Posts Tagged Universalism
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 10/28/18 for our annual All Souls service. It reflects on our theological response to the refugee caravan traveling north from Honduras, and the threats against Transgender folk in the US.
Maybe the first tenet of preaching, or at least the most important, is to make sure folks come out hearing a message of hope. But today, this service commemorating All Souls, is different. Another year has gone by. A life full of hopes, and dreams – of losses and disappointments. Some the small everyday kind that we carry with us way beyond reason, and some tragic losses that impact us keenly and deeply, whose wounds will not go away for a very long time – if they ever truly leave us. Sometimes hope isn’t a virtue, but a merely wish for what can simply not be. All Souls is a day to honor and remember those we have lost; to remember the truth that death comes inevitably to all of us. We pray that we learn to enjoy the sweetness of life, of friendship, of community – for as long as we are given.
Telling our stories is a powerful form of ministry with one another. And the stories we tell matter. It’s one of the reasons at our memorial services, we put such a focus on the community sharing their memories of the deceased. Their legacy and their love continue on in the impacts they made while they were alive. Storytelling is honoring that life. Even the painful stories are important to share; there is a healing in the telling, and there is an ethical component as well. Sharing our struggle is a way to foster compassion, and compassion builds community. In traditional Universalist theology, all souls are saved. And on this day, we remember who came before, but we also remember that we are part of that beloved community of all souls; that allsouls are part of our community.
Remembering this fundamental sanctity of life; that our theology affirms the inherent worth of people, I’m going to tell three short stories about our world today. I’ll ask you to keep in mind this essential theology of Universalism affirming all souls. Before I begin though, I offer these words from Joanna Macy as a frame (she’s is an environmental activist, author, and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology.) “Thus do we realize ever again that the simple eloquenceof telling the truth liberates us to find insight,solidarity, and courage to act, despite rapidly-worseningconditions. When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us. Many of us fear that confrontation with despair will bring loneliness and isolation, but—on the contrary—in the letting go of old defenses, truer community is found. In the synergy of sharing comes power. In community, we learn to trust our inner responses to our world—and find our power.”
My first story. All Souls, and this time of year is associated with Hurricane Sandy for me. This part of the world was hit rather hard. Some of us in our Fellowship lost their home. Neighborhoods in the wider area were destroyed. The recovery took well over 2 years in some parts. I remember at the time, I was living in Manhattan, in Stuyvesant Town. They were 12 story towers for middle income folk, stretching for at least 6 city blocks, and 4 avenues. The week of Sandy, had been both emotionally exhausting and incredibly fortunate for my home. Being in what NYC called zone B, we were not asked to evacuate ahead of time, so we hunkered down, stored up supplies, froze extra water in zip lock bags just in case, and prepared for a night of computer games and a good book.
We lived two blocks from the Con Edison station that had a transformer blow. I personally missed the great flash of white light that lit the sky – I was busy staring at my computer shutting down.
The East River, typically 2.5 avenues away (or the one half mile from our front door) in Stuyvesant Town where we lived, became our neighbor for a night and part of a morning. It landed on a Monday. Although the East River receded by the next day, the streets were wet through that Thursday. The power was out, hot water was gone, and running water came and went for up to twelve hours at a time. Some of our neighbors were out of gas, but we were fortunate. Our building did not suffer that level of damage. The next one over did.
Over the next few days, we would climb down the ten flights of stairs with our flashlights to grab some bread from bodegas that were getting rid of the last of their supplies before they went bad – and we were very grateful that no one was price gouging their goods. More food wasn’t coming in yet.
Many eight story stall trees were dead on the grown. Twelve foot lengths of pier, giant rivets and all, were as far in as Ave C – leaving wreckage to the cars they rested upon, amidst other cars literally tossed about by the East River.
Traffic in Manhattan, usually a bitter affair, was pedestrian friendly, almost devoid of any honking horns, and civil in a way I could never imagine.
In our community, neighbors and resident staff were taking turns visiting each of the 30,000+ homes without power to make sure folks were alright. Letters were circulated asking us to check on our neighbors who were elders – who had no hope of climbing down, let along up, ten flights of stairs. We were a community of all souls that week.
One café brought out a generator to the street, and set up a power strip so that strangers could recharge their cell phones and laptops. This may seem small, but when you have no ability to tell anyone that you’re fine – this was a great act of charity and relief. For those that follow me on social media, you know how prolific I am. When we finally had access to power and a signal, my Facebook wall was inundated with friends, congregants and colleagues asking if we were alright; folks knew how close we were to the worst, and not everyone lived through that Hurricane. In the US alone, 106 people died. When we finally had cell coverage again on Wednesday, I was heartened to hear of the stories of outreach and support organized by the congregation in Brooklyn I was serving at the time. I know our own Fellowship here made sure to take care of one another as well. I felt cared for knowing others were taking care of one another, even though I couldn’t be reached yet.
We finally did evacuate on Thursday to the magical land of “Park Slope” which was high, dry and heavily caffeinated. We felt very blessed. We are were lucky to be able to return home by Sunday afternoon.
That hurricane was serious, destroying so much; though in comparison, we were fine. And I still remember it this time of year, every year. And for those among us who lost our homes, it’s left an indelible imprint upon our psyche. The act of the community coming together to support those in extreme crisis, is the spiritual and human response to tragedy. It’s healthy; it’s normal; and it defines civilization. That is what we should do; that is who we should be; and that should be our marker for decency. As Joanna Macy said, “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.”
If that one storm was so significant, that congregations around this area would remember in our pastoral prayers or our sermons, annually going on five and six years now, let’s extend that truth to even more serious moments of crisis and tragedy. What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse?
Here is my second story. It’s about the refugee caravan heading north from Honduras; a caravan also of all souls. Again I ask, what level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to that which is worse? Just this week, our UU Service Committee “in partnership with SHARE El Salvador and in collaboration with the Sisters of Mercy, participated in a delegation to Honduras to bear witness to social and political dynamics that have contributed to civil unrest within Honduras as well as a mass exodus of civilians from the country. This delegation heard numerous testimonies of government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.”If you want to learn more about the causes, and what can be done, you can head to our Facebook page, or directly to UUSC.org for the full report and actions that can be done.
There’s far too much political rhetoric being irresponsibly thrown around – particularly the lie that there are terrorists and gang members amidst the refugees. It’s another racist dog whistle, plain and simple. All reporting, on the ground, indicates this is a blatant lie. The Washington Post had an article the other day detailing what Mexicans are doing as the refugees travel north. It reminded me of how New Yorkers came together after the Hurricane. “The 30-year-old Honduran corn farmer and dogged sojourner in the migrant caravan was dressed head-to-toe in donated clothes. His 3-year-old son, Alexander, played with donated toys. And the rest of the family — his wife, his two brothers and a cousin — sat on the sidewalk eating beef stew and tortillas ladled out for them by residents of this bustling market town in Mexico’s southern Chiapas state. “These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.” To me, that’s the basic level of compassion one should at least extend people fleeing from “government abuse and greed, torture, human rights violations, rape, forced displacement, and the dehumanization of large groups of people.” That’s the basic level; not play pretend they are actually terrorists. And both US law and International law are clear – refugees can seek asylum at our borders. These are refugees; they are doing nothing illegal.
It is a malicious theology that seeks to carve up the beloved community of all souls – between us and them, with the “us” forever shrinking and shrinking till it looks more like “me” than any “us” that ever were. “When we face the darkness of our time, openly and together, we tap deep reserves of strength within us.” (Joanna Macy.)
“These people have been beautiful,” he said. “Everyone’s helping us out.”I want to turn toward some words my colleague, Rev Jake Morrill recently blogged. Here they are: “Years ago, the literary theorist Elaine Scarry wrote a book called “On Beauty and Being Just.” She says beauty is that which awakens in us a longing for creation and fulfillment. She says that, when we fall in love with beauty, we want to share it. And—whether it’s a painting or a person or a culture or a region of land—when we fall in love with it, we want to defend it. She says we’ll fight to preserve it. And what we seek, in the name of beauty, is justice.
