Posts Tagged Passover

One Week After

This Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/23/17. It explores the role of doubt and faith in light of living into the message of Passover and Easter.

 

Unitarian Universalist congregations have a lot that go on this time of year – religiously speaking. Passover and Easter meant we were celebrating two, difficult yet ultimately joyous holidays, in quick succession. Saturday night had song, and food, children pantomiming rivers of blood and hosts of frogs. And if you can’t imagine what pantomiming rivers of blood what might mean, don’t worry, no red crepe paper was actually harmed in the celebration of the holy day. And the following morning, our children enjoyed an Easter egg hunt, in our Memorial Garden, in what might have been the most perfect Easter weather I have ever experienced. One of the things I love about our Fellowship is how the community designed a memorial garden that would be warm, lovely and welcoming enough that our kids would enjoy an Easter Egg hunt there – and that our folks would want to craft spaces that were welcoming to all ages.

Being so open to play, being willing to shake the norms, or shake worn expectations, sometimes leads to some odd places. A few years ago, when I was serving another congregation, I think I saw the envelope pushed a little further than I might have been ready for. Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel of a UU church with a very traditional Neo-Gothic style architecture; stain-glassed windows, wooden pews, solid stone walls. I was looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery. I was mentally preparing for the service to begin when our latest guest walked up the aisle and sat in about the 4th row of pews in the front and center just off to the left…. Now I knew the 6 foot tall (counting ears of course) Easter Bunny was coming; but I thought she was going straight to the children’s party downstairs. Now – this is true for us here too, so please try to take it to heart. You see, in the first few years of ministry at a congregation, there are so many wonderful facts like this that get left unmentioned because everyone else kind of knows, so people assume I must too. (Like even this morning, I knew a dragon was coming to the service, but until last week, I didn’t know we even had a dragon that I could call upon. Someone should have told me we had dragons…). So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing the Easter Bunny decide to worship with the UU’s for our then very traditional Easter service. Add in my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was a rather unexpected challenge. (So please hear me, if anyone is getting any rabbit ideas for next year… [shakes head no].)

That famous guest reminded me of my childhood expectant Easters. I more or less got the religious meaning of the holiday at the time as a kid but to be very honest I was just as focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar-induced coma of the sweet-tarts. (Remember when we could eat a punchbowl of candy without getting sick? Oh the good ol’ days.) The deeper appreciation of Holy Week would come later, but I do recall the period of “great waiting” that was the hallmark of this time.

That’s the sugar-coated stories I remember – “The Very Hallmark Easter.” (This might be a little less pronounced for those who were raised Jewish, or maybe not since commercialized Easter knows no bounds in the modern US.) But both the Jewish story of Passover and the Christian story of Easter are coated in blood, not sweetness. They culminate in hope but they are rooted in pain and sorrow. They speak directly to an all too uncomfortable fact of the lives of so many people on this earth. In the U.S. we are very fortunate to not have to live daily under the realized threat of military violence from foreign powers, although many of our people are increasingly feeling unsafe from legal changes and practices.  So it may, or may not be difficult, to imagine how just the repercussions were that we hear of in the scriptural stories. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 16 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke, that Exodus speaks of, where God brought the Jewish people out from under.

 

Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Verse 51 goes on to conclude, “That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.”

 

The act of sacrifice and covenant culminated with protection for those who were violently oppressed and brutal punishment for those who were guilty of their abuses. But what then? Years of oppression over? Sacrifice followed by hope? No, we pause in the story of Exodus where freedom from bondage is won; but it’s not too long before the people succumb to uncertainty. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, erecting golden calves that promised the certainty of old bondages, rather than the promise of what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt held the people back another 40 years to wander, before the promise was finally realized.

Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story; which is also the human story. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us – whether it’s emotional, or financial; our health, or our heart. We wait for the news, we wait for the resolution, and then the day comes. Sometimes it’s the way through we hoped for, or the message that the promise land is out of reach, for a time, or maybe it seems that it’ll be out of reach always.

