Posts Tagged UUA
This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 4/9/17 for our Eve of Passover and Palm Sunday service on the power of witness.
The American novelist, essayist and poet, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
We’re entering into the season of Passover and coming quickly to Easter. Both stories speak of such unbelievable travails that culminate with a message of hope. Next Sunday, we’ll focus on the clear vision of hope in Easter, and the following Sunday we’ll look more at the hard days when doubt is our only true response. But today, we’ll take a long, hard look, at what helps us to be in love with life again.
Kingsolver’s words remind me of one of the lessons in the story of Moses that leads the Jewish people to freedom. Liberation didn’t begin with the locusts, or frogs, or rivers of blood; liberation began the moment Moses took a long, hard look. “Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” The burning bush is an image that we might marvel at as kids – it’s graphic, strange and fantastical. A talking plant, full of fire, but not consumed. Moses finds God in a piece of life that he seems to only fully be witnessing for the first time – alive, bright and bursting.
What if every tree or shrub we came across spoke so strongly to us? What if we strived to take that long hard look at more of what comes before us? What stories of liberation, might the world tell in our wake? The story of Moses is essentially a story of witness; witness leading to action, liberation, and the Passover lessons we have carried with us for millennia.
Witness is a powerful religious practice. In Western circles we tend to look at it either as speaking to the power of one’s faith or religious experience or community – like we heard Emmett speak earlier this service; or to bear witness to pain or suffering and to extend compassion by doing so. Much of our denominational dialogue these past couple of weeks recognizing long-standing patterns of hiring practices that skew toward men, and toward white men in particular, is a form of witnessing to pain and actively extending compassion. It’s being seen.
Our UUA Leadership council sent out a difficult but beautiful letter to our Board Presidents and religious professionals on Thursday sharing the difficult news that two more senior staff at the UUA will be stepping down in the hope that a new leadership team can come together and move us forward. One portion of that letter I’d like share with us all now:
“While many feel shaken by this change in leadership, UUs around the country have also shared many expressions of hope and resilience. This reminds us that the UUA is much more than a staff and a board striving imperfectly to fulfill our mission.
You and your best values are also the UUA. Your congregations, together, are the UUA. Our children and their curiosity are the UUA. Innovative communities that are imagining new ways of living our values are the UUA. People of Color, people with disabilities, people who are trans, and others who have not always found a welcome in our congregations are the UUA. Your creative ministry and prophetic voice are the UUA.
Thank you for your good ministry and for your support. Your love, generosity, and service are the UUA. Together, we are the UUA. Thank you.” This letter is a form of public witness – recognizing the pain some are feeling, and making it clear that those who feel on the margins are being seen.
Witness, the long hard look, is both seeing and being seen. We find this spiritual notion in other faith traditions as well, although it comes across in a sort of third way. In Hinduism, there’s a notion of Darsan. It’s means “to be seen.” It’s a religious reference to the blessing bestowed upon adherents who may worship before a statue of a God or Goddess in Hinduism. The belief is that by being seen by the God or Goddess, through the eyes of the statue, a blessing is conferred. Being seen is a blessing.
But as Jan Richardson’s poem said before, “This blessing will not fix you, will not mend you, will not give you false comfort; it will not talk to you about one door opening when another one closes. It will simply sit itself beside you among the shards and gently turn your face toward the direction from which the light will come, gathering itself about you as the world begins again.”
All too often injustices happen in the world, and those who are not directly affected seem to never show up. If you’ve experienced hardship, or trauma, and no one is there to lend a hand when you really need it, the experience can be felt as so much worse – dejected and alone. Our faith teaches us that not only are we not alone, but we covenant to affirm our interdependence (our 7th principle.) When we have the strength, fortitude or fortune to give – to take that long, hard look, we are called to do so. Showing up isn’t about others seeing how special, superior, or important we are. We’re certainly not any more of those than anyone else. Showing up is about solidarity. And when a community goes through a hardship, distant intellectualizations from the safety of our living rooms don’t offer comfort. Knowing someone’s there when you need them matters. Being seen is a blessing.
