Posts Tagged LGBT

Belonging

This family-friendly homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 9/10/17 on the completion of our renovated grounds, parking lot, and improved accessibility. This was preached the morning that Hurricane Irma made landfall in Florida.

This is a complicated day. Many of us have enjoyed a Summer of beaches, and woods, and travel, and breaks from work and school. Some of us have caught up with family, and others have lost someone very dear to their hearts. Dozens of us spent a joy filled week together at our annual summer camp – Fahs – out on the east end of the north fork (you’ll see a bunch of us in pink shirts today to better spread the word so that all who want to come know about it.) We’re enjoying a mild Summer weekend, that feels like a warm Fall day. While last week, we saw so many suffer in southern Texas from one of the worst storms in their history. And this weekend, the Caribbean and Florida are enduring one of the worst storms in living memory. (Hurricane Irma is hitting ground as we sit here now; and we hold out hope for the best, while so many people prepare for the worst. My Facebook feed was full of many friends sharing stories of driving or flying to saftey over the weekend, while others are choosing to stay put and board up their windows.)

…And here, at our Fellowship, we are celebrating the rebuilding of our grounds – something that was 37 years in the making. A few weeks ago, I was telling a story about long Summer days, and my favorite memory from childhood – the time when my parents moved into their (still to this day) home, and the neighborhood kids welcomed me out to go play at the playground across the street. Oddly enough, I just made the connection that that memory, was from 37 years ago too. I was making new friends, in a new neighborhood, and about to enter Kindergarten, and around the same time, Mary Jane and others, were having the first conversations imagining something new. (What are some of the other names we remember who first helped the dream of this building – for those who were around then – can we remember them now?)

First things first, and the sanctuary we’re in now was built. It would see so many weddings, and memorials, child dedications, and coming of age services. This room would also house our cold weather shelter for migrant men, and art concerts, and town halls, and on and on. And our grounds are also used to grow food for the town’s pantry – we’re aiming for 1000 pounds of fresh produce this year. And at the end of next month, we’ll host a Saturday long training on accompaniment in this space (Oct 28), for any who would like to help support immigrants being called to court – to help determine whether they get to belong here in our nation, or if we turn our backs as a people.

What does belonging mean to you? When was the first time you felt like you belonged somewhere? When I got invited to the playground at 4 years of age, I felt like I was going to belong. Over time, I’ve learned that it wasn’t always going to be easy, or nice; people weren’t always going to be kind, but in some ways, I imagined that neighborhood was always going to be mine to go back to – if I wanted. Where do you belong; where do you most fit in? At home with your family? Is this Fellowship a place where you feel you belong? I hope we can make it feel that way if it doesn’t yet – sometimes it takes time. For the folks dressed up with Fahs shirts today – is that a place where you know you belong? I’ve been to that camp three times now; and as a gay man, I’ve got to say how much I appreciate a place where our religious community crafts a place of belonging for all our kids – lifting up the value of their diversity. Too often, our nation tells our kids they need to change who they were born as, to learn to belong, and I’m honored to take part in a camp that teaches our kids they belong for who they are. That’s a life saving ministry we offer. Don’t ever forget that. If all we ever did, was create shelter for migrant workers during the cold weather months, grow food for the hungry during the growing season, and create a space for our kids to grow up knowing they have value and worth for who they are, that would be enough.

But we do so much more. When you’re wrestling with whether to get out of bed and come to Fellowship, or stay in comfort and catch up with the Sunday Times, remember that we create places of belonging, in our corner of the world. For our children and youth – we’re going to try to create a little bit of Fahs Summer Camp all year long – a chance for kids of all ages to learn together on Sunday mornings. For those familiar, think of the Circle Groups at camp. For those less familiar, it’s a chance for all ages to work together. So many of us live our days mostly interacting with people about our same age. First graders are with first graders, and 12th graders are with 12th graders. It stretches a bit in college, and maybe a little bit more in the work world, but usually not a lot more. Religious community is a place of belonging where we get to stitch together more and more people – to know one another and to grow together. To accomplish dreams 37 years in the making, across the generations.

