I Want You to Panic: An Earth Day Sermon


April 21, 2019 The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick, New Jersey

Not my words, but I stand here before you to amplify them.

I want you to see the faces of our current leaders. Our real leaders.  Not presidents and prime ministers, or CEOs of world-wide corporations.  I want you to see not future leaders, but current leaders, leading us right now. 

Greta Thunberg, whose TED talk you just heard, and whose Twitter Feed describes her as “16-year-old climate activist with Asperger,” who began striking for the climate last August by not attending school on Fridays, launching a global movement.

13-year-old Alexandria Villaseñor, who strikes outside the United Nations every Friday and has done so since mid-December.

Zayne Cowie, whose book we heard earlier, which he co-wrote with some help.  He’s been a regular climate striker outside City Hall in New York.  I think he’s 9.

Nadia Nazar, co-founder along with Jamie Margolin and Madelaine Tew, of Zero Hour – all of whom at the ages of 16 co-founded Zero Hour, a youth climate activist group based out of Baltimore.

Here is Lilly Platt of Holland.  Since the age of eight years, she was involved in cleaning up plastic pollution.  At the age of ten, she heard about Greta and her strike, and immediately began striking too.

This crew of young people is known as Juliana et al v. United States, 21 young people who filed a lawsuit in 2015, asserting that the government has violated the youths’ rights by encouraging and allowing activities that negatively impact the climate, such that it significantly harms their right to life and liberty.

It is not just these young individuals and small groups, but whole youth and young adult movements emerging: Zero Hour as I mentioned before, the Sunrise Movement, and Extinction Rebellion, where just this past week 63 people were arrested outside City Hall in New York and arrests in London for acts of civil disobedience this week are approaching nearly one thousand.

They are living into the truth of this aphorism, attributed to our Unitarian forbear, Edward Everett Hale, echoing ancient Talmudic wisdom:

Are the words of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s TED talk still echoing in your ears? Making your heart both soar with inspiration and sore with the challenge she lays leaden at our feet? 

There are losses that cannot be reversed or retrieved.  This is our heart-breaking legacy.

Yet, it is within our means to prevent still greater losses. There is no time to lose in starting or growing the deeply-rooted, radical transformation necessary. 

This morning, I bring you no scientific facts about climate change. There are other sources for that. Outside on our frontage we already declare to our larger community that “Climate Change is Real!” Rather than provide facts, I am here to PREACH.  

Some say it is the preacher’s role to preach hope. Others say the preacher’s role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, so there’s that.  You can let me know which (or both) this ends up being for you.

When it comes to climate change, climate changeD, climate chaos, climate constriction, climate collapse…whatever you call it — preaching hope is not a straight-forward thing. It’s there; hope is still there.  It’s just not in the shape you expect.  It doesn’t feel good or comforting. It doesn’t smile at you or speak softly in your ear or make you laugh with joy.

Hope comes as resilience in reckoning with our utter vulnerability.  Hope comes in being able to watch the horrifying images of what has been lost alongside the beautiful ones of this majestic, corrupted world. Hope comes from being able to face our own complicity, coming to terms with what we must give up.  As we heard Greta Thunberg tell us, hope comes in the shape of action.

At this point, hope does not mean reversal.  It might mean mitigation.  It definitely means adaptation.

Hope takes the shape of youth climate activists – like Greta, like the others whose pictures I have shown, like local ones – Eden Summerlin who is a Unitarian Universalist from the Morristown congregation; like Rachel Gurevich, a 14-year-old who lives here in East Brunswick, both of whom organized a climate strike and rally on March 15, as part of the global movement to get adults in power to up our game. 

I spoke with Rachel recently — I haven’t met her (yet). She wants you to know what the youth are up to. She hopes you will come out to the next climate strike rally that they are in the midst of planning — not to take over, they are doing just fine without us adults — but to be there in solidarity, to be there to amplify their voices.

