Posts Tagged Jesus
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/19/17. It explores what the “Alice in Wonderland” story can teach us about a world that’s turned upside down–and how we can turn ourselves right-side up again.
I had originally planned to preach a lighter sermon this week, after several heavier weeks in the pulpit. With the turning toward Spring, we hoped for a more airy service; but in light of our national news this week, that would feel too tone deaf. But we decided to keep with our originally planned story earlier in the service around Alice in Wonderland – specifically about the March Hare – because the mad antics of this most famous children’s story remains relevant despite it all. We heard earlier about the light-hearted origins of the “mad as a March hare” reference that led to the famous storybook character, the March Hare. The Tea party scene in Alice in Wonderland would have been a shocking vignette for Victorian England; propriety mixed with mad-hatted rudeness. The recklessness of this tea-party inverted all the social norms for the day. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time. Hold that image in your mind as I speak today. We’ll come back to it soon enough.
Several years ago, my husband and I were driving from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR; but maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.
Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My husband, left what he experienced as too homophobic fundamentalist Christian worldview and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. (His family, thankfully, is super loving and great people – and often read my sermons – so if you’re reading this – love you Diane)!
But Christianty doesn’t still speak to my husband. It’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.
We had an intense moment where I lamented, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural Christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.” (Yes, this is exactly what car trips are like when you’re married to a minister.) Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
This sermon has become largely about how our nation has gone astray from the basics of religion – with the aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. As Unitarian Universalists, this teaching is central to our history of social service and social reform – it would be good to write those words on our hearts.
Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, that’s how I always was taught to understand what it would mean to be a sort of Anti-Christ.
Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelation. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent. Too often, it’s leveraged to further partisan aims or issues over actual scriptural truths.
I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or more likely some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, and that false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said; that we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up. I get very worried we’ve lost our way when we’re discussing cutting support for school lunches for hungry kids, or food delivered to seniors who can’t get out on their own – programs that have bedrocks of our safety nets for generations.
It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. One of the major Baptist news feeds this seek, just called out the national desire to spend more on ways to kill people with our military while cutting back at feeding our elders. I would say that this shouldn’t be allowed to hide behind a partisan smokescreen; the Baptist press simply called it “sin.”
The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural Christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.
And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the partisan politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.
So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here?
Anyone remember that 1975 classic movie called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward. The reality of the 1970s white flight would come to vividly impact housing choices out here in Long Island – to this day.
The movie “Network,” had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger. When I first saw the movie, I didn’t agree. I didn’t believe this all needs to start with anger. I believed that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger. Nowadays, I’m less certain. Anger is a real emotion that speaks to the injustice in the world; it’s telling us something. But we can’t stay in anger. When we dwell in anger, it’s a warning sign. Dwelling turns into that sort of up-is-down version of Christianity — don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. That’s a false teaching.
Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path.
Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the nation. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is, is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. Speaking in religious terms though, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now at the tail end of a recession, where not everyone has returned to employment. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to.
This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us, and the subsequent return to living the values we already know. What are our golden calves in 2017?
We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work do we do? Some of us donate to shelters. I know we collect bags and bags of clothes every year – for veteran’s groups, for our Men’s Shelter as we learn of needs. Can we institutionalize this outside of the cold weather months? Would one of us be willing to step forward and help manage this the other 6 months a year?
Do we feed the hungry? We run a cold-weather shelter; and we collect food for the town pantry during the cold-weather months. And we grow vegetables during the warm weather months. If you came early this service, you saw pictures of our Grow to Give Garden. If you haven’t taken part yet, I encourage you to reach out to Beth Feldman who leads our warm-weather food ministry here.
And we do shelter the homeless; our Fellowship was a leading force in building the Huntington response to the tragic death of one homeless man in the winter over 10 years ago. With the cold-weather months coming to an end, this shelter closes till the end of the year though.
