Posts Tagged justice
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 2/11/18 as a kick off to our stewardship year. It focuses on the power and need for a progressive religious voice.
Two weeks ago, I was using some vacation time to co-chair our UU Ministers’ Association’s triennial conference called The Institute. There were over 350 of our ministers in attendance at this week-long program of workshops on ministry, worship, and a few talks. We live-streamed the seven worship services that I coordinated, or took part in, and I expect to be able to send out the online links of the recordings in the near future for those that missed them. They included some of our finest preachers, with the award winning music director, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout tying the artistic thread through the week, and culminating with the preaching of Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ – the UCC’s largest church in the US, and where President Obama is a member.
It was a stunningly beautiful week. Although we’re all in the same line of work, clergy rarely get to hear each other. Coming together to workshop, and worship, to deepen our collegial ties, and learn in community, is a powerful gift. I was honored to be able to help in the ways that I did. Co-chairing the production of seven worship services in a week, however, was utterly terrifying. Something being an honor though, doesn’t make it devoid of stress, pressure, or the abject horror of speaking in front of your colleagues – all who you’re absolutely sure are wielding their finest internal worship-critiques as they sit facing you. Some of my mentors were in the room, my friends, the people I went to seminary with. This only happens every three years, and many of our ministers are starving to be able to attend worship, without leading worship. The pressure was immense.
Now, I’m not one of those people who have that anxiety dream about talking naked in front of crowds….Thankfully. The dream I return to time and again, is the one where I’m just about to graduate from college, and realize there’s one more final I need to take in a class that I skipped going to, and didn’t do any of the homework for. I can’t possibly complete everything I need to in the time remaining, and I’m going to have to return for another semester to make up that class. And it was a class that I absolutely had zero interest in – which is why I was skipping it in the first place. I wake up in a cold sweat every time. The Institute I co-chaired also felt a little like that dream. How are we ever going to pull off all the thousand things?! And yes, it was still an honor.
The other night, when I was up late with insomnia, from all the stresses of the world that we’re all living through right now, I found myself scrolling through Facebook. Because, of course, staring at an electronic screen at four in the morning is the surest way to go back to sleep quickly… I came upon a quote that put a lot of this in perspective. “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” “Discomfort is the price of a meaningful life.” Sure, there are things in the world that come easy, that are also meaningful, but we would all be kidding ourselves if we pretended ease is the norm. So much of worth in the world, takes our diligent striving, stewardship and care. When things are hard to accomplish, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not doing it well; it may simply mean that it’s worth doing.
This draws me back to our religious community. Things aren’t always easy. Religious community is made up of humans, and we’re not all perfect, we’re not all shiny all the time, and we all bring with us our personal stories of hope and pain, loss, and possibility. We step on one another’s toes, we need to repair the roof, or the window, and money isn’t always easy to find, and we certainly can’t do everything – but we grieve that we can’t do everything nonetheless. I recall the wise words of our resident sage, Bob Bader, that brings us back from the precipice of wanton pining for a perfection that never existed. To paraphrase Bob, We like to think it was easier at some time in our past, but it was never easy; it was always hard work. Religious community is not easy, it’s hard work. If we want easy, we can do brunch instead, or flip through the Sunday Times, (or as one dear member here reminded me recently, we conflict with Jake Tapper on Sundays.) (And as an important reminder, for folks considering just that, you can still make it to brunch and attend our services. And the Times can be read whenever you like – but we’re here at 10:30am.) We’re doing something hard here. It means we’ll be uncomfortable from time to time. Discomfort sometimes is the price of a meaningful life.
I think about all the accomplishments in our Fellowship’s history building upon one another – and often only shining their benefits onto a later generation of members. Back in the 80’s when we expanded our building to build this room where we all gather, we laid the groundwork to grow in membership, but we also laid the groundwork to help the community when the need was great. The Huntington men’s shelter – HIHI – was started by this Fellowship, after a tragic death on the streets. It’s hard to say if we would have been in a place to do that ministry if we didn’t have the larger space we have now. What was started as a simple (or not so simple) grounds and capital project to expand our worship hall, 20 years later became the foundation for saving lives in the wintertime. But if you ask our leaders back then (like MJ) if it was easy, I’m sure she would smile and shake her head no. It wasn’t easy. It was hard, and uncomfortable. But it was worth it. As the poet said earlier in our service, “Wrongs don’t work themselves out. Injustices and inequities and hurt don’t just dissolve. Somebody has to stick her neck out, somebody who cares enough to think through and work through hard ground, because she believes and has something personal and emphatic to say about it.” And as another leader reminded me yesterday, those days were also exciting to be part of!
As the formal start of our new canvass, this sermon is in some ways about funding the present and future of this institution. Many think about budgets, and programs, and costs and services this time of year. Others ask me, “Membership. Why should I join? What do I get for my money?” I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of membership. Religious community is not a place where we buy services. That’s a store. Religious community is a place where we make commitments; where we promise to stretch ourselves when we’re becoming complacent and where we allow ourselves to be cared for by friends and neighbors when our need is there. Where we tell each other that we’ll hold one another accountable to helping to heal the corners of the world where we work and live. And we’ll fall down, we’ll trip, and we’ll help each other back up – to do the daily work, the monthly work, the yearly work of building a more just and compassionate world. Where else do we do that work? Where else do we combine caring for the friend and the stranger alike with the work of justice?
