology. One friend wrote on Facebook yesterday regarding this topic, “but isn’t the central theology of Universal Unitarianism that there isn’t a central theology of universal unitarianism? Theological Switzerland, so to speak?” I won’t fault him on his placement of U’s in that sentence. And he’s right in a way. We tend to live with an explicit theological message that this is so: All are welcome. All can see the world the way they see it. The only really important theological question is the nature of God so let’s just say we don’t have a theology because we’re not going to touch that one!

          Personally, I’ve been heavily inspired by the writings of James Luther Adams. He’s a mid-20th century theologian, minister and academic from the US who lived in Germany in the 1930s and was active in the clandestine resistance to the rise of Nazism. We often take our theologians out of context. And as I talk about his thoughts, keep his experience in Germany in mind.

After the breadth of his 40+ years of writing were complete, folks started pulling together bits and pieces of his thinking, jumbled them together, and came up with some pretty helpful combinations. One such is an essay on “The Five Stones.” It’s a metaphor back to David and Goliath. In the Jewish story, a teenager “David” manages to defeat the Giant named Goliath on the field of battle with a sling and five stones. It’s a violent story, but a course of action that prevented two armies from colliding. There was one death instead of thousands. For JLA, the five stones become a metaphor for how we can combat systems of oppression in the world. What are the five things we can do that will unbind the oppressed? In modern language – how do we end Racism, Homophobia, Classism and Misogyny – to name a few.

What does our liberal faith say about living? I will paraphrase the much longer piece, which itself is an edit of a sort, using language that might be more familiar to us: 1. Revelation is not sealed — in the unfolding of the human spirit we continuously experience life in new ways and so too does our experience of truth. 2. Relationships between people ought to be free — mutuality and consent are both ethical and theological principles 3. We have an obligation to work toward creating a Beloved Community — our faith inspires us to the work of transformational community that is centered in justice and love. The prophethood of all believers has a corrective effect on systems of oppression 4. Each child that’s born is another redeemer — we are all potential sources of good in the world and each have a role to play. Goodness happens in relationships with one another. 5. We choose hope — Our resources – both sublime and mundane hold all the capacity we need to transform the world.[1]

This faith statement is central to our UU theology. If you are craving an affirmation or a negation of the nature or existence of God, I can only say again – that’s not how we do theology. Our kind of theology is like the scientific method. When we learn that Newtonian Physics is only correct at certain speeds and certain proximities to really big gravitational objects (like the Earth going at about the speed we happen to be going) we don’t throw out physics and say Science (I hope you can hear the capital S) is wrong. We say that there’s a process of testing and observation to follow. Likewise, our theology is one of testing and observation. When you have questions of purpose, belief, or values ask yourself – Does this thing or view leave room for the ongoing evolution of the human spirit? Does it draw me closer into a community that is mutually supportive? Does it seek to bring more harmony and more equity in those relationships – even if the work is very difficult? Does it falsely make me forget that I have the capacity to live into this holy work? Does it remind me to live with hope?

Our theology is both a faith statement and a process of reflection. Our faith teaches us that we can expect to continue to be inspired, to learn from one another, and to seek out that spiritual growth. Wheresoever we freely choose to enter into communities with one another we are doing sacred work – not easy work – not convenient work but holy work. In this we are obligated to vigilantly transform systems of oppression with acts of love and compassion. We all have the capacity to make this happen, and everything that we need to do so already exists. There is a reason to hope in this world.


[1] This is a paraphrase of James Luther Adams. Various sources include “On Being Human Religiously”, The Tapestry of Faith Online Curricula, The GOLDMINE Youth Leadership School and the 2012 Keynote address at the LREDA Fall Conference by Dr. Raser.

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