A friend of mine says that the central task of these times of de-humanization is for us to engage in “re-humanization.” Which may be another way to say that we need to see and hear one another—our stories, our wounds, our quirks, our confessions—and even fall in love a little with one another. And, while we’re at it, to come back to ourselves.
I don’t know the exact strategies that will fix the big problems we face, or heal the wounds. But I think faith communities and other artistic communities can be about falling in love again with each other and with the earth, bearing witness to beauty even in the wreckage, and taking up the discipline of re-humanization.
If our hearts got stirred up like that, if we let beauty tug us out of our stupor, we could be moved to fight for what we love. Tenaciously and tenderly. Like something precious might, even at the last hour, have a chance of being saved.”
Thank you Rev. Morrill for that gorgeous re-centering during these difficult times. Falling in love with one another, loving the beauty in one another, and bearing witness to the other. Being seen for who we are, as we are, is the next step in learning to love one another enough to defend and protect and nurture our neighbor, whether it’s a storm of the natural world, or a storm of the political world – we can respond with beauty to lift us all up.
I’ll come to a close with my third story. This week we learned that the President is seeking to change the definitions of gender, to remove it as a protected legal status as a linguistic gambit to erase Transgender and Non-Binary people from sight. You can well and easily imagine the repercussions to rights, and to safety that will come of this deeply cynical move. Calls to the National Transgender Hotline doubled this week in light of this news. It’s another way to carve out who gets seen in the caravan of all souls, and our faith teaches us otherwise. The Miriam-Webster dictionary defines gender identity as “a person’s internal sense of being male, female, some combination of male and female, or neither male nor female.” That’s not complicated to express or really to understand. And there are many people that need us to understand; to see them as they are, and to learn to love their beauty enough that we care to defend them and nurture them. In the end, this cynical move sounds to me like another way that our current administration has something in common with Honduras, namely, “the dehumanization of large groups of people.” What level of compassion should we nurture as a basic human response to the dehumanization of large groups of people? What stories will we learn to hear? What lives will we hold close to our hearts to live on in us; carrying their humanity unto our humanity? Dehumanization leads to pipe bombs being sent to your political opponents and journalists; dehumanization leads to gunman storming our synagogues on shabbat.
The author Neil Gaiman says that, “A book is a dream in your hands.” Well, a book, or the stories of our lives, held in beauty in our hands, are each the dreams of another life and that is a holy thing to hold. May we hold one another, our dreams, and our suffering, religiously in care.
Rev. Jake Morrill
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/4/18 reflecting on the balance of doubt in faith.
“There once was a farm in a valley that was practically perfect in every way, except that it had no rooster to crow at the crack of dawn, and so everyone was always late getting out of bed.” If only all our problems seemed so simple! But I imagine it didn’t seem like such a small deal to the folks on the farm. From missing newspapers to late-milked cows, to plain cranky attitudes, life in this otherwise perfect valley was marred by its one lack, a missing rooster.
What’s your missing farmyard animal? What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
I love stories like this. They really can draw out the essence of our daily challenges and struggles and they use humor to do so. It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude.
I love this story. I try to tell it annually at one of our services. It’s an excellent lesson on our third principle – where we covenant to affirm and promote acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. For the rooster in the story, the one thing missing, was their confidence in themselves. Doubt was the story they had to overcome. And for all the well-intentioned helpers in the story (the pig and duck and cats), the one thing missing for them, was a healthy dose of doubt. They had to overcome their own stories of expertise and confidence, to leave room for the rooster to find their own voice. Doubt is not always helpful, and over-confidence in all things, can lead down the road of mainsplaining – or in this story’s case – pigsplaining and ducksplaining and catsplaining. (For some of us in the room, that’s just funny, and for others it’s funny because it hits so close to home.)
All this month we are asking ourselves, what would it be like to be a people of balance. Doubt and confidence – in the case of our rooster, and doubt balanced with faith, as a religious community. For most of us, our knee-jerk reaction to these questions is to go straight to our heads. In the everyday push and pull of the world, for the small daily acts of what next, we can paralyze ourselves before the great “what if?”
I wonder if the problem isn’t just that though; if it isn’t just about cautiousness and due-diligence gone wild. I wonder if it’s more about the problem resting solely in our minds and not also our hearts. I wonder if we sometimes have a tendency to overly value our intellectual rigors over our emotional awareness. Do we ask more of the practical questions; more of the detail-orientated concerns, than we seek to be comfortable with the choice in our center, the choice in our spirit?
I feel like this has been a central challenge for our religious faith over the past 58 years; since the merger between Unitarianism and Universalism around 1960. We as a religious people wrestled with the mind and the heart. We combined the cool rigors of our Unitarian forbears with the passion and verve of our Universalist predecessors. For sure, both traditions had members with more of the traits of the other as well, but the religions had a tendency toward one or the other. Painting a broad swath, one could say they both had a style to them; mind and heart.
Over 400 years ago Unitarianism came about in Eastern Europe where it first gained a foothold (while also developing in parts of Western Europe where it wouldn’t solidify, however, for a while). Impassioned preachers these Unitarians certainly were, but their arguments and concerns were rooted in the rise of scientific honesty and intellectual cohesion at the expense of valuing adherence to doctrine. Simply put, they made sense, and they got most worked up when things didn’t make sense. Not that they weren’t very heart-felt in their convictions, (and there was certainly mainsplaining going on between theologians back then as well) but their ultimate concerns theologically, wrestled with the realm of the consistent mind. It first had to be right up here (pointing to head.)
Universalism on the other hand was a truly American creation at around 1800. It was an emotional reaction to the fire and brimstone preaching of the times. Their great critique was rooted in the heart even if it also made intellectual sense. “How can an all-loving God condemn anyone to ever-lasting pain and suffering?” Their answer was – “God wouldn’t.” For sure, theologians coached their arguments in logic and scripture. But at their root, their concerns were less about doctrinal consistencies and more about how our theologies reflect the God we know in our lives. It’s as if they were saying, “The God I know loves us. How could you say anything to the contrary?!” Their theologies were about the heart.
So starting about 58 years ago, we began our great struggle of sorting through these conflicting theological impulses. The two denominations had their own conversations prior to that as well, particularly among the respective youth groups, but up till that point it was always discussions between denominations – not within the same. (And the youth conferences merged first, bringing the rest of us along a year later.)
The big questions: Are we going to focus more on making sure we can all agree? Or is that beside the point now that we’re in a truly non-creedal tradition? Or are we going to focus more on where our hearts and spirits meet? How can we make our deeds match our thoughts while living true to our hearts? What do we do when each of us have differing concerns we put to the forefront? Our histories and backgrounds are often very far apart, yet we struggle to find a common language.
Our minds and hearts are in conflict with one another theologically and it sometimes causes us unease and pain from the disconnect. (Remember that when I use the word “theological”, I simply mean “how we find or make meaning in the world.”) We get frustrated for the lack of a common language or we lament the loss of the ease of creedal certitudes even while never wanting to return to them; we came here or we stayed here in part for this reason. But wouldn’t it just be so much easier if we could simply state how we wrap up the complexity of the universe in one neat little “elevator speech” for our friends, family and co-workers! (An “elevator speech” is what we can spew out, in between the time it takes to get from one floor to our destination. I get asked with frequency what Unitarian Universalism is as one of our ministers. My elevator speech goes something like: “We’re a covenantal faith which means we place a greater concern on our shared commitments with the people and world around us – our shared relations – than we do on the beliefs we hold at any given moment. Ideally, our pews reflect the diversity of experience and views in our community. In other words, we seek to reflect living experience. We will never all agree on everything, and our spirituality needs to match this reality. When folks ask how can we have a religion when we don’t all agree, I remind people that we have a planet where this is the case. We don’t all agree, and yet we need to learn to live together through the difference. This challenge and this vocation is my faith.”) OK – maybe we can describe what we’re about… but even so, it’s going to take a few sentences. It’s not simple and it’s not quite rote.