For our adults, our Director of Religious Education, Starr, is working on expanding and deepening our adult religious education opportunities. The number one reason people tell us they look for religious community is to get to know more community. Take a serious look at Starr’s small groups program. It’s the easiest way to connect with more and more people every month, without the chaos (or excitement) of coffee hour. And in the spirit of deepening connections with one another – something we’re perfectly situated for – we’re beginning a campaign to rename coffee hour to “Fellowship Hour.” It was a suggestion from our ministerial intern (Greta). By a show of hands, who here wants more things to do? Who here has quite-enough-already-on-their-plate-thank-you? Excellent – vibrant hand-raising on that latter question. Sunday is officially the break from “more-things-to-do.” After service, come for coffee and Fellowship, and leave the work and chores of your life behind for a couple of hours. Don’t run up to a Board member and share your complaint. Don’t get one more thing done for your committee. Do the stuff that feeds you. It’s ok to sign up for stuff with someone carrying around a clipboard, but don’t rush to start a new committee meeting while the coffee is getting poured. Get to know your friends a little better; and make sure to welcome one more stranger into your life – if you’re up for it. With all of my clerical power, I give you the permission to not-do-stuff during Fellowship hour unless it feeds your spirit, and replenishes your well. There is so much hard stuff going on in the world, and we need places of respite to breath, to connect, and to reimagine new ways. Let our fellowship be that place for you.

 

 

 

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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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Sermon: Wrestling with the Angel of Forgiveness

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 6/12/16 as part of our annual LGBT Pride Sermon and in conjunction with the installation of our Black Lives Matter banner. Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence.

 

This week has been one of many firsts in our nation and in our world. The glass ceiling of the White House is seeing some cracks in it; for the first time in our history, a woman has been selected as the presidential candidate for a major political party. Whatever the outcome, and whatever your political leanings, imagine what that looks like to young girls today. Imagine what that looks like to young boys today?! Let’s take politics out of it for the length of this sermon and this worship. When it’s possible to imagine role models for the highest position of power and authority and leadership – irrespective of gender – it may be empowering for young girls growing up, and it may be critically instructive to young boys growing up, to better understand the genders as intrinsically equal. I don’t know what may come, and regardless of the outcome of the elections, I am hopeful that girls will have a little more space to grow freely, and boys will have a little more room to be themselves because the ideal of power and leadership might possibly look different. And when we slowly inch toward a world where we put less bias into gender discrimination, I pray for a time where young trans youth can grow into themselves with safety and confidence.

But sexism is still alive and well. The news this week told us that women who are rape victims, with all the evidence in the world, may not see their attacker live out a real sentence if the attacker is a privileged white male with a promising future and an expensive lawyer. We know that in too many states, Transfolk are challenged when they attempt to use a public bathroom that conforms to their gender. A young white college student criminally assaults a woman – with witnesses who testified – and the judge will express concern over the impact a punishment will have on the assailant – yet instead of looking to the real problem, there are states that are policing bathrooms for mythical Transgender attackers. When the story gets so out of whack, like the stories we’ve heard this week, it’s a sign that it’s not about what it says it’s about. Something else is at foot. Hans Hoffman, a 20th century Abstract Painter once said, “The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.” This month we are imagining what it means to be a people of simplicity. When the world contorts itself to see threat in places and people who are safe, and seeks to protect or go lenient on people who are a known threat, we as consumers of the media need to learn to simplify by eliminating the unnecessary in the story, so that what is necessary may speak. Gender terrifies some; or our sense of power connected to gender terrifies. Some men become violent, some seek to possess, some seek to control and mitigate those that blur the lines. When we become a people of simplicity, when we have cultivated a discerning lens through which we take in what the world is giving us, we learn to see through all the smoke screens that seek to confuse and separate those with common cause.

Pride month is a time of celebration. It’s also a time of memory; a time to remember the movement for LGBT equality began with Transgender People of Color, who were leaders in starting a riot in the West Village because enough was enough when it came to the police abrogating their civil rights through harassment and arrest. With that broken glass, I doubt this gay minister would be preaching from your pulpit today. It’s a time to remember the lives that have been lost over the years to hatred and fear; a time to remember that our LGBT youth still kill themselves at a radically higher rate than straight youth. What is it about our society that teaches victims to blame themselves? When you cut out all the chatter of politics and popular culture – we get to the question of why – why do we do this to ourselves; why do we teach our youth that brutality is something to be tolerated and managed? That’s the simple question for the day.