You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up. Our pastoral care associate, Gerri Farrell, and I are beginning to work with LI-CAN on Long Island to explore how we can make headway against the opioid and heroin epidemic. If you’re interested in helping, please do reach out. And others are helping with undocumented people who are being called to court – to walk and witness with them during that scary time. If you’re interested in being trained to be such a witness – reach out to our social justice co-chairs, Diana Weaving or Steve Burby. There is much to do locally.
These five basic teachings of Jesus are at risk in the modern US, and we can be of help. We each have to make our own value-based decisions in life. In light of recent US Budget proposals, I worry around some of our national choices, and how far afield we’ve gone. Up was down, left was right; the party-goers were doomed to always be trapped in tea-time because the Mad Hatter was said to have murdered time.
I’ll close with the words of the poet Marge Piercy who we heard earlier this service. She responds to this madness with, “It goes one at a time. It starts when you care to act. It starts when you do it again after they say No. It starts when you say We and know who you mean; and each day you mean one more.”
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas morning, 12/25/16. It looks at the role of Angels in the Christmas Story with a special nod to some favorite childhood memories.
Merry Christmas! Angels are on my mind this Christmas. We’ve just sung a few songs that spoke of angels. The angels from Jewish and Christian scripture, are not the cutesy cherubs from Renaissance paintings. Scriptural angels tend to begin every conversation with the words, “Fear Not!” for although they are messengers and agents of good, they are also God’s presence on earth, and quite scary when they need to be. Eternity is both beautiful and terrifying – any of us who have stared into the deep oceans know that to be true.
When Angels speak, I know the message is both meant to be vitally important, but also to be one that shakes us to our core. The world will not be the same; something is demanded of us. We must change before the newness of the next moment. Change may be the one great universal source of dread for most of us – right? And angels mean change.
Even if we fear it, all change is not bad. In the Christmas story, the angels demand once more we fear not, for unto us is a savior born. …But the world will change for it. Hope, redemption, healing – all mean change – yet too often we fear it – that which brings us further into wholeness frightens us nonetheless.
I remember another story about fear, or overcoming fear. It’s a story from my childhood that returns year after year. Every Christmas I would look forward to Charlie Brown’s Christmas special. I related to Charlie Brown – maybe a little too much. He was awkward, and made a ton of mistakes. But had a lot of friends – who in the end usually came around – but along the way were sometimes kind of horrible kids. Without going into too much detail – I’ll leave it at – I related to that as a kid. Maybe I still do, and I doubt I’m alone here in that. The annual Charlie Brown Christmas special was all of that – ramped up a few notches. At a culminating point of the story, when Charlie Brown can’t get anything right, and the Christmas pageant is about to be a total wash – and the other kids are brutal to him, laughing and pointing – out comes Linus to remind us the reason for the season. Linus is the classic kid who has it together, more mature than the others in many ways, but is still stuck to his infant security blanket. He hasn’t grown past that yet.
The story begins in Charlie Brown’s moment of fretting:
“Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone, who knows what Christmas is all about?!
Linus: Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about. Lights please?
And there were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them! And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings o great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, and good will toward men.
That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Now, in most ways it’s the traditional telling of the Christmas story – Linus’ words are almost identical to the translation of the scripture we use each Christmas. But what’s always been so powerful about Linus retelling the story is the moment where he cries out as the Angel saying, “Fear Not!” At that moment, Linus drops his security blanket – Linus never is separated from his blankie before that moment, and never since. But when the Angels, when eternity, is staring at you and saying fear not, we are called to something greater than our everyday selves.
What holds you back from the change that the birth of Jesus demands of us?
Christmas is a way of telling and retelling the story of a baby who’s name was Jesus. We sing songs about shepherds, and angels, and wise men (called magi in the stories) traveling to find him and give him gifts. We sing about a mother and an adoptive father. Why is Jesus so special – why are we getting together today to honor his birth?
(ONLY IF A LOT OF KIDS PRESENT) [(Tell me – what are some things that people believe about Jesus? What did he teach us?) (love one another, caring for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless, visit those in prison.)]
