Posts Tagged politics

Heretics and Architects

This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/8/15 and looks at our history of building up and breaking down; asking where does privilege come in?

For those of us who have been on Facebook for more than a few years, it’s begun this nifty little habit of taking us on a stroll down memory lane. One of the new features periodically reminds us of posts or photos from a few years back asking if we want to re-share them. They tend to be moments that had a lot of attention at the time. It’s usually marriages, or witty comments, or … well… cat pictures. (It’s still the internet after all.) One of the more serious memories that have been popping up for me this Autumn, are from 4 years ago and the start of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I think I only re-shared one of the memories – and I did so mostly because I was shocked that it had already been four years since the “public-private” Zuccotti Park was occupied down by Wall Street. It got me wondering though, where did all the public heretics, camping outside the center for financial architecture, get us to – today? It’s not hard to recall all the media critique of the protestors: 1) They didn’t have a clear leader. 2)They didn’t seem to have a set of clear demands they were protesting. 3) They were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.

It’s interesting how despite the lack of clear spokespersons, and a real platform that lifted up problems without clear solutions, most of the Occupy talking points have become central to today’s political discourse: 1) Affordable health care for all 2) bringing our troops home 3) tackling critical student debt 4) transparency in political fundraising 5) environmental action and 6) an end to racist structures like racial profiling and for profit prisons (to name just two.) As a quick aside, not incidentally, our social justice team will be leading our Fellowship this year through a period of reflection and action toward the last issue – prison reform in our country. You’ll hear a lot more in the weeks and months to come. And if you missed our announcement earlier, many of us will be joining in on the UUA common read of, Just Mercy. You can purchase a book in the social hall at the book table.

But regarding the Occupy critiques, I want to focus on the third bit and see how this relates to our own UU history of building up the world we dream about. ‘The Occupy protesters were mostly trust-fund babies playing homeless.’ At the time, I heard this over and over again in the media. My first reaction was to point out how actually that wasn’t even vaguely true. I remember the clothing drives, and the food drives, and even the business suit and hair cut drives geared to helping the homeless be prepared for job interviews – or just feeling basic human decency. I remember meeting a lot of UU youth – or newly young adults – folks who were raised in our congregations – who came out to do public witness for their faith and their values.

All of that, is what I would think – at first. But then I began to wonder – even if we were all merely trust-fund babies – what would that change? Why is it that when a person with privilege bucks the system, they are smeared as naive, or idealistic (idealistic said with that disparaging tone idealistic) or somehow disingenuous? But when trust-fund babies run for positions of leadership in our government or are propelled to positions of power in our corporations, they are seen as entrepreneurial or the embodiment of pulling oneself up from our bootstraps. (And as a side note, in case anyone hears this as a critique of one political party or another, all political parties are heavily filled with former trust-fund babies. So this is an equal opportunity observation.)

I think the answer lies in our relationship to privilege. When privilege pretends it doesn’t exist, we get to celebrate the American Dream without anxiety, and all is right in the world. When privilege becomes self-reflective, we have to call into question our sense of self; our sense of personal success; and we might have to change our behavior. …And that can be quite painful. So culturally, we are more apt to paint someone naive who invites us to call into question how we see the world. They’re just trust fund babies after all, what do they know.

All this month we are reflecting on what it would mean to be a people of Ancestors. Our religious education program is inviting children, youth and adults to do some research into our religious ancestors and you can learn more about that in the Social Hall after service. In this spirit, I’ve been thinking about our religious forebears who have influenced me. As we consider today our religious proclivity toward building up and breaking down, I’m remembering one Unitarian lay leader, and social justice advocate, Dorethea Dix.

Dorethea was a nurse in the 1800’s who would some day come to serve as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the North during the US Civil War. But she would even more notably change the entire landscape of mental health in the US and in many countries in Europe. She tirelessly campaigned for reform of our mental healthcare options during a time when many mentally ill people were literally kept chained in basements. Where today we may campaign for better coverage for various health matters, Dorethea Dix was active at a time when the mentally ill weren’t always treated as humans. She was essentially a human rights advocate for a group of people in our nation who weren’t always seen as people.
Ms. Dix was directly responsible for helping to build 40 such hospitals in the US, affect change in Europe, and even convinced Pope Pius IX to build such a hospital after meeting with her. She called our nation to our better selves, and left the world a much more human place for her being here. But I mention her today because of her interesting relationship to privilege. In her case, male privilege.

Ms. Dix never married, although she was briefly engaged. Considering gender norms and expectations of the time, she would be far afield, yet she was a deeply respected citizen. In her canvassing for mental health, she would visit state after state and lobby before the state congresses for funding and changes in the laws regarding civil rights. Now at this time, women did not lobby before any congress. It was improper for a woman to speak publicly in such a manner. She would tirelessly meet with state representatives in their legislative office – one by one – and sway votes of state congresses in her favor.

After so many states had followed her advocacy, she made a national name for herself and was finally offered a chance to speak before one state congress. One of her biographies notes that Ms. Dix refused the offer, and insisted on meeting with members of congress one by one. To paraphrase, she felt it wasn’t proper for a lady to speak publicly in such a manner, and despite the respect people held for her, she wasn’t going to win the basic human rights for people who were mentally ill by giving into impropriety for expediency. Dorethea Dix changed the face of health care in our nation while doing so in “a respectable manner” – even if it meant she had to work twice as hard to do it – and she insisted on doing it the much harder way because that was the normal way for women. She was bucking the system in a way that the system allowed. Essentially, she respected male privilege.

Now, to be clear, I’m not critiquing Ms. Dix for it. She knew what she was doing, and had a cause that she felt was her calling, and she thrived in saving the lives of the people under her personal and political care. She consciously understood her relation to male privilege and made choices she felt would lead to success. I applaud her understanding of the system, and we should revere her for her tireless ministry. But we can also learn from her awareness of the nature of privilege. When we challenge another’s sense of privilege, the road may be harder. So sometimes we can consciously choose not to challenge that privilege, in order to make other critical gains.