We have dreams for our kids. We imagine schools where they learn about the world; where they learn to live with folks who are different than they; where they learn to find and be themselves. We send them off so that they can figure out a little bit more how to make it on their own – whether they’re 5, 13, or 19. And sometimes, try as we might to be the most supportive, nurturing parents with the best intentions we can be, not all of us have internalized the lessons of compassion and morality we might hope for. We all have flaws and blind spots. Coming to accept who our children are when it doesn’t fit the neat description we have woven over the years, isn’t always an easy task. This isn’t just an LGBT issue, as many parents in this hall today will attest. Raising a child to be their own self means we have to accept what comes, even if it isn’t our design. But for the sake of today’s topic, I want to focus on the family dynamics of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. Some parents, who learn their child is not heterosexual or identifies with a gender different from the one assigned to them at birth, simply don’t know how to cope. Sometimes it all works out. But sometimes, the results are catastrophic. Sometimes, our hearts break.

I can relate to that heartbreak. I am, after all, a gay man, and I, too, have felt the seemingly insufferable burden of simply being who I am. I can relate to the LGBT youth who succumb to despair in a world of violence. And I see it intrinsically connected to a culture that protects sexual assailants over their female victims. I was the target of violence, largely due to my sexuality, from the age of 8 to about 13. Fists, pipes, wood, metal – groups of young teens working in concert at a time, weekly or monthly, for years. …

Parents who truly care for and love their children unconditionally want to imagine that when these sorts of things happen to their kids, they’ll know right away and know how to help. Many of us imagine that our children will come to us; that they’ll tell us. But that isn’t how it works much of the time…How many times did you hide something painful from your parents, because you were ashamed or afraid or confused or couldn’t imagine that they could possibly understand or help?

Many injuries fall below the neck so they can be hid – I remember protecting my face so that others wouldn’t see the bruises and know that I had been subject to violence. Kids don’t speak up all the time.

All too often, the people a child in this situation most looks to for help, the teachers and principles with all their schoolyard authority, simply want the problem to go away. Parents protect their little-bullies. Politicians claim it’s not that frequent, or not their problem, or that boys will be boys (forget about girls just being girls, because we almost never talk about that.) I was angry with the people who attacked me, yet I blamed myself. Shame trumped safety. I couldn’t forgive myself for letting it happen, or face my differences long enough to seek help. For all the LGBT youth whom we’ve lost to suicide, I can not just see, but I also feel how shame won out over safety for these young people.

At some point in my early college years, I realized that the violence against me wasn’t my fault. I think I made the connection listening to a talk on domestic violence – which was not my situation exactly but one to which I could relate, and the connection clicked. I learned how to shift the blame rightfully off myself and onto the perpetrators. It wasn’t an easy process. A lot more anger bubbled up. I remember the anger often being crippling. My new burden was learning to forgive, although definitely not to forget. Lance Morrow, a long time writer for Time Magazine, once wrote, “Not to forgive is to yield oneself to another’s control…to be locked into a sequence of act and response, of outrage and revenge, tit for tat, escalating always. Forgiveness, on the other hand, frees the forgiver. It extracts the forgiver from someone else’s nightmare.” This was true for me, although it would take me years to learn it. Forgiveness is not easy when the stakes are high, yet forgiveness extracted me from a nightmare of shame and violence that belonged to someone else, not to me. It freed me.

The sad thing is, some of those boys who tormented and beat me later would be men whom I would occasionally run into at various gay settings. They were people who allowed their blameless self loathing to bring them to harm the very thing they were seeking, which is validation of their identities as men who love men. As a child and as a teen, I was subject to their personal nightmares, and as an adult I had to do the long work of releasing myself from their hold.

I’ve never said what those other kids did to me was OK. I’ve never said they weren’t responsible for their actions, no matter the causes. And I am very aware that they’ve never done the hard work of coming to me and facing honestly the effects of their actions. But I’ve learned to let it go, to forgive.

I wish we had a word in the English language that meant, “What you did was horrible. What you did to me was not and will never be OK. But I have to let it go. I have to move on. I release your hold over me.” Until we come up with that word, I’ll continue to use the word “forgive.”