He was a great teacher, a healer, and some people believe he was the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. All of us here may have different views about all of these things, but as UU’s we definitely value his message of hope, of caring for those who are hurt, and being loving to all people as best we can. Just being nice, just being caring to our neighbor may sound like a really easy thing to do – but has anyone here ever had to deal with a bully at school, or an impatient person on line at the store, or ever had a fight with their mom, or dad, or son, or daughter (anyone here ever have a fight with their family?) – those things remind us how hard it is to always be loving.
But we also believe that with every child that’s born is another redeemer for this world. The “hope of the world” as he’s sometimes called, didn’t come from money or power, or comfort. He was born in a dirty barn, among a lot of farmyard animals. Simple Shepherds were the first people to visit him – the wise men, the kings won’t find him till later. His family was traveling and homeless when he was born – and yet he would become one of the greatest of teachers.
If each child that’s born is another hope for the world – what does that say about us? Sometimes we feel bad about ourselves, sometimes other kids, other people can be mean, and it’s easy to believe the lie – it’s easy to believe that we’re not important or special. The birth of Jesus is about many things, but it’s also about how very important we each are. Fear Not! It’s about how we are each called to try to make a difference in this world. How we’re to try to leave the places we go, better than they were when we got there. We won’t always succeed, but we’re born to do this.
The birth of Jesus, and his life, has inspired so many people across the 2000 years since his time – to make the world a better place; to lift ourselves up when we are down; to birth love where this hate and hope where this is fear. May we honor his birthday by promising to strive to live with compassion, with caring, with love, and with hope.
This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Christmas Eve, 12/24/16. It celebrates the conjunction of Christmas Eve and the First Night of Hanukkah while looking at the role of the Vassal King, Herod in the story of the birth of Jesus.
Merry Christmas everyone! And Happy Hanukkah! It’s a special night – with both holy days celebrating as one. The last time Hanukkah began on Christmas Eve, I was 3 years old. In Unitarian Universalist houses of worship, we traditionally have an annual service we call the Festival of Peace and Lights – which draws from the spiritual message of these holy days. Earlier in the month of December we reflect on the teachings of hope, and peace and miracles in the face of despair; the spirit of the holidays is realized in those virtues.
This year, I keep finding myself being drawn to the stories – or the early history of these Holy Days. Jesus was born into a world, into the small town of Bethlehem, whose nation was wracked by war, and revolutions, and invasion, and the occasional periods of independence. The miracles told in the story of Hanukkah occurred only just over a 150 years before his birth. Jesus was born under the rule of Herod; a vassal king to a foreign power. Herod was a convert to Judaism and went out of his way to be liked – beginning massive building projects like expanding the Second Temple. But he often misstepped – by building golden statues, lavish spending on gifts and used taxes as the means to glorify himself over the nation he ruled through his pomp.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, we hear a story of a ruler who is willing to sacrifice the infants of a town, to protect his own power and life of extravagance. The wants of the most powerful, taking precedence over the basic needs of the most vulnerable. The very birth story of Jesus is a clear repudiation of the false gospel of wanton greed, of baseless ego. Salvation is wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The great and the powerful are the villains of the Christmas story, and take no part in the nativity scene.
Our image for this short homily flips the nativity scene on its head; it depicts the story with no one who is Jewish, or Arabic or African. We see only the manger and the animals. The absence of the heart of the story is the lesson for this year; a year where so many in our world, rail against the disenfranchised, pretending they are the enemy. With anti-semitism on the rise here in Long Island, and the KKK openly leaving out flyers in parking lots, kindling our Menorah as we light our Christmas Trees, is a holy blessing reminding us to ever look for the Star of Wonder to lead us from worldly arrogance – away from the baseless fears that are disguised as vicious hate.
Herod was a fearful ruler who lashed out with vicious hate, and Jesus was born to lead us away from such a small-hearted world. This empty nativity scene reminds us that we have no Christmas story without all of us; in our full humanity, and in all our difference and diversity. We offer sanctuary to the refugee fleeing oppressive rule. We keep the lights in the inn warm, and the doors unlocked for the migrant who needs a place to stay. It is in this spirit, that we remember to keep our Fellowship shelter open on Christmas night – tomorrow. We thank Joanne, and all the families and individuals who will spend Christmas night tomorrow here, celebrating the holy day by ensuring shelter is always available. There is no greater spiritual obligation we have than to care for our neighbor in the hour of their need; humbly knowing that we all come to times of great need; and in the times of our strength we are called to share that strength.