I believe the Jewish story of Passover, and what follows after, is a reminder that how we handle what comes before usis what determines whether we feel like we’ve found our way home, or we’re lost in the desert that is the pit of our despair. Sometimes we may be the source of what causes our suffering, and sometimes the suffering that befalls us would be there regardless of anything that we could do differently. That tragic health prognosis for ourselves, or our loved one, is not our fault, but at some point we need to choose whether in light of it we’ll find our way or we’ll be lost.

In this story, the God of Israel seems to be saying to us that the path ahead is possible, despite it all, if we stay true to our hearts and keep our integrity.

The Christian story is similar. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, now retired, famously said, “The cross would cast no shadow were it not for the light of resurrection morn.” Jesus, a teacher of non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope suffered the cruelest corporeal punishment the Roman Empire executed. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and highwaymen. The saving message of building that beloved community on earth; the message of turning us back to our humanity through these virtues he extolled, is tempered by the painful reminders of worldly suffering. The way forward must ever remember the difficult truths of our world if it can ever be followed. Transformations, and resurrection, have no meaning if they don’t honestly accept the reality of human experience and suffering.

Some say that suffering is redemptive…. I would not be one of those people. Suffering can be crippling, or suffering can be transcended, but any redemption that occurs through suffering is only in light of that suffering, not because of it. The moment of resurrection in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships, brilliantly reflects back like that light of Easter morning. We do not need to suffer to be reborn, but many of us only choose rebirth when it gets too difficult not to…. Even then, it’s not too late.

What of the week after the Resurrection that is central to the Christian story? A woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness Jesus and begin to spread his gospel. His other apostles, the men as it happens, were huddled hidden in a room upstairs – fearful. In the Christian lectionary, the readings that are given a week after Easter are found in, John 20:19-31

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (which I would clarify were their own people), Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the microcosm of the perennial story of liberation and imprisonment. The greatest moment of Christian salvation has occurred and the apostles of that movement are hidden away upstairs with their doors locked. Whether you believe this story is metaphor or fact, imagine for a moment being those apostles. You’re terrified of your own people. You’re scared that the government – the Roman Empire – might be coming for you next because you were part of some fringe movement that was supposed to end with his execution. We’re supposed to be free, but we lock ourselves away, scared of all those people who seemed familiar and safe a moment ago. The story tells us that liberation and resurrection has just occurred, and for the life of us, we can’t see it. We haven’t even gotten word yet.

That’s what we see with the apostle Thomas. Scripture continues, “Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I’ve always found this scene in the story very curious. It seems to be suggesting that those who require proof in order to have faith are less blessed than those who have not seen and yet still believe. Centuries of Christian interpretation can be summed up with the critical phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” The Agnostics and Atheists among us might have cringed at some point in their lives over this imagery – (or maybe they may have been proud of it.) I find this scene curious because a week later, one week after the resurrection moment, the door to the room the apostles were hiding in was still locked. They’ve all seen their risen Lord, and claim to be overjoyed in response to Jesus’ acclamation of peace. They are saved, and are the rock of the church to come. And yet, a week later, the door is still locked.

It leads me to think they’re all still scared, and they don’t yet have that sense of liberation, of redemption, of freedom we’re often led to believe. It’s very human. They’ve been led out of Egypt and yet can’t walk out of their bedroom. So what does this mean for us? We’ve gotten word that the prognosis is good, or that our kids made it home from the war, or we got into the school we really wanted to, but we can’t let go of the fear of what might have been. I remember healing from the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian – I’m coming on that 7-year anniversary in a month. It took me me a while to walk on my own without a cane or splint. But even though I got the seemingly miraculous news that nothing was broken even though I was thrown 10 feet in the air, it would be months before I would believe I could do much with my leg. I was fine in body, considering the seriousness of the accident and the couple of weeks where I really couldn’t walk, but I was literally locked up in my second floor apartment, up a flight of stairs, that I scarcely thought I could climb back down. More than half of that recovery was a matter of the heart not the body. If the prognosis had been bad, any recovery that could of occurred would have been entirely a matter of the heart, not just half of it. What are you locking away in a room up a treacherous flight of steps you can’t seem to find a way back down from? And the teacher and prophet reminds us, “Peace be with you!”

