Posts Tagged Jewish

All Hands On Deck

This sermon was preached on 1/29/17 at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington. It calls out the immoral actions of our government for banning refugees and Muslims.

I grew up in Central Jersey in the 70s and 80s. The family stories get told a little differently every time, as family stories often do, but each of my grand-parents were either the only sibling who was born in the States, or they were an immigrant themselves. Germany, the former Czechoslovakia,  Sicily (yes, it wasn’t just Italy, it was specifically Sicily) and my other grandfather I never knew – but my one Grandmother remarried a Spanish-speaking man who sadly died before I was born.  My mom grew up speaking a smattering of Italian, Spanish and English. That’s mostly gone now. Many Italian immigrants back then felt pressured to lose their cultural identity to survive or thrive in the States. On my Dad’s side, I come from Pennsylvania coal-miner stock.

Before I was 5, we were renting an apartment in a multi-family tenement on the outskirts of Perth Amboy, a mostly Latino city. Our downstairs neighbors were Egyptian. When I was turning 5, my parents bought a house in another part of Jersey, Woodbridge township. It was a working class black neighborhood made up of mostly multi-generational households. Across the street from our new home, was the lone Jewish family in our neighborhood – and I was the only white child in my neighborhood (The Jewish family across the street didn’t have kids.)  Like everyone else around, I grew up with my grandmother and my uncle living with us. The schools drew from a wider area, so I was lucky to grow up knowing kids from every background. I remember one of my mom’s closer friends during my childhood; she was an African woman who was seeking citizenship in the States while her children were raised back home with her husband and mother.  It would take her 20 years to legally bring her family over to the U.S. Twenty years to do it legally.

This is my America. German, Slovak, Italian, Egyptian, Latino, Black, Immigrant, African, Jewish, Catholic – and that was just my experience by maybe the age of 8. In grade school we learned about the Statue of Liberty – it was almost a religious sense of patriotism – about what was right and true in the world – what was our story and our birthright. The Lady in our NY harbor said, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

After this weekend, I’m not sure we deserve her any longer, but we can find our way back still. This past Friday, January 27, 2017, on the 75th anniversary of Holocaust Remembrance Day, while failing to include Jewish people in his statement of remembrance, our sitting President signed an executive order banning all Syrian Refugees and citizens from several Muslim states. (We’ll surely learn soon that those nations will ban our people from visiting them in return.)  On Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Trump banned refugees who are fleeing a genocidal government from seeking sanctuary on our shores. This sickens me. This is so far past partisan divides now. If you’re for this horror, you’re ignoring America’s heritage and story and the American Dream. We need to be better than this. Lady Liberty is weeping.

And this doesn’t stop neatly with who gets banned from our shores. There’s a fear that sets in when we begin down this road. One friend of mine, Farah said, “The trickle-down effect is that I and those who look like me will have to start carrying our papers everywhere. It means that I will be hassled at every border. It means that my family will be hassled when they come to visit me. It means that any of us could be detained, harassed and deprived of our rights as American citizens.” We know this to be true, because we see this in our Border states where Latinos – even US citizens – live in fear of harassment and need to carry proof of citizenship at all times. Now we begin this with our Muslim neighbors.

Jewish and Christian Scripture is very clear on how we’re to treat refugees, the stranger and our neighbor. When Jesus is asked, “who is my neighbor?” He tells the story of the Good Samaritan in reply; he tells the story of a foreigner of another religion as his answer to who is my neighbor. [1]We teach our children these values, and this ban wouldn’t stand up to a kindergartener’s test for simple fairness, or any biblical test of righteousness. But we know this story from our past too. One of our members and a public school teacher, (Theresa) reminded me of this yesterday, “A U.S. President did this before… On June 6, 1939, the St. Louis arrived in the port of Havana, Cuba with hundreds of Jewish refugees. FDR forced the ship to turn back. 532 St. Louis passengers were trapped when Germany conquered Western Europe. Just over half, 278 survived the Holocaust. 254 died.[2]

We are past hyperbole, or partisanship here. This isn’t an election cycle or a political issue; faithful people from all political walks of life should oppose this. This is basic human decency. This is about our religious conviction that freedom of religion, that religious pluralism, is a spiritual value and a human need. We have refugees – green card holders – legal residents  – legal residents – who were detained in JFK calling their lawyers and suing the US for unlawful detainment – while they waited to find out if they will be sent back to dangerous ports. The ACLU won a stay, which just means that no one is being sent back right now, but this Executive Order was haphazardly implemented and we still don’t know what will be next. This on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Will we remember?