Can we be so conscious as our spiritual ancestor Dorethea Dix? Do we make the same choices? What was right for her, may not always be right for us though. I worry sometimes that modern Unitarian Universalism is too often reticent to challenge privilege where we may need to challenge privilege out of fear of being called naive, or idealistic or the reality that some doors will be shut when we do so.

I think certain forms of privilege can be easier to talk about these days than others. As a religious people of heretics and iconoclasts, for some time we’ve accepted the kinds of privilege men have as a real and negative thing for society. We can point to the real ways in which women are negatively and directly affected, and we generally understand that this also negatively albeit indirectly affects men too. We can look back on the 1800’s and easily say it’s not right that a national leader and reformer like Dorethea Dix shouldn’t be allowed to publicly speak before congress – and we can reflect on that with little personal sense of risk … now. But at the time, it would have probably felt like a much bigger risk.

Where do we fear to so tread today? Challenges related to gender are not gone from us – clearly. And sometimes those challenges are lifted up in a publicly predatory manner. Just this past election day, the city of Houston voted to end a piece of legislation that was designed to prevent discrimination in public places and housing based on race, sexuality, gender, gender identity and physical disabilities. But opponents of the provision zeroed in on bathrooms. Commercial after commercial would use cartoons to draw a man – vaguely dressed as a women – entering women’s bathrooms. Signs would insinuate the law would protect predatory men when they victimized helpless women. It was also a viscous caricature of Transfolk.

I usually talk about what kinds of actions we can take in response to this bigotry (and frankly, misogyny.) But today, I’d like to pause and reflect on how our own sense of privilege can feed this behavior. Privilege can teach us who are victims and who are victimizers – who matters and who doesn’t. In the Houston political attack adds: LGBT folks are caricatures of people, women are victims, and confusion around what maleness, or femaleness, or let’s just say gender – confusion around gender is terrifying. Privilege teaches us to say what’s normal and what’s not normal, and then we get to paint a picture that makes “not normal” really scary.

It’s also a pretty typical strategy of bullies – public or private. Someone with privilege in a certain area picks a fight with someone without the same power or privilege – the bully starts the attack and then when folks speak up against it, the bully claims victimhood. We see it in our schoolyards, we see it in our neighborhood circles and we see it in politics. A local ordinance designed to protect actual victims from bigotry gets subverted into a threat to those with more privilege and gets overturned. It’s like the old picture of a pie. If you’re used to getting the whole pie – if someone comes along and asks, “can I have a slice”, privilege teaches you to feel threatened. “Why are you taking something away from me?” When do we listen to that voice in our own lives? When do we fear scarcity when we have so much? When are we diminished by another’s addiction to privilege?

As a people of ancestors, what do our heretics and architects teach us? Our ancestral heretics amongst us teach us to challenge injustice where we find it, but our deep ties to a tradition of architects asks us to tread carefully whenever we seek change. Is balance really important when facing privilege? Or is it more important to try to see the places where we hold privilege, even knowing there are places where we hold vulnerability? Each of us, in our own ways, have one foot in both privilege and hardship. Both can be true for each of us. In better knowing ourselves, we can help to build a more just world. It’s probably just as important as all the action we take in the world – because truthfully – our inaction and our reticence speak as loudly as our actions for justice.

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Prayer for Economic Hostage-Taking

Spirit of Life, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

 

We hold in our hearts this hour all the people in our neighborhoods,

and in our world,

who are struggling to get by;

searching for a job that seems to never land;

who are wondering where the next meal will come from;

who are looking for a roof to cover their head for one more night.

If we are in relative comfort, teach us not to forget the pressing needs of our neighbors,

that we have a role in lifting one another up,

knowing that we are who we are due to all the people that have helped us along life’s path.

If we are aching to find a way through to another day,

remind us that a way can be found,

that hope is a value to strive for,

to keep reaching out,

to keep letting in.

As our nation waits before the theatrics of politics to settle,

where financial risk is far too lightly threatened,

help our leaders to regain perspective.

May our ideologies,

not become postures,

that endanger the well-being of those most at risk in our communities.

Teach us to be nimble where we are stiff,

Open where are closed,

and to lean toward love when our hearts are hard.

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Prayer during Pentecost (Marc Carson, Syria)

Spirit of Peace, God of Many Names, and One Transforming and Abundant Love,

We gather again in community,

In song and in quiet,

To lay down our burdens for an hour,

To ease the pain of our neighbor,

To welcome hope once more;

May our doors to your Spirit, not remain shut tight.

In the silence, we reflect upon a week gone by,

Of news stories shouting faux outrage over the mundane,

Distracting us from the work before us.

As a community, may we stay focused on the work ahead;

Binding up the broken,

Seeking health for the weak,

Caring for those left behind by systems of oppression and abuse –

May the noise of the politically motivated,

not distract us from the work we are commissioned to do in this world –

To transform ourselves and our world through acts of love and justice.

We hold in our hearts this hour, the people of Syria;

Ravaged by war and revolution to a scale I can not imagine.

May Your Spirit heal what we can not find a way to make whole;

We pray for the family and friends of Marc Carson,

A young gay man murdered on the streets of Greenwich Village last night;

And for all the people on our streets who walk before hateful gazes.

For all our gains,

For all our work,

The struggle is not over.

May our progressive faith be a real means,

To real healing,

In a world so full of need,

For the gifts we are blessed to give.

 

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Isolations of the Spirit

This sermon explores the spiritual impact of philosophical isolation, of living in a media-induced gate-community of the soul.