Many lament that the broader world continues to struggle with perennial issues of inequality. It feels like the same battles decade after decade. Public discourse becomes less and less civil. People seem less and less engaged. When citizens make public protest, the propaganda media often chastises and ridicules them. With all that going on, it’s easy to feel lost and ineffective.
In part, membership here is a commitment to that work. Social justice, compassion, service, and learning constitute our spiritual exercise regimen. It’s not always going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun. It’ll include sweat and tears from time to time. You’re not buying something; you’re promising something. Building the world we dream about takes commitment, it takes promises, it requires showing up. Presence and membership are about showing up – again and again. And hopefully, you will change along the way as you help to nurture and transform our neighborhoods into more loving places.
I believe in the healing power of the progressive religious voice. I want those voices alive, well, and loud in our public discourse. I want to foster thriving communities that protect and empower women at a time when government is trying to legislate their bodies in ways that government doesn’t attempt to do to men. I want communities that educate and train citizens about the issues of poverty in our nation, equip us to give the help we can, and strengthen our will to change the systems of oppression that make life easier for some and harder for others. I don’t believe anywhere else will do this as well, or as comprehensively. I want to do this work in a community that is not centered in politics, but in ethics, in values, in relationships. I believe in the potential of our government to do what’s right, but I don’t believe it will do so on its own. Religion at its best is prophetic. It stands up to the vice of power and says, not in my name. But we have to be here to do that.
And we’re not just about outward acts of justice. Imagine a religious home that offers its children and youth, award-winning comprehensive science-based sexuality education that goes beyond the basics of sex ed, but helps prepare our teens to deal with peer pressure, body image, and relationship building. To value themselves, their bodies, and to value the same for others as well. Imagine contributing to a world where our kids are raised to respect themselves and others. Imagine a congregation that teaches our children the values and strengths of different faiths in such a way that they are embraced and not feared. That is our religious education program. Even if you don’t have kids of your own – I don’t have kids of my own – imagine contributing to the formation of a healthy future. I don’t have kids of my own, but I want to live in a world where those are the kids we’re raising! That’s how we prepare our youngest generation to help heal our world. That’s not dollars and cents. That’s life-saving; that’s life affirming. That’s building a place for all in our neighborhoods and communities.
And what sets us apart the most – is the spirit at the center of our faith. Religious community is a spiritual journey, long and winding, with many choices and forks along the way. In all the great odyssey stories, the hero travels far afield only to return to where they began, and ultimately find themselves. The biggest part of the spiritual journey, that we call faith, is learning how to find ourselves again. We don’t always live as ourselves. We hide, or inhibit, or push down our hearts, our feelings, sometimes our dreams; too often our kindest or best selves. We come together here and sing every week in community – and I wonder how often our singing grabs our souls’ attention and stirs it a little more into life. Life calling to life. Stewardship is, in part, taking stock of how well we’ve connected our hearts to our purpose, and making sure it remains nurtured for the years ahead. Supporting what matters to us most.
When I say life calling to life, I mean knowing in our bones that things matter – that life and relationships matter. Remembering to live fully – to live as ourselves – as best we can; to live knowing that life and relationships matter in our bones. The religious path is one where we help one another remember that too.
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.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 1/15/17 in honor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It looks at our cultural norm of silencing our prophets.
Nationally, this weekend we pause to honor the life, the accomplishments and the heroism of Martin Luther King, Jr. We learn about the man, the mission, and the vision. We remember his quest for racial desegregation, his promotion of peace in general, and his widespread expansion of non-violent protesting as a mark of active citizenship in the United States. We encourage civic volunteering as a nation this weekend; we also tend to take a day off from work tomorrow; and our schools will be closed, as will our office. It wasn’t till 2000 that the holiday was observed in all fifty states. Interestingly, “[the holiday] is combined with Civil Rights Day in Arizona and New Hampshire, while it is observed together with Human Rights Day in Idaho. (…) It is also a day that is combined with Robert E. Lee’s birthday in some states.”(Apparently Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi.) …
… We honor his legacy now in ways that we never could honor his life; for when he was still living, we in the States at least, our collective national consciousness – used different ways to single him out. We used dogs, and we used fire hoses (most of us will remember that classic photo, and some of us in this room were active in his call to justice); and finally and tragically a gun. We pick a day, as good as any other, to remind ourselves that we’re not always our best selves when it comes to integrity of character; to remind us of the importance of compassion for our neighbor; and maybe to dream once more that there might be another way; to remember our moral failure as a nation. We take a weekend each year to mark the truth that something great happened on this soil; something that grew from centuries of pain and suffering; something that was most notably brought into pinpoint clarity by this man. Something great that was an appropriate, and fitting, and remarkable and yet a simply necessary response to the torpor our collective consciousness otherwise was mired in at the time (and maybe still is today.)
On this weekend, we thank you Mr. King for your dream; for your vision; for your sacrifice – even as we mourn and regret that such a sacrifice was apparently needed or allowed to occur. And we try to shake ourselves once more to realize that each one of us are the people left to pick up that mantle once more and still. May our hearts come to know a way to celebrate that goes beyond the ready ease of just another day off that otherwise might pass us by unremarkably.