As a child, we wondered how everyday citizens in Germany could let the horrors perpetrated against the Jews, Gypsys, gays and dissidents occur. How could any people allow the systematic dehumanization to occur to the point where lives were treated as chattel. We now understand that it happened piece-by-piece and bit-by-bit. What was once outrageous became acceptable – pushing further and further back the line of what was considered normal. Denying refugees the safety of our shores is not normal; it does not fit the American Dream, and it’s in direct opposition to our religious faith. This needs to be the next line we draw as a nation and as a religious community.

Religious institutions, at our best, are bedrocks for prophetic witness. And as an institution, we need all hands on deck for what’s happening in our name. We need to call out injustice where it weakens the spirit and the hearts of our people. When worldly greed, fear and hate, take root in our government, we need to make clear the road back to righteousness. Righteousness. In Jewish Scripture, the word we translate in English to righteousness, has lost some of it clarity over the generations. We often conflate it with self-righteous and have a reluctance to embrace it because of that shadow side. In the original meaning of the word, it’s much more positive, and a word that holds us accountable to something beyond just our lone egos. A contemporary translation would be closer to, “behavior that’s in solidarity with the community.” Righteousness means to act in accordance with the needs of those around you – and to do so knowing that your neighbor is your own and you’re your neighbors’ as well. Righteousness. Bans on refugees fleeing genocide is not righteous. Bans on citizens from Muslim countries – except of course their Christian citizens – is not righteousness. That’s base religious bigotry – and base religious bigotry does not get to easily parade itself as a partisan issue – it’s a moral issue, it’s a biblical issue. And those are our issues; that is our call as a religious people.

Our Fellowship has made numerous commitments to the immigrant, to the refugee, to peace. Over 15 years ago we led the move to start the interfaith collaboration that we now call HIHI where migrant men are offered shelter in religious homes throughout Huntington, 7 days a week, during the cold weather months. We do this for many reasons, but it began in the tragedy of a man freezing to death over-night. Politics being what they are, are not always a viable solution for some of our people to survive. That’s why we need religious institutions like ours, to shine a light on what needs to be seen.

As low pay farm-workers out on eastern long island are struggling to make a living, with limited other options, large farming corporations have used loop-holes in the law to take advantage of lower than minimum-wage work. As they continue to protest and advocate for their own rights, last year we used our space to house protest marchers overnight as they walked from Eastern Long Island all the way to Albany. We’ve hosted their art in our art gallery, we’ve educated about their plight from our pulpit, and some of our members continue to work in solidarity – to work with righteousness – for their needs knowing that their needs are our needs. Sometimes, religious institutions become a sounding bell to ensure we all hear what needs to be heard.

Sometimes we make space, or hold space, for others to be heard. Non-partisan, issue-based groups that align with our religious values, are using our building more and more to organize locally. NOW (the National Organization for Women), LITAC (Long Island Transgender Action Coalition) as well as a newly forming LI based Latinx Transgender rights group are just a few who know that our community is a safe-haven in these troubling times. Institutions matter – and when we’re living our values, when we’re responding to our call as a religious community – our institutional values matter. We will continue to adapt to address the needs of each generation – generation after generation.

Together, we make this religious institution possible. Living in accordance with the needs of those around us, knowing our neighbor is ourselves, and we are our neighbor – is the sense of righteousness we are seeking for ourselves, and what we’re raising another generation to value. Before Friday’s ban on refugees and Muslims – this service was planned to be a straightforward kick-off to our annual pledge drive where we talk about our financial commitments to living out our values. Today the tone is different. We’re funding our grassroots spiritual home that commits to making sure our neighbor lives another day. We know that politics and movements come and go – but there are eternal human values, moral values, that we need to ensure are not forgotten in the wider public. We need each other to be faithful to our highest ideals, and strive toward that lofty goal of the beloved community, step by step. And we need to ensure that we’re strong as a community to do that hard work – day by day – generation after generation – together. This is what stewardship means for us; for our generation and the generations to come.

Our social justice, social action, social witness wing of our denomination – the UU Service Committee – was originally begun as an organization devoted to helping get survivors out and away from the Nazis during the occupation of Europe. It’s in our very DNA. Yesterday, the UUA and the UUSC issued a joint call to action in the face of the growing barbarism coming out from our capital. The statement reads, “At this extraordinary time in our nation’s history, we are called to affirm our profound commitment to the fundamental principles of justice, equity and compassion, to truth and core values of American society. In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes, we affirm our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. In opposition to any steps to undermine the right of every citizen to vote or to turn back advances in access to health care and reproductive rights, we affirm our commitment to justice and compassion in human relations. And against actions to weaken or eliminate initiatives to address the threat of climate change – actions that would threaten not only our country but the entire planet – we affirm our unyielding commitment to protect the interdependent web of all existence. We will oppose any and all unjust government actions to deport, register, discriminate, or despoil.