Sometimes the long hard look is humbling. (Tell story of the elephant and the blind men.) Now this story is often told to describe how difficult it is to talk about God, the Holy or the Sacred. To my Christian friends, I come off (at best) as an agnostic, to my atheist friends I come across as a raging believer. The story about the elephant is probably where I actually land in the theological spectrum. There’s a there, there, but we each come to it from our perspective and location.
But this story also applies to understanding any truth in the world, perspectives, challenges, hopes and pains. Sometimes it’s Rich’s earlier story about the magic rock that helped bring joy when it was thrown away (skipping along the water), and sometimes it’s in how we approach larger institutional challenges. From where we’re sitting, we experience the world very differently. Witness, the long hard look, can help us be open enough to hear the truths we’re not quite seeing yet.
It’s also the essence of the prayerful words of Dr. King we heard earlier today from his famous sermon, Beyond Vietnam which was preached 50 years ago this week: “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Will we forever be so certain that the truth we find from our individual perspective be universal, or will we make space for others who are coming to that same truth from another place? The elephant from our story does have a trunk, and a tail, and legs, but the long hard look helps us to find that it’s more than its separate parts. When we come upon the burning bushes in our lives, will we hurry past and see only a shrub, or will we find that newness of life that burns bright and bursting?
Witnessing is also a way of facing; facing the hard things in life. Sometimes accepting, sometimes wrestling with. James Baldwin famously wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Turning toward, facing, is the first step in building the world we dream about. It’s repeating Moses’ words, “I will go over and see this strange sight” and history will never be the same….
To return once more to where we began, Barbara Kingsolver’s words, “In my own worst seasons I’ve come back from the colorless world of despair by forcing myself to look hard, for a long time, at a single glorious thing: a flame of red geranium outside my bedroom window. And then another: my daughter in a yellow dress. And another: the perfect outline of a full, dark sphere behind the crescent moon. Until I learned to be in love with my life again.”
When we’re down and out, going into another season of Passover and Easter feeling burnt, drained, in despair – what is your single glorious thing? What is your Burning Bush – that which is set afire, but never consumed – that forever draws you forward to purpose, to freedom, to liberating the world from our tendencies to despair?
Find that glorious thing, and write it on the tablet of your heart – return to it again and again. Our lot is not made easily to peace, and ease. I’ll close with the worlds of noted Buddhist author, Jack Kornfield: “If you can sit quietly after difficult news; if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm; if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy; if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate; if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill; if you can always find contentment just where you are: you are probably a dog.”
This sermon was first preached at the UU Fellowship in Huntington, NY. It looks at the meaning of denomination and tradition in light of being a member of community over time.
When we bought our new house, we were given a gift from our Realtor – it was a kit for a bat house. You see, I have a real problem with mosquitos. If there’s a porch full of people at night, I’ll get more bites than everyone around me combined. And each one, within a day, will swell up to the size of quarters. Of course, the people who never get bit will always ask me why I’m freaking out, or doing the funny dance every five seconds (fruitlessly, shooing away mosquitos), or why exactly do I have to wear THAT much citronella.
It’s a cute wooden rectangular box that hangs above our shed in our backyard. The dark paint warms it up in the day – which bats need, and it’s high enough so that they’ll find it and like it. With bats able to eat 500 insects per hour – each – we’re very eager for new residents.
But that’s not likely to happen. We’ve since learned that it takes on average 6-7 years for a new family of bats to find one of these bat houses. We’re still holding out hope that we’ll beat the averages, and a family will move in sooner. So in the meantime, full or not, we’ll care for our empty shed-based home for the future.
This is in part, why I so strongly support denominational involvement. Our seats may be full here, but there are future religious homes that offer a saving progressive message that need to be planted, cared for, and supported; and we can’t do it all by ourselves. And there’s always the reality that some of our efforts will lie quiet for a time, and someone needs to be able to steward them in the fallow times. Someone was there for us when we grew our religious home in Huntington, and we must be ready to return the favor down the line.