Depending on where we came from, the word doubt will be heard differently – at least religiously speaking. If you were raised UU, it’s probably an honest word, that reflects the uncertainty of faith. If you were unchurched growing up, and are coming to a service for the first time, you might have a curious approach to the word. And if you’re a convert from a creedal tradition, it might be shocking to hear from the pulpit that doubt isn’t a four-letter word for us (so to speak.) Striving to be a people of balance, doubt is part of that balance – so long as we allow it to inform, and not to limit.
It may turn out to be the case that Unitarian Universalists are called to bear the burden of not having an easy answer. We keep the space in human conversations around meaning – for incertitude, for complexity, for nuance and for doubt. On our better days, we also keep the space for relations, networks, justice-building and integrity. We could likely come up with neat definitions for all these latter virtues, but no definition in the world would ever truly explain what we meant. We can’t define justice – we can simply live it or we risk speaking a hollow echo. We can’t define relations – they are only realized in action, in living them. The mind can take us pretty far, but the mind can’t live the reality, it can only describe it. That’s where the heart comes in. That’s also where the pain comes in.
One frequent theological challenge is the idea of God. We have many books we draw wisdom from, but we have no source that tells us what to think, what to feel exactly about this concept or experience. I say concept or experience because some of us in this room view God as an idea and some of us view God as an experience. And this is likely true whether or not we believe in God. There will be atheists who encounter God through heart-felt experience, and there will be theists who only see God as a concept in their minds. …
We heard earlier in our service an excerpt from an essay by Parker Palmer. “To live in this world, we must learn how to stand in the tragic gap with faith and hope. By “the tragic gap” I mean the gap between what is and what could and should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.” Palmer is helping us to realize that seeing new ways, being open to new perspectives, can both paralyze us into inaction through corrosive cynicism as he calls it, or make us useless through ineffectual idealism. But we need to still have the room to find new ways, if we are ever to build the beloved community. Ultimately, even “Heartbreak can become a source of compassion.”
Palmer’s tragic gap is largely built upon the balancing act of heart and mind; of doubt and faith. Unitarian Universalism offers a saving message here. Whatever our well-informed opinion helps us to understand about whatever facet of the world we currently are considering with our minds or hearts, Unitarian Universalism calls us to tread upon that facet lightly. We ought to engage, or wrestle, or dream, but we ought not to come to understand our opinions as facts. We ought not to confuse perception with universal truth. We ought not to demand those around us obey – our take – on a given issue or concern. Whether this be about the nature of the Holy, or which political parties offer the best solution to a given problem, or the best way to run this congregation, or which exact track we must take to liberate this world from injustice. Unitarian Universalism challenges us to break apart the idols we craft our opinions into; whether those opinions are about thoughts or feelings. And some of us craft our idols very diligently – yes even us. (Maybe especially us.)
Our faith may not offer us easy answers, but it does try to save us from the hard, unwavering rules we so often create for ourselves. It does free us to question and to wonder; never fully knowing. It does free us to be nimble with life. Faith is a religious word describing how we orient ourselves toward living. I feel that Unitarian Universalism calls us to orient our living with a certain amount of wanderlust, a certain amount of being comfortable with uncertainty, and a deep sense of caring for the life around us. In short, the questions matter. The answers are never better than just good enough for now though. May we ever seek to have our minds a little bit untidy and our hearts left as wide open as we can dare to this moment.
And that may be the only healthy way to build community. Community is hard to form when our minds or our hearts are rigid, closed and set. When we fixate on our sense of how things are, or must be, to the exclusion of another’s sense of things – our world becomes more about our own ego than about the needs, hopes and dreams of those around us. I think our faith teaches us to grow past that. We may need to face the anger or strident sounds with compassion, but we must not long tarry in the pain. A healthy reverence for doubt allows us to live into community. It keeps us from becoming our rigid selves. Life is sometimes less full in the face of such certitude.
 “A Lamp in Every Corner” by Janeen K. Groshmeyer p. 88
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/7/16 looking at the negative sides of daily small desires.
[Begin by telling the story of the Rabbi and the Dream]
The wise Rabbi who received a vision of a treasure in a far off town, travels and learns that the treasure was in his own home all this time, but the journey was necessary for him to see what was right before him all along. It was probably true for the bridge-keeper he spoke with as well, but only the Rabbi was able to see it after all. Maybe the Rabbi still believed in possibility, and maybe the guard lost that part of himself. Hard to know.
All this month we will be reflecting on what it means to be a people of desire. Later in the month we will look at the positive sides of desire: like love, or the search for justice, or just plain human connection. But today, I’d like to begin with the negative side of desire. When desire runs our lives – when the small wants take precedence over what truly matters – who do we become and how do we find ourselves once more? What’s the treasure hidden right before us that we have such a hard time seeing?
So let’s think about desire a bit. What’s the one thing in your life, that if only it were present, would make everything seem to work out all right? Go with the first thing that comes to you, it’ll do. Or if you’re like me on a bad day, start making lists. What does it give you that you don’t already have? How would it make things turn out just fine? What need does it fill?
It’s probably true that each one of us in this room could think of something pretty quickly that would help them to feel more whole, or more at ease, or at least full of gratitude. Getting into that college program; securing that job; hearing better news about the medical results. Those are some really serious concerns. If you’re like me, I imagine in the everyday you can catch yourself putting the same value on smaller events though. Catching that traffic light before it goes from yellow to red; or missing those closing doors on the train, or waiting for that email or that text message to arrive; or the anticipation you feel waiting for the next episode of Star Wars…
What’s happening in between? That moment between otherwise being happy about how things are and the next where we convince ourselves that things will only be good, or OK, if the thing we’re waiting for actually happens. Let’s start with the little things first. Try to remember what it feels like in your body when I mention these. That traffic light. Getting caught behind a slow moving driver when you’re late for work. The iconic train passenger that won’t move out of the way of the closing doors. I’m going to hazard a guess that at least one of these can drive you absolutely nuts.
What are we letting go of when we let this occur? We might have someone in our lives we love; we may have home and health; we may be enjoying a warm beautiful day on this side of paradise; but the traffic light, or the super slow moving driver, can take it all away in the blink of an eye. We may be thinking about picking up our kids from their RE class, or prepping for the next congregational committee meeting, or just steeling ourselves for the rush of coffee hour instead of fully resting into this hour of reflection, refreshment and community connection. It’s so easy to fall into this habit. We’ve all been there, and we’ll likely all experience this sense of “momentary want” again – probably even today. The little things are just as easy to laugh at ourselves about – as they are to forget not to cling to them again and again. They’re not big, and yet they can all snatch from us the awareness of the awe in the living world around us.
…And the bigger things are much less easy to sweep away. Concerns for one’s home, or job, or prospects or health aren’t frivolous or insignificant. The death of a loved one, or feelings of concern for our friends who are grieving, are major turning points in our lives. For good or for ill, their effects will travel with us – possibly – for the rest of our lives. And yet, the simple truth is that the awe and wonder of this living, breathing world continues unabated in every moment. What happens to us, doesn’t change this truth; even if the awe and wonder becomes hard to see for a time… even if we can’t feel it for a while. A connection to our source, this life, remains. And yet those times of forgetfulness – those times of feeling disconnected from our source, will come. It’s the reality of a world full of promise and pain.
Our Universalist predecessors believed in universal salvation. They believed that when we died, all souls would be saved to heaven in glory. Personally, I’ve come to feel that salvation is accessible in our current lives, for all people, while we’re still living and breathing. I’ve come to see salvation not tied to death, or notions of original sin, but a salvation tied to life; a salvation responding to the hells of our daily making; a salvation responding to the hells of our communal making.