We often mistakenly think that in forgiving someone for their actions – particularly when their guilt is so extreme, that we’re condoning what they did. We fear that we’ve let them off the hook. That somehow the world is still not right, and our being easy keeps it so. I feel the truth is this – the world is still not right, but our forgiving or not-forgiving will not make the world right. We need to allow the other to seek whatever repentance they need, and not hold their actions over ourselves.

The justice system is an important element here. It’s one that has many failings, true, but one that also has so much potential to help. The inner spiritual work that we do individually to release ourselves from the pain of injustice through forgiveness, is different from the lengths society as a whole must take to address this problem. I began this sermon lamenting a very public injustice that impacted the life of a woman who was sexually assaulted. The work we victims must do to come to a place of wholeness – of our own striving – is separate from the work the judicial system must do in order to have earned its title and complete its duty.

There’s a lesson in the Hebrew Scriptures that’s helped me for years. It’s the story of Exodus. The Jewish people are enslaved by the power of Egypt. They’re caught up in a cycle that tells the world that folks that look a certain way, or share a particular culture, or lift up one set of values over another, or whose faith is different from another’s, deserve being enslaved. Oppressor and oppressed are captured, like bugs in amber, within the system of violence, within the system of hate and power; their shared humanity is drowned and paralyzed. The story teaches us that we are not born to remain in that nightmare. The sacred scriptures teach us that we are born to live free of the trap; free of the cycle. They teach that we are to move on; we are to build new communities, to live different lives. But in the scriptures, God commands that we not forget the story. Each Passover Seder we relive the pain long enough to teach the lesson that demands we live in relationship with one another; so that the next generation knows what exactly is at stake. In my case, the college educator teaching about domestic violence shared in her own way her Egypt’s lesson of retelling for me. She told me the path was trod by someone else before that was different than my own story but in some ways the same; there were lessons learned; and there is a way forward.

From the perspective of a Unitarian Universalist, here is how I see the core of the religious message: We should be alive to see this life, this world, this crazy, frustrating, awesome and humbling world. We should strive to forge real connections with the people and creatures we share this small planet with. We should have the opportunity to be ourselves; to find the abundant newness of creation; to love and to be loved. We should be alive to see it. When we get trapped in amber like bugs in the cycle of oppressor and oppressed, we lose what is necessary about life. Trapped in unnecessary hate, and greed, and fear, and brutality, we cease to live.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin once wrote, “I would feel far more sanguine to learn that the various world religions could agree on the desirability of teaching their followers, from childhood on, the significance of moral distinctions; to teach them that forgiveness is almost always a virtue, but to teach them that cruelty is evil and the murder of innocent people an unforgivable evil. In other words, to teach people the harder, more morally worthy path – to repent of irrevocable evil before, not after, they commit it.” His writings were in reference to the Holocaust of the Jewish people, not gay or gay-seeming teens. But we know as well that the the broader Queer community was most assuredly targets in the Holocaust. Rabbi Telushkin’s request is one that resonates today with the challenges our liberal faith is facing.

How do we repent before, not after – as the Rabbi demands? Do we acknowledge the wrongness of the systems of violence, and fear, and ego that lead to feelings of shame among our queer youth (and frankly all the youth of the world)? Do we acknowledge the stories of Egypt that tell us silencing our pathfinders by denying them the rights the heterosexual world enjoys, hides the truth to our gay children that they can in fact grow up to be in loving relationships? Do we acknowledge that learning healthier morals and values grounded on our faith tradition’s call for compassion, equity and justice in human relations is lifesaving?

Friends – repentance – yes repentance – starts with us by acknowledging these truths. Denying one people a right to their role models denies the  right for them to convey the morals and values that they believe are the most critical to their children.

We may not be able to change the lives of all those touched by loss and violence. We are not culpable for the actions of the teens or adults who set these spirals in motion. We very likely do not even hold world-views that contribute to the pain that sparks such tragedies and all those other stories we will never hear about. But we have it within our power to transform our corner of the world. We have it within our power to repent, as the Rabbi put it, of those inactions and views that keep this world forever punctured with these horrors. We have it within our power to live to our fullest potential now, here in this Sanctuary, in Huntington, New York in 2016 on this beautiful June Sunday morning.