As people of conscience, we declare our commitment to translate our values into action as we stand on the side of love with the most vulnerable among us. We welcome and invite all to join in this commitment for justice.  

The time is now.[3]

I have signed onto that pledge. We’ll have a link to it our Fellowship Facebook page shortly, and if you don’t use Facebook, the link will be in this sermon online as well. (I’ve begun speaking with our Board President, Michael A., asking for our Board to consider having our Fellowship sign onto the pledge as well.) This statement is our roadmap – it’s our mirror to look into as we decide who we want to be – how we live into the deeper call to righteousness. And it’s all hands on deck. I charge our committee leaders to review it seriously and see where their team’s work coincides with the religious precepts articulated in the ethical pledge. As individuals, I charge each of us to (as the Jewish proverb goes) to write those words on the tablets of our hearts. It’s a moral compass we can strive to live up to. Righteousness in the face of injustice is an act of communal solidarity – that’s both individual and institutional.

Maybe you’ve felt like you were in a sort of fog or haze over the last few weeks. So much of what we don’t agree with is happening so fast. Others are feeling the barrage very viscerally; some of us are less safe. It’s got a dispiriting effect. I’ve heard from many of us that there’s a way in which we’re feeling alone, or isolated. Maybe that’s a reason you’ve come through our doors today. In my own house, we’ve been trying to set time aside for doing things that are a bit more frivolous to keep our spirits up to do the work the world needs us all to do. My husband and I are largely focused personally and professionally on causes that feel under attack of late, and there comes a time when one needs a break.

Earlier this week, with popcorn in hand we sat down to re-watch the Harry Potter movies – another movie from the series most nights. He knows he missed one, but wasn’t sure which one he missed. On Wednesday night, we got to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. For those unfamiliar with the series that started out as a children’s book but turned into a manifesto for the millennial generation – it’s a series about a magical kid who’s only alive because of his mother’s love. Harry Potter is pitted against a fictional character – Voldemort – who signifies fascism, anger, and bigotry. The heroes of the story are studying in school, and come from School “Houses” that signify courage, steadfastness, friendship, intellect and dedication. It’s a little more complicated than that, but this covers it well enough.

Well at the mid-way point of this book in the series (or movie), Harry is feeling very low. He’s not trusted by the wider magical world. The villain of the story, Voldemort, is still thought to have been defeated years back and gone from the land. Harry is one of the lone voices calling out of the impending dangers with Voldemort’s imminent return. He turns to his close friend, Hermione, and tells her that he feels all alone – that the world has turned on him, that he’s exhausted for not being trusted. Hermione turns to him and she says, Voldemort, only wants you to think you’re alone Harry.”

We were watching this movie on Wednesday evening, only a few days after the historic international Women’s March, which drew millions of people in the US and countless more across the globe. I’m proud to know that 45 of our Fellowshippers were together at the March in NYC, and I haven’t heard what the formal count for those who made it to DC war. 45 in NYC!

 ‘In the face of looming threats to immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and the LGBTQ community and the rise of hate speech, harassment and hate crimes,’ we hear the calm, intelligent, caring voice, in that loudly loving Women’s March respond, ‘fascism, anger, and bigotry only want you to think you’re alone.’

I’ll close with how we began our service. In religious community, we gather to nurture our individual spirits through caring for one another and helping to heal the world. Our spirits are nurtured through care for one another – together. Our mission reminds us that we’re never alone; that we’re here for one another. Institutions are our bedrock in times of turmoil. We will continue to be a place of support; a place of organizing against that which defies our highest values; and a place of challenge when we fall into complacency. As we begin a new stewardship year, I encourage you to support this institution so that in the coming year and years, we can continue to be a Beacon in a world that needs more places of compassion and spirit – places that live to remind us all – we’re not alone.

 

If you’re so moved to take further action on our imminent refugee crisis and immoral ban on religious groups – Muslims – Theresa K. had pulled together language at each table for you to make phone calls to your local representatives here on Long Island. There’s a copy at each table, and more will be back in the Social Hall on at the social justice table. The table in the social hall also has other local actions that our team has reviewed for you to further consider.

 

[1] Thanks to Rev. Rachel Morse for lifting this up in social media

[2] https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005267

[3] http://connect.uusc.org/l/103112/2017-01-17/gpgn2

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Simple Beauty, Complex Pain

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 6/19/16. It addresses the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando.