 

I’m starting to notice one really amazing comeback. Just about every week now, I spot a hawk flying overhead in my East Village neighborhood. I grew up in suburban NJ and remember never seeing a hawk until I had travelled a good hour from NYC. I remember when the Central Park hawks were first nesting twenty-five or so years ago. But now they’ve branched out and have found homes seemingly in every NYC park. With all the environmental losses we face these days, it’s wonderful to know that some species are figuring out how to adapt to even the most human of environs. It gives me hope that in some ways the natural world can still respond to what we continue to throw its way – even if it’s just a small indicator.


Twice in the past month, I’ve spotted a hawk rapidly flying away from a flock of pigeons in one case, and starlings in another. Hawks are natural predators of the smaller birds, but they have a hard time with 30 or more of their prey banding together and going after them. For all the mockery New Yorkers will level against the pigeon, seeing a flock of them chase down a majestic hawk will really challenge your view of what the pigeon is capable of.
Occasionally, you’ll even see different species of smaller birds team up to expel the lone hawk. This instinctual banding together is a really helpful practice in the natural world when one’s eggs and newborns are at risk. It’s a hopeful sign that even folks of different stripes can come together in the face of adversity.  It also reminds me though of a similar practice we humans are doing more and more commonly. We band together in groups of people with very like-minded philosophies, politics and viewpoints. And we then make sure we don’t let other views nest in our little part of the neighborhood.
…You know what it looks like. How many folks here regularly watch both Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly? When I still carried around a print version of the Economist, I would regularly hear folks ask me !“why would I bother reading that! That’s right-wing!” For those familiar, it’s not actually even right-wing, it’s just textbook economics. We find a media-outlet that matches our philosophy, and largely stick to it. !It’s not that we just don’t like the other side, rather, we often have a visceral reaction to it! During the presidential elections we asked our election night party to flip between CNN, NBC and Fox. We just couldn’t stay on Fox for more than five minutes at a stretch. Groans, gasps and grunts made us miss the end of almost every sentence the broadcasters uttered. And to be sure – just as the pigeons considered the risk of the hawk overhead, so are we often convinced that if we allow that viewpoint to remain too long in our hearing that it will be a threat to our future generations. Or like this morning’s story, it will at least be a threat to our peace of mind. (As an aside, we happened to be rewarded for our bravery by witnessing – live – Karl Rove’s meltdown denial of the election results.)
And in some ways, the threat is real. There are views that we do find dangerous. Philosophies that spread violence, or hate, are offensive to civilization. They go against our religious convictions regarding human dignity, equity and compassion.
For those views grounded in the diminishment of the human spirit, we do have to remain vigilant.
But for all the rest, we may be doing a disservice by so deeply isolating ourselves from differing viewpoints. And we may even be going against our religious values as well.
On the practical level, when we thoroughly excuse ourselves from engaging with differing world-views, part of us demonizes the people on the other side. Many of us have seen where this leads to in the extreme. You might have read arguments on your friends’ Facebook walls, or in more public venues like the Huffington Post or the Wall Street Journal. Someone makes an argument for some progressive issue. Then someone makes a counter argument for some conservative response. Within short order the Trolls are out and all substantive content is thrown out the window. Society diminishes and we resort to a caricature of kids in a sandbox.  For those who don’t use computers, imagine the very worst of the daytime trash-talk-shows.

Or maybe we sound like this morning’s wisdom story. We’re not where we belong, we’re clucking and baa’ing with all the rest. And all we succeed in doing is clanging noise and making a mess of our surroundings. No real interaction has occurred – or at least no mature human encounter. The thing to remember about this morning’s story, is that each side probably identifies with the overwhelmed and cramped family. We’re not likely to identify with the clucking chickens and the head-butting goats.

When we project the noisome and ridiculous onto our neighbor, we’re never going to find peace in our hearts, no matter our blessings.

With the evolution of technology we have gained so much. But in some ways, we’re losing our ability to interact responsibly with our neighbors. There’s a photo floating around Facebook that asks the question, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?” One of the best responses is, “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.”


Now there’s nothing wrong with looking at pictures of cats. My favorite little Tuxedo cat, Dewey, is well documented by my phone camera as well. But with the added layer of distance that technology grants us, there is a really strong tendency for the empty argument,
…for the easy demonization of the other,
…for slinging mud at targets that aren’t quite real.
Part of it is due to the distance. To the invisibility of the other person. In a former career, I supervised a 24/7 Information Technology help-desk. Sometimes callers would be incredibly rude, impatient and demeaning on the phone. !When I later had to visit them in person to solve the problem, they turned into the sweetest person you could meet! They often didn’t realize that it was me on the other end. Over the phone, I had little value. Face to face, they remembered how to properly treat another person.
How do we balance the mud-slinging, the differing views, and the broader challenges of dealing with crisis – and what exactly is at stake? Being able to sit at an awkward extended-family holiday dinner with civility is certainly an important life skill. But civic-minded folks may also be concerned with the weakening of real public discourse that’s not reactionary, mean-spirited, or full of hyperbole. It’s hard to move forward as a people if we can’t refrain from a social form of filibustering every time we engage with people who have differing views – if we allow ourselves to engage at all.
…Religiously, our principles ask us to find that balance.
…Our principles ask us to promote the inherent dignity of the other

  • …they call us to continue the search for truth and meaning
  • …and to do so in such a way that we allow ourselves to accept one another for who we each are

– even when we won’t agree.
Isolating ourselves from viewpoints that don’t match our own is changing the nature of public discourse. If the goal of the entertainment media is to satisfy the philosophical or political preferences of its viewer-base for private-sector financial gain, then the level of critical analysis will sadly diminish.
We enter into an echo chamber and hear only the sound of our own distracted mind.
Philosophical interdependence withers away. As we isolate ourselves, we isolate our spirits. We become more closed. We tend toward the self-righteous. We become increasingly sure that we are right. We grow less.