My childhood cravings told me these times of year were coated with sugar and sweet. They led me with great excitement to the moment of celebration, the moment of fun, the moment of beauty in all it’s finery and splendidly colored eggs. There were giant 6 foot tall bunnies aplenty to bring a smile to my face – and I was very glad for it. The hard work though, begins some point after that moment. All the information is in, the facts seem set, and we now have to do something with it. One week after, life continues on, whether or not we’re ready for it. The news can be liberating or mesmerizing or terrifying as we huddle in the corner. When you catch yourself putting the blood on the door in the hopes of the Angel of Death passing over, or you find yourself feeling in your body like you’re truly hanging from the cross – stop. Take a breath. It might be all you feel you can do, so you might as well do it with intention. Come back to that moment. Fill the way forward with intention as often as you can.

Some of us will doubt no matter what; others will say they are overjoyed with their lips, but remain trapped in their hearts; and others will find a way to keep ourselves imprisoned in action, when all signs had pointed toward liberation. But like these scriptural stories, there is always another opportunity to let go, to get out, to accept or to heal, if only in the heart and not the body. Beyond or despite the facts of whatever situation we find ourselves in, what is most crucial is how we deal with the moment, and not what the moment told us. One week after is when the difficult work begins.

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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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A New Creation

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington, on 4/24/16. This Passover sermon looks at the part of the story where the Israelites are traveling through the Desert, after being brought out of slavery. What is the role of trust and faith in times of adversity?

It’s good to be back and able to walk around a bit again after a much longer recovery, than my doctor expected, from dual foot surgery. Many thanks to all of you who offered to help, who checked in on me, and who kept me in your thoughts and prayers, and for those who sent lovely cards to my home. What was supposed to be a 3-5 day recovery looks like it’s going to take 3-5 weeks. One specialist jokingly referred to one of my toes as the 1 billion dollar toe for all the lab work that was done to diagnose it. The funny part, is that all the tests were wrong. But thankfully now, I’m on the way to a slow recovery. Please bare with me as I sit through this sermon. Although I can walk, standing for 20 minutes is still difficult.

This is only the second time in my life where I’ve had to be off my feet. This Memorial Day will be the 7 year anniversary of the time I was hit by a car as a pedestrian. In some ways, this time around is worse than even being hit by a car. But I’m grateful for communities of support and trust, as I’m grateful for modern medicine. I know right now that there are many of us who are going through various stages of recovery and surgery; and even more of us who have lived through that in the past. For myself, and maybe this is true for you too, I find these times of adversity and healing to be life-defining – at least as a sort of lens in which we see the world for a time – and maybe that lens never really goes away.

After my first major injury 7 years ago, I kept some of the perspective I gained from it with me. You become more aware of how inaccessible many places in our world are. You become more patient for people who are unable to move quickly. Maybe you learn to move with a little more intention, or maybe attention. I think this time around, I’m learning a bit more about how shared our world and our responsibilities are. Life is often a team sport. Sometimes we like to pretend it’s a solo competition, and that we are competing all on our own singular merits, but I think we’re kidding ourselves when pretend that’s true. In that spirit, a special thanks to Ken Buley-Neumar and Starr Austin for making the past two Sunday’s go so smoothly in my absence.

We’re going into our third night of Passover today, and with all the past few weeks in mind, I can’t help but think about what it must have been like for the People of Israel to wander in the desert for 40 years. After slavery, after struggle, after plagues and famines, and lamb’s blood on mantles, the Jewish people are freed from bondage only to lose heart when they finally come upon the land God promises them. They lose faith that God will deliver, and they cease to believe they can oust the current residents of the land of Canaan. So God curses them to wander the desert for 40 years until the last of the generation that had the crisis of faith die out.