Over the New Year, I went to see Hidden Figures in the movies. It’s a blockbuster hit that beat out Star Wars: Rogue One’s opening weekend – something few thought possible for a historical drama. For those that haven’t heard, it’s based on the true story of the women who helped us get out into space, and ultimately, later to the moon. The story focuses on three African-American women in particular amongst a larger cadre of African-American women who were part of the human computing program at NASA — Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first African-American supervisor; Katherine Johnson, a mathematician who calculated the trajectories for Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission; and Mary Jackson, who, according to NASA, “may have been the only black female aeronautical engineer in the field” in the 1950s. I can’t recommend the movie enough – it’s well worth seeing – and if you’re feeling despair at what might be, this movie may rekindle a sense of hope in difficult times. I think I can safely say, without spoilers, that the United States eventually gets out to space.
As a kid, I was a strong science junkie. I loved all things science fiction, all things that involved dinosaurs and all things about space. There’s an old comic that shows a graph of our knowledge of these topics that peaks during our younger child-aged years and then spikes up again when we’re grandparents. I was one of those kids who ate it all up. I would sit glued to any science discovery show on TV; I took every science class my school offered. I wondered if I would turn out to be an astronaut, or a marine biologist or maybe even an archaeologist. Despite it all, I never once heard those women’s names, until I saw this movie.
These three women were impeccable; patient beyond all reason, brilliant, strong and integral to the success of the race to space. And although Katherine Johnson would receive the Katherine Johnsonin 2015 for her 33-year career at Langley, we as a nation waited 55 years to tell their story to the wider public. Actress Janelle Monáe (who played Mary Jackson) said (in an NPR interview), “I was really upset because, as an African-American young woman, I had no idea who Mary Jackson was, who Dorothy Vaughan was, who Katherine Johnson was, who the colored ‘computers’ were. I had no idea. And I’m just like: This clearly had to be a mistake. These are American heroes. Without their brains, without their hard work and dedication to NASA and the long hours that they worked together, we would have not made it into space. We would have not made it into orbit.” These three women were cultural and scientific saints in their own ways, and we couldn’t tell their story – not for 55 years after. In the 1960s, America wasn’t ready to share the celebration of one of humanity’s shining intellectual achievements with three Black women – stellar individuals or not.
We widely know the story of Rosa Parks who was the public face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott – and she deserves every credit given to her for her prophetic voice calling out in the wilderness of segregated America. NPR writes:
“Few people know the story of Claudette Colvin: When she was 15, she refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white person — nine months before Rosa Parks did the very same thing.
Most people know about Parks and the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott that began in 1955, but few know that there were a number of women who refused to give up their seats on the same bus system. Most of the women were quietly fined, and no one heard much more….. When asked why she is little known and why everyone thinks only of Rosa Parks, Colvin says the NAACP and all the other black organizations felt Parks would be a good icon because “she was an adult. They didn’t think teenagers would be reliable.”
She also says Parks had the right hair and the right look.
“Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” says Colvin. “She fit that profile.”… After Colvin’s arrest, she found herself shunned by parts of her community. She experienced various difficulties and became pregnant. Civil rights leaders felt she was an inappropriate symbol for a test case.”
I don’t bring this up to be critical of the practical decisions of leaders in the Civil Rights movement; rather to reflect on one of our tendencies to find any way to quiet our prophets. Those leaders were making informed strategic choices to address our collective cultural bias – so they shouldn’t be blamed for speaking to the times. If Vaughan, Johnson, and Jackson could get us to the moon and back, and we couldn’t speak of them, how would we ever hear the truth coming from a 15 year old girl who didn’t look the part of respectability politics? Our Mary Oliver reading Wild Geese claims, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles, through the desert, repenting.” Mary Oliver is a frequently heard poet in many UU congregations, and an excerpt from that poem is even in our hymnal – so one could say that her poetry informs our lived or practical theology. And yet, some of us do have to be better than good; some of us do have to walk on our knees for a hundred miles – to be heard, to be valued, to have impact on our wider story and to be known for that impact.
In fact, we as a nation have all too often demanded that of our prophets, in order to be heard. It’s one of the tools of oppression to silence our prophets – make them adhere to a perfect standard or invalidate their message by attacking their character. It’s a strategy we’re taught as kids is wrong in Debate class, but one as adults we fall prey to again and again. None of us have to look too far in contemporary news stories to hear this old trick play itself out again and again: 1) The woman, who’s been assaulted, being blamed because she wasn’t chaste. 2) Transfolk being implied to be pedophiles for needing to use a public restroom. 3) Young black teens, gunned down in our streets, being described as thugs in news coverage, when their only “offense” was playing outside their homes.
That woman, that transperson, that teen – are today’s next prophets – crying out in the wilderness for a more just world. When we find ourselves quieting them down, or negating their message of truth over some perceived imperfection, we’re silencing our collective conscience, bit by bit. That which stirs in us unease, should not be confused with being wrong. Too often we become complacent with what is actually wrong in the world and that feeling of unease is trying to tell us something. Complacency can be the death of the spirit; it can also allow threats to our neighbors to go unchallenged – as history is rife with such tragic stories.
Martin Luther King, Jr is such a prophet – who we as a nation have tried over and over to quiet how his story gets retold. We remember his visionary speech about dreams that we can all find our place in, and forget his more challenging messages like this. “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” (MLK.) He asked us to get uncomfortable. Or his reminder in the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963 that read, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In that same letter King would go on to lament, “Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Hearing his words travel ahead 55 years to today, I think of all the protests over the last few years where in one breath pundits would extol MLK’s calls for freedom, but pretend he didn’t shut down roadways in Selma, or demand desegregation in a hundred public ways. It’s another form of doublethink that’s alive and well in our national conscience and we need to nurture that healthy unease to it.