As we move from the spirit of Christmas into the acts that inspire healing and change in the world, we remember the great poet Maya Angelou’s words we heard earlier in our service. “It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time….. We jubilate the precious advent of trust. We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope. All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices; To celebrate the promise of Peace.” So friends, this Christmas, loosen our voices and speak that great Peace “without shyness, or apology, or hesitation.” For this is the great message of Christmas; this is the true reason for this holy season.
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.
This sermon was preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at how we can reclaim our public voice for social justice.
Our day has finally come! There’s a case right now before the Supreme Court that will rule on the nature of public prayer in civic settings. Specifically, it’s looking at the matter of opening government meetings with sectarian prayers. The local town claims that no bias toward any particular religion is being held despite the fact that almost every public prayer is led by Christian clergy. “In a friend-of-the-court brief filed (a week ago) Friday, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Supreme Court that prohibiting Christian pastors from delivering a prayer to start official town meetings would effectively impose Unitarianism on the nation…. We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church (they go on to say) but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”  Our day has finally come.
When I read this, I should have cried, but I couldn’t help but laugh. Imagine it: The Unitarian Theocracy has come to power! The Southern Baptists are taking issue with a secular request not to mix civic duty with religious practices – a request that was based upon the fact that almost no non-Christian traditions were invited to the table – and are equating this with our Unitarian Universalist pluralistic attitude toward public faith. They’ve created a good story. The Southern Baptist Convention are adjusting the facts to suit their preferences. … Imposing Unitarianism… let’s rewrite that story. What would that actually sound like? (1) You will be open to diversity of opinion. (2) You will make room for multiple religious voices at the table (3) You will support, engage, and nurture the democratic process ensuring that all people have a right to vote, access to voting, while faithfully seeking to eliminate obstacles to full inclusion in the democratic process. (4) You will not confuse your desire for unlimited personal freedom to do whatever you want, as a legitimate example of a real limitation on your freedom (5) We are all in this together, so we might as well act like it.
(6) You will not impose your religious views on anyone else as a matter of government – except for every one of these rules of course – which require you to act against your personal and cultural faux-American, faux-Christian tradition of being bigoted toward anyone different. Now that’s my kind of theocracy!
But it’s not. It’s not a theocracy in any real sense. Personal freedoms are not lost to any real religious authority. Just like claiming one’s freedom of speech is impinged upon when mandatory prayer at the start of a civic activity is removed. Mandatory anything – by definition – is what a real loss of freedom looks like. But we’ve allowed ourselves – to take serious – twists in language that tie us up in knots. Freedom begins to mean – only my personal freedom. Theocracy begins to mean – I can no longer impose my religious views on others. East is West, and Up is Down. Science-Fiction authors have been writing about this for at least the last century. It’s why books like 1984 and A Brave New World continue to be required reading in High School. (I sure hope they are at least….)
In short – the Faux Cultural Christian Right in the U.S. is very adept at wielding propaganda. And we need to get better at re-telling the story as it actually is happening. And we need to re-learn how to do this retelling in the moment that doublespeak happens. Not a year later; not in the safety of our dinner tables; not solely on our Facebook walls. When it happens. In the moment.
I call this recent mindset “faux cultural christian right” because as a powerhouse, it’s only a recent phenomenon. It was birthed with the evangelical movements that grew post Billy Graham. Christianity in the U.S., as a political force, was primarily liberal until the 1950’s. In the 1820s-1840’s – the Unitarians controlled the New England court system. In 1850 the Universalists were the third largest denomination in America at 5 million members. The Social Gospel movement of the 1920’s was mainstream Christianity and it was very liberal. Essentially, this movement said that Jesus taught us to care for the poor, so we should act like it. Even the Neo-Orthodox movement that rose out of the horrors of WWII, led by great theologians like Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer, were theologically conservative but socially progressive.