The first steps are acknowledging all these wrongs, and failings, and short-comings that we are all guilty of on infinitely lesser scales and in often unrelated ways. The media often focuses LGBT equality on the issue of marriage, maybe job protections, maybe hospital visitation rights, and lately on bathrooms. But in a week in our nation’s life when gender and sexuality have so clearly intersected in so many ways with the horror of violence, I want us to remember our youth who continue to be at risk of violence done to them by others, or done by themselves from a shame they somehow learned to feel. Today, I’m thinking of the teens our world has lost to suicide. In honor of all those youth known and all those others who will never be named by our national media, I want to call you to remember their stories when you see the faces of the congregants around you. Our adults, our children, our youth. Think of your connection to your neighbor. That is what these teens so desperately were craving while they were alive and clearly could not get enough – safe connection, approval, respect. That is the way to stand in solidarity with these teens. That is the way to make a difference. That is the next, most immediate, way forward.

You see, Rabbi Telushkin isn’t saying we’re guilty. The Rabbi is saying if we know the things that contribute to the great evils of the world, and we can name what they are, then we are duty-bound to seek, in every way possible, a different path that leads elsewhere. We as the Unitarian Universalists of the Fellowship of Huntington seek to do this every week in our Religious Education classes. We seek to teach our children, youth, and adults that there is another path. We teach about consent. We teach about bullying, and boundaries and support. We seek to teach that there are stories worth retelling to release ourselves from bondage. When I speak with you and say that it is so very important that our children, youth and parents commit to attending these classes regularly – it’s because I believe it can help us avoid these stories of tragedy. It’s a way to create bridges of understanding that set a path forward, rather than one that harms. And it’s not just for the years we teach Our Whole Lives – our comprehensive sexuality education we affectionately refer to as OWL. It’s not just for the years of Coming of Age – where our youth learn to wrestle with forming their own sense of meaning in the world in the light of our shared values. It’s not just for our Adult Journey Groups – where we covenant with each other to support and nurture one another on our shared and individual paths. We need parents to be involved in every year and in every class. Soccer can wait. The violin class can happen another time. There is a dream of a world we hope to build, and we need to take the time to remind ourselves that there is, in fact, another way. Time for reflection in community is lifesaving, in so many ways.

Education is lifesaving – in the literal sense. Compassion in our daily human relations in this very building and this broader world is lifesaving – in the literal sense. A commitment to justice crafting in our nation and our towns is lifesaving – in the literal sense. To do any of these things is to be living hero. To do all of these things is a living miracle. This is the path this liberal faith calls us onto. This is the path of religious conviction. This is the path of standing in solidarity, on the side of love, with all those who will never be named by our society.

Last night in Orlando, Florida, a gay nightclub was shot up. I don’t know all the facts yet because it was too painful to read through all the news feeds, and information is still coming in. But as of this morning, over 20 were killed and over 40 were hospitalized and the gunman is dead. It was so bad, that some messages overnight were saying there was a suspected terrorist attack in Orlando. I don’t know what the whole story will tell us in time. But as a gay man, at a time of year when much of our nation is celebrating LGBT Pride – this service included – I can’t help but look at the timing and the focus and wonder – was the gunman merely overcome with violence, or were they overcome with violence toward the LGBT community. When I thought this was a terrorist attack, I felt one set of emotions. When I learned it was a terrorist attack targeting my community, I felt another set of emotions.

When you’re community is targeted and you feel like the responses are too weak, you feel the need to say that our gay lives matter. When women are sexually assaulted and the judicial system fails in treating all assailants equally, women feel even more unsafe. We call for increased awareness around sexual assault. We don’t say that other forms of assault don’t matter, but we say that addressing this form of violence needs to be handled with more care. And when we hear story after story of black lives not mattering in our courts and our streets, we reaffirm that Black Lives do Matter. Black Gay Lives Matter. Black Lesbian Lives Matter. Black Trans Lives Matter.

As our service comes to a close, I’d like to return to where I began. The LGBT civil rights movement – the moment that finally propelled us forward, was notably begun by Transgender People of Color starting a riot because their lives didn’t seem to matter in the eyes of their neighbor or the authorities. The free exercise of the civil rights that I enjoy today are based on the protests started by a Black Transwoman and all the others that screamed out in rage when she said enough is enough. Following the benediction, we’ll process outside to join our youth who have been working all morning to install our Fellowship’s Black Lives Matter banner on our front lawn. Black Lives do matter; and considering who helped to kickstart the LGBT civil rights movement, I am so personally glad that our statement of solidarity will be publicly blessed in this national month of LGBT pride.