Last Sunday I spoke at length about our first principles in terms of religious promise – the promise of worth. I want to continue that line of thought this week with our second principle where we covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity and compassion in human relations. For those that were snowed in last Sunday, I was talking about understanding our principles as religious promises that we make and remake again and again. They’re action statements, rather than creedal beliefs. What does our second principle mean as an action statement? In light of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, how does it challenge us? As we reflect this month on what it means to be a people of prophecy, what does our second principle demand of us?
The promise of justice, equity and compassion in human relations is a promise that humanity may yet to have ever fully seen – for all of our people. I probably could drop the word “may” and just say – we’ve never reached that promise. It’s an aspirational spiritual value that we’re called to live into. As Unitarian Universalists, we are saying we’re obligated to moving our world closer to the realization of that promise. Spiritually – justice, equity and compassion in human relations are fully possible truths; we as a people choose to fall down, again and again, in living them out. But it’s a choice to not live into those values, not a necessity. It’s a choice, and one that our society chooses to make again and again.
Theologically, we say those values are real, central to our spirituality and we commit to the striving. That’s an important distinction. These days, we seem to hear a growing cynicism that those values aren’t possible in the real world; that the world just doesn’t work that way; that if others get more we have to get less so why bother. … Cynicism is a lie. It draws us deeper and deeper back out of our centered spirit; it separates us spiritually from the potential in Creation; and it makes us forget our own holy power. As we come upon our national holiday commemorating one of our world’s great prophets, let us renew our commitment to living the truth of the spirit – the promise of justice, equity and compassion – in our hearts, and in words and in our deeds. Our faith demands that of us; we are all called to birth that promise into our lives and the lives all around us. Let us make a little more room for our prophets to be noisy; to be challenging; to make us uneasy to injustice.
This child-friendly sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 8/28/16. It explores the challenges of bringing our values with us during times of challenge and change.
As our year of formal religious education begins this coming month, (as does the secular school year) we have begun by blessing our backpacks in our service. Each of our students also received a copy of our Seven Principles as part of the tags on their backpacks. We carry our best values with us wherever we go. Fellowship and religion happen in our walls, but they don’t begin or end here, they travel with us when we’re our best selves – everywhere. Could you imagine wearing your best selves as a tag on your clothing? That’s the spiritual practice our kids and youth are trying out this year.
Part of our religious education program is about growing up. We cover many of the corners of the world that our secular classrooms don’t touch every day: relationships, identity, peer pressure, helping over receiving, giving over getting; and in the teen years – scientifically accurate sexuality education – and this last bit is something that the law still doesn’t even require to be scientifically accurate in all our public schools. I’m grateful that our community is so supportive of this critical education. Religious education is about moving through our years’ always striving to be more fully human, more fully alive. It’s not always obvious, but in living for one another, and for community, we can grow into fulfillment.
When I was entering kindergarten for the first time, or moving onto grade school, or junior high, or High School, I don’t remember any formal opportunity to reflect on what I was going through. Sure, when I was a bit older, I talked with my friends about the changes, my hopes, and what was scaring me, but I don’t remember any adults, or my church community, or really even any teachers, helping me along my way. The public schools were sometimes good at helping me get most of the facts I needed, but they never put much energy into helping me sort through the values – the choices – I would have to wrestle with in light of the facts of growing up.
Is this different for folks here? If you’re new to our community, let me help with you a little bit of a map of the year. We have our weekly Sunday school classes, and almost monthly opportunities for our kids to do social service or social justice work. We recognize some of our grade schoolers every year or so as they complete a special period of study; our junior youth will have a year long period of study for Coming of Age and what we call Our Whole Lives and be asked to speak before their family, friends and Fellowship community about their religious values – or Credos. Our graduating 12th graders do something similar again by reflecting on a childhood or a teenage of growing up UU – and they also speak before a Sunday service toward the end of the year.
By a show of hands with our adults – who here received at least 27 hours of education – like OWL (Our Whole Lives) prior to entering High School? Which of our adults received religious support from their communities in sorting through some of these life changes. I’m often amazed at how much more care and support our UU raised children and youth receive in these matters than folks do from society at large. It’s a necessary, powerful and potentially life-saving ministry we offer here.
As we begin this new year of education together, it’s also a time of some upheaval – a time of some change. The ground before us in every new year can feel a bit shaky. What will my new teachers be like, what challenges will my kid bring to the dinner table this year, how well will our new home or job really treat us? It’s in times of change, when the earth below us feels a bit wobbly, that we really learn who we are. Ideally, we you want to make sure that we got the basics down before times of struggle, and that’s a part of why we as a Fellowship are here, but it’s the times when we’re breaking new ground that those lessons take root.
As we don our backpacks and go into a first or new year of school, or start a new job, or move into a new home, when we’re breaking new ground, try to remember “why you are.” It’s an odd phrase. I’m going to try to explain it in two stories. One that’s personal, and one that’s a little mythical. (Well, to be honest, both are a little bit personal and both are a little bit mythical in their own ways.) And then we’ll come back to how that relates to all our next steps.