It starts with being able to connect and reconnect with this awe-inspiring living breathing world. It’s a salvation that’s grounded in healthy community; a salvation that responds to our religious humanist forebears who found in religious community a saving grace from the false idolatry of the individual ego. It’s a salvation that liberates us from our ties to the mythic worlds of “what if,” the traps of “if only” and the fears of “no, not that.” It’s not a false sentimentality. It’s not wishful thinking. It’s not a brazen disregard for the horrors, and pains and tragedies of our world. It’s a salvation that reminds us of the honest connections we are ever blessed with. It’s the kind that puts into context all the complexity and nuance of our often frenetic yet ever poignant world. And when we turn to face the true hardships of the world, we do so with a grounding based in spirit, and not in anxiousness.
There’s a quote from one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, where she offers a Buddhist take on this contemporary Universalist message. “Moving away from our experience, moving away from the present moment with all our habits and strategies, always adds up to restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness. The comfort that we associate with concretizing and making things solid is so transitory, so short lived.”
Alright, let’s take a little mini-poll here. By a show of hands, who here has ever wanted anything? Ok, keep your hands up if that thing you wanted you got. Ok, now here’s the tricky part. Please keep your hand up if after getting that thing you wanted, you at some point stopped wanting or enjoying it. And finally – keep your hand up if that thing you wanted that you got, you came to wish you never got it? Alright, I thought that was a pretty common occurrence. I’m glad it’s not just me… phew!
That, my friends, is what concretizing can lead to. We sort of chase our own tails for dreaming. Call the grass on the other side always greener, or just admit that sometimes we don’t really know what we want. The draw to make things appear more solid in our lives is very alluring, but it’s ultimately a fruitless desire. I don’t mean to suggest we ought to give up on development, or goals, or hopes; but rather I hope to inspire us to offer a more realistic appreciation for the moment we dwell in. Our world is more full of joy if in our daily strivings we remain rooted, as best we can, in a thorough appreciation for what is before us. It’s from this place of fullness that we realize salvation. And it’s available to us in every moment; including this one.
I’ve reflected a bit about how we give away our connectedness with the moment, with our connectedness to this side of paradise, by ever wishing for the next great thing. How do we do that when we give up our own answers? How do we disconnect ourselves when we solely rely on others to save us from our unknowing, or our quandaries, or our sense of loss? When do we hide our light under a bushel in order to gain the approval of others?
I’m going to guess that we’re all a little guilty of this in our lives. Think about a time when you’ve had a big decision to make and the first thing you do is call every close friend and ask them to tell you what you’d do. A certain amount of that is good for the process of reflection. But so often we go to the absurd extreme with it. We give up our connectedness with the moment in our repetitive mental musings – with the proverbial spinning of our wheels while going nowhere. Maybe we need the advice, but maybe we already know our answer. Maybe we already know how to speak our voice and do what needs to be done if only we were to try. Brian (my husband) once told me, “We can’t rely on others to show us the beauty of a moment. Another person can’t give us the eyes to see that; we’re born with them and we have to learn to use them.”
In the Christian tradition, there’s a verse attributed to Reinhold Niebhur, that goes, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” This great prayer of discernment sums up the quandaries associated with fearing what will come and fearing who we are right now. If we can figure out how to live out the words from the Serenity Prayer, as it’s commonly called, we come closer to an appreciation for the moment. We come closer to loving this amazing world as best we can just as it is. It holds an honest balance between loving ourselves (and the world) as we are, and loving the world and ourselves as we might be — without making ourselves or the world out to be wrong in the meantime. It calls us to give ourselves a chance, without struggling against the impossible; while lifting up a sense of ownership with our feelings and experiences.
In all of this, if we were to name it for what it is, we might say that there’s a hole in our hearts for what we sense to be missing in our lives. In some traditions, we’d call it a “God-shaped hole.” I know I do. In others, we’d call it “living in a state of suffering.” In psychological terms we might label it “insecurity” or “co-dependence” depending on its manifestations and triggers. I believe each one of these has their merits. As a minister though, and not a psychologist (except for maybe in the pop sense of the word) I’ll stick with the first two names. “Living in a state of suffering” and “A God-shaped hole in our heart.”
To return once more to Pema Chodron, she clearly is in the school of thought that engages our sense of suffering. Hers is a philosophy that calls for deepening our sense of comfort with the groundlessness of life – that ‘not knowing what will be;’ that ‘acceptance of the present moment.’ “This moving away from comfort and security (she writes,) this stepping out into what is unknown, uncharted and shaky – that’s called liberation.” (4) I used the Universalist language of salvation before to reflect on this same sort of thing. As our religious tradition transforms, changes and grows we’re going to learn and develop more and more ways to express the complexity of life and matters of spirit in our own religious language. But I believe the core truths, the essential questions and challenges remain the same for us – we’re just learning better ways to translate them for our own hearts, minds and ears.
The “God-shaped hole” language may really work for you. Or maybe it’s a kind of language that’s really hard for you to relate to. As Unitarian Universalists, I’ll challenge us to be the best translators we can be. For the theists among us, when we give up our sense of faith in our own capacity; when we give up our sense of appreciation for Creation as it is; when we disconnect ourselves from a real communion with this side of paradise; we realize a God-shaped hole in our lives. We confuse ourselves into thinking that we’re alone; or empty; or unloved. We confuse ourselves into thinking we’re powerless; or incapable; or that the world is devoid of meaning.
None of these things are true. We are not alone. We are loved. Life is full of promise. Our potential and capacity for love and for life is an amazing gift – an amazing blessing that we only need to open ourselves up-to to know its full wonder. As Zora Neale Hurston audaciously proclaims, “Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place.” That’s the core message in living into this side of paradise without losing ourselves in the process — regardless of our personal theologies, or beliefs. Loving the moment, loving the world in all its nuance and beauty, loving ourselves and the beloved communities we build together, loving this life through all its uncertainty, is the process of crawling out of our places of pain and fear and hiding. Friends, this world is too full to forever find answers outside ourselves, and it is too full to forever think we hold all the answers for our neighbors. This living, breathing world is too full to hide from it, each other, and ourselves.
As we heard from the poet Denise Levertov, “So much is unfolding that must complete its gesture, so much is in bud.”
This sermon celebrates the message of Universal Salvation on the 245th anniversary of the birth of Universalism in the US. Learn to live with joy and love in ordinary time.
Several years back, I went on a retreat with 20 other Unitarian Universalists to Murray Grove, NJ. It’s a simple retreat center, about 2 miles from the ocean, that serves as a Universalist pilgrimage site. It’s the location where John Murray, founder of Universalism in the U.S. got stranded off a sandbar on his way to NYC from England in the year 1770. To recap the story in a few sentences: a local farmer, Thomas Potter, had built a church 10 years prior to house a Universalist preacher in the pulpit. …The problem was… there were no Universalist preachers yet in the U.S. It was either a case of extreme forward thinking, or merely fantastical wishing come true. The farmer Potter managed to convince the reluctant John Murray to preach the following Sunday should the wind not change by then, thereby freeing his boat. The wind didn’t change, and Murray did preach, and Universalism was born in America…. This is said to be the only recounted miracle in Universalist history.
So a couple hundred years later a few friends invite me to leave the barracks-like retreat center to go for a hike to the spot where Murray’s boat got stranded. I’m thinking, “sure… an easy walk through some forest and farmland to the ocean sounds lovely.” It’s sunny out, and a balmy 40 degrees. I run back to my room to put on better shoes – well sneakers without holes in them really, and my nice hand-crocheted scarf. I decide not to change out of my good jeans… and we’re off. The start of the walk is lovely, an easy trail through light woods. You couldn’t tell there’s a strip mall just off the road from where we started. The (first) time my running shoes break through the patch of snow hiding a thin veneer of frozen ice covering ankle deep water I vaguely recall the retreat director saying something about “everything should still be frozen over.” And I think, “oh, that’s what she meant.” Good thing those sneakers, the ones I had just bought that day, were black – or they’d really clash with the new shade of mud coating my good jeans.
