Posts Tagged palm sunday

A Long Hard Look

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.

The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”

We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.

Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.

What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.

Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.

Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:

“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.

 You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.

 Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.

Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.

But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”

All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.

Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.

But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.

It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?

Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….

To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”

When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?

Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”



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Easter Sermon in Two Homilies: The Open Door and The Once Welcome Stranger

These homilies were preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on Easter Sunday, 4/5/15. They look at the meaning of the open door in Passover and the meaning of Holy Week in light of discrimination posing in the guise of religious freedom.

The Open Door

Growing up in my one-half Italian house-hold, we had an annual tradition of opening our front and back doors to our home on New Year’s Eve. My mom would say we were doing it to let out the bad and let in the good. I hear traditionally, you’re supposed to open all the windows and doors all day so that the draft can wipe away the bad spirits, and the open doors would welcome in the new spirits. In the middle of winter, that’s a bit much for my family, so we would just run from one end of the house to the other side at midnight and open them for a short time. I’ve had a good life, so maybe it worked. But growing up, it sure was fun.

Jewish tradition has something similar this time of year, but for a more profound reason. During the Passover Seder – like the one we celebrated last night – a door is left open to welcome the Prophet Elijah (who our choir just sang about) to the Seder meal. But imagine what else that means. Passover remembers a time when the Jewish people were enslaved by the Pharaoh. The story tells us that there were plagues and locusts that had raged throughout the land as a punishment for the oppression of the Jewish people. Whatever we believe was happening, we can agree that it must have been a terrifying time to go outside. And it’s in this time of uncertainty and fear, that the Jewish people open up their doors and welcome in the Prophet Elijah, someone we may have heard of, but certainly have never met.

The open door is a tradition steeped in a deep sense of trust in God, in the Holy; trust in a sense of knowing one is safe even surrounded by trouble and danger. The prophet Elijah is a herald of God, a teacher, and someone who is believed will return some day to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the Christian tradition the Messiah is believed to be Jesus, a savior of souls. But in the ancient Jewish tradition, the Messiah is believed to be someone who will liberate the Jewish people and bring the world to a place of wholeness.

So if we put ourselves into the Passover story, we’re surrounded by challenge after threat, and we unlock our doors and leave them wide open. This time of year reminds us that there is a religious truth to the practice of hope; to trusting that a sense of wholeness, peace and justice are within our reach, even if we feel surrounded by all the woes of the world. The woes sometimes are very real, but they don’t need to change the nature of our character, of who we are. We can still choose to celebrate, with family and friends, the people and places we cherish and have worth in our hearts.

The practice of the open door is also a way in which we build community. When we share our stories of struggle, of which there are many in our world, in our congregation and in our individual lives, do we share them from only a place of pain? Or do we share them, as friend to friend, or family to family, over a meal, with a sense of trust, that the joys before us will clarify the times of adversity and not be overshadowed by the hardship.

The Once Welcome Stranger

Our reading this afternoon, was a contemporary retelling of the Palm Sunday story. In the bible, the week before Jesus is killed, he triumphantly enters Jerusalem, welcomed by the people who are waving palm fronds. By some, he’s believed to be a leader who will free the Jews from Roman rule. By others, he’s seen as a great spiritual teacher and healer. The poem reminds us of the Christian belief that we find Christ in the stranger, in each other, in people we know and love and in people who are distant and unknown.

It also reminds us that in mainstream society we often hear folks fixate on the powerful, kingly Jesus who will come in glory and power. But, that’s the not the Jesus in the story. We can make a mistake by loving the idea of the powerful messiah more, than the humble Jesus who gave up power – or used his power – to help the weak and the forgotten. His ministry was to humanity at it’s most vulnerable.

Shortly after he arrives to goes to the temple to pray and finds that there are money-changers in the temple profiting off the changing of Roman coin to Jewish coin. The tradition was to sacrifice two doves at the temple, and because it was too hard to travel with live doves from the outer reaches of Judea, there was a strong local business of selling doves once pilgrims arrived at the temple. And the money changers were needed because the Roman’s only allowed Roman coin to be used for payments in Jerusalem, but the Jewish law required the sacrifice to made in shekels (what the Jews coined themselves.) It may not seem like a big deal to us today, but historically this wound up taking advantage of the poor and the downtrodden through costs of high fees. Jesus winds up flipping over the tables of the money changers in anger for their abuse of the poor.