First, the personal story. One time when my husband and I were still newly dating, we were strolling through the West Village on Saturday enjoying the perfect weather. When we got to Washington Square Park, we heard piano music playing. Apparently, a fellow had rolled in a full-size piano into the central walkway of the park, close to the east side of the square. He had the obligatory two giant tip buckets spaced far enough apart that you couldn’t miss them while you passed by. Not that you could miss the piano from 100 feet away for that matter. It was an iconic NYC moment. Brian and I sat down to listen to the music for a while. He was an excellent pianist. I found myself wondering how he got the piano into the park (curbs are rough on giant unwieldy square instruments after all); where did it come from – did he push it himself, or did he have helpers to get around the tight corners and mostly 7 inch curbs.
It was a surreal moment for sure. A little bit of whimsy, culture and quirkiness rolled into one. Like you’d expect from the typical hipster classical musician you’d find playing the piano in the park, he would offer odd little ironic quips after each piece. (In tired droll voice) “And that piece was Ave Maria, composed by Franz Schubert. In my humble opinion it was the only piece he composed that was of any good.” He would also end every performed piece with the driest, “I do hope you enjoyed it.” The affect was so opposite his performances, which were lively, skilled and largely moving. I wanted to go up to him, jump up and down, and yell “Buddy, you’ve gone through the trouble of creating a little bit of faerie-land here in NYC by dragging your piano God knows how far through the Village. Cheer up!” The spiritual message of “why are you here” rings softly, or I guess maybe not so softly if it’s a UU minister jumping up and down in the park yelling it at you. Thankfully, I didn’t do that… this time.
Sometimes in life, we go through all the trouble of making something happen that we really want, and then we don’t allow ourselves to live into it. Anyone here ever desperately want to go to the beach to relax. Then you finally make it through the hours of travel, sun block, prepping sandwiches, screaming/crying children/siblings/parents and lay out – only to realize that you can’t stop thinking about all the things that were stressing you out that you’re trying to get away from for a little while? You can’t sit still long enough to relax? The “why” of where you are is just out of reach. The sun, and spray, and sand might as well be miles away still. I’m hearing a lot of stories of folks frantically trying to get in one last beach trip for the Summer – when you do – just do it – leave the rest at home for those hours.
I want to share with you that second story now. It’s written by a UU minister. It’s called Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel. When I first heard that my colleague was publishing this children’s story I got really excited. I grew up hearing another odd little story about “Stanley the Christmas Squirrel.” It was a totally different squirrel named Stanley (who was dealing with his home getting upgraded into a Christmas Tree for someone else’s living room, but that’s another tale entirely.) But it’s notable because still to this day, my parents and I call every squirrel we see, “Stanley.” Even my childhood dog knew the name. If we would say, “Look, it’s Stanley!” my dog would jump up and make a bee-line for the squirrel. (I don’t recall him doing that if we just said squirrel. And no, he never caught Stanley, thankfully.)
(…tell the story of Stanley the Very Fine Squirrel…)
So let’s try to answer the Owl in the story. “Why are you?” Why are we here for? Feel free to call out a word or two response. If I can make out what you said, I’ll repeat it back into our microphone so that all can hear. (to love, show compassion, sow peace, to teach, parent, grow, nurture, to learn etc.) How often do we hold all these things in our hearts and minds throughout our daily activities? In this religious community, we can probably all agree that we’re here at least in part to show compassion, to nurture those around us, to sow peace. How easy is that to remember when we’re sitting in our third period class, or when we’re memorizing math formulas, or when the person with the full grocery cart races us to cashier? But the boredom, or the work, or the addiction to work or schedules can help us forget our purpose. Why are you? Why are we? When you figure out the answer, live by it, and the rest will follow.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/13/16. In the work of the spirit, and in the quest for a world free from oppression, how do we stay engaged without becoming burnt out by the struggles we face?
During our prayers every Sunday, I repeat some of the same words at the close, following the congregation’s recitation of names we wish to hold in all our hearts: “for those names spoken, and those written silently on the tablets of our hearts…”. It’s a phrase that comes to us, over and over again, from the Torah, although there’s one mention of it in third Corinthians as well. It’s usually in reference to holy words, or holy teachings being written on the tablets of our hearts; but it sometimes also speaks of love and faithfulness being placed there. One of my seminary professors would end prayer with this verse, and it always struck me as meaningful.
Parker Palmer talks about this in his book “Hidden Wholeness.” He writes, “There is an old Hasidic tale that tells us how such things happen. The pupil comes to the rebbe and asks, “Why does Torah tell us to ‘place these words upon your hearts’? Why does it not tell us to place these holy words in our hearts?” The rebbe answers, “It is because as we are, our hearts are closed, and we cannot place the holy words in our hearts. So we place them on top of our hearts. And there they stay until, one day, the heart breaks, and the words fall in.”
As we imagine this month, what it would mean to be a people of liberation, part of that wondering relies on our hearts breaking. In our weekly prayers, those names we pray for, too often are names for whom our hearts break and their sacredness falls into our lives and through our pain. We are changed for it, and our hearts are open. In the struggle for a more just world though, sometimes we come from a place of stridency. The words we say, and the actions we take, may be correct, but they don’t yet break through into our hearts. We can sometimes be correct, but closed down – shut down inside. Building the world we dream about, is the work of generations, not individuals alone. When we try to do that building with closed hearts, our words and actions can weigh us down more. It’s hard to remain doing the work of generations while so weighed down.