It has been a painful, difficult week, following the shootings in Orlando. The tragedy that I spoke about last Sunday with news slowly trickling in, has turned out to be more than twice as deadly as we first thought. We’ve known worse attacks in war, and in our history of genocide, and lynchings, but in the modern era, we have not seen a mass shooting like this on our nation’s soil. Most of us are shook up; some are numb. And the LGBT community, particularly communities of color, are experiencing an extended shock response to the trauma because it’s an extension of the all too often reality many of us live in.

I briefly considered doing away with our Flower Celebration today, but the origins of the ritual come at a time in Europe’s history where the worst violence known to humanity was occurring during World War II. Unitarian minister, Rev. Chapek, wanted to create an interfaith ritual that would bring people together. He wanted a ritual that helped his people see beauty amidst incredible pain. Remembering those lost last week is incredibly painful; many of us are experiencing the tragedy as if we knew those victims personally. I remember texting a few friends, during our annual meeting last Sunday, who lived there waiting to hear back; and thankfully they were all fine.

But the perpetual state of gun violence in our nation is leaving us more and more raw, and it’s making it harder and harder not to imagine that it could happen down the street. The political noise around each tragedy keeps real conversation at bay long enough to delay till the next mass shooting. It’s a sort of fog of war: as long as we can’t see straight, we don’t know how to react politically to protect our communities. And the issue is complex, but friends, it’s not that complex. We manage to know how to regulate how much Sudafed someone can buy over the counter, we can figure out how to track AR-15’s. What stops us from organizing as a community for sensible laws that don’t allow people on the FBI terrorist watch list from purchasing these military-grade weapons? Is that really a radical thing to suggest?

That’s my question for our Fellowship: can we organize around this issue? I believe in hope, and I believe in the power of prayer, and I know the value of reading the list of names of those lost to us. And as scripture reads, Faith without works is dead. That’s the bit that I think all UU’s agree with theologically. It doesn’t matter what we believe, if we aren’t doing something about those intrinsic values, then that ethic is empty and hollow. I worry about every first responder that needs to go into these places. I’m grateful for the military vet who was on site at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, who saved many lives. And I know in my heart, that there are too many LGBT youth and adults who will now delay coming out for fear of safety. Why do we leave it at that? Can we extend forward our respect and appreciation by working toward reasonable precautions against future harm? While we grieve this great loss, hold-off in coffee hour from worrying about the small details of congregational life that are less than to your liking; hold off from the what if’s and not that’s of life. Use that energy in connecting with one another and imagining how can we be a force for change on this issue that so many of us clearly care so deeply about. The Fellowship can be a crucible for this work, and the world needs us to take part.

It reminds me of the old scriptural adage of sack cloth and ashes after a great loss, or out of a spirit of repentance for a great wrong. I spoke last week about the words of one Rabbi who asked the people to repent of evil before we commit it. Another kind of repentance happens when we have failed to do what needed to be done. We remembered lives lost in our prayer today, and I wonder what I could have done to have prevented that ever from being necessary. And I know this is a community that is big enough to imagine coalition building that extends across difference, to build that safer world. The Flower Celebration originated as a service to draw our eyes back to simple beauty so that we can do the difficult work to address the complex pains of the world. In our hours of despair, may we find a renewal of spirit, to do the work at hand; and not be distracted by the thousand small details in life that keep us from the clear path.

A few weeks ago, I was attending our Tuesday morning silent meditation group, and I heard a classic Buddhist story about a Nun who was carrying a bamboo container full of water. In the water she could see the moon. After some time, the bamboo weakened and shatter, and all the water quickly leaked out. The Nun exclaimed laughing, “no water, no moon” and the story goes that she was enlightened. Traditionally, this tale is one that teaches about some of the classic characteristics of Buddhist understanding. The water and bamboo are the myriad things of the world, and the moon signifies impermanence. When we grasp onto what is fleeting, we can find despair or relief in what begins and ends before us as the water leaks through our fingers.

But there’s another aspect of this story that I find very true. In everyday terms, the water in that bamboo bucket is how we see the moon. We’re not looking at the moon directly; we are seeing the image of the moon in a reflection that draws our eyes away from what is real and true. The moon becomes a story about itself that’s retold dimly from another direction entirely. Everything that we see only through the reflection of the water is reliant upon how we hold the bucket, where are standing or moving at any given time, how long the bucket will last, and even how much water we have over time. The water becomes a story that we tell and retell others to understand the reflection of the moon – not the moon – merely it’s reflection.