In January of this year – just three months ago – Greta Thunberg addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  In a speech called “Our House is on Fire,” she said,

Too often I feel as if I am home, watching television reporting that my house is on fire.  My response? I walk over to the window and wave at the fire fighters who are trying to put it out.  It’s absurd, when you think about it.  Yet I recognize myself in this analogy, and wonder if some part of you might recognize yourself, too?  I’m there, waving at the fire fighters, not really taking in that it’s my house on fire; acting like it’s some random other person’s house on the television, far away, that is on fire. (Thank you to my colleague, Rev. Sara Goodman, for this metaphor.)

This stuff is hard.  Some of us choose to not go to deep into the bad news, because it’s so heavy, so despairing.  I’m guessing most of us do small dives into the information by choice or we can’t avoid it. Some of us might do deep dives, becoming paralyzed by what we learn there, or try to use dissociation as a strategy so that our minds can try to comprehend it but we don’t feel the feelings – the fear, the terror.

Rather than dissociating from the terror of extinction, we can choose to rebel against extinction but we must create safe and brave spaces where we can experience the fear and terror, acknowledge it in more than intellectual ways, work through it, and come out the other side, learning resilience, as part of our preparations to do the necessary work of adaptation to the new planet we have made. In the fall, when I preached on this, I called them Islands of Sanity (a term borrowed from Margaret Wheatley). 

These places must have singing in them, I think. And laughter, like the poet and Mad Farmer, Wendell Berry says, for when we are expecting the end of the world.

We can give them all the pretty names, but that does not matter if we do not create these spaces and places of adaptation.

The words from Rebecca Solnit for our chalice lighting today spoke of hope that comes from “small groups that seem at the outset unrealistic in their ambition” yet shape possibilities that come to fruition – the fall of the Soviet Union, for example.  This is not just poetic or philosophical or anecdotal.  The research of Dr. Erica Chenowith, political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, tells us that for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, all we need is 3.5% of the population to come together, to mobilize, to join forces, in order to shift habits as entrenched as our abuse of the planet and her natural resources.

Today is not only Earth Day, it is Easter, which we celebrated in our Sanctuary Garden at an early service this morning.  Like our call to worship which hearkened us to rise, Easter is a holiday that celebrates rising again, rebirth, and as I preached in the garden, in the spirit of poet Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. Might we try that? Do we have any choice?

Friends, the earth remains our only home. And we, fellow travelers, its only hope for healing and wholeness, so rise! Dear Ones, Rise! (words from Gretchen Haley)

As we bring together our voices in a chant that was sung at the March Strike 4 Climate event in Morristown, let us let echo in our ears and hearts these at once exhilarating and daunting words from Greta Thunberg:

Amen.  Blessed be.


** With deep gratitude to Sarah Metcalf, who presented as part of a team a worship service on climate change at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence and who shared her presentation with me, that mine might be inspired by her knowledge and dedication to this issue.

Posted in Earth, grief, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

From Phone Booth to Cell Phone: Building the Next RE Program (sermon)

I borrow this series of questions from my colleague, Rev. Peter Boullata.  You might also remember that I asked you these same questions about a year and a half ago when I preached about change and generational shifts.

The need to speak on the phone in public persists. We just meet that need differently now. What was once ubiquitous and obvious – for instance, a rotary phone – becomes if not obsolete, rare and antiquated.

Congregations are famous – or infamous – for being one of the last bastions of “But we’ve never done it that way before.”  We humans have a tendency to stick with the familiar.

Yet, this mindset leads us to problem-solve by applying past solutions to new challenges, hoping and assuming that will work. Apparently, Henry Ford once said, “If I gave my customers what they wanted, I would have invented a faster horse.”

We can no longer try to invent a faster religious education program.

In this era of no obligation to attend religious services or to be affiliated with a religious institution, in this era of getting one’s needs met through the internet, we Unitarian Universalists and we UU congregations have something deeply meaningful to offer.  We’ve just got to figure out how to do it in this new cultural and societal context.

About a year ago, I preached on the necessity of “fail, fail again, fail better.” I raised up to you some of the concerning trends in attendance in our RE program, in UU RE programs across the nation, and said that we would be entering into a phase of experi-learning – trying out new things because the old model of Sunday School was not working and the new next thing to meet the needs of children, youth, parents, and families has not yet been invented.

That said, we cannot let go of that essential quality of a religious education program that we heard about in today’s reading, The Playground Atheist from Jake Morrill, in which our children know that they are not alone. 