But it’s also hard doing the work of generations, thinking we need to always be perfect, or always at our best, or always in a state of calm, or indifference, or even joy. The Hasidic tale tells us that we probably won’t truly succeed in healing the world without first going through our own state of brokenness. It’s not to ennoble suffering; rather it’s to not demonize ourselves for our own suffering. Times of brokenness are natural to the human condition, and we need not make those low times worse with judgement about them for ourselves or for our neighbor. We also don’t need to pretend we’re the only ones that ever go through that. Maybe we can let ourselves off the hook – at least spiritually speaking – for those times we feel at our weakest.
Without glorifying our times of brokenness, can we find a middle path where we honor those times for what they are? Our wisdom story this morning, the excerpt about the Skin Horse from the Velveteen Rabbit teaches this moral lesson: “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” Can we love ourselves, our friends, our neighbor, our world – in a way that honors those times in our lives that have spiritually or emotionally rubbed our hair off, and loosened our joints and seemingly left us shabby in the corners of our heart where we never thought would ever become shabby? Can we do so knowing that we can’t ever really be ugly, except to people who don’t understand? I love our nursery stories – they hold so many deep spiritual secrets we forget when we leave childhood; but come back around when we tell and retell those truths as adults to the next generation. “…It doesn’t happen all at once…you become. It takes a long time.”
As we imagine ourselves as a people of liberation, how do we hold these lessons of our own times of brokenness, in the light of those places and times of other people’s brokenness – especially when we might be coming to them at a time when we are whole, or full or prosperous in one way or the other? The great Jewish Theologian, Abraham Heschel answers this with the idea of “Holy Embarrassment.” In his compilation entitled, “Essential Writings” he takes a theological look at our world too full of disparity and poverty. He writes,
I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life. A world full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival. There are slums, disease, and salvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas. Social dynamics is no substitute for responsibility.
I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom the everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. What the world needs is a sense of embarrassment. Modern man has the power and the wealth to overcome poverty and disease, but he has no wisdom to overcome suspicion. We are guilty of misunderstanding the meaning of existence; we are guilty of distorting our goals and misrepresenting our souls. We are better than our assertions, more intricate, more profound than our theories maintain. Our thinking is behind the times.
What is the truth of being human? The lack of pretension, the acknowledgment of opaqueness, shortsightedness, inadequacy. But truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us. The truth of being human is gratitude; its secret is appreciation.
When we look at the disparities in the world, we often are raised to respond to whatever comparative privilege we have in one of three ways: indifference, guilt or shame. Indifference teaches us to just ignore it. …Some have, some don’t, and whether it’s right or not, it’s not for us to change it. Maybe we don’t know how, so we ignore it. As others have said from time to time, for some of us living a life of comparative privilege for so long makes us experience actual equality as a form of oppression – why are people taking away what was once normal for me?
For others, we were raised to care, but we associated feelings of guilt or shame that could just as easily paralyze us with inaction. I care about their suffering, and I feel bad about it, but I’m so focused on my internalized sense of wrongness about it that I can’t adequately respond. I think Heschel may have the answer in holy embarrassment. Not guilt, not shame, not indifference, but a sense that we didn’t mean for things to be this way and we ought to make them better because we are embarrassed, or maybe sometimes mortified, in the face of the absurdity of a world of such abundance that allows for such disparity of treatment and resources. And for those of us who were raised in religious communities that carried extra baggage around notions of guilt or shame – finding new language and new ways of honoring and helping to resolve others’ places of brokenness during our times of success – can make all the difference in our ability to be a people of liberation. Can we mature into news ways of action?
Sometimes guilt or shame are the proper response to our actions – but if guilt or shame freeze us into uselessness in the face of others’ pains, if guilt or shame block us from remaining engaged, then maybe we can follow Heschel’s advice and seek to be embarrassed, if it will enable us to do more for our neighbor. As Heschel reminds us, “… truth also demands rising, striving, for the goal is both within and beyond us.”
Guilt or shame from a place of comparative privilege is one thing. We’re not actively complicit in the world’s wrongs, although there may be things we ought to do to make the world come closer to realized justice. What about those of us who go beyond that? What about all the hate, all the active malice, we see alive and well in the news every day? Maliciousness goes beyond a holy embarrassment – at least for the perpetrators. Maybe there, guilt or shame, is a necessary step on the road to justice. Not every sin can be so easily washed away. Hatred, when it roots deeply enough, seeps into too much of our world, and much work needs to be done to heal its damage. We don’t do well by anyone, by pretending otherwise.
Why hate? Why is there so much hate? As we strive to remain engaged in the work of building the world we dream about, over the long haul, we often come to a place where we need to face the rampant hate that infects too much of the world. But why is it so? James Baldwin has one answer that although may not answer all the questions of hate in the world, I feel offers a better answer than I can come up with. He writes, “I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Baldwin is right. Beneath hate, lies unacknowledged pain. It doesn’t excuse away the horrors that come from the hatreds that are allowed to live into the world, but it does frame them for what they are. Remaining engaged sometimes means helping people, who we don’t find easy common cause with, to come to turns with the pain hidden beneath the surface of their skins. To help them accept their places of brokenness, so that the holy words that once were written on the tablets of their hearts, are allowed to finally fall silently into their inner core and change them, to change us, for the better. Sometimes brokenness weakens us; sometimes brokenness makes us more human. Hatred can be the infantile railing against the pain of our brokenness, but it never succeeds in making us whole once more; it only ever succeeds in spreading our brokenness everywhere we go. When you find hatred within, take note and pause long enough not to spread it any further. It may be the hardest thing we do, but it’s sacred work; remaining engaged, through it all.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Source of Love,
Gather us this hour as a people of hope,
in the face of adversity,
as a community of justice,
where we see inequity,
as a faith for healing,
in a world struggling between hardship and beauty.