This is the first teaching or challenge of the Universalist retreat center. Can a long-time city-boy keep his heart and mind on the beauty and indwelling-presence of the natural world, while caked in mud and soaked in frozen water? Can I push aside the thoughts of my colleague next to me giving me a lesson in how to treat tough-to-get-out stains, while focusing on the “now” I traveled 3 hours to get to encounter? Can I stop berating myself for packing so insensibly? Twenty minutes in, I realize after my crocheted scarf starts getting caught on thorns and 5 foot tall grass, that the “everything should still be frozen over” comment of the retreat director was a reference not to patches of ice, but to the frozen swamp that was the doorway to the ocean. I could hear Thomas Potter laughing as I realized that a century of untended farmlands, means that they’re probably not farmlands any longer. In New Jersey, most of the area surrounding the ocean eventually turns back to marshland when humans stop fighting it. And that was the trigger that woke me up – the absolute absurdity of unexpectedly trekking through an icy swamp in sneakers dressed as what another colleague labeled – “fashionista.” The mind turned off, and I could see the world around me again.
All month we’ve been reflecting on how better to be a people of invitation. We’ve mostly talked about welcoming the stranger, or welcoming people as they are, or being there for those in crisis or hardship. What would it mean to be such a people of invitation, when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? What would it mean when we’re inviting the world around us – just as it is?
We often teach about mindfulness here. Sometimes, in the world of self-help books – the lessons around mindfulness can sound a bit too much like only something for the calm, peaceful and clean places in our lives. Teachings about mindfulness in the broader world are often all neat and tidy. But sometimes it’s more like my fashionista trek through a semi-frozen swamp. It’s tough to accept the world as it is, when you’ve come overdressed for a messy time in your life. How many of us are living through a messy time in our lives? …Troubles at work or with the checkbook, or a difficult time in one’s marriage, or maybe your schoolwork (or your kids’ schoolwork) is missing the mark… So often in life, we come ready for one kind of terrain, and realize it’s just simply not something we were prepared for. Striving to be a people of invitation can mean welcoming the world as it is, as best we can, and learn to face it – as it is – rather than what we want it to be.
The American movie consciousness often teaches us to struggle and strive and preserve until we win the world over to our wants and desires. Sometimes, that’s the right path, and sometimes it’s not. We can drain the swamps so I can have my precious nature hike –clean and tidy; or we can find a place of peace in the midst of the mess. We may have no control over the rough times in our lives, but we do have a choice over how we bring ourselves to and through those times.
I think of John Murray who birthed one thread of Universalism in the US. Before coming to the States, he lived in Ireland and England, and was a Calvinist minister. He spent some time in debtors prison, overwhelmed by medical bills after he lost his wife and child to illness. His brother finally bailed him out of debtor’s prison, and he forswore the ministry and preaching. He came to the US to (as he put it) “get lost in America” after such extreme crisis and loss in his life.
So when he got to that swamp in South Jersey, he was certainly not prepared to have a farmer tell him he was the answer to his prayers and it was time to get behind the pulpit again with a message of forgiveness and salvation for all – the Universal love of God. (And I’m sure learning that someone had built a church for him before he got there … was a tad off-putting to say the least…) Imagine the strength of character it takes to lose your family and home – to travel across the globe at a time when that was far from easy – and still believe that you are loved – by God, by Life – that you love enough to welcome hope back into your heart. I would be hard-pressed to imagine someone going through a worse crisis; yet he shows us that even despite all the things in our lives we have no control over, we still have a choice with our hearts… we still have a choice with our hearts.
Our reading earlier from the writings of Rev. Meg Barnhouse, “Joy in Ordinary Time,”(from her book Waking Up the Karma Fairy) reminds me of this choice that we have with our hearts. Do we lock away the Joy-titled perfume for that extra special day that may not come soon enough before the perfume evaporates on its own? Or do we lavish ourselves with the scent of Joy any chance we get? How long exactly is long enough to wait to start living our lives? How long is long enough?
What would it mean to be such a people of invitation – when the person we’re welcoming is ourselves – as we are? Can we extend grace and patience to the stranger when the stranger is our real selves? Can we allow ourselves to find hope again, after a period of great hardship? Can we be easier on ourselves than the world has been to us? And when our neighbor is learning to be themselves, can we learn to let them be, without critique or complaint?
The famous Universalist teaching is Hope not Hell. An all-loving God would never condemn anyone to lasting pain and misery in Hell. And the social implication – the religious lesson – is that we shouldn’t either. We shouldn’t contribute to keeping or putting someone into a Hell in their lives – whether that person is our neighbor, a stranger, or that person is oneself. It’s the 245 year old thread in our tradition that informs our social values today. As a gay man, I think of the many closets that each of us hides something away in year after year. When we pressure someone into silence, we never get to know them, and we create little pockets of Hell on earth.
Or, when a trans youth or adult shares their truth with the world, society too often builds wall after wall. Our faith teaches us to help that person make space for who they really are – not put questions or critiques before compassion – and that person may be ourselves. When we get barraged with xenophobic media trying to teach us that religions that look or sound different are inherently dangerous, Universalism reminds us of a God that loves all, and we are called to begin again and again in love.
As we come to the end of worship, our children and youth are working right now on an art project crafting rainbow flags. Sadly, we have several congregations in our nation who have been vandalized recently – with their publicly flown rainbow flags being torn down or burned. In some cases it’s the second or third time they’ve been vandalized. Our children and youth are learning today about the role of extending love universally and to support one another while doing such holy work. We’ll be sending some of these flags to those congregations who have been vandalized. We are all connected in this work.
We learned about the perfume Joy! Well, what if we kept the perfume Love on our dressers as well. Lavish it in ordinary time. Don’t wait till someone proves themselves enough to warrant cracking it open. Love does not need to be something we wait forever for the right time to wear it on our sleeves and in our hearts. We are not less for being profligate with either joy or love; but our days are diminished when we horde them. It is ok to invite them into our lives. It’s ok to welcome our true spirits – as we are – to be with our neighbors – as they are – in ordinary time.
There’s an old joke about the theological difference between Universalists and Unitarians before our merger in 1961. I’m not normally keen on making jokes about our religious heritage, we’re not taken seriously enough in the mainstream (and sometimes not taken seriously enough by ourselves) so I’m not sure we need to take ourselves down a notch in that way, but this joke is pretty theologically revealing. It’s on the nature of Hell. Universalists believed that God was too good to condemn anyone to Hell. The Unitarians believed they were too good to be sent to Hell.
It’s based, in a way, on an internalization of the conservative Christian critique of liberal Christianity. Religious conservatives will argue that religious liberals don’t take sin seriously enough in the world, and think faithful liberals are too easy on themselves, that religious progressives think too highly of themselves. I tend to see it differently. For those of us who believe in God, we tend to lean toward a compassionate being, or a creative Force that is life-centered – not punishment centered. And for those religious progressives who are not believers, it’s less about getting what one deserves, and more about living a life that reflects the gift we’ve been given in this singular life. We can choose to squander that gift in greed, or ego or hate, or we can live fully into that gift with openness, mindfulness and a fair bit of reverence for its preciousness. In either case, it’s remembering that sin, or evil, or harm happen in the world, and we have an obligation to address it with responsibility, and sometimes with culpability.
How many folks remember the classic TV show, Mash from the late 70’s to early 80s? It was a great comedic retelling of the Vietnam War. It’s hard to imagine war could be retold comedically in a way that so many folks would love the story, but it was masterfully written. There’s a short scene between two characters I want to briefly quote from between a soldier named Hawkeye and the chaplain, Father Mulcahy, that explores the nature of Hell.
“Hawkeye: War isn’t Hell. War is war, and Hell is Hell. And of the two, war is a lot worse.
Father Mulcahy: How do you figure, Hawkeye?
Hawkeye: Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to Hell?
Father Mulcahy: Sinners, I believe.
Hawkeye: Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in Hell. War is chock full of them – little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everybody involved is an innocent bystander.”