I call it faux and cultural Christianity, because its social message does not reflect the actual teachings of Jesus. It’s a simple fact. You can’t find a lesson of hate, isolation or consumerism anywhere in the actual teachings of Jesus. Anywhere. He never said anything like it. One does not need to follow Jesus of course, but if you’re going to speak in his name, you ought to quote him right at least.
Just because the right wing of American Christianity is dominant in public debate for the past 40 or so years, and it’s only been 40 or so years, does not mean that they get to define Christianity, or religion for that matter. But that’s exactly what we allow to happen, when we indignantly sit in our disgust of barbaric views that foster bigotry, racism, homophobia and xenophobia…. And too often we just sit quietly…. As a religious people – we are not called to silence, we are called to voice. Our principles teach us that we have promised to act as though each person has dignity and worth, and to do so with equity and compassion. They tell us that acceptance, inclusion, and responsibility are spiritual matters. The promise we made when we joined this faith included taking democracy very seriously. It’s a sacrament of sorts for us. Because when the democratic process fails – dignity, worth, equity, and inclusion are all at risk. And we can not live the lie that we are alone in this world; that we have earned everything we have ever achieved by ourselves; that the earth does not need us, and we do not need it. The great lie tells us that we are an island unto ourselves, and that’s quite fine thank you very much. That’s not what our religion teaches us, and it’s not what it demands of us. Each of these principles demand a strong voice from us this day. And we need to re-learn to be very public about telling our story. Or we allow others to say Up is Down, and East is West. We become complicit. We become complicit.
Stories have power. They shape us. I want to share another story with you now. I grew up hearing stories about the March On Washington. As a child, this historic moment seemed immense, and far removed in time. Yet, it ingrained itself in my young conscience. Rev. King’s watershed speech galvanized an ethic that not only challenged the institutions of his time, but offered a path for the next generations to mature into. From this grounding, we as a people struggle, grow, and heal. He did so by re-telling the American story. He made The Dream bigger and more inclusive. He basically said – ‘you know all those things we said about freedom and equity – well let’s start meaning them.” And the work must continue.
August 24th marks the 50th anniversary of “The Great March.” Brian and I will be heading down to DC to join one of our largest congregations – All Souls, DC – in Standing on the Side of Love. Our weekly eFlash has more information on how to join. You can also follow that link to read the letter I wrote that the Standing on the Side of Love campaign sent out to the denomination on Thursday inviting us all to DC.
Wherever any of us are oppressed, we are all diminished. Whenever we remain complacent, we are complicit. When we are unmoved, our faith calls us back to a place of compassion. We are all our relations. We still have a dream. May the next generations be inspired by the course of our hearts. I hope to see you in DC at the end of this month and take part in the re-telling of our American Story for this generation.
Just like our nation, what we say about ourselves influences what we become as a faith community and as individuals. If we speak only about ourselves as a thoroughly-reasoned people, and not as an empathetic community, we will sound more intellectual than heart-centered. If we neglect our commitment to the public sector, the public sector will expect us to sputter quietly in the night. If we stew in our terminal uniqueness, we will sit alone at lunch hour.
What are the stories we need to retell in our own congregation? Where are we silent when we ought to speak up? What would reclaiming your commitment to voice in this Fellowship look like? Consider it. You may have different answers than I will, or the person next to you will. I’ll suggest a few, by starting with the most individual and working my way up.
When are you silent when you should speak up in this community? Sometimes folks gossip in life. Sometimes people are critical of one another behind each other’s backs. This happens in our families, in our classrooms, in our social circles and yes, in our religious home. It’s a fact of human interactions, and always continues. I challenge each of you to challenge it, when you witness it, with love and compassion. Not with finger pointing; not with a judgmental tone; without the classic “ah, gotcha!” You can say things like, “Well, Billy’s not here right now, maybe you can bring it up with them directly.” Or, “That’s not my experience of them.” When we’re guilty of guerilla tactics of critique we need to ask ourselves “Is this kind? Is this helpful? Is it even true?” I would further add – “Is this actually what we’re here to even do?” Gossip is the same as behind-the-scenes critique.