Perhaps you have noticed that I have been talking about it much more lately. In staff meetings, in one-on-one conversations, in committee and board meetings, and even from this pulpit. Even in the weekly eblast, where week before last I inserted this quote from Religious Educator and Independent Consultant, Kimberly Sweeney: 

Someone is learning how to be a person of faith (and I will add conscience) by watching you. Someone is watching us, learning how

  • to speak with integrity about their spiritual leanings and longings;
  • to reach out when there is a death and provide solace;
  • to tell the facts about bodies and sexuality and consent;
  • to show up when someone who is trans or gender-binary is being harassed;
  • to know that families are best defined by love, not the sexual orientation or gender identity of the people in it;
  • to reach out across religious differences and side with love with the vulnerable and marginalized; and
  • to experience that meaning making can come from some other place than consumer culture.

Many of you in this congregation found Unitarian Universalism as adults.  You came out of other religious traditions that you found less than satisfying. This small but mighty religion was here, in congregational form, for you and in some cases, it was life-saving. 

If things keep going the way they are going with our children and youth, both nationally and right here, how we have, according to the data that is available, the worst track record for retaining children and youth of any religious tradition in America, it won’t be around for others who had the same need as you, it won’t be around for your children or grandchildren, if we don’t pay attention to the faith formation needs of children in a new way.

I believe that we as a congregation and that Unitarian Universalism can be, and must be, life-saving. What we offer not as political liberals, but as religious liberals, is sorely needed in our world today:

  • that wisdom comes from many sources and belongs to no single tradition;
  • that human diversity — be it racial, ethnic, national, gender expression, sexual orientation — is natural, holy, and enriching, making the human family whole;
  • that both direct experience of mystery and science-based reason can co-exist and do so for the betterment of culture and society;
  • that we all are a part of an interdependent web of existence, with mutual reliance and collective liberation at its core.

The times are calling us into something new, something unknown, and we are still very much discerning what that is, what it looks like.   In order to say yes to the new, there will come a time when we must say no longer to the old; where we will need to let it go, and await, even cultivate the proper conditions, for what is to come. 

I believe that we – in this congregation — have already past the point when it comes to age-segregated classroom-type religious education.  We just don’t have the attendance to do anything other than a single room approach. Families come, but only once or twice a month – this is true of adults without children, too, but with less noticeable impact on the RE program. 

This shift to a one-room Spirit Lab need not be a loss, but rather an evolution to help us meet the spiritual and ethical needs of children, youth, and parents of today.

Judy Lief, a Buddhist teacher I have long admired and whom I got to meet for the first time last weekend, wrote this about transitions:

Our religious education program is in a time of deep transition. How do we gracefully let go of what is no longer working? How do we ready ourselves to be open to the new possibilities?

We look to our mission statement, grounding ourselves in our core purpose. We persist in our curiosity about new models and possible innovations. We cultivate imagination to stretch beyond what we have known along with the willingness to sit with unknowing. We come together to figuring it out together.

And by together, I mean: together.  Families attending as often as possible (and perhaps a bit a bit more than currently seems possible).  Congregants without children in the RE program showing interest and active support, both volunteering and showing up for what has become – yet again – a dormant Religious Education Committee. The Board committing financially with a budget that allows for trying out new possibilities informed by fairly compensated, experienced religious professionals.

What comes after the Sunday School model of age-segregated classes set apart from the rest of the congregation?  I have taken classes. I have taken webinars. Currently, I am in what is called “a Community of Practice” for ministers of UU congregations who are actively exploring this challenging aspect of the changing congregational landscape. I can assure you: the next big thing does not yet exist.  If it did, I would deliver it to the congregation on a silver platter.

Informed by what the staff of this congregation have been learning, here at TUS, we have been trying out ideas, receiving input, revising and tweaking, and trying the next iteration.  At a speed that sometimes makes my head spin. We have been taking to heart the try, try again, fail, fail faster, fail better motto. We have been strengthening that “muscle” that gets us comfortable, or at least more tolerant, of experimentation, of transition, of change.

We didn’t know that we would go through three transitions in religious education staff in one year.  While we could benefit from some stability in our program, I’m choosing the frame that we have been expanding our capacity to experiment.