This is really true about life. What’s the story we hear in the media, or among our friends, or the one we ourselves tell about what happened in Orlando? Do we have the story memorized that tells us any act of violence by someone who professes Islam, is an act of terror first and foremost and more about the clash of civilizations? Or do we have the story that homophobia can be internalized and cause grievous harm to ourselves and the world? Do we have the story that the Second Amendment trumps all other forms of liberty and rights? Or do we live into a story where we imagine we can never be fully safe? Since (most) or probably all modern mass shootings have been instigated by men, I have a story that there’s a way in which we are raising our boys and men that is fundamentally flawed. Masculinity has been twisted to mean power and aggression. I think that story is right, but it’s still just one way of looking at it.

As we recommit to building the world we dream about, we are going to need to find points of connection with people who have differing opinions than our own. Lives are very much on the line. Despite what we might hear colloquially, surveys show that most members of the NRA are in favor of reasonable precautions around the sale of military grade weapons. It’s not us vs them, rather the lobbyist organization that is the NRA is not in alignment with the vast majority of it members on this issue. We can hold onto a story that says otherwise, but it won’t help move the dialogue forward.

We can hold onto the story that this attack was solely against the US, which is sadly a story that has far too many politicians shutting their eyes and proclaiming. That story falsely tells us that any child of an immigrant is a potential risk. This shooter’s parents immigrated from Afghanistan at a time in our history when that nation was our ally against Cold War Communism. Do we stop immigration from any nation that’s our current ally because we do not know what will happen 30 years later?

We are people of stories. That’s often what makes us human. Myth, and story-telling, is the heart of my vocation in many ways. We can communicate the depth and breadth of humanity in story. But a good story helps crack open meaning and truth. As religious people, it’s our challenge to get better at telling what’s a good story that brings our humanity out to the surface, and which stories trick us into believing in the reflection of a moon.

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Prayer for Orlando

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,

We gather this evening, in peace, in sorrow;

in grief, and in pain.

We bear witness once more to such a deep,

human loss for all our communities.

We mourn the death of 49 lesbian, and gay, bisexual and transgender people;

Bright souls with parents, and siblings;

some in the vibrant youth of their lives,

others who lived for decades, getting to see our nation,

too slowly turn toward equality for all,

and at least one – who was in great personal pain – who brought that tragic pain to bear upon so many others.

We bear witness to the parents who will no longer see their children come home; parents who will not get the chance to celebrate their sons’ or daughter’s plans for marriage or for children of their own, for a long life denied them.

We have no words in the face of such loss….

Mother of Grace, we pray you write this grief into the tablets of our hearts,

so that we may no longer go into this world complicit with the quiet hates that embed our streets, and schools, offices and houses of worship.

As we have seen so much loss, teach us to hold tight to one another,

while we can, and live into this world with Your sacred trust; with respect and compassion; especially when it’s hard to find.

Move us out of inaction and complacency,

and use us to build the Beloved Community on this earth.

And turn us away from fear, and easy blame.

May our people not look to the actions of one man,

and blame the whole of his religion.

Ever teach us to question any lesson that ends in fear, or hatred;

that lifts up the differences over our common humanity,

that divides us and makes us forget we are all children of God.

We pray for a healing of the toxic masculinity that puts all of us at risk;

may we raise our boys into men whose hearts are stirred by justice and forbearance;

men who find strength in solidarity rather than in power,

who find self-acceptance in compassion rather than insecurity from fear.

Where we feel helpless before the enormity of it all,

remind us that our work in raising families and communities grounded in Spirit and centered in love,

is the very work that each of our faith’s call us to do.

We are the hands of the Holy on earth,

and may we ever reach those hands out to one another,

in times of loss and in times of celebration,

building and rebuilding our world.

Let there be peace on earth,

and let it begin with me.

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Living a Life of Meaning – Easter 2014

This Easter sermon was preached on 4/20/14 at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY.

Easter can be a challenging holiday for some religious progressives. We recognize the horrors perpetrated against Jews by Christians taking the wrong lesson from the Good Friday story. Some of us come from other religious backgrounds, and this story was never our story. Still others wrestle with the message: that the miracle of resurrection is hard to fathom in a modern scientific world. I’ve heard others not wanting the brutality of the crucifixion shared within earshot of children. And some of us, like myself, were raised and steeped in the mysticism of Easter, learning of the violence and the hope in its proper context – and for us – it’s a deeply powerful story with a message that’s still relevant two thousand years later.