Good writing. This traditional view of Hell is almost comforting in an odd way. We imagine a place that has neat lines. Where right and wrong are clear. Of course, what’s morally wrong conveniently matches our own views of right and wrong. Theologically, I don’t believe in Hell because I have faith in an all-loving God. Intellectually, I don’t believe in Hell though for that psychological reason; too often it’s wielded as a club to beat down on anyone who have differing social values. I distrust theological arguments that lift up one’s closed view of the world, one’s sense of ego or self, above the worth of others. Loving the Hell out of this world, isn’t about wishing a metaphysical bad place to be gone, it’s about loving this world in such a way that we don’t create hells on earth ourselves.
If the character Hawkeye is right, War is just War. It doesn’t have the clear cut lines of right and wrong we imagine with Hell. There are times when it’s tragically necessary. And there are too often times when it expediently fills the appetites of greed, or hate.
This week is another example of why I try to avoid predicting my sermon topics far in advance. War was not supposed to be the focus. Yet, sadly this past week has seen an insane escalation of violence in Palestine. Syrian’s are still trying to receive aid from what amounts to a genocidal government. And we are recommencing air strikes in Iraq, along with food and water drops, to protect religious minorities in the country from ISIS. War is not Hell, it affects innocent bystanders.
There are aspects of each of these tragedies that appear to require the use of force to protect innocent bystanders. There are aspects that are grounded in a history that has brought us to these horrid places. As a Fellowship that is designated a Peace site, I want to focus us on the cyclical nature of violence. It’s often easy to point at those religious extremists over there with their rage and violence fomenting rhetoric and pretend that it arises in a vacuum. That Hell doesn’t exist, except for how other people make it. It’s comforting to believe that. I’m not sure it’s entirely true. And I don’t say this to exonerate murderous violence. Those that perpetuate such acts, own their responsibility. However, when we think of these horrors as black and white, or us versus them, we only feed their hold on the people in their grasp. Even if we save the victims, we enshrine the world view of Good versus Evil. When we anticipate wrongness in others, perpetually, we create that wrongness.
I’d like to give a couple of examples. Last year there was a twitter post where a white young man wrote, “Am I racist if I feel uncomfortable about a guy with a turban on my plane because this isn’t ok with me.” Just this past week, Asishpal Singh replied, “Ugh I know what you mean, I get really uncomfortable whenever I see a white man walk into a movie theater or elementary school.” Racism, artfully responded to, in 140 characters or less. There are very real problems in the world. International terrorism does happen. Domestic terrorism does happen. But when we neatly and uncritically lay the blame at the feet of certain people, who of course are very different from ourselves, we worsen the problem. At the very least, we’re not allowing our senses to accurately deal with the tragedies before us.
If you think I’m reaching when I say this, there was a report this past June showing that CNN revised its own data to appease gun rights advocates. They initially reported that there were 74 school shootings in the prior 18 months since Newtown. They later revised those numbers down to 15 under pressure from gun rights advocates to “redefine what a school shooting was.” Instead of dealing with the tragic facts of a situation, let’s play word games so that our individual opinion isn’t at stake.
Spiritually, what’s going on? We once again place our ego at the alter of idolatry. We have an opinion that one race or class or gender or sexuality of people is bad, and we maintain our fear so that we don’t need to challenge our views – we don’t need to check our ego. Our precious ego stays safe in its cultural enclave. We also make it impossible to address the problems of the world as they actually are, because in order to address them as they actually are, we would have to refrain from worshiping our sense of rightness.
I read a recent article by Rabbi Jill Jacobs in the Washington Post. She is the Executive Director of T’ruah, which mobilizes 1,800 rabbis, cantors, and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. She spoke of a time when she was part of a delegation of U.S. faith leaders to Indonesia discussing religious pluralism. The group was welcomed with a poster that indicated how much money this local Muslim Community center had raised for Palestine, “and prayed for the health and safety of all Muslims . . . and for an end to “the Zionist entity.” Her article goes on to report how one attendee asked during the Q&A, “‘I have a question for the rabbi,’…“Why do Jews kill Muslim children?”’
The Rabbi replies, “Heart pounding, I stood up. I spoke of my pain at the loss of life among Gazan civilians, tragically including so many children. And then I took a deep breath. “I noticed the poster in the entranceway,” I began. I praised the group for raising money for humanitarian relief. But, I continued, “When you call for an end to the Zionist entity, I want you to know that you’re talking about my family and my friends and my people.” [The Rabbi] spoke of [her] own commitments to Israel, of the significance of Israel to the Jewish people, and of [her] firm belief that a two-state solution will allow both peoples to live securely and peacefully.”
The Rabbi ended her recounting with this, “To [her] shock, the audience applauded. Afterwards, many of those present told [her] that they had never before thought about who might live in Israel. That they had never thought a two-state solution to be possible. That they had believed that Jews wanted only to kill Muslims. And they crossed out the final line of the poster.”
…Religiously speaking, we are not likely to be the people that broker peace in the Middle East, or end our own nation’s cycles of perpetuating war. However, we do have control over how we view, react and respond to our assumptions and our experience in the world. I belief managing our own views begins to process of changing a nation’s culture. We always must begin with the one person we actually have control over their views and actions – and that person is ourself.
All the Rabbi accomplished, which is amazing in itself, is two-fold. Firstly, she showed compassion for the violence that has affected innocent bystanders in the world while admitting that violence is wrong. And then helping people realize the world is more complex than us versus them. That there are families on every side imaginable. That each side is not monolithic. Life is not a game of Risk where it’s the yellow pieces versus the Red pieces.
Just last month, 100 Imams in the UK issued a joint statement. “In the open letter released to coincide with the holy month of Ramadan, they said: “As the crisis in Syria and Iraq deepens, we the under-signed have come together as a unified voice to urge the British Muslim communities not to fall prey to any form of sectarian divisions or social discord.
“Ramadan, the month of mercy, teaches us the value of unity and perseverance and we urge the British Muslim communities to continue the generous and tireless efforts to support all of those affected by the crisis in Syria and unfolding events in Iraq, but to do so from the UK in a safe and responsible way.”
One Imam responded to the BBC saying, “”I think a lot of work needs to be done and it is not only the responsibility of the Muslim community or the imams.
“It is law enforcement, (and) intelligence services who all need to work together to make sure young British Muslims are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.”
That last response is so relevant for us here in the States as well, regardless of individual religious persuasion. We need to work together to make sure our people are not preyed upon by those who want to use them for their own political gains.
The major religions of the world, that have stood the test of time, may have some very different theological beliefs or assumptions. But each has at their core a deep valuing of mercy, compassion, and community building. When one faith strips another of their ties to mercy, compassion and community building, it’s a clear sign that the perpetrators are worshiping their own ego’s as small gods unto themselves. When adherents of those same faiths do it themselves to their own religion, likewise, they are worshipping something other than what their scriptures indicate. We conflate our importance, our need to be right, our need to lift up own own selves above others – and we do so by calling for the opposite of mercy, compassion or community building. We are guilty of inverting the cornerstones of faith.
And we do it by anticipating the worst. Our theme for the month is this very word – anticipation. It can be positive or negative. Today we hear it in it’s negative form. I know how that other side is going to think, or act, or believe. I know what their real motivations are. I know they’re going to be really different from me which means we can’t find common ground. Holding onto that stance makes it nearly impossible to love the Hell out of this world. Though it becomes increasingly easy to sow the seeds of discord, violence and hate – the very foundation of what we imagine Hell to be about.