It’s a rough story, and what seems to be an extreme punishment against a people who have been down and out in the worst ways possible – enslaved. It’s natural to want to be critical of God for this curse. But I also think it’s very real. It’s true to life and to most of our stories at one point or another in our days on this earth. We’ve all been there. We each go through impossible travails – some that would make Soap Opera’s blanch for their audacity, but they happen nonetheless to most of us at some point, or even many points, in our lives. For half my recovery, my husband had to be in New Orleans for a Cancer conference for work, only to return home with a 103.5 fever. I’m barely able to walk to care for him, and I wanted to find the proverbial lamb’s blood and ward our doorways from the angel of death – Please No More! But these times in our lives happen – we struggle – we typically get through them as best as anyone ever can. And like the story of Exodus goes, we forget that we were delivered from something horrible, and we can lose faith that we’ll be delivered from the next and possibly the next.

When we were cursed with wandering in the desert for 40 years, it was a curse that made real what we thought would happen because of our lack of faith. You’ll hear me often make a distinction between faith and belief. Belief is a creed or an opinion that we follow. They can proven or disproven. Faith is an orientation toward life – mixed with hope and possibility and choice. Do we enter into the Passover story, painting blood on our mantles to give a sign to the Angel of Death to pass over our homes – the very visible sign of our faith in the power of the angel, and the trust in the promise of Moses? Or do we come to the promised land and have our way barred for our lack of trust in being provided for? We certainly do both at different times in our lives, but holding onto faith is as much a choice we make as holding onto despair in the face of travail. We have to do one. Why so often do we choose the harsher road? Often, when we choose the harsher road, we do so too alone. We give up trust in being provided for, and we cut ties with the communities that would sustain us.

Adversity can lead to hardship and despair, or it can lead to a new creation. We’re closing our month wondering what it mean to be a people of creation. Where we may not have the choice to wish away adversity, we do have the choice to make something new from it. As I reflect on the meaning of Passover at a time when I’m tentatively starting to walk again, I’m reminded of the words of the beloved popular theologian, Prince, may he rest in peace, when he said, “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” The words are even more poignant with his passing, and so many of his lyrics seem to pop out of the albums and speak to many of us who are mourning his tragic death at the young age of 57. But that phrase is a theological as it is cultural. We are gathered here… To get through. We do this together; we rely on one another; we ease each other’s struggle. We do that best, when we start from a place of trust – and rally against the urge to distrust or assume the worst – in each other or what’s before us. Trust. One of the oldest stories in scripture shows the power of trust, and what’s at stake when we abandon it. We delay the promised land; we forestall a new creation; without trust we wander in the desert till a new generation can find faith in one another, faith in God, faith in life once more – faith enough to live fully again. The story of exodus tells us that God curses the people for their lack of faith after being delivered so far; but I think we curse ourselves again and again for the same reason.

In our story earlier we learned more about the time after the people of Israel had escaped slavery, but before they had yet found a new place to settle down. This is the time before that curse is laid upon then. They’re on their way to the Promised Land, and recently escaped from Pharaoh. Moses directs, “Don’t save anything; only take enough for today and use it all up; you will be provided for again in the morning. Trust the one who has made this covenant with you.” Daily living in the curriculum for God’s message of trust. All will be provided for, so don’t squander it and don’t horde it. Use what will be revealed before you. It will be enough, regardless of how rough the road ahead is – it will be enough.