The Easter story, beginning with Good Friday’s crucifixion, is a challenging text. Recounting the gospel of Mark, we hear an account where the Roman authority – Pilate – is convinced to kill Jesus by the efforts of the Jewish chief priests. We’re told of a custom where at this festival one prisoner is released through the will of the crowd. This time, the crowd chooses Barabbas, and condemned Jesus to crucifixion. Pilate, who is imperial Rome’s local liaison to the then Jewish vassal state, offers his last words on the ruling to the crowd, “Why, what evil has he done?” And thereby Mark washes Rome’s hands of Jesus’ death.

This text is a difficult one. Written by an author trying to evangelize the Roman world, words get carefully chosen. Words like “they” and “people” – will trick the reader into thinking the Romans were almost blameless, and the Jews were all at fault, or that magically the Jews were all of one mind. Roman soldiers would be referred to just as “soldier” in the text, right after talking about a Jewish crowd, making some think the soldiers were Jewish – which they were not. Imperial Roman complicity gets hidden, and the Jewish people get blamed for things said or done by Rome.

Even the myth of the custom of freeing one prisoner places the blame solely upon the Jews. Besides there being no such Roman or Jewish custom at the time to free a prisoner, the name Barabbas is a way of saying, “son of the father.” Imagine a crowd chanting to free the “son of the father” and what that would mean. .. But later Roman readers would not know that. And here, early Christianity has a seed planted that would pit some Christians against Jews for the next two thousand years.

At 1pm, this past Sunday, according to CNN, “A man with a history of spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric (was) suspected of shooting to death a boy and his grandfather outside a Jewish community center near Kansas City, Kansas, and then a woman at a nearby Jewish assisted living facility.”… “The Anti-Defamation League said it warned last week of the increased possibility of violent attacks against community centers in the coming weeks, “which coincide both with the Passover holiday and Hitler’s birthday on April 20 (today), a day around which, in the United States, has historically been marked by extremist acts of violence and terrorism.” The boy and his grandfather were both Methodist. The woman was Catholic. All three were deeply tied to their religious communities, and took part in community events at the Jewish community center. They were living in peace with their neighbor.

There is a sector in our population that equates violence and power with personal freedom…. It’s an addiction to privilege that is affronted by diversity. It replaces community and solidarity with a strict devotion to the self over others. Watch-groups are able to predict that violence will occur in the name of Hitler. This particular gunman even invoked Hitler’s name when he was apprehended at a local elementary school. Seeking to cause harm to Jews, his hatred fomented his rage, and random people became victims.

Good Friday reminds us that horrors happen in the world, and we must pay attention. Jesus on the Cross is an indictment of power and rage in a world where Caesar rules – whether Caesar be in office with worldly power, or Caesar resides in the common heart – terrified by the threats of humanity’s common bonds. The death on the Cross is about a life that refused to submit to the will to power or the force of rage. In death, a life well lived reflected integrity and conscience. We are called to live with such integrity, and to strive to prevent such harm in the world. That is our devotion.

But we are not called to glorify this death or any other. Good Friday reminds us that life is sacred, worth living, and occasionally worth dying for. It’s also a reminder that humanity fails from time to time. We craft evil – when it’s easier to be kind. It is our role, as witnesses, to build a different world. As religious progressives, we can fixate so much on our inherent goodness, and forget our propensity for evil.

Good Friday reminds us that humanity has the capacity for both, which makes our actions, and our choices, all the more vital. Our goodness hangs upon the cross this hour. And 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 is not to move past it too fast – 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. Redemption in the Easter story comes later – but first it 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. 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 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 so 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 dayDon’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. There are some things worth living for; there are some things worth dying for; and there are some things worth remembering.

Spiritually, we can also look at it as a testament to the audacity of life in the face of power. Christian theologian Delores Williams writes, “”Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather… the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life – to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between the body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit.” I feel this is the spirit of the Christian path that most strongly lives on in our Unitarian Universalist communities. How do we live a life of meaning, amidst all the world’s struggles around wealth, authority, and consumption? How do we build up communities when nations sometimes seek to divide and control? Which traditions hold us up and which traditions hold us back? Does a life of spirit have meaning to us any longer, and what does it feel like if it does?

The world of the bible is in some ways very similar to ours. It speaks of a people trying to survive within radically changing times. We are blessed here not to suffer under an imperial power, but many around us know the curse of poverty, or the imbalance in a stratifying economy, or the lack of equitable access to opportunities. Religion is changing, family structures are changing, how we view security, safety and information are all matters in flux. And today we focus in on the life of a prophet who reminded us there was a right way to live. In fact, his students were known as “followers of the way.” In this path, we’re asked not only to love our neighbor as our self. Not only to forgive 70 times 70. But to lift up the poor, to steer away from worldly power – and yes again – that some things in life are not only worth dying for,… but they are worth living for too.