Let’s take this down a notch to the everyday. We live in a country where certain kinds of violence are exceedingly rare, and other kinds are all too common. We live in a nation that extolls the virtues of the American Dream, including a history of immigrants making it here, yet we have at least one Governor who will send the National Guard to block children from fleeing rape and gangs because those kids seeking asylum don’t have the right paperwork – right paperwork I might add that my own great-grandparents never needed when they came here from White nations of origin. And just a few weeks ago we had another form of religious terrorism happen to one of our congregations in New Orleans. During a regular Sunday service, while the congregation was sharing a moment of silence for a beloved long time member, a baptist congregation sent protestors into the service to disrupt them because our denomination supports a women’s right to control her own body. Some may say that’s not really religious terrorism. Though I imagine if we had our memorial or prayer time interrupted when we were honoring a beloved deceased friend, we’d feel very invaded. It’s not the time or place for such protests or news grabbing.
The LA Times reports, “On Sunday morning, the Rev. Deanna Vandiver was leading a service at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a graceful, Gothic-style brick building in the city’s Freret neighborhood. The sanctuary, with 70 or 80 people, was nearly full, and included a group of teenagers who had just finished a week-long training in social justice.
The room was silent, as the congregation prayed for a young mother of two who had just lost her battle with cancer, for a social justice lawyer who had recently died, and for peace in Gaza. That’s when the shouting started.”
The Rachel Maddow Show goes into more detail with an interview with the minister, Rev. Vandiver, who described how during this moment of silence, the radical anti-abortion protestors unbuttoned their shirts and revealed their group affiliations shouting malice and hate. It’s unbelievable to think, right? The youth, who just finished a week long training in religious leadership, got up, invited the members to join in hands and begun singing. The protestors were welcomed in if they could be respectful, or out if they could not be. In the face of hate, the youth led the congregation in song. They loved the Hell right out of that sanctuary.
Later the protestors begun shouting and waving signs – again unbelievable – outside the window of the nursery room to the babies inside. The youth that were there caring for the babies, picked up the children and brought them to the inside of the building away from the windows (leaving notes for parents of where they went.)
As we close, and prepare for another week ahead, I’d like us to take the courageous actions of the youth in New Orleans as a life lesson to reflect upon. How we respond in any given moment reflects the character of our faith. Ours is not to war, or shout back, or hate. Part of loving the world, means that when folks around us act in ways that are hateful, we may sometimes need to pick up our kids and bring them to a safer place for sure. But their behavior does not need to change our character. Loving this world means not giving into the hate in others; remaining our best selves in the face of other people’s worst selves. Things, behaviors, attitudes and actions surely must change or adapt, but our character does not. We can continue to show compassion and mercy in the building of community, whether it’s here, or across the globe.
This children-friendly homily was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY on 10/27/13 as part of our annual All Souls Day service. It reflects on two stories – The Water Bearer (Chinese Traditional) and Muddy Feet (Contemporary about Hosea Ballou)
All month we’ve been talking about helplessness in our services and my sermons. We all go through times when we feel that way – when no matter what we do, it feels like we can’t really do anything about whatever it is. Our story this morning reminds us that even when we feel broken, or down, or weak – we can still bring life to this world. I love the image of the watering can – or clay vessel – that’s just cracked enough to spill much of its water on the road along the way. We mean to be watering that garden over there, and through our flaws – through our holes – we wind up growing a garden everywhere we go.
While I talk, I want to invite anyone who took a piece of construction paper and crayon to draw a picture of that garden in your life. If you came forward today with a photo of a loved one – a person or a pet – that you lost – you’re welcome to draw the garden for them. Maybe draw them in your garden. Whether you’re a good drawer or not doesn’t matter. This isn’t about being good, but being loving. Think about what are the flowers – what are the things that you help grow in your life? What are you good at? Or if you’re really feeling on a roll – what are the things that you’re not so good at that sometimes surprise you and wind up helping the people in your life?While you’re doing that, I’m going to keep talking. I’m happy for you to keep drawing though!
Sometimes our mistakes can make us feel less than whole – not so good. Maybe we’ve really messed up. Maybe we feel we didn’t try hard enough. When this happens, we can feel like we need to beat ourselves up over and over – as if that was going to make all things right, or make the mistake finally work, or bring someone back into our lives. All of this is natural and normal. Sometimes we make mistakes and we need to make good on those mistakes. But sometimes we allow our guilt, or shame, or fear to start to define who we are – on the inside – to ourselves. As if the place where the water is leaking out of the clay vessel defines who we are as a person – for all times. That’s not very helpful, and it usually doesn’t make anyone feel any better, right?
I’d like to look at what our First Principle says about this. What’s our First Principle? (Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person.) We often talk about it as belief statement. We all believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Well, most of the time we do believe that; that we must stand on the side of love in our human relations. Every person is deserving of love and compassion. Just because we live, each of us are deserving of being treated with respect. Even though we don’t always succeed in this, this principle reminds us of our struggle toward that goal.
It also reminds us that just like those we strive to support, we too are deserving of respect from others. We fight for others’ rights, and we struggle for our own. This principle reminds us that when folks are treating us poorly for our differences, we do not deserve it.
If all of the rough treatments we may be subjected to by others is wrong, what of those we inflict on ourselves? Who do we go to when our harshest critic and the most unjust judge is no one other than us? Sometimes, we forget to tell ourselves that our First Principle applies to us as well. When we beat ourselves up for the mistakes in our lives – way past any point of helping to make good on them – we’re not living up to our First Principle.
That principle is also an action statement – it’s a promise of sorts. We make a promise to each other, and to ourselves, that we’ll affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity in every person – even ourselves. When our watering can or clay jar has cracks in it – and know that all of our clay jars will have cracks in them from time to time – it doesn’t mean that we’re not worthy. Sometimes we have to find it in ourselves to follow our faith and remember that our flaws do not lessen who we are.
I want to tell you another story now. Feel free to keep drawing – maybe draw some of the things that happen in this next story. (Tell story of Muddy Feet about Hosea Ballou.)
By a show of hands – who here has ever come home with muddy feet? What happens? Do our parents still love us – (even if our carpets might hate us?) Does it mean that running around and ruining things with mud is ok? We have to try our best not to make those mistakes. But the mistakes don’t mean we’re not loved. They don’t mean we’ve lost who we are – we still have worth. We find dignity in how we handle our missteps.
Little Hosea also had another belief – or lesson he learned. This was about what happens when we die. All these photos we have on our memory table are pictures of loved ones who are no longer with us. None of us really knows what happens, but many people have many different beliefs. For little Hosea, his faith taught him that God is all loving and that all of us are inherently good despite our mistakes. That Heaven is a place that we’ll all go to someday. Historically, this belief was central to what the second U in our name meant – Universalism. That all people – universally – are worthy of love and Salvation. Over time, the lines around this belief have gotten a bit fuzzy with each new generation; but the core of the teaching is still important and healing. We all make mistakes, we all get our feet muddy – and still – and still – we are loved. Life is sacred despite our short-comings. No matter what the state of cleanliness of our toes – we can always come home.
This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn on April 7th. It deals with the difficult topic of gender, violence and public discourse.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing; I wish I was home; I wish I was back there with the things I been knowing.” These words open up the song Home from the musical The Wiz. We heard a moving rendition by Melissa Paul this morning as our anthem. It’s a powerful song from a woman who has come far in her own story. In this version of the rewrite of the classic, “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy is extremely introverted, she has, as Aunt Em teases her, “never been south of 125th street”, and refuses to move out and on with her life.
“When I think of home, I think of a place where there’s love overflowing.” It’s a myth of family, of home, of our roots that love – and all these things – are neatly intertwined. It’s a myth that’s sometime’s true, like in the case of Dorothy, and sometimes hurtful. But the heart of the message is that there’s a point in our lives where we do need to move on – as introverted or as closed-off as we might be – and leave our homes – or leave our families – for something new. Sometimes we choose to do this, and sometime this chooses us.
There are those moments in life where we look around and see all the crazy, madness that seems to surround us. The Wiz, or the Wizard of Oz, hold mean witches and flying monkeys to portray this. In the real world we leave home and have to face real humans with real hate in their speech, or their actions, or their lack of actions. We craft the fantastical to help us understand, or to accept, or to distance ourselves from the very normal, the very real.