We’ve talked about Community all month as our theme. I’ve preached on how we discern our call in terms of the people around us. How we make amends and rebuild right relationships when we have fallen astray. And this morning we’ll move from the local and the social to the bigger picture. The role of community across time and generations.
The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed (UU) once noted that, “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens and our strength is renewed.” Whatever we do on our own, is inherently limited. Time will bring our individual actions to an end. Even the lasting effect we have on another can diminish if it goes no further. That’s where tradition, in its largest sense, carries us further. As a community of communities, our ways, patterns and practices can continue on.
But as Morrison-Reed says, it’s not just about us. In fact, the broadest traditions are almost the opposite of us. “…For alone our vision is too narrow…”. And we join religion to enable a wider view and a longer memory. That we might contribute to the tapestry of life through the high points and the low points. So that when we are too weak, we may share our strength with enough people that we become strong. And we are strong again for it. That is what denominationalism can mean.
For some of us, we are converts from another tradition. Others may be life-long UU’s who have never dipped their foot in the larger denominational work. Some may still be carrying scars from a tradition where the word “denomination” meant to them “calcified hierarchy.” Others may be at a place where they come here for this community and don’t identify with our wider faith. I suggest now that one of the challenges of membership is to appreciate the purpose and positive impact our tradition holds for all of us. This house of hope wouldn’t be here without it.
Some will chide that Unitarian Universalism is anything but an “organized” religion. It’s a joke I’ve never really thought held much water. I’m a product of our organization. My training, my mentors, the financial support I’ve received, the professional groups that I can rely on to help in times of particular challenge. The assistance this congregation received in its back-to-back clergy and educator searches. The connections in times of sabbaticals. All the dynamic programming our youth enjoy at the regional level through conferences, retreats, workshops, and the list goes on. The curricula we use, the national justice campaigns we learn and serve, and the list goes on and on. We will often joke we’re not organized because it lets us off the hook. If we’re not organized, then nothing is demanded of us. And too often, we don’t want anything demanded of us…. Whatever our preference though, do remember … religion does make demands of us. In fact,… it’s good for our spirits that it does.
On our own, we can fall into complacency, self-aggrandizement, and even prejudice. On our own, we are not held accountable. One of the most important lessons I learned in seminary is that we are always accountable for our actions, our faith, our behavior. Community calls us back into accountability, even on the days we’d prefer it not. And that’s good for our souls. We are not meant to live as isolated creatures. It is not good for us to always be let off the hook, even if from time to time letting something drop is a healthy thing. The world is not a series of low-bar reality TV shows with no relevance. On our own, we can start to think that way, and we need to be guided – back on path – from time to time.
What we can accomplish is also so much more as a tradition. A few years back I attended one of the ministers’ gatherings at our denomination’s General Assembly. In this particular worship service, there were two sermons delivered. One from a minister in their 25th year of ministry, and the second was a minister in their 50th year of ministry. The 50 year minister happened to be the Rev. Clark Olsen. Rev. Olsen was the minister of the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians at the time of the Selma civil rights march in 1965, when he survived an attack that fatally injured another white minister, the Rev. James J. Reeb; this happening not a month after the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a black civil rights activist – the reason for the march. I found his talk incredibly moving and remarkably humble. I always imagined the folks who marched on Selma in this otherworldly light for being the folks that stood up for their convictions, the people who had no other place left to go so they went and stood up for themselves, who stood up for basic humanity in each of us – and certainly they were the ones that were far ahead of the common view of the times – with some giving their lives.
I marveled though at how everyday the decision was for this minister. He spoke about how he almost didn’t even go. He wanted to, but the money wasn’t there to make the travel across the country. Then one of his congregants donated the money for Clark Olsen to travel and stand for their congregation. It gave him the opportunity to stand witness, and to be there for the last moments of his colleague and friend’s life. But I don’t even know the name of the congregant that made that possible. I don’t even know their name.