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Small Group Ministry Session #26: Mother Wove

#26 Small Group Ministry Session on “Mother Wove” from New Year’s Day

Written by Rev. Jude Geiger, MRE, First Unitarian,Brooklyn

Based on a Sermon by Rev. Jude preached at First UU on 1/1/12 found here: https://revwho.com/2012/01/01/mother-wove/

Welcome & Opening Chalice Lighting  (Please read aloud) by Rev. Jude

Enter this year with a sense of new life. Enter this hour with the sense of possibility. May our days come to know gladness, May our dreams expand beyond our own vision, May our hearts open to those in need of our love, Even if they may simply be ourselves.

Statement of Purpose:  To nurture our spirits and deepen our friendships.

Brief Check-In: Share your name and something you have left behind to be here.

Covenant Reflection

Reading: A Prayer for a New Year by Rev. Jude

Spirit of New Beginnings, God of Endings, and Mother of Transforming and Abundant Love,

Gift us with a broader view. Grant us the courage to learn from the mistakes of the year past, To honor our travails, and love ourselves despite what we could not let go of. Help us to find a new sense of possibility in the coming year.

May we come to understand our journey as the series of changes that they are, and not as a cascade of doors banging closed. Not as limit and barrier, but as impermanence, openings, and hope. Remind us to take the time, in these longer nights, and shorter days to reflect on matters of the heart.

Stir in us intuitions of the spirit, and quiet our busy minds, So that we find more room, to live into our lives, and not our thoughts. Let us not dwell overlong in the musings of fear and worry, May we not fixate in the hells of “what if” and “if only.”

Mother of Hope, help us to focus on the Heaven in this world, that is within our power to create.

May we give gifts of service and care, compassion and forgiveness, and material things are needed, clothing and food when it is in our power to help.

May we make of this year a new year, not a return to the repetitions of the old. And may it be for gladness.

Discussion Questions: 

Where have you encountered the Holy in the past month? What images of the feminine divine do you find in your own life? Which are absent? What can you do, yourself, to reclaim them?

Closing:   “Jewish Prayer” #507 from Singing the Living Tradition

Grant us the ability to find joy and strength, not in the strident call to arms, but in stretching out our arms to grasp our fellow creatures in the striving for justice and truth.

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Not My Problem

The following sermon was preached at First UU on Feb 20th, 2011. The story it references comes from the UUA Tapestry of Faith curriculum found here: http://www.uua.org/religiouseducation/curricula/tapestryfaith/moraltales/session12/sessionplan/stories/123589.shtml

Who would have thought one little drop of honey could cause so much trouble! Our story’s Queen learned otherwise, right? She learned that sometimes leaving something unattended for long enough could create mischief, fighting and even fire! I can remember my mom yelling at me as a kid to clean up my bedroom, or pick up my toys from the living room floor, or to turn off the television when I was done. I think I now have a better idea of what my mom was worried might have happened – although the biggest risks were probably just broken legos and lost toys – either one though would certainly threaten a crying little Jude.

Cleaning up after ourselves, putting away our toys, doing the dishes now before the friendly neighborhood cockroaches and rats arrive to do our work for us are all good habits to have and the reasons are mostly clear. But what can this story mean when we’re not talking about honey, or food, or dishes, or legos? What can it mean when it’s referring to the everyday mistakes we make? The nasty emails we clicked the send button for; the failing school grade that we hide the report card for; the impatient remark we make to a fellow congregant – to a friend; or the promise we fail to uphold? Can these things spiral into something more with the proverbial cat and dog fighting amidst the baker and the butcher?

I’d guess that we can all imagine ways in which these things can easily get out of control if we let them sit there and work their mischief. Emails can cause hurt feelings that only grow when we confirm them by ignoring the hurt in our writing. The same can be said for bitter attitudes with folks around us in person. Hiding our school troubles only delays when the truth comes out, and in return we only cut ourselves off from the support of our family when we probably need it the most.