Jesus is confronted about this outburst the next day, and through a series of events throughout the week, where Jesus challenges the systems of oppression under Roman rule, is charged with treason and killed. In the Christian faith, his death and later resurrection, are signs of God’s Grace and forgiveness of mankind’s sins. But in most progressive Christian churches, it is also important to remember why Jesus was killed – because he chose to side with the weak, the poor, and the outcast, against the Roman government.

I remember this when I hear stories in the news, like the ones coming out of Indiana this week. Where a law was passed that legalized bigotry under the guise of Religious Freedom. This law says that any person, or any business, can refuse service to LGBT people because of the business owner’s religious convictions. There are a lot of people in our country that are confusing the freedom to worship as your conscience tells you with the freedom to discriminate against people because you feel like it. Religious freedom isn’t the freedom to persecute others, it’s the freedom not to be persecuted against. And I believe it’s against the religion they are claiming they’re acting in line with.

How does trust in the power of an ancient story, bring support, focus, clarity and meaning today, to a contemporary challenge like the one I just shared? It’s in this light that I want to con-temporize the Easter and Holy Week story, much like the reading we heard earlier retelling the story of Palm Sunday as if it were happening today…

They thought they saw Jesus in Indiana a short time ago. Entering the capitol with fanfare and accolades. They thought they saw him in the governor’s office; all smiles and handshakes as discrimination was written into public policy. But instead, they waved palm branches for Caesar this year. We gave unto Caesar what was God’s. We climbed out of the colosseums, and took hold of the lions’ reins.

They thought Jesus was seen in the pizza parlor in Indiana this week; martyred for religious freedom, as a store was “forced” to close after speaking words of hate in the guise of freedom. They were right. Jesus was there. He was flipping the tables and the trays crying out against the money changers of this day, who will cry religion but mean GoFundMe. The owner of the pizza parlor that said they hypothetically wouldn’t cater a gay wedding should they ever actually be asked to, has since raised over $800,000 from people defending their bigotry under the guise of religious freedom.

They were right. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week. He hung from a cross alongside the poor, the downtrodden, those who are rejected from society. He sees the lives of LGBT Americans, who are not protected by the law against being fired from their jobs. Jesus sees Trans folk who go homeless due to persecution, and remembers a time when his parents were forced to sleep in the night in a manger. Jesus was seen in Indiana this week; and we hung him from the Cross once more.

And the temple was torn in two once more. From top to bottom, the politics of bigotry shook and the rock of national silence split. Many who have fallen asleep from indifference were raised. Numerous states, corporations, celebrities, and even denominations (those on the left, the center and the right) have spoken against this fake religious freedom law, and some have begun boycotting the state.We have given to Caesar what was God’s; making religion subject to the laws of the state; pretending the money-makers, the businesses and corporations are houses of worship. Caesar may be forced to do the right thing this time from the harm to what he truly loves (as the boycotts harm the production of money.) When will God’s people bear witness for God’s sake, and not Caesar’s? When will we act with love, and not merely sound as a noisy gong or clanging cymbal?

I found the story of Easter to be powerful and transformative. I believe it has a depth of meaning that can point us back on the right path when we trip up. There’s the the challenge of Palm Sunday to remember a time when we have spoken or acted with fanfare for his message of compassion, forgiveness and charity, but we forget that – when in our daily lives – it’s hard to deal with the needs of the world. Or the flipping of the tables, and Jesus’ alignment with those who are most in need. In a world where a lot of people allow greed to win over compassion, it’s life-saving to have a message that teaches otherwise. Oppression, discrimination, bigotry, are always on the wrong side of history, and they are always on the wrong side of the gospel message.

But Easter is not solely this social justice message; it’s not solely the spiritual message of salvation and grace. Easter is also a story that lays the bedrock for community. Communities are built upon lessons of compassion and concern. Communities are well-founded when power and privilege don’t become the rule of law. And the virtue of forgiveness is critical, if we ever hope to enter back into community after another wrong is committed. Religions make central these teachings, because these truths are central to life. They must be told again and again. Happy Easter. May this day remind us of the commitments we have faithfully made, and help bring about a world that is worthy of the trust we have been given.


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Huffington Post: Christ Was Seen In Indiana This Week

Check out my latests Huffington Post blog here:

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