That’s a snap shot of society at large. But these same patterns sometimes happen in our own communities and congregations. It’s largely accurate to say that most of us may lean toward progressive social policies – particularly around civil rights and environmental concerns. But we likely don’t all have the same philosophies regarding economic matters. At the height of the Occupy movement in NYC, we clearly had a range of views on what an economically just world ought to look like. But UU circles tend toward privileging public discussions that favor the more progressive solutions – even though a substantial number of our members may not actually share those exact views. We project onto our community our views, our opinions, our sense of normal. We do all of this with the best of intentions.  When we do this we imagine that our congregations must be as isolated internally as we often isolate ourselves with our friends and our news choices. We weaken ourselves by the explicit and implicit actions that silence such discourse. In shutting out the difference, in our mocking of differing views – we become less knowledgeable of the world around us and become less capable to adapt to changing circumstances.

…We are weaker alone than together.

One type of a strength that’s found when we cross philosophical aisles is something called understanding. When we get how the other side sees the world, we can come to points of mutual gain. I was recently attending a workshop on how to transform destructive kinds of conflict that was led by Tracy Breneman. She’s faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Director of Religious Education for the UU congregation in Mt. Kisco, NY. Different conflict management styles get to this in varying ways, but one style she spoke about is the “collaborating” style. In collaboration, “emphasis is on developing a solution which meets all the important needs of both parties and does not lead to any significant disadvantages.”

It reminded me of a Bill Moyers interview with climate change communications expert Anthony Leiserowitz. Bill Moyers asked him how do we get to the two sides of politics to come together on the crisis of our environment – specifically how do we convince conservatives to take climate change seriously. To paraphrase, Mr. Leiserowitz spoke about appealing to conservative values around freedom. Essentially, ‘the freedom to live the lifestyle of a midwest farmer or rancher is literally at stake when we consider the extent of the drought that has plagued the Heartland.’ For me – that argument wouldn’t hold any weight. For me – I want to see the planet transformed because I value our role as stewards of this earth. I’m a vegetarian who doesn’t want to see any animal ever get hurt. What would convince me is not the right argument to use with a rancher. Mr. Leiserowitz’s view is more useful because he better understands another worldview than I.

To flip the example, I can think of one incredibly poorly timed event on January 19th. Various conservative groups are supporting a “Gun Appreciation day” which is attempting to send the message “Hands off my guns.” They intended it to be a challenge to President Obama’s inauguration. However, having it also coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr weekend, seems extremely out of touch with our cultural landscape considering MLK was murdered by a gunman. This lack of understanding is likely to create only further distance between the sides.


We can come to collaborative decisions based upon the needs of those with differing values. But we can only do so when we understand where others are coming from. We can’t understand where they’re coming from if we don’t listen with an open heart. If we diminish their opinions out of hand. If we never turn the station to their channel. If we only talk about the weather and baseball. (I guess only talk about baseball if you know ahead of time what team they follow…).
Some of you are probably thinking – ‘All that sounds great. In an ideal world, we all reach across the aisle and we all figure out what the other person wants and we come up with solutions to our mutual advantage. But we never do that, so this idealism isn’t practical.’ I could list examples where opposing political philosophies have come to mutual agreements to radically change how we live. The repair of the Ozone layer in the 1980s; the end to slavery in the US; Women’s suffrage; desegregation of our armed forces – or the inclusion of women – or the open inclusion of lesbians and gay men. Each of these required radical shifts in the status quo, and in some cases bloodshed. But we were able to pass through those challenges – each of which was considered idealistic for its time and, in the eyes of some, impractical.

There’s a scene in the movie “Lincoln” where the President is chastised for not having a pure abolitionist philosophy. Lincoln essentially responds, “what’s the use of knowing true north if you try to barrel through the obstacles rather than taking each into consideration, only to wind up stuck in a swamp or ditch.” The landscape of real human interaction is not accounted for in our strict ideologies, whichever side you happen to be on.
Today’s challenges are just as necessary – they are just as urgent. We heard this past week (January 10th) of another school shooting in a California school. This time the hero of the story was again a teacher.  His name is Ryan Heber and he talked the student down from continuing his attack. While public discourse, the opposing sides of the gun debate continue shouting at – or worse, threatening – one another. Considering the escalation of these public shootings, we have neither the time nor the luxury of squabbling in a very big sandbox.
Repeated surveys indicate that the majority of the membership of the NRA are in favor of basic checks on mental health when purchasing guns, or limiting the sale of assault weapons, or criminal background checks. The noise of the leadership of the NRA matches the gun lobby, and not its citizen members. Likewise, the majority of Americans are not in favor of the search and seizure of private citizens’ handguns. But if we were just to follow the sound-bytes and the headlines, one might not be able to hear the truth within the din. They read as though there were only two perspectives, and that both sides are out to get the other. … (And those two perspectives always neatly fit into pithy headlines.)


I’ve spoken about a number of challenges and tragedies we continue to face. It can feel daunting and overwhelming.
…But we can see the way through.
History repeatedly shows us that change can happen.
…And that the unbelievable hope may one day become matter of fact.

Our religious values place a demand upon us. Our principles remind us to listen with an open heart. When we begin from a place of respect, we can find a way forward. When we turn down the volume we can hear the facts – we can find the shared values. But when we isolate ourselves tightly within our philosophical gated-communities, we not only keep out other views, but we also keep ourselves trapped behind the fences of our own making. Our principles remind us that as the natural world is mutually interdependent, so are we. This is not solely a biological reality. It is also an emotional reality, and a spiritual truth. Our hearts need openness to flourish. Our minds need openness to learn. So too do our spirits need the breadth of community – in all its messiness and difference – to grow.

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Prayer: New Year 2013

Spirit of Renewal, God of Many Names,

We rest at the close of another year,

One full of many stories,

Some troubled, and some joyous.