The answers are often simple even if they feel hard to do at the time. Face what we fear in the moment rather than letting it grow out of control. The more we avoid it, the more we fear it, the more troublesome or hurtful it can become. The more power we give it to define our lives.
What if the everyday negative things that happen are part of a bigger problem that goes beyond us? February is Black History month, and I’ve been wondering how an attitude of “not my problem” has contributed to so many of the difficult stories Black Americans have had to face. I wonder how our unwillingness to face our fears of the moment help to support discrimination, prejudice and injustice even though we might not agree with the attitudes that create unfairness between people with different ethnic backgrounds.
I put a call out on Facebook for stories our congregation might be willing to share. June Wohlhorn, one of our Kindergarten-First Grade teachers shared one such story from 25 years ago. She wrote to me,

“At one of the offices where I worked, I was friends with the bookkeeper who was a black woman. At lunch, we’d sometimes run across the street to the Korean deli to grab something to eat at our desks. After doing this a number of times, I noticed that although the man at the cash register would always put my change into my hand, he always put my friend’s money on the counter. I didn’t notice the first few times, but eventually I did and discussed it with her. She said it was one of the things that happens when you shop while black.
I suggested that we not go back even though it was the most convenient and cheapest place nearby. She didn’t want to give up the convenience and said it happened in lots of places and if she let it get her too crazy, life would be even harder than it was. I had known there was prejudice but had not really understood how even the smallest things like how you receive your change was a way of people keeping others ‘in their place’.”
Take a moment and imagine what it would feel like if folks went out of their way to avoid you in everyday interactions? How would it feel if people treated you differently than other people? Have you ever felt this way before? If you have paper and a crayon, you could draw out a time when this happened. Or you could draw a picture of how you think you’d feel. … Take your time, there’s no rush. But when you do that, I’d like you to draw another picture of how you could handle it differently – how would you make it better? This could be really important for you or someone you care about someday because things like this still happen even though they shouldn’t.

Our first principle, where we covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person, reminds us that treating people negatively because of who they are, or whom they love, is a moment where we fall short of who we could be. We’re not at our best when we diminish, when we put down or insult others. And our Unitarian Universalist faith asks more of us than that.
How easy would it have been just to ignore the little fact that the cashier gave change to some people in their hands, and to other people they put the money on the counter? Paying attention to how folks interact is a really important skill. Speaking up, or reaching out – depending on the situation – makes a huge difference too. Taking the time to talk about what happens matters too. It can show we care. It can show we know something’s not right. It’s the beginning of solidarity. These are all ways in which we can live out our first principle too. We often talk about how we affirm the worth and dignity of every person, but our principle also calls us to promote their (and our) worth and dignity. It’s important and great to recognize the value of the people around us; and it’s just as important to protect that sense of appreciation for the people around us. Our principles are not beliefs so much as action statements.
Some of us may be thinking that none of this is really new. That we all know that racism and prejudice and discrimination are bad. And yet it still continues, so I feel we need to regularly have a reminder. I’m not convinced that we always speak up, nor am I convinced that everyone in our religious and social circles are always enlightened on this matter. I get a glimpse of it from time to time because I frequently get confused with someone who is of a Jewish background. I’m actually of a mixed background, each grandparent coming from a different European country. I have a lot of immigrants in my family tree. I was raised Italian Catholic, and for those of you who also were, you know exactly what I mean when I say Italian Catholic. It’s a cultural identity that means a lot to me with all its humor and strength. And I’m not Jewish, but I’m told I look it.

I mentioned that I get a glimpse of discrimination from time to time. I can most easily tell when someone’s mistaking me for Jewish when the person becomes oddly mean, or dismissive, or patronizing (a big word for talking down to me.) Sometimes they’ll make an explicit reference to me being Jewish. I’ve honestly not experienced this at our congregation, but I have run into it at other UU congregations that have fewer Jewish congregants, and I do encounter it from time to time in stores in NYC. When other folks are present, no one ever says anything. No one ever speaks up. I try to focus more on changing their habits, or calling them out on it, than I try to change their assumption that I’m Jewish. It’s an opportunity not to avoid their discrimination, but rather to correct it.
One interesting thing I’ve come to learn about our first principle is that it doesn’t try to say we’re all the same; it reminds us that we all have value – that where we come from matters and is worthy. It is correct to say that we’re all human, but I think it’s a mistake to hide or cover up our differences. Just like I strongly value my Italian cultural household (yep, mom won out on that front), our First principle suggests we value the different backgrounds we all come from. We shouldn’t discriminate because of how someone looks, or where they come from, but we should learn from the identity and culture our neighbors grew out of. Ignoring the strengths that come from our differences is another way of the Queen ignoring the honey she dropped. Without stretching the metaphor too far, something is lost when we let that nourishment go to waste as well.

All these things that might seem to some people as small things (the change on the counter or the hand, the disparaging comment, ignoring who someone is,) can really add up to bigger problems. All these stories when looked at broadly paint a picture of a world where folks are treated unfairly based on characteristics we choose to dislike for no good reason. I believe that these drops of “messy honey” from the “unconcerned Queen” from our story, can add up to fighting and a burning kingdom. It’s up to each of us to clean it up in the moment; to not let a bad thing spread.

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