Spirit Lab – our religious education program – began meeting in the Gathering Room a few weeks ago, experimenting with how that larger space impacts delivery of content to one room of age-diverse children.  It’s noticeable to the wider congregation because that means a change in coffee hour.  We are trying it out this spring to see how it goes.

We learned in the past several years that family attendance drops off in the spring.  Last year, we ended the formal RE program the Sunday before the Memorial Day weekend; we will continue with this, having All Ages services in the first half of June, then shift to our summer status, where we provide child care only.

Perhaps you have noticed that there is an increase in All Ages services recently? Welcoming children in this space for the whole service, not dumbing down the content, providing activities to children if they stay in the sanctuary, increasing the age of who can attend child care on those days. Acting as if we are really and truly a multi-generational community. Remembering that there are younger humans watching older humans be people of faith and of conscience. And paying attention to whether this impacts attendance.

We are also trying something completely new – tonight, in fact – a non-Sunday morning offering for families, centered around dinner, providing content for both children/youth and parents. We’re calling it a Family Connection Dinner and in addition to dinner, it will have a Spirit Lab for the children and one for the parents. It’s a form of Family Ministry.  We are wondering if this might be a way to meet the spiritual needs of families, since many of our families are coming only once a month Sunday mornings.

Plus, there is more to come.  The Sunday Service Committee has spoken about it, staff whose role is to serve the religious education program have been talking about it, and I’ve checked in with our head of Arrangements.  The Board has been discussing these changes, knowing that the budget they recommend to you next year must be informed by what we have learned this past year of transition and a vision for what is to come. I hope you will come to the Annual Meeting on May 19th, whether you are a Member or Friend, for much will be presented, and hopefully you will choose to discuss it all, including the congregation’s vision for the RE program going forward.  Plus, if you’d like to have an individual conversation with me about all this, I welcome that as well.

One concrete experi-learning change you can expect, likely in August or September, is a space dedicated to the presence of children in the sanctuary. We’ll try it out for a couple of months, to see how it goes, the check in with how it is going.  We may find, like another of our sibling UU congregations, this one outside the Twin Cities in Minneapolis, that inclusion of children made it a bit louder, but it made it also more joyful.

This is how we live into the possibility of a really and truly multi-generational community, one of the few public contexts left for inter-generational interaction as our society grows ever more isolated and ever more segregated.

Let us make sure that we do everything we can so that any child or youth associated with this congregation knows that they, like the Playground Atheist, are never alone.  Strike that.  So that any person associated with this congregation, no matter their age, knows that they are never alone.

Amen.

[ii] Lief, Judith. Making Friends with Death, p.15.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ritual for Broken Times: After the New Zealand Massacre


led at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield

March 17, 2019

This afternoon’s ritual space is a lamentation, a condemnation, and rededication in the aftermath of the New Zealand tragedy on Friday where so many, too many, taking part in religious expression at two mosques halfway around the world from here, had their lives stolen by at least one white supremacist, who named the president if this, our, nation as inspiration.

In this vessel are shards of broken ceramics, symbols of what has been shattered by this violence.  Over the broken pieces, I pour what I call “homegrown holy water,” gathered last September in the congregation I serve as a part of our annual Water Ingathering, made holy by the intentions claimed by the congregation in that ritual, used throughout the year for child blessings and prayers before memorial services.  I add it now as an intentional act of healing and witness.

I speak these words of condemnation: not in our name does this violence happen.  We claim those killed, wounded, and touched by this violence as our kin, bring our presence to their side, and condemn this white supremacist hate.  We recognize that the damage from the evils of white supremacy endure long after individual incidents and that it is ours to bring respond, to resist, to create in small and large ways another world.

I now invite each of you, as you are so moved, to come forward to add a stone to mark the death of the fifty, or a gem as symbol of our rededication to a world absent white supremacy. 

As you come forward, I will speak names of some of the victims – may they have found solace in god in their last moments, may their families know comfort in their memories, as well as in a world coming together to resist hate.