Knowing the world is not yet what it could be,
teach us to not trip over the small wants and grievances,
when so many need us to be so much more than our smallest selves;
we need to be more than that.
Mother of Grace,
open our hearts where we are closed;
widen our vision where we have become short-sighted;
and open our mouths where silence has dominated our spirit.
For too often we have learned to be complicit where there is pain.
In the struggle of the long arc of the universe bending toward justice,
may we regain strength in the soul-saving work,
of living faithfully into our humanity,
and in love.
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 5/4/15. It explores the role beauty can play as an inspirational role model in building a diverse, justice-centered community of hope. This reflection looks at recent events in Baltimore and the ongoing need to remember that BlackLivesMatter.
I was driving home the other day and was stopping a few cards back from a red light; when to my astonishment a mated pair of geese used the red light to cross Route 110 down by the Walgreens. To my even greater astonishment, when the light turned green, and the geese had not yet finished crossing, the Long Island drivers patiently waited – stopping traffic in all directions. Yes – Long Island drivers stopped patiently and waited. You could still tell the geese were New Yorkes though, because when the light changed to green, one of them did a little hop in the air and flared its wings and hiss-croaked at the cars to wait – and it worked.
This really stood out for me. Our local drivers can be some of the least patient people around. I see folks on cell phones; or routinely rolling through stop signs near where I live. I see drivers who are always in a rush to get to wherever they’re going, and often they look unhappy about the destination, even though they’re still in a rush to get there. And there’s often a rudeness around right of way and lights and turns. But you add two geese to the picture, and we become civil human beings again. The natural world somehow reminds us about the preciousness of life in a way fellow humans behind a wheel don’t seem to. We can be very good at dehumanizing those around us when we fail to see them as equally living precious beings.
Why don’t we do that with the geese though? I think there’s something about them being different; they’re not what we expect to find on a road and they snap us out of our humdrum. When we see them in a park making a mess, we may not appreciate them, but when they’re strolling by on the highway, we perk up. Maybe it’s novelty, or newness, but we take note. They remind me of the vase in our story earlier in the service. Sometimes, something that’s beautiful or precious can change how we interact with everything around us. We can add a new vase to a room and want to find it flowers, and clean the windows so the light shines on it better, and maybe redo the paint that we finally notice is chipping because we’ve added just a spot of beauty to a place.
Maybe the geese are like that for the Long Island driver too. “Ooo, maybe I should be my best self right now because the geese are visiting.” It’s certainly true in my household, maybe it’s true in yours; when guests are coming over, the house magically becomes spotless as if we always lived like that. Maybe people can be that for us too – vases that call us to our best selves because they bring attention to what we may have took for granted.
I was reading through a booklet from our archives that Lois Ann brought to my attention. It had a story in it just like this. Apparently, there was a time some decades back where our building wasn’t as well kept up as it is right now. The minister at the time (Ralph Stutzman) would go to committee meetings, board meetings, town halls. He would talk with folks individually, or on the phone. He apparently tried everything to get people inspired to clean up the Fellowship building and grounds. Then one Sunday morning, as folks arrived to the Fellowship, they saw Ralph doing the last touches of paint on what are now our red doors. He cleaned up the outside of one part of the building, and as the story goes, the membership were finally inspired to start cleaning up the rest of our sacred space. It just took one person to step up, bring a little beauty into a place, and the rest began to follow.
Ironically, I often heard it said that we must have red doors because we’ve always had red doors – it’s our tradition. I disagree. I think our tradition isn’t red doors. Our tradition is a Fellowship that will rise to the occasion when the need is there. We will always find new challenges to face as generation mentors generation, but when the time comes we will come through. Reflecting our theme this month – “What would it mean to be a people of beauty?” What beauty can you bring to this space? What talent do you have that you can share that might inspire others? How does your presence remind others that there is beauty and worth and value in the life around them?
We can use a few more new vases here that remind us to be our best selves. We have some projects we need to work on – especially fundraising – which for those who missed our congregational meeting last Sunday – is being led by folks like Ben, and Jenna and Ralph and Barbara. But we can use more. Do you have a vase you can share there? If you missed our welcome this morning, Kim had a generous offer of a one time financial gift to help close our short-term deficit budget. Can you join her in her generosity so that we don’t have to slow down our good and necessary work in the world? I believe our shortfall is an anticipated $500 per household. For some of us that’s impossible, and for others it’s possible. If you can, I would contact (a Board member, or whoever you spoke with on Canvass.)
Beauty can be about building up a space, or cleaning it up, as in the case of the vase in our Wondering earlier, or in the case of the Red Doors on our Fellowship. Beauty can be about remembering the preciousness of life around us, as in the case of the intrepid geese on route 110. Beauty can also be about justice. After all, when we’re called to our best selves – as a community – we’re called toward justice building. I have Baltimore in my heart today. I imagine many of us are struggling with the impossibility of the situation; of the pain and the images. The situation is too raw, and we are still short on some facts, while certain news stations do a very shoddy job of reporting. Having colleagues I know serving the communities in Baltimore, I know not all we’re hearing always matches neatly with what actually happened. Time will surely tell us more. But I want to reflect now on the bigger picture, and wonder where beauty may teach us a life-saving message in a time of crisis.