Hearing this part of the story, the part that’s not shared in the history books, helped me to see the broader and deeper connections all our actions make in the work of justice in our world. It transformed it from a history lesson about certain heroes and martyrs, to one about the everyday work of building community. It certainly takes both kinds of justice work, but it reminded me that we each have a part to play. It made the impossible seem a little more probable to my mind and my heart. It’s not about a handful of people. Justice is the turning toward committed action with a concerted effort. It’s the spirit of what we often call Right Relations applied to neighborhoods, and to schools, and to court systems. And it takes all of us, in small ways and in large ways, to bring that about. It’s not reserved for a handful of heroes, but reliant upon our very everyday strivings – together. Alone, our everyday strivings sometimes plant seeds – and that’s a great thing. But together we can more productively garden our plantings into something that’s meaningful, sustainable, and makes a more lasting impact.
I’d like to end our sermon by returning to the message of our Buddhist parable this morning of the monk who sat in a tree. “This is my question. Tell me monk, what is it that all the wise ones have taught? Can you tell me the most important thing the Buddha ever said? … finally “This is your answer governor. Don’t do bad things. Always do good things. That’s what all the Buddhas taught.”
Right, hopefully we all learn this by the time we’re three years old, and we all spend the rest of our lives learning to forget that. It would be convenient – it would be easy – to say that religion and denomination aren’t really important. All we have to do is remember what we learned when we’re three. Yeah, that’s all we have to do – and the world shows us countless examples of people forgetting the basics. Religion can be the source of the problem or the source of the solution. I challenge us to join this faith as part of the solution. Not joining it solely because we want to find like-minded people who confirm and reinforce our values. Not joining it solely to have another way to make friends when we’re lonely. Not joining it solely because we’re trying to find our way in the world. I challenge us to join this faith – or rejoin this faith – to be held accountable. We are never always going to be right. We are never always going to be able to face the challenges of the world on our own. We will not always remember what is right and good in every situation. Legacy of justice-making requires the baton to be passed from one hand to another across the ages. We can’t hold onto it and still expect to win the race – and we can’t pass it along by ourselves. And remembering what we all learned at the age of 3 is clearly one of the toughest challenges life has to offer. So let’s tackle and re-tackle that lesson together. May we hold one another in our arms – accountable – with hope in our hearts, and love on our lips.
This podcast discusses community, faith, and freedom, and highlights UUA efforts to advance marriage equality for LGBTQ people. It was first preached at the First UU congregation in Brooklyn, NY on 2/19/2012
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Recently I attended an excellent youth ministry intensive at the Liberal Religious Educators’ Fall Conference in Portland, Oregon. In it we reflected on the old model of youth leadership development often getting confused with youth abandonment. We (adults) sought to foster our youth’s development by waiting for them to come to us when they had troubles; or to allow them to plan events and programs without adult inclusion or guidance. This sometimes resulted in incredibly powerful youth groups. This often resulted in youth leaving our denomination as adults. And sometimes, there was great pain or harm present without the guidance of adult mentoring.
I’m reminded of the old adage, “the youth shall lead the way.” It was certainly true with our merger of Unitarians and Universalists 50 years ago. What if this cultural system around youth abandonment is true for our adult leadership circles as well? What if our system of congregational polity reflects all to well the failures of the old youth development model? I think the similarities are striking.
Do our District Executives, Program Consultants, and the UUA Headquarters (or Ministers, Educators for the old youth model) lack authority to intervene in our congregations when there are real crises without first being invited in? Check.
Do most of our congregations invite in district, regional and continental leadership on an infrequent basis to help steer the future? Check.
When congregational leadership begins to “age out” (in youth terms) or die/move away/become home bound (in adult terms) do they fail to change their systems of governance/conversation/process to adjust to the new generation (Freshman Class)? Check.
Personally, I’m all for congregational polity. I wouldn’t want to throw it out. But we have to find a middle ground to integrate the expertise of our regional and continental leadership into at least the quarterly-to-quarterly leadership of our fellowships, churches and congregations. Otherwise, we’re closing our youth group doors to experience and wisdom we desperately need as our denomination shrinks.