May we not turn away from facing the troubled moments of the year,

Teach us to honor the tragedies and the losses,

by seeking to mend what can be mended,

affect the changes we as a nation must affect,

to reduce the violence,

to care for broken,

to find peace in our world once more.

May we not use the New Year as an excuse to shirk from our duties,

Washing our hands of the work at hand.

So too help us to still find the joy in our living world,

To not lose sight of the good in our hearts,

The beauty of the land,

Or the possibilities of change in our lives.

We have been blessed with the gift of life,

And amidst all its challenges, struggles and small exhaustions,

It is full of moments of wonder,

Stories of hope,

And opportunities to love again and again.

May we honor this gift we have,

by holding the passion and the pain,

with grateful hearts,

as best we can.

 

At this hour, where our nation,

is on the brink of extreme measures of austerity,

we hold especially in our hearts,

all those who are living in fear of losing much needed financial support,

who rely on benefits who might not be there in a few days,

or who are still seeking employment.

Grant our leaders wisdom,

to heed the urgency of the mantle of their leadership,

And may they soon learn that political points,

are inferior to the work of building up the nation.

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This Side of Love

Last Sunday, our Senior High Youth lead an educational social justice project toward the end of the religious education day with our children, as part of the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. After teaching our children a bit about love, marriage equality, and justice, we made Valentines to send to the NY State representatives who voted to support Marriage Equality. Being a Brooklyn congregation we sent the cards to Brooklynrepresentatives. We also included Valentines to our Federal Senators, our Mayor, our Governor, and the four Republicans (state-wide) who made a stand of personal conscious across party lines. It was a program that was rooted in gratitude for the efforts of our secular leaders on a matter of human conscience. Juliette and Cooper Richey-Miller crafted a beautiful video of the day that you can watch on our website. http://vimeo.com/36797503. It’s a hopeful snapshot of our religious community – and a good indicator of who we are and what we can be.

What makes a community? Or a congregation? Or a nation? Our story this morning spoke of a church being built on a hilltop – one that would bring the folks from all around to it every week. It needed a bell to ring folks to service. It needed strong stone and wood to stand firm against the wind and the weather. And it needed light – a whole lot of light – so that folks could find their way. I think it’s really beautiful that we learned from Zora’s mom in the story, that in our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we each carry a light of our own. Like the song we heard today – this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

That’s at the core of faith. For UU’s, it’s not so much about belief, faith is in part about trusting in yourself – and the people around you. It’s trusting that all our lights are there; they’re worth uncovering; and they can help lead us on the path ahead. Right from the start, we come pre-packaged with that light – even if we sometimes find it hard to feel that warmth. It’s still there.

That’s what a community is about. It’s remembering what’s true for each of us, is also true for all of us. We each bring something of value to light up this church. You know, this is one of those kind of truths that we like to say is so incredibly apparent. “Duh, we all know that!” And yet, it’s probably one of the hardest things to remember.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was talking with two god-parents who were about to make promises during one of our child dedications on a Saturday morning. Three of the questions they had to commit to were, “Will you teach her to tell the truth and to trust herself? Will you teach her to be compassionate and loving while being there with open ears and open hearts when she needs you? Will you keep good words and ways so that you will be an example for her?” They seem so straight forward, but one god-parent reflected, “At first I was thinking, oh sure, these are obvious. I can do that. But then I got to thinking – be compassionate and loving – how about the long line at the deli, or behind the wheel when someone cuts me off. Those three things are really hard!” And to be honest, she’s completely right. They’re all hard. Sometimes obvious things are very hard to live by. That’s partly why we go over them again and again.

It’s easy to say that each of us have value – but sometimes it’s hard to feel like that applies to ourselves. It’s easy to say that everyone has a light to shine, but it’s hard to feel that way when the other person is telling you what to do with a really mean voice. With a show of hands – who here has ever felt less about someone who was being mean to them? (alright, I thought that would be a strong showing.) We’re all a little guilty of not finding the worth in another when they’re being difficult, and we’re all probably just as guilty of thinking less of ourselves than our religion tells us we should.

But sometimes we do the opposite. Sometimes we think so highly of ourselves, that we think we know what’s best for the people around us. Sometimes we’re so sure that if only things were done my way, all would work out just right. Out of curiosity, with a show of hands, who here has ever thought that last one – if only the world worked the way I wanted it to… OK – we’re all in good managerial company.

That problem is happening from time to time all around us. It’s not just within our congregation, or over the dinner table. It happens in our country at large. Right now, we hear stories in the media of struggles around religious freedom. What are some things we think of when we hear religious freedom? What do we mean by freedom – call out one or two words (worship, belief, faith of the free, personal choices, medical treatments, congregating where and how you need, etc.) It’s an important value in our country. It’s also an important value in our faith tradition. It comes from the Edict of Torda. In 1571, a Unitarian, Francis David, convinced the King of Transylvania to pass a law that said that “no one shall be reviled for their religion by anyone.” Francis famously said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” It’s thoughts like this that influenced the foundations of this nation.

But just like how we sometimes think the world would just be a better place if it worked just like we wanted it, sometimes that mindset gets into the heads of our leaders. This is a difficult subject to talk about, but I think most of us have seen the photos, or the news, or posts on the internet – so if we don’t talk about it here we’re being strangely silent.

I’m thinking of those pictures of all-male testifiers before congress, giving their expertise on how women should receive medical care. I think just saying that sentence that way, more or less gets to the point for most of us. I don’t see a problem in men being involved in the decision-making process of how people receive health care – after all some doctors are male. I do see a problem in women not having a voice at the table – especially on matters that solely affect women’s health. I think it’s even more odd that several of those experts were clergy. In case this congregation has the same confusion – if you have a medical issue – I am not the person to come to for health-care advice. They do not teach that in seminary. Frankly, it’s a really severe case of abuse of power. In our story this morning, Zora had her own lamp to shine. Whenever we create situations where only certain people get to lift up their lamps, we’re probably doing something wrong.