Accepting that what we need will ultimately be provided as we need it, is an act of faith. One that scripture tells us is true. Do we believe that? Or if we do believe it, do we still feel that way all the time? We may still have to do the work of gathering, and preparing and cooking, but Scripture tells us the food will come. I want to say that that doesn’t always feel true for everyone. Hunger and poverty are all too common in the world. But yet, this story stays real across the millennia and speaks to community after community that have found deliverance from slavery and subjugation. And maybe as importantly – it offers a proscription. Don’t save anything, only take enough for today.” It’s an edict from God laid down to prove a point, and to teach a people to trust in God. That’s the primary reason for the edict. But it’s also an ethical teaching. It’s as if God is saying, “as you prepare to build a new creation, of a new people in a new land, do so without hoarding.” Greed, at its core, is a sin that’s based in distrust. Greed teaches us to never be satisfied but it also teaches us that we won’t be whole without more. Greed teaches us that enough for today is not really enough. We forget to trust when we are consumed by greed. Community is not built well upon a foundation of greed, or a foundation of distrust. There’s a way in which curse or no curse, the new creation in a new land for the Jewish people, would not be possible until they learned to move in a spirit of trust. And that deep truth remains real and present for us today.

But before we close our sermon this morning, there’s an important distinction to be made about trusting that all will be provided for – assuming we do our fair share in the gathering, and preparing, and so forth. There was a point in the story where the people railed against Moses and wanted to return to the slave pits of Egypt. The food – the mana that fell from heaven – didn’t taste like the food they were accosted to in slavery and they missed their Egyptian food. Some wanted to return to slavery rather than learn a new way in a new land. We can be so adverse to change that we will hope to be returned to bondage rather than struggle through the new. 2500 years later and that message still holds truth and power – right?

Sometimes we can’t see that all is provided for, because we don’t like how it’s being provided, or we don’t want what’s been given. One of my mentors, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, of our large church in NYC, now deceased, used to say, “Want what you have.” It was a simple message that I’ve never forgotten, and it speaks to this human failing of ours. When we can’t accept the things that are before us that are nonetheless sustaining us, we have forgotten to want what have. The dance between trust and greed spins on this teaching. When we’re on the road to the Promised Land, and we’re striving to build a new creation in our lives and in our community, it’s as important to move away from what is harmful as it is to learn to embrace what is before us, with faith, with trust and to do so together.

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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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One Week After

This sermon was originally preached at First UU in Brooklyn on April 10th, 2010, one week after Easter.

I had another one of those surreal moments during worship last Sunday for Easter. It’s one of my favorite parts of being here at First UU. I’ll have to paint the picture right first though in order for it to make proper sense. A week ago Thursday, we enjoyed a memorable Seder with 70 or 80 congregants and folks from the community that lasted appropriately for hours. The Haggadah that Cara Muller crafted from various sources was thorough, meaningful and relevant to today. Our Seminarian, Jenn Lindsay’s sung Hebrew was exquisite and moving. It was great to share a meal together, and learn and live a bit of the shared history many of us in our community honors.

On Friday evening, a slightly smaller gathering of 60 of us broke bread for a Good Friday Communion service. This vespers was traditional, sublime and somber. It relived a tradition of this congregation’s that goes back for about a century give or take. Communion silver was polished and set, the altar cloth was prepared and a team of deacons gathered to lead the service with Rev. Patrick and I.

Easter morning, I was sitting on the chancel with Patrick looking out at all of the gathered’s Easter finery marveling at how many join us for this service – close to 300 this year. I was mentally preparing for the service to begin when our latest guest walked up the aisle and sat in about the 4th row of pews in the front and center just off to the left…. Now I knew the 6 foot tall (counting ears of course) Easter Bunny was coming; but I thought she was going straight to the children’s party downstairs. She wasn’t able to make it last year for my first Easter at First UU, so I wasn’t aware she typically chose to join us upstairs. You see, in the first few years of ministry at a congregation, there are so many wonderful facts like this that get left unmentioned because everyone else kind of knows, so people assume I must too. So you can imagine my … joy… at seeing her decide to worship with us for our traditional Easter service. With my very formal Catholic upbringing, this was rather unexpected. Yet another of the many things that I’m fond of about this congregation. We certainly know how to keep it real, keep it family friendly…and a little bit fun.