Sometimes in our circles we’re called to not remain silent for more serious matters. Someone in earshot makes a racist comment, or a homophobic comment. It could be in this building, or at work, or in home room at school. If we say nothing we are complicit. Anyone hurt by the comment will be further hurt by our silence. We don’t need to enter into an argument. We could just say aloud, “That’s not my view” or “We don’t appreciate hateful words like that here.” We need to make a spiritual practice of responding with compassion – in the moment. Not waiting till later. Not thinking it’s not our place. This is our home, and we make of it what we wish to see.
What about the bigger picture for our congregation and our community? What old stories need retelling? Are we actually broke? People believe in God now! No one believes in God now! Do we really want our parking lot to greet the bottom of our cars every time we enter or exit? Do more people really not want to take part in the leadership of this community? Are children welcome in our religious home? What does membership in our congregation mean? What is our purpose?
Many of these answers will take the better part of the next year to define and redefine. I have some impressions from the many conversations I’ve had already, and look forward to learning more from each of you. The Board began some of these reflections last Sunday with me in our 6 hour retreat after services, and the Board will be intentionally seeking more and more inclusion in the months to come. I can’t answer each of these questions for myself yet, but I would like to look at one right now.
…The Parking Lot… Everyone get comfortable in your chairs. Stretch if you need to. Take a deep breath. Really. Ok, you can keep breathing. I know this has been a challenge for somewhere between seasons and eons. Everyone has a different view about exactly what’s going on. The facts are three-fold: 1) We have a parking lot (can we all agree on that? by a show of hands, how many of us agree that’s true? ok, good.) 2) the parking lot needs to be repaired because cars have been driving on it and parking in it for a long time and the laws of physics and geology remain true even here on our sacred grounds and 3) repairs cost money. What appears to me to be the dominant story is that we are short money. We could probably get enough money to do basic repairs – assuming we can agree on what the word “basic” means – or we could agree on what the word “what” means for that matter. Some in the community weigh environmental concerns more highly than fiscal and are holding out for doing this in the ecological manner. Namely – semi-porous materials that help tremendously with drainage. And the dichotomy that’s created sounds like, “we’d be able to move forward if the environmentalists would just stop blocking the process.” I’ve heard this already, and it’s not the best way to phrase the situation.
We need a new story. We have groups here that are more ecologically minded. We have award-recognized conservationists in our midst and on our Board. We have others that are focused on community gardens to help with the problem of hunger in our community. We have others that specifically are called to upgrading our beloved building to Green Sanctuary status. And we have others who would love to see an eco-friendly driveway. And our religious principles – namely our 7th – tells us that all things are interdependent; that we are part of the world and the world is part of us. What if that became our new story?
What if we allowed the spirituality of environmental stewardship to be a real demand on our lives? There’s certainly the need. We have members who lost their homes to Hurricane Sandy. I remember being trapped in my 10th story NYC apartment with the East River in front of our door (Three avenues, the FDR and the East River Park further in than the East River should have been.) On July 22nd, while Brian and I were busy closing on our new home in Huntington, people were taking photos of The-Day-the-North-Pole-Became-A-Lake. Global Warming will continue if each of us continues to do what we’ve been doing. 99% of scientists agree. When was the last time 99% of people agreed on anything?
We all know the definition of insanity: continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results. Some changes will be easy. Most of them will not be easy. The longer we wait, the more painful it will be. Yesterday was the time for action, but we’ll have to do with today.
As some of you know, I was an Urban Planner before I was a minister. I mostly worked in the area of affordable housing and health insurance outreach, but we all got trained in the basics of everything Planner-related. Like the ministry, Planners are a rare breed of specialized generalists. So with that background known, I say this, the environmental benefit of doing this right, is actually significant. It’s not a token act. It’s meaningful. It’s also good for our collective spirit.