Anyone here watch NBC? Well on Friday morning, following the spread of the all-male congressional panel photo – The morning talk show called, “Morning Joe” began talking about how inappropriate it was for Congress to have an all male line-up of experts. However, in one snapshot (and you can see it on my Facebook page) all five of Morning Joe’s experts were themselves men.

Now some of you may be scratching your heads right now. I started out by talking about religious freedom, and then shifted into talking about health care for women. If you’re having trouble seeing the connection, you’re in some very good company. The connection that’s being made in the media is stretched so thin it must soon break. Religious freedom is about being able to worship as you see fit – or don’t see fit for that matter. It’s about belief and it’s about personal choices (and you can hear the emphasis on personal right). Personal freedom, or liberty, is not about having the freedom to make the world do what you want. It’s about making your own best choices regarding personal matters – especially those matters that affect no one but yourself. I think managing one’s own body is the clearest definition of that I can imagine.

And in this congregation, we take that so seriously, that we educate our children and youth through the program Our Whole Lives. Right now, half of our religious education program is in an OWL class. It’s an age-appropriate comprehensive science-based sexuality curricula. I mention science-based, because not all programs out there on this topic are even legally required to be scientifically accurate. Our K-1 class started in January. Our Junior Youth began back in September. And our 4th and 5th graders will have two Saturday programs. And our Senior High will be continuing it throughout the Spring.

Just like the story, someone had to make that lantern and pass it down. In our tale, Zora had to learn to carry it on her own. From a caring, loving community, she grew into a mature adult that would do the same in return. I think if we were to edit the story to fit the current trend to misconstrue what religious freedom actually means, we’d have Zora’s dad carrying the lantern for her for the rest of her life. And her mom would be strangely silent. That image isn’t one of freedom.

I don’t want to end this sermon on a national matter. This time I want to bring that national crisis back home, back to our pews. Whatever emotions you may have felt, or are feeling, about the paternalism being inflicted on women in our culture right now – consider how we might be the cause of that kind of strife in our own lives – for other matters. How are we acting in such a way that we’re trying to mold people in our own image? How is our personal freedom affecting the freedom of those around us? How are our immediate wants hurting our neighbor?  Do you speak over everyone around you? Do you let others be heard? Are you kind when someone does something that you disagree with? Do you seek to understand where someone is coming from – or do we try to fit their actions into our way of seeing things?

There’s this photo floating around the internet of a saying on a t-shirt (that I think was intended to be a joke.) It reads, “I’m a Unitarian-Universalist: the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine.” Now as far as faith statements go, that’s more shale than bedrock. But it does speak to one very healthy mindset. My opinion doesn’t rule the day. Remembering that – not only in political chatter, but also in the coffee hour, is key. A little bit of humbleness is good for the health of a community, of a congregation, and yes – of a country too.

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An American Anti-Christ

This sermon calls for a return to the basics of the teaching message of Jesus, and discusses how his wisdom has been co-opted for political ends. The Occupy Wall Street movement is centrally reflected upon in this podcast. It was first preached on October 9th, 2011 at the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Brooklyn, NY.

About two months ago, my partner Brian and I were driving in a rental car from Montreal to Quebec. Our French is not good enough beyond the simplest reading of signs and menus, so our heads were swimming with all the language in the air. As a reprieve, we turned the car radio to a local English-speaking station. It sounded to me like their version of NPR. But maybe all Canadian radio features informed reporting and thoughtful discourse on social issues. We heard a foreign take on events in the U.S. from the Tea Party to the environment; from Islam to Christianity. And it was around the topic of Christianity where we stopped listening to the radio and started into a heated discussion about the merits of religion in the U.S.

Our household is essentially an interfaith one. I identify strongly as a U.U., and a theist, who’s rooted in the narrative traditions of Judaism and Christianity. I have my own meditation practice informed by Buddhist teachers over the years, but it’s the stories in the Bible that I grew up on that really hit home for me when they’re unpacked in meaningful ways. My partner Brian, left – no scratch that – ran away screaming from a homophobic fundamentalist Christian upbringing and has found a rich spiritual home in Neo-Paganism. Soooo… it’s safe to say that we’re coming from a different place when we talk about the value of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And when a foreign station adds into the mix the politics of the American sphere, where religion starts and ends can become a bit less clear.

We had an intense moment that was punctuated by my statement, “But that’s not really Christianity! Social conservatism doesn’t get to rewrite millennia of Christian teachings because they don’t align with today’s American cultural christianity. Fundamentalism as we know it has only been around since the 1950s, and didn’t really gain serious traction until the 1970s.”

This sermon is largely about how we’ve gone astray from the basics of religion with an aim to help us refocus. It is in this spirit that I’d like us to consider the basics of the teachings of Jesus right now. Whether you see Jesus as God, or a prophet or a teacher – his wisdom has crafted this world we inhabit – and that wisdom is what I’m speaking to right now. His words often get lost behind denominationalism, politics, culture and doctrine. I deeply value his parables. Stories are a beautiful way to convey a teaching without sounding like you’re teaching. But they can leave a lot of room for interpretation. So let’s focus on the five very clear messages he gave that were not coached in parable, or metaphor, or narrative. Here they go and they’re easy to remember: feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; and shelter the homeless. Very little of what Jesus ever said wasn’t cloaked in some varied meaning, so it seems to me that when he says something clearly, it’s probably extra-important. Or maybe just really obvious. But its clarity should be seen as central to Christian practice and identity. Whatever speaks directly to its opposite could be said to be anti-Christian – or against the Christian spirit – or maybe more starkly, Anti-Christ.