Our guest reminded me of my childhood expectant Easters. I more or less got the religious meaning of the holiday at the time as a kid but to be very honest I was equally focused on the candy. I wanted the fun of the egg hunts and the sugar induced coma of the sweet-tarts. A deeper appreciation of Holy Week would come later, but I do recall the period of “great waiting” that was the hallmark of this time.

That’s the sugar-coated stories I remember. But both the Jewish story of Passover and the Christian story of Easter are coated in blood, not sweetness. They culminate in hope but they are rooted in pain and sorrow. They speak directly to an all too uncomfortable fact of the lives of so many people on this earth. In the U.S. we are very fortunate to not have to live daily under the realized threat of military violence, so it may be difficult to imagine a justness to the repercussions detailed in scripture. But enjoying the privilege of relative safety, with the notable and rare tragic exceptions like here in NYC 8.5 years ago, I will personally withhold judgment. I can’t imagine living under the yoke Exodus speaks of that God brought the Jewish people out from under. Ex 12:12-15 reads, “It is the Passover of the Lord. 12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. 13 The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Verse 51 goes on to conclude, “51 That very day the Lord brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, company by company.” The act of sacrifice and covenant culminated with protection for those who were violently oppressed and brutal punishment for those who were guilty of their abuses. But what then? Years of oppression over! Sacrifice followed by hope! The day comes, and liberation comes, only to be followed by 40 years of wandering in the desert. Why?! Promises were kept, but through a series of mistakes, that some would simply call sins on the part of the people, salvation turned into trial. Doubt arose even after miracle. Fear of what might be, led the people to hold onto what they could touch, rather than what they carried in their hearts. And that doubt led to the people once again needing to look toward another day when they would once more enter the promise land.

Faith and doubt are the counterpoints on the scales of liberation in the Jewish story. It’s the human story too, I feel. We hold onto the hopes of a way through whatever crisis, stress, or fear that plagues us. Whether its emotional, or financial; our health, or our heart. We wait for the news, we wait for the resolution and then the day comes. Sometimes it’s the way through we hoped for, or the message that the promise land is out of reach, for a time or maybe it seems that it’ll be out of reach always.

I believe the Jewish story of Passover and what follows after is a reminder that how we handle what comes before us – is what determines whether we feel like we’ve found our way home, or we’re lost in the desert that is the pit of our despair. Sometimes we may be the source of what causes our suffering, and sometimes the suffering that befalls us would be there regardless of anything that we could do differently. That tragic health prognosis for ourselves or our loved one, is not our fault, but at some point we need to choose whether in light of it we’ll find our way or we’ll be lost. In this story, the God of Israel seems to be saying to us that the path ahead is possible, despite it all, if we stay true to our hearts and keep our integrity.

The Christian story is similar. The Rev. Dr. Christopher Morse of Union Theological Seminary, who joined us for our 175th Celebration, has written that, “The cross would cast no shadow were it not for the light of resurrection morn.” Jesus, a teacher of non-violence, compassion, forgiveness and hope suffered the cruelest corporeal punishment the Roman Empire executed. Crucifixion was reserved for insurrectionists and highwaymen. The saving message of building that beloved community on earth; the message of turning us back to our humanity through these virtues he extolled, is tempered by the painful reminders of worldly suffering. The way forward must ever remember the difficult truths of our world if it can ever be followed. Transformation, and resurrection, have no meaning if they don’t honestly accept the reality of human experience and suffering.

Some say that suffering is redemptive…. I would not be one of those people. Suffering can be crippling, or suffering can be transcended, but any redemption that occurs through suffering is only in light of that suffering, not because of it. The moment of resurrection in our lives, in our hearts, in our relationships brilliantly reflects back like that light of Easter morning Dr. Morse once wrote of. We do not need to suffer to be reborn, but many of us only choose rebirth when it gets too difficult not to. Even then, it’s not too late.