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Go And Tell Them

This Easter Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/27//16. It looks at the discipleship of Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb, especially in light of North Carolina this week.

Happy Easter everyone! In the Christian holy calendar, we celebrate today the story of hope in the face of oppression. Jesus, a spiritual teacher and reformer, birthed a religious movement that would change the world. But today, we celebrate his life, and his victory over greed, victory over indifference, victory over abuse of power; and that saving message that defines spiritual life: Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those in prison.

Earlier, we heard the story from the Gospel of John, told and retold from a few perspectives. Personally, I’m most moved by the telling from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. She’s often overlooked; she’s seen as a secondary figure by many, and not always in a positive light, and sometimes, folks even say things about her that weren’t true. I think most of us go through our lives, at least at some point, where we can relate to that – being overlooked, or passed over, or criticized for things we haven’t done. In fact, it’s the very opposite for Mary Magdalene. Where we often hear about the apostles who witnessed the risen Jesus, Mary is the first person to witness Jesus on Easter. And He tells her to go and tell the others; Mary – Go and Tell Them! Mary Magdalene, a woman who is far too often mistakingly looked down upon, is the Apostle to the Apostles. In a way, she’s the first Christian. But we don’t always talk about it that way; I wonder why?

We heard a historical version of the story, and we heard a personal version of the story. But Scripture is alive and meaningful for today as well as the past. It’s not just a retelling from a community’s perspective, but a way to look at the events of the world today.  As I did last year, I may be starting a tradition of con-temporizing Scripture each year for Easter. This year, I’m holding in my heart the news in North Carolina.

Bill Moyers reported that, “In a shocking, unprecedented move, the North Carolina state legislature convened a special session late Wednesday in order to introduce and pass a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, HB-2, which overturns local ordinances protecting gay and transgender rights. Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law later that night, writes CommonDreams.org.”

The ACLU of North Carolina would say, ”Rather than expand nondiscrimination laws to protect all North Carolinians, the General Assembly instead spent $42,000 to rush through an extreme bill that undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay and transgender people from legal protections.”

With this difficult news in mind, I offer this modern take on the Gospel of John:

Late in the night, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene heard the news coming from North Carolina. Late in the night, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill overturned local ordinances protecting gay and transgender people.

So she ran and went to the disciples, the ones whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken Justice out of the court, and we do not know where they have laid it.”

Peter and the other disciples set out to see for themselves. And they saw the remnants lying there. But the cloth, the compassion that covered Justice, was not with the remnants, but rolled up in a place by itself.

At first they did not understand, that Justice must be risen anew in each generation. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping on the state legislature steps. As she wept, she bent over to look into the legislature; and she saw two angels in white – spirits without gender, sitting where Justice had once rested; one at the head and one at the foot.

They said to her, “why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away Justice, and I do not know where they have laid Justice down.”

When she turned she saw Justice standing there, whole and waiting, but she did not recognize it at first.

Justice spoke to her heart, “Whom are you looking for?” Supposing the speaker to be a lawyer, she said to Justice, “Sir, if you have carried Justice away, tell me where, and I will take Justice back.”

But Justice spoke to Mary’s heart, and called her by her name, and she knew once more.

Justice said, “Do not hold onto me here alone, for I have not yet risen in all our hearts. But go to my siblings and say to them, “I am rising. To my God and to your God. From heart to heart.”

Mary Magdalene went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”

For I have not risen in all our hearts yet…For me, that’s the core of the Easter message.  We come out of a time of loss and turmoil; and it’s not magically washed away. Things may still be very difficult, but sometimes difficulty can point toward transformation – without glorifying the difficultly. In North Carolina, where fear and hate have had a chance to wedge themselves into the laws – laws that I can’t imagine will survive Federal Court appeals – we can find hope in the empathy we see in so many people. Decent people are outraged by ignorance, and fear, and bias in our neighbors. That wasn’t always the case, but empathy is rising in more hearts, year after year.

Empathy – a big word that means to understand and care for you in your times of pain, because we understand from having lived through a time of pain ourselves. The Easter story is the ultimate story of empathy – and empathy is a spiritual compass to live by.