In our social justice and social service work we come together well when we work toward ending homelessness and hunger. I believe we have a critical mass of drive and purpose to do this collective action with environmental stewardship as well. It’s certainly in our religious values. It certainly needs to be done. And we have a real opportunity for local, meaningful impact in an area that affects all of us generally – and an area that has affected some of us tremendously – at the price of our homes.
Sometimes we make good decisions informed by finances. And sometimes we allow money to make us forget our principles. When Brian and I walked into the VW dealership to lease a new car, we walked in with the express intention of leasing a hybrid. Somehow, the agent convinced us not to buy a hybrid. As a lease, we would never make back the money in gas that we would spend in getting a hybrid. Right now, it’s only cheaper if you drive a lot, and we won’t be driving a lot. It’s only small comfort that the mileage on the non-hybrid car is better mileage than I’ve ever had in my life. I went in to make a principled purchase and I walked out doing otherwise. I forgot my center. I hope we can find our center and make a principled decision. And although “no decision” – is a decision – it’s not going to stop the ground greeting the bottom of my new lease every time I enter or exit the parking lot.
Folks can respond – ‘well, where is the money going to come from?’ And I would respond, that’s the wrong first question. The right first few questions are – As a religious community, what’s the principled choice? How will this energize us as a community? How will this define us? Who will join our community because of the potentially very public leadership we show? Will it help us find our voice? What story will we now be telling?
I have faith in this community. I believe we will actualize our center in the years to come; that we have a purpose and we will embody it with life. Because I believe in our story, I will be pledging 5% of my income as your minister to the works and ministry of this Fellowship. It will come directly out of my paycheck before I ever see it. I wish I could pledge more, but with the state of student loans in our country right now, and the crippling cost of seminary and graduate school debt, I simply can not at this time. But I want to make this choice, because it feels right. I want to contribute to our impact on the world in every way I can.
You see, the money will come, if our purpose is right. The money will not come if we focus on wondering where the money will come from. The money will come when we recognize that our religious community is saving lives as well as mending souls. We are helping to house the homeless – in this very sanctuary. We share in the responsibility of feeding the hungry in our community. We can tell our story as the people who show up to witness when advocacy for justice is required. We are literally saving lives, when a teen desperately needs to hear that they are whole, and sacred, just as they are – for who they love. We are literally saving lives, when we respect the choices people make with their bodies – even when the body they are born into doesn’t exactly match the body they feel they fit into. We are literally saving lives when we seek to change the tenor of public discourse. From all the horrifying news stories abounding we know all too well the public lynching trees are far from gone in our country. We have much work to do. We have a purpose. We are a saving faith, in a very literal sense. Go. Tell our story.
This homily was preached on Good Friday, March 29th at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn.
This is the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. We are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of this day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose.
What is this death? The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. When we bear witness to the child or the teen shot dead because of the wrong time, or the wrong place, or the wrong color, or the wrong class, or for loving the wrong person. The Cross is there when society looks on in fascination or horror and stands paralyzed to act – only enabling the crime to occur again and again. There is no hope when we see this – but we can pray for purpose.
The Cross returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity.
The story of the Cross is not a myth to ease our fears of the afterlife. It is not solely a tale of someone making a sacrifice for our good – or our ease – for our comfort. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. The lynching trees of our history and our present can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods. There is a cross that hangs on the corner of the street – on too many streets.
Inertia. Apathy. Numbness. They can plague us sometimes. With the barrage of so many stories of grief, of loss – we can succumb to hopelessness. We can ignore them all, by throwing up our hands, and saying, “Not one more thing. Not me. I can’t fix it all. So I won’t begin anywhere.” That’s the warning of the cross. You won’t be able to fix it all. … That’s the truth. The Christian message doesn’t say we can fix it all. It says we have to act where we can. It says – “On this day – Don’t look away. You need to see this. There is something that can be done for the person before you. For the Cross on this street corner.” You can choose to be the soldiers dicing over the garments of the man on the Cross, or you can be the onlookers gaping in mute horror, or you can be the women at his feet who care for the body and quietly resolve to change the world as best they can – to live their life in memory of a man killed by worldly powers and worldly privilege.
This is why we commemorate the life and death of Jesus this day. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.