Now I’m not one to subscribe to apocalyptic prophesies, or a literal reading of Christian Revelations. I don’t believe in an actual anti-christ as depicted in the horrific imaginations of the “Left Behind” series. Harold Camping, the modern day prophet of Revelations, the man who caused fear and trembling amongst tens of thousands this past May 21st, was the brainchild of wayward prophecies that cause anxiety and terror around the end of the world. I believe he came to the conclusion that May was the wrong date and it’s somewhere in October or November. I have no respect for that kind of religious sensationalism and see it only as harmful and negligent.

I want to try unpacking this concept in a more responsible way. If I were to take a turn at imagining an anti-christ, I believe that the anti-christ of today would be someone, or maybe some movements, that successfully convinced us that up was down, right was left, that sky was ocean, and false was true. It would be a teaching that convinced us that Jesus said the opposite of what he actually said. That we shouldn’t feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; visit those in prison; or shelter the homeless. It might sound something like this: 1) Those on Welfare deserved their fate and should simply go out and find a job. Then their families won’t go hungry. 2) It’s fine to have folks work long hours, for poor pay, in unhealthy conditions so long as the designer clothes they make reach lucrative markets – oh, and they do not get access to those designer clothes themselves. 3) Healthcare is not a right. It should be tied to employment. And you should be allowed to opt out. 4) Prison systems are designed to be punitive, not redemptive. The more full they are, the more efficient they remain. Go prison industrial complex! 5) Luxury housing is better for the tax base. Affordable Housing is middle class welfare. Section 8 housing credits are expiring all around us as a sign of the healthier economy – look, people just want to move back in, so we don’t have to fund the poor to live here now that the neighborhoods are getting cleaned up.

It’s almost comical if folks didn’t believe this while claiming religiosity. And this isn’t just my liberal UU take on it. My Christian friends and colleagues in the clergy, who range from UCC to evangelical to baptist, all agree that up is not down, right is not left, and the Christian message clearly states that people are here to help people – without judgment. The liberal and progressive wings of religion in America seem to have given ground to radical, right wing, extreme American cultural christianity and convinced itself that those on the fringe are actually the center and those of us who maintain that compassion is central to religion are the crazy radicals. It’s simply not true. If there were an Anti-Christ to Christianity it would be heard in the voices that spout Jesus was not for the poor, the oppressed, or the hungry. What I call the basic Christian spirit, or the basic religious spirit, they would call class warfare.

And to be clear – this doesn’t fall neatly on either side of the political aisle. When I say liberal or progressive, I only mean in social terms. Not political terms. It was a conservative in the White House that developed the robust housing program that buoyed the poor for 30 years until a conservative in the White House gutted Housing and Urban Development by the billions. And it was a liberal in the White House that changed how we understand welfare and Free Trade in the U.S. as we know it. As a minister I can’t speak to the politics, nor do I find politics to ever be clear cut or uniform. Each of us must make our own informed choices. This congregation is healthiest when we have members from all political parties – and know that we do. Dialogue makes us stronger. But as a minister, I can’t allow politics to redefine what religion has meant for millennia. It’s clear cut on this. We are the congregation of the loving hearts and the helping hands. We teach that to our children, and we need to live that as adults.

So where does that leave us? How do we move on from here? Just this week I was watching a 1975 classic movie with a few friends at my apartment called, “Network.” The premise was a prophetic look forward to the Murdoch and Fox news phenomenon – or one might say the same about the Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” phenomenon. In this movie, the news has stopped being the news, and it’s become a profit motive that sells the wares of an ideological elite. The movie is rightfully a classic, and seen as one of the 100 greatest movies of all time. There is a line toward the beginning where the news anchor, speaking as a wayward prophet for the American disgust-of-all-that-is, screams to his viewers to go out to their windows and doors, open them up, and scream over and over, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” He wants the American people to own up to their frustration and disgust with business as usual – with war, crime, pollution, and poverty. Centered in the NYC of the 1970s, we’re bracketed by war; dealing with the start or middle of the White Flight that gutted and burned NYC; with the impending fiscal default of the City – people were disgruntled, disenfranchised, losing hope, and, more importantly, losing faith in the path forward.

I see so many similarities with the protest movement we see and hear just across our river in Wall Street. Last weekend, Brian and I were taking a walk down the promenade and about the time when the arrests began happening on the Brooklyn Bridge, we could hear the loud cry from that far away. A movement that originally was said to only be in the hundreds, took a shift and became a movement of thousands and thousands. And not only in this city, but sprouting up in cities across the country. Within a span of days, social media became abuzz with the grassroots movement. Numerous of our congregants, friends of mine, and fellow UU colleagues have travelled out to Wall Street to protest. Many deride it for lack of clarity and focus. There’s a laundry list of things about the Occupy Wall Street movement for which it is critiqued into irrelevancy. And yet, all the critiques sound to my ear identical to those critiques of the early Tea Party movement. Some of you in the pews may be squirming at the comparison, but the truth is that the Tea Party became unbelievably relevant out of a sludge of irrelevancy because it was speaking to a primal disgust toward the system.

Rick Bruner, a member at First UU, is one of the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. He was recently telling me that he’s, “been surprised by the effect that the protest has had on [him].” His 23-year-old nephew, Patrick Bruner, has emerged as a prominent player in the whole movement, as one of the principal spokespersons for the protests. He is being widely quoted, including in NYT, WSJ, NPR and elsewhere.” Rick tells me that his nephew stayed with him for several weeks earlier in the summer, and they had a number of political conversations, and while Rick was once much more radical and idealistic in his political views, he kept getting frustrated with his nephew in their discussions for being a dreamer. As he’s aged he says that he supposes like many he’s “grown more cynical and jaded about the workings of the world.” A few months later, Rick was telling me that he was feeling a bit like he “… got schooled by his nephew.”