Earlier in the service we handed out paper and crayons for drawing. If you have that with you, and would like to reflect – on the side you havent drawn yet, think of a time where you learned to care for others – to be empathetic. Maybe you can draw that. Or think of something inside of you that has been difficult, that you would like to love into something more; maybe a hope for something that means a lot to you. Sometimes the things inside us that used to keep us down, become the things that later in life lift us up.

Walt Whitman says this in his epic poem, “Leaves of Grass.” The excerpt goes,  “I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, I will lift what has too long kept down those smoldering fires… for who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman p. 278. Walt Whitman was a great American Poet, a Unitarian, and like many of us here, from Long Island. This excerpt from his poem talks about what we’ve been reflecting today. What’s the thing inside you that once kept you down, that has become a source of strength and identity in your life? We’re coming to a close in our month where we’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. Part of being liberated, is finding the rough parts in our lives, or finding the things that others chide or make fun of us for, and love them into fullness.

I know as a gay man, that’s been true in my life. What once was threatening to consume me, I now lift up. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe, as the Mary Magdalene story goes, being a woman you’ve been told you’re second to the men around you. That’s not true – and it can be challenge in a world where we’re taught foolish things, to love ourselves into fullness. Or maybe you’re made fun of in school for being smart. I remember being called a geek when I was a kid. But that turns around in time, and the parts we might be embarrassed by because the empathy hasn’t yet risen in the hearts of all our neighbors, becomes sources for understanding life and love, sorrow and joy, all the more fully.

If you haven’t find a thing to draw yet, and you want another idea – try this – What’s that part of you that you want to love more of, or love again, love into fullness? Or what would a people of liberation look like? 

Happy Easter everyone. Justice, empathy and liberation have not yet risen in all the hearts of the world, but Go and Tell Them. Hope has risen today. To my God and to your God. Heart to heart.

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Homily: Making Anger Your Friend

This family friendly homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntingon on 10/11/15. It looks at Anger, Bullying and National Coming Out Day.

We have a dog and a cat – Lola and Toby. They’re best of friends and we often refer to them as brother and sister. But they usually have completely opposite reactions to a ton of things. Take for instance strangers. Our dog may have a few moments of growling – and some raised fur on her back – toward newcomers to our home, before acting like the stranger has been a long time friend that she’s missed forever! And when she’s on walks, you can frequently hear me say, “Lola, no, you can’t sniff every single person!”

Our cat is the opposite. If someone comes over, she evaporates into thin air. Some of you have heard me lament on Facebook that our cat has gone missing. We wind up walking the neighborhood for hours trying to find her after exhausting all hidden corners in the house. We are completely sure she got out. We finally figured out what was happening. Toby, our cat, wanted to get away so badly from the strangers invading her home that she would sprint up to the second floor of the house, go up to the attic crawl space and then – and I swear this is true – he would open the sliding wooden door with his paw; go into the crawl space.. and I still swear this is also true – he would then proceed to close the attic door behind him. This is a sliding wooden door that we have trouble opening; but the cat can do it on his own. (My cat knows what he doesn’t like, and he knows how to handle it.)

I think we all share those reactions from time to time. When something happens that angers us, or upsets our balance, we can have moments where we growl and bristle and then let it go and come back to our normal selves. Or we can have such a strong reaction that we go hide in some corner and close the door tight – with the lights out – and pretend we’re not home. Anger can do that to us. We often talk about how anger is a bad thing; that it turns us into something, or someone, we’re not. Like the classic Hulk from the comics and movies – “Hulk Smash!” That kind of anger. But as our story earlier taught, sometimes it’s better to sit with our anger and recognize it for what it is. Then it won’t take over. But when we fight with it, or ignore it, or pretend it’s not there, we can keep acting in ways that aren’t really how we want to behave.

Feeling anger isn’t bad. It’s a feeling. We’re all entitled to feel how we’re going to feel. But it’s what we do with it that matters. Does anger turn us mean? Or does it energize us to act to fix a wrong in the world? Does the anger build up your sense of being right? Or does it bend you toward compassion for others around you? Those are the big questions to ask when you’re trying to figure out it if it’s time to let go of anger or to keep it in the room for a little while longer. And we can sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we’re acting from the good place of anger, when we’re really just being mean; but the people around us usually know the truth. So sitting with it – as the story went – learning to make it your friend, can be a great way to be honest with ourselves.