I have in mind this morning, the flying monkeys of this age, the fields of poppies that put us to sleep, this week, this month, this year seem to me tied to our internalized and public sense of shame. The young Dorothy’s of this generation travel down roads, seemingly alone at first, where through no fault of their own they become targets of violence and denigration. We all know so many cases of this. Each is a more recent version of another, with other lives affected.
A case of rape, in Steubenville, Ohio. Where two teen boys targeted another drunk girl at a party. She could represent every Dorothy, although every story is different. There are horrors that will challenge the victim for years that we can’t just wave away. But there are also horrors that we as a society will continue to perpetuate that make me suspect the idea of the safe home, where love’s overflowing. Following the conviction of the boys last month, some news coverage took a disturbing route. CNN largely focused on the effect the conviction will have on the boys who were found guilty. The media showed – on loop – the heartfelt apologies one of the victimizers gave. The coverage lent a tone of heroism to the boy’s apology.
Candy Crowley of CNN asked, “What’s the lasting effect though on two young men being found guilty juvenile court of rape essentially?” Or reporter Poppy Harlow said, “It was incredibly emotional, it was difficult for anyone in there to watch those boys break down,” Harlow said. “[It was] also difficult, of course, for the victim’s family.” Or CNN legal contributor Paul Callan noting, “There’s always that moment of just — lives are destroyed. But in terms of what happens now, the most severe thing with these young men is being labeled as registered sex offenders. That label is now placed on them by Ohio law. That will haunt them for the rest of their lives.”
I watched these reports over and over. Trying to see the space where it became about the health and wholeness of the girl who was hurt. Or about how society doesn’t know how to handle the aftermath of harm. Or how the courts are doing their best to make clear that rape is rape. But all I see is sympathy for the lives of the victimizers that are destroyed by their actions. As if being labeled for life a sex offender – for the simple reason of being a sex offender – was a serious grievance done to these boys.
“Maybe there’s a chance for me to go back there; now that I have some direction. It would sure be nice to be back home; where there’s love and affection.” We all have to deal with hard times in our lives. Some of us, too many of us, need to face times of incredible pain. In those moments we wish to be able to turn back to a place of safety, of affection, of simplicity where we can regain our footing; and immerse ourselves in a sense of nurture. To return to our center in light of all that we have to face and all that we have learned. Journalism like this with CNN, or with those common lessons that teach women how to prevent harm to themselves rather that instilling in people the drive not to harm. The public sense of culpability errs on the side of how she could have prevented this rather than on why he should have known better. And to be true to the world, the victims are not always women – but it so often happens this way.
Our theology of Universalism asks of us to strive for a place of openness, of compassion for those that cause harm. Holding hatred, or malice helps no one, and harms most of all ourselves. It can grip our hearts, and make us forget to love freely, to live deeply, to hope when we need to so desperately. I appreciate the compassion in the journalists’ from CNN’s coverage. I criticize the focus. Many lives were ruined as they say – but some lives bear the brunt of their own mistakes – and that guilt, that shame, should not fall upon the victims in our world.
In my Good Friday homily last week, I reflected on how that day was the most difficult day in the Christian liturgical calendar. I want to return briefly to part of it because the message of Good Friday is important here – and as I was reflecting on the Passover week, stories like Steubenville were center in my mind. “On Good Friday, we are asked to stop and bear witness to the suffering figure on the Cross. Bloody and pierced, Jesus hangs with onlookers staring in grief and fascination. Our gut wants us to look away, even if we can’t stop staring. Our hearts want us to move as fast as possible to the hope reborn on Easter. But the discipline of that day, is not to move past it – not to let it go as quickly as we can. It’s to allow it to seep into our hearts – to face the reality of the death before us. One of my seminary professors – Rev. Christopher Morse – would remind his students every year that the Hope of Easter rests in the shadow of this day. Redemption in the story comes later – but this day marks not hope, but clarity. Not relief, but purpose. The Cross returns to us again and again in our lives. What is this death? It returns to us with our culture of shame – our culture of rape. Women being blamed for the very crime that was done to them. Voices that seek to silence her worth to save the faces of other men who’s lives might change because of their own crime. There is no hope when we hear the propaganda, but we can find clarity. The trial of the Cross is an indictment to each of us. Horrors happen in this world…. They can’t go away by just wishing them so. We must first face them. We must first accept that they are here – in our lives – in our neighborhoods.”
“Suddenly my world has changed it’s face, but I still know where I’m going
I have had my mind spun around in space, and yet I’ve watched it growing,” Dorothy continues on singing. Our childhood sense of normal, of safety, of home will go away – and return – throughout our lives. But we can find a compass to steer by; we can know where we’re going despite all that feels like it’s been thrown at us. In fact, it takes each of us returning to our compasses to see the way.
Common sense tells us that victims might be wise to learn how to avoid, as best we can, future harm – but the onus is not on them. The crime is not ours. The partners in so many homes throughout our country who are survivors of violence – may sometimes be stuck in a trap – but they are not the source of that trap. For some of us in this room – this is a given. For some of us in this room – they have learned this truth the hard way. For some of us in this room – we desperately need to hear it – right now. Our culture of shame is a collective trip we buy into, and it requires collective action to let go. We have to lovingly remind ourselves, time and again, that we ought not feel shame for the actions of others – that is for them to bear. It is for us to find our direction again in our own lives.
“If you’re list’ning God, please don’t make it hard to know if we should believe in the things that we see. Tell us, should we run away. Should we try and stay, or would it be better just to let things be?” Dorothy asks pleadingly. This question – right here – might be the heart of the message. The culture of shame we have built as a nation – around women, their bodies, and who gets to decide what – is not to be believed. It is as false as can be. We have fabricated an insane politic that lifts up personal freedom while simultaneously legislating corporate control of one gender’s identity – sometimes with as much emotional impact as other forms of actual assault. Our media blithely discusses “about women” in a way that men would be shocked should we ever do the same to us fellows. For the men in the room – try to imagine any form of legislation that would ever affect us where a panel of women sit and decide what we do with our bodies? Would that feel merely intellectual, or political, or would it feel invasive? Try to imagine a situation where we were the victim of sexual assault and where the news would take the side of the perpetrator or focus on how unfortunate it is that the perpetrator’s life is now ruined. I could not imagine this – at all. It would be seen as horrific, shocking. It would not be read as as simple statistic; a norm to be expected.
Victims of physical violence often internalize the blame – in part because we as a society say that we’re always able to have done something to prevent it – so when we didn’t prevent it we search for why we didn’t prevent it. We do this as kids when we’re hurt as kids. When we’re bullied as teens we draw the lines to why it’s really our fault, even though we hate the bully. And we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. As adults we’ve often convinced ourselves that we are able to accomplish so much so if this happens to us, we should have been able to stop it. And we’re trapped. We’re centered in our sense of shame. We seek to find blame – and while pointing anger toward those who are guilty, secretly – inside – deep down – we believe the lie that it’s about us. We echo the lie our culture tells us to believe.
Central to our faith is the conviction of worth. Our first principle is not a simple belief statement that solely means we’re all inherently worthy. It does mean that too. We have worth – we have human value. It also means that we are tasked with committing ourselves to the discipline of fostering and uncovering the worth in each of us. Shame buries our sense of worth. Shame teaches us to limit who matters and by how much they are allowed to matter. The discipline of worth calls us to challenge anything that diminishes the human spirit.
“And I’ve learned that we must look inside our hearts to find a world full of love. Like yours; like me; like home…”. Dorothy blesses us with those closing words. We can turn this around. We are the people we have been waiting for. In all its complexity, all its difficulty – this world full of hurt is also a world full of love. Our hearts that are broken, also carry within them a love that is full whether we have forgotten it or not. In recognizing the careful messages we as a people have crafted around blame, shame, and power we can unlock the fullness of our hearts once more. We have to start by recognizing the messages for what they are. We either see them, or we live by them – and we can’t live by the culture of shame – not truly.