What of the week after the resurrection central to the Christian story? A woman, Mary Magdalene, was the first to witness Jesus and begin to spread his gospel. His other apostles, the men as it happens, were huddled hidden in a room upstairs – fearful. In the Christian lectionary, the readings that are given this Sunday of the year, John 20:19-31 begins with these first two verses“19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews (which I would clarify were their own people), Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the microcosm of the perennial story of liberation and imprisonment. The greatest moment of Christian salvation has occurred and the apostles of that movement are hidden away upstairs with their doors locked. Whether you believe this story is metaphor or fact, imagine for a moment being those apostles. You’re terrified of your own people. You’re scared that the government – the Roman Empire – might be coming for you next because you were part of some fringe movement that was supposed to end with his execution. We’re supposed to be free, but we lock ourselves away scared of all those people who seemed familiar and safe a moment ago. The story tells us that liberation and resurrection has just occurred, and for the life of us, we can’t see it. We haven’t even gotten word yet.

That’s what we see with the apostle Thomas. The lectionary continues on in verse 24 saying, 24 Now Thomas (called the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I’ve always found this scene in the story very curious. It seems to be suggesting that those who require proof in order to have faith are less blessed than those who have not seen and yet still believe. Centuries of Christian interpretation can be summed up with the critical phrase, “Doubting Thomas.” The Agnostics and Atheists among us might have cringed at some point in their lives over this imagery. I find this scene curious because a week later, one week after the resurrection moment, the door to the room the apostles were hiding in was still locked. They’ve all scene their risen Lord, and claim to be overjoyed in response to Jesus’ acclamation of peace. They are saved, and are the rock of the church to come. And yet, a week later, the door is still locked.

It leads me to think they’re all still scared, and they don’t yet have that sense of liberation, of redemption, of freedom we’re often led to believe. It’s very human. They’ve been led out of Egypt and yet can’t walk out of their bedroom. So what does this mean for us? We’ve gotten word that the prognosis is good, or that our kids made it home from the war, or we got into the school we really wanted to, but we can’t let go of the fear of what might have been. I remember healing from my scary car-pedestrian accident of almost a year ago. It would take me a while to walk on my own without a cane or splint. But even though I got the seemingly miraculous news that nothing was broken even though I was thrown 10 feet, it would be months before I would believe I could do much with my leg. I was fine in body, considering the seriousness of the accident and the couple of weeks where I really couldn’t walk, but I locked my room-for-maneuver away up a flight of stairs that I scarcely thought I could climb back down. More than half of that recovery was a matter of the heart not the body. If the prognosis had been bad, any recovery that could of occurred would have been entirely a matter of the heart, not just half of it. What are you locking away in a room up a treacherous flight of steps you can’t seem to find a way back down from? And the teacher and prophet reminds us, “Peace be with you!”

My childhood cravings told me this time of year were coated with sugar and sweet. They led me with great excitement to the moment of celebration, the moment of fun, the moment of beauty in all it’s finery and splendidly colored eggs. There were giant 6 foot tall bunnies aplenty to bring a smile to my face – and I was very glad for it. The hard work though, begins some point after that moment. All the information is in, the facts seem set, and we now have to do something with it. One week after, life continues on whether or not we’re ready for it. The news can be liberating or mesmerizing or terrifying as we huddle in the corner. When you catch yourself putting the blood on the door in the hopes of the Angel of Death passing over, or you find yourself feeling in your body like you’re truly hanging from the cross – stop. Take a breath. It might be all you feel you can do, so you might as well do it with intention. Come back to that moment. Fill the way forward with intention as often as you can.

Some of us will doubt no matter what; others will say they are overjoyed with their lips but remain trapped in their hearts; and others will find a way to keep ourselves imprisoned in action when all signs pointed to liberation. But like these scriptural stories, there is always another opportunity to let go, to get out, to accept or to heal if only in the heart and not the body. Beyond or despite the facts of whatever situation we find ourselves in, what is most crucial is how we deal with the moment, and not what the moment told us. One week after is when the difficult work begins.

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