So what’s the good place of anger? Today is National Coming Out Day. It’s the day when, those of us who are LGBT, intentionally encourage and support one another to be who we are. There was a time in our country when most of us who were LGBT, pretended we weren’t. There’s definitely a bunch who still pretend, and things are still not right or fair for all of us – especially for communities of color and for transfolk – but there are a lot of ways that it is better. And the movement toward being true to who we are was a part of that change for the better. Even in our progressive denomination, the first out LGBT clergy didn’t get ordained until the 1970’s. But here I am now, with this lovely rainbow stole that this congregation made for me.

I think anger helped me to come out. I know this is true for many of us in this room – kids, youth and adults – but I was bullied as a kid and as a teen. And you don’t have to be LGBT to bullied – so this definitely applies to all of us. When it’s happening, you can often fool yourself into thinking you’re the only person that is being bullied, or you mistakingly think that it’s your fault for being bullied. Or maybe you feel shame for being beaten up, so you don’t want to tell anyone. I know that was true for me. Shame taught me to even hide it from my parents; which was so silly and tragic because they could have helped me. If you’re being bullied, please tell your parents, or your teachers, or me or Starr. We can help make it stop. No one deserves to go through that.

It didn’t really stop until I learned to make anger my friend. I stopped listening to shame, and began taking the advice of anger. It taught me to go and get help – to speak out – to be who I was, and not to let other people shame me into continuing to be their outlet for their own insecurity. So sometimes, anger is really, really important, maybe even life-saving. In religious communities like here, we’re trying to learn together how to tell the difference and how to live better from it.

I think anger also taught me how, or maybe why, to be compassionate. When you’re being beaten up – either literally or figuratively – you sometimes figure out that it probably is just as bad – when that sort of thing happens to other people. I know that might seem like an obvious thing, but we only have to turn on the news to learn that a lot of people – even or maybe especially grown ups – haven’t figured that out yet. If something hurts us, a similar thing probably hurts the people around us. I don’t think I really became compassionate because someone told me to be; I think I learned that from anger.

One of the core teachings of Unitarian Universalism is this truth. We strive to be in relationship with the people around us; to be accountable to our neighbors. Being accountable is a big word that means we’re going to be real for each other, and we’re going to be honest with one another. Sometimes that means what I said earlier, that we have to sometimes check what our intentions are. Other times that means we have to treat our neighbor with the same respect we would want for ourselves. Some of us figure that out from the start; others learn it from going through difficult times; and some never quite get it. That, that right there, is a big part of why we can make things rougher for one another. But it’s also exactly why we can make our world so much better.

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Prayer for National Coming Out Day and Indigenous People’s Day

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

We come together at the end of another week,

some worn down by struggles of health, of home, or work.

Some missing a friend or a family member,

whose gone too soon;

others looking forward to a second chance,

or a new beginning,

with gratitude and excitement in our hearts.

May we be a community that makes space,

for the sharing of joys, and sorrows, angers and hopes,

with grace and forbearance;

knowing each of us are in a different place on the road before us.

In our nation’s life, we pause this holiday weekend, to remember the Native American lives lost from the European colonization on what is now our soil.

Teach us to remember our history.

Though we can not make amends for what has come before,

may we learn from those ways,

never to repeat them in our lives today.

May we develop new ways of relating to neighbor and stranger,

without violence, or coercion,

deceit or greed.

Mother of Grace, help us to find a sense of humility, where we have privilege,

and strength, where we face oppression.

In our struggles we may learn compassion,

and in our power, may we learn temperance.

On today, National Coming Out Day, help us to be ourselves,

may we find the courage to step out from our places of hiding,

and may we find there,

places of safety and refuge,

amidst the pain and the risk.

Where we may have ignorance or confusion in our hearts,

toward those who are different,

teach us kindness and patience,

rather than hatred or judgement.

As a community of faith,

may we be a safe harbor,

in a world that is often harsh toward difference.

Challenge us to use our presence,

as a healing force for justice and equity.

Knowing that although we have come far in the civil rights struggles of our times,

there are many people are still left behind,

and the work of building the beloved community,

is just as pressing, as ever before.

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