The movie “Network” that I spoke about had its own prophet. The news prophet knew that something must be done and it had to begin with a personal transformation. A transformation that would get the average person out of their chair, out of their door, and civically engaged. The character said that had to start with anger.

I don’t agree. I don’t believe it needs to start with anger. I believe that anything that begins with anger will likely end with anger, and I want no part of that. For me that would be another warning sign of messages spouted by modern day anti-christs. Don’t love thy neighbor – feel righteous fury against thy neighbor. Religiously speaking – social transformation needs to begin from a place of compassion. We need to be centered in our lives, in our selves, in our motivations. We need to find the truth in those simple teachings of Jesus I began with. Teachings that are foundational to Christianity, birthed and rooted in Judaism, and remarkably found in all world faiths. Caring for the poor or naked is not a specifically Christian message. It’s a religious message. It’s a compassionate message. And to make it a reality, a spiritual mindset must be found, not a politically angry one. Anger is easy. Compassion and conviction are hard. Let’s find a way to take the hard path. I believe these protests on Wall Street are so far non-violent ones. Maybe centered for some in frustration, they remain peaceful – well except for a rare few members of our police pepper spraying some protesters.

Some of us may choose to join the marches and protests across the river. Some of us may feel that the economic system as it is is mostly ok. I know that for some of us the debate could take days, and for others the answer’s already a given. For some the movement is amorphous and without meaning. For others, it’s very clear. CNN recently summed up the movement as follows, “They are suggesting that the fiscal operating system on which we are attempting to run our economy is no longer appropriate to the task. They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture.”[1]

Speaking in religious terms, our country produces enough goods to feed the hungry; clothe the naked; care for the sick; shelter the homeless, and yes even visit those in prison. But we don’t. We’ve missed the mark. We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark. Even now in a recession. And our imagined anti-christ is telling us it’s not our problem, we don’t have enough, and we couldn’t change it even if we wanted to. This mindset reminds me of one of the Jewish teachings in scripture. Moses is away to Mount Sinai to commune with God. The people are struggling with survival. And after a time they turn to worshiping a golden calf. When Moses returns, he destroys the calf as an idol of a false god; a god that mankind made. This story is about a turning away from the abundance and freedom God has given us and a return to living the values we already know. I mention this aside because this morning Judson Memorial Church, a progressive Christian church at Washington Square will be processing a golden calf in the shape of the Wall Street Bull down to Zuccotti Park at 2pm for an interfaith service. Some of you may be moved to join them. But I also mention this because we sometimes get stuck in thinking that one faith tradition holds a monopoly on a teaching.

We have all that we need to have in order to make the mark, and yet we don’t. I have no magic wand that will remedy this. I have no ear of presidents, or prophets to resolve this. But I do have your ear, and we do have each other. I challenge each of us to tackle just one of these five issues for a start. Between all of us, we’ll probably cover all of them in some way. What kind of clothing work does First UU do? Some of us donate to shelters: CHIPS, Ali Forney, Henrick-Martin and the Harvey Milk school all happened last congregational year. I know that literally scores of bags of clothes were collected between us all. That’s frankly incredible. Can we institutionalize this? Can we plan to do so outside of the Winter Holidays or special collections originated by our program of Small Group Ministries? Is there someone among us that would be willing to step forward to make sure that we’re always helping to clothe the naked? I learned on Friday that our member Mary Most began collecting clothing goods to deliver to the Occupy Wall Street site. So many there are not just protesting, or camping. They’re homeless.

Do we feed the hungry? Well, the answer is sort of. Some of us volunteer our time with food shelters. We do collect goods in the vestibule every Sunday to be sent to a food pantry. If you haven’t yet donated, please consider doing so. Every week we accept goods. Could we do more? Yes. Could we set up times where we travel as a group to a local soup kitchen to staff it? Could we join up with our sister congregation of All Souls which has their own kitchen that serves over 250 people every Monday night? Yes. Are there ways to collaborate with our other synagogues, mosques and churches in the area? Yes. Is there someone among us that would be willing to step forward…?

You could imagine me saying the same for caring for the sick, sheltering the homeless, or visiting those in prison. I personally would add an addendum to visiting those in prison – it would sound something like, “Reduce the need and reliance on prisons.” That would be a ministry true. Do we have folks among us for whom this issue lights a spark? The world needs healing here as well. It is for all of us to step up.

When I visited Zuccotti Park, the center of the Occupy Wall Street protest, I experienced the human megaphone. Apparently, protesters are not allowed to use actual megaphones. So when one needs to speak so that all will hear, they say a line and wait for those closest around the speaker to repeat what they said as a group. The sound reverberates outward till folks further back repeat it again until all can hear. In this gentle act of human spirit, the voice of the silenced get repeated and passed on louder and louder. Standing in the place of love, where each human being helps the next be heard by all, leaves little room for the voice of an anti-christ to be heard.

I would like to end this morning’s sermon in a different way than usual. In a moment of solidarity with those who have no megaphone, those who have not the luxury of a high pulpit and ample sound system, I will end my sermon by coming down to the pews. In a moment I’ll turn off the lavaliere, and speak without electronic aid. I’ll ask, the risky request, that those in the front pews help us to experience the human megaphone within the walls of this historic church building. For those that are close that can hear me well, please repeat my words for those further back. Afterward those in the middle can repeat what they hear for those seated in the rearmost pews. We should hear two echoes.

‘We are the congregation of the open mind. We are the congregation of the loving hearts. We are the congregation of the helping hands. We teach this to our children. May we find ways to live this deeply as adults. It is a religious mission, to transform ourselves and our world, through acts of love and justice.’

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2011/10/05/opinion/rushkoff-occupy-wall-street/index.html – Brought to my attention by congregant Julie Bero

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