Mucad Ibrahim

Husne Ara Parvin

Ramiz Vora

Asif Vora

Ansi Alibava

Ozair Kadir

Lilik Abdul Hamid

Linda Armstrong

Khaled Mustafa

Hamza Mustafa

Sayyad Milne

Haji-Daoud Nabi

Amjad Hamid

Ghulam Hussain

Karam Bibi

Zeeshan Raza

Sohail Shahid

Mohammad Imran Kahn

Mounir Sulaiman

Ashaf al-Masri

As we come to a close, this Prayer of Peace, from the Qu’ran:

In the name of Allah, the beneficent, the merciful.

Praise be to the Lord of the Universe who has created us and made us into tribes and nations, that we may know each other, not that we may despise each other. If the enemy incline towards peace, do thou also incline towards peace, and trust in God, for the Lord is the one that heareth and knoweth all things. And the servants of God, Most Gracious are those who walk on the Earth in humility, and when we address them, we say “PEACE.”

—Based on the Qu’ran, 49:13, 8:61

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Upstanding

Think about your personal experiences with the place beyond hope and fear. I’m certain there’ve been many times when you found yourself stepping forward without hesitation. Something in the situation called you into spontaneous action without calculating costs and benefits. This is the definition of courage—actions that spring from an open heart without premeditation. (The word courage comes from the old French word for “heart.”) Sometimes these spontaneous actions are good; sometimes they get us into a lot of trouble; sometimes people lose their lives rushing in to save others. What’s important to notice in your experience is how it felt to be fearless. You were also hopeless. You did what had to be done as it appeared in that moment. You weren’t thinking of outcomes, and you had more than enough energy.  

(Margaret Wheatley)

Mike had seen better, and much worse, days.  He was a familiar presence in the neighborhood we both called home.  He lived in one of the SROs – Single Room Occupancy – buildings – what used to be called a boarding house or flophouse.  He was one of several local personalities who had been a long-term in the local psychiatric hospital, placed there as a teenager, whether for true psychiatric reasons or perhaps for developmental disability reasons, living there for decades, then released in the 1980s during the era of de-institutionalization.

I think it’s fair, though perhaps not kind, to say that he looked odd.  Perhaps even intimidating if you didn’t know him.  He had never hurt anyone.  He was mostly quiet – not like Geography Jerry, who had a similar backstory and asked the same geography riddles over and over.  Sometimes Mike hitchhiked from the Main Street to the village, which is how I got to know him just a little.  Though I gave him a handful of rides over the years, I don’t think I ever became familiar to him.  But he did to me.  Familiar and appreciated.

One time, when my kids were still in elementary school, we rode our bikes to the local soft serve ice cream joint.  I noticed Mike in an unexpected circumstance: wielding his large flashlight in a menacing manner at three kids – middle schoolers, I’d say.  I’d seen the flashlight before – you never saw Mike without it – but it was usually in his back pocket.

I told my kids to stay put – out of harm’s way – then approached Mike. Not sure what to do, I knew something needed to be done, and quick. I couldn’t tell what was going on, but I did not want him to hit the kids.  That would be all kinds of bad. I moved closer cautiously, my heart beating hard in my chest, keeping a cool distance from the heavy object in his hand.  Calmly, gently, I asked, “Hey, Mike.  What’s up?  Something seems wrong.” 

Cutting to the chase: no one got hit or hurt.  Mike kept his flashlight.  The three middle schoolers got a mild tongue lashing from me. It turned out that those kids had been taunting Mike – he was an easy target for bullies, even ones much smaller than he.  They had tried to take his cherished flashlight.  Mike responded fiercely, protectively, defensively.  I can’t say that I blame him. So, I even had a semi-maternal conversation with Mike about potential consequences of his choices.   

It taught me two things:

  • I’m braver than I think I’ll be when the moment demands it. 
  • Situations aren’t always what they seem.

In this case, my first impression was that Mike was the aggressor.  Not true. 

It has helped me to understand that in other situations, say, when a Black kid hits a white kid first, it’s important to listen and find out more. It’s just possible — and in some situations, likely — that the white kid (whispered loud enough only for the Black kid to hear) said the n-word first.  If so, it changes who the aggressor is and who needs an ally to intervene.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Dalliances with the Afterlife (sermon)

“Herein the afterlife, everything exists in all possible