A few days back, wisdom surfaced from the most unexpected of people (a baseball executive) in the most unlikely of places (twitter.) I’ll recap a short part of it, as I read through MotherJones. A few days ago, “when Orioles fans were briefly locked in Camden Yards during protests outside the stadium, sports broadcaster Brett Hollander decried the demonstrations as counterproductive and an inconvenience for fans. Team executive John Angelos, son of owner Peter Angelos, responded with a flurry of tweets, defending the people’s actions as a reaction to long-term economic hardship and dwindling protections of civil liberties. [He wrote]….speaking only for myself, I agree with your point that the principle of peaceful, non-violent protest and the observance of the rule of law is of utmost importance in any society. MLK, Gandhi, Mandela and all great opposition leaders throughout history have always preached this precept. Further, it is critical that in any democracy, investigation must be completed and due process must be honored before any government or police members are judged responsible.
That said, my greater source of personal concern, outrage and sympathy beyond this particular case is focused neither upon one night’s property damage nor upon the acts, but is focused rather upon the past four-decade period during which an American political elite have shipped middle class and working class jobs away from Baltimore and cities and towns around the U.S. to third-world dictatorships like China and others, plunged tens of millions of good, hard-working Americans into economic devastation, and then followed that action around the nation by diminishing every American’s civil rights protections in order to control an unfairly impoverished population living under an ever-declining standard of living and suffering at the butt end of an ever-more militarized and aggressive surveillance state.”
Strong words, and words that come unexpected from an executive on a baseball team who lives far above the financial reality of the average American. I imagine some of us could argue with some of his points or perspectives. I don’t want to go down that road today. I share his words because however much you may or may not agree with Mr. Angelos, he paints a picture that is all too real for many of us. We have many folks unemployed or underemployed in our congregation. We may have adult children who are struggling with keeping home or job where they live. The shrinking stability of the middle-class is a very real pressure for many of us. And if it’s hard on the middle-class, it’s impossible on the working class. I see my own dad who served in the military and has worked every day of his adult life. He turned 70 last year and will continue to be working full-time for the foreseeable future. It’s very hard on hard-working Americans right now. So let’s remember this when we hear these very hard stories coming out of Baltimore – a city with communities that in some cases face unemployment rates of 30%. Let’s imagine for a moment what that hardship would be like for communities that faced that generation after generation, and then felt the belt tighten even further.
But where does beauty come in, and how can we be a people of beauty in light of these hardships? Our recent national trends of devaluing education, while increasingly funding prisons and for-profit prisons is a marker of the opposite of beauty. Shipping jobs oversees, funneling profits to the few, segregating where folks can live; prioritizing punishment over nurture – are all the opposite of beauty. Diversity, equity, and justice – are what beauty looks like in the public sector. We do well when we raise our people to find beauty in those virtues.
We have those struggles here on Long Island too. Earlier this week I attended a forum put on by the Suffolk County Department of Planning for area clergy. One person there was lamenting the lack of millennials in our area and they said, “We’re losing our millennials because they can’t afford the property tax.”
To which I responded, “We’re losing our millennials because they have $100k in debt from college; they don’t have $100k for a down payment on a house. And we won’t build enough rental stock for them to stay. The same practices we used in Levittown to keep out People of Color are now the same practices that are making your kids unable to stay here.”
When we build communities and spaces with fear in our hearts, or prejudice in our minds, we create pockets of hardship for some immediately, but in the long term, it affects us all. Sometimes beauty involves seeing the holy in the other; sometimes beauty is fixing the paint on a door. Sometimes beauty is remembering that all our hardships are interconnected; what affects me now may affect you later, or vice versa. May we learn to find more vases to bring to the table. May we bring our individual strengths to build the common good. May our times of hardship remind us of the humanity of one another, and carry that lesson forward to the days of our strength, so that we may some day craft peace and joy where there was sorrow. Beauty is not just a surface appearance; beauty can be a discipline of true and holy community building.
Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, Mother of Love,
We pause this hour, coming upon the 2 year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which so devastated this region.
May we remember the difficulties and the loss so many suffered,
for those who lost their homes, those who were displaced for seasons, and for those who are still hoping to rebuild, we pray.
We remember the 100 lives that were lost from the Caribbean to here in the Mid-Atlantic, the neighborhoods that disappeared, at the homeless shelters that were destroyed.
We honor the relief workers, the first responders, who were caring for us in our time of need – even though their own need was great.
We are grateful for those of us who remained physically untouched by the storm despite being in its midst.
As climate change continues to worsen, may these stories of loss
kindle in our hearts a desire and a commitment to affect change in a world that is often too focused on wealth and convenience.
Mother of Hope, embolden our leaders to lead. May they be inspired by stewardship rather than consumerism. May our nation find ways to value sacrifice over profit, so that our planet may heal from our indulgences.
As we reflect this hour on our religious purpose, and the plight of local affordable housing for families, may the loss and struggle many of us wrestled with two years ago, open our hearts to compassion so that we may strive to build a more equitable world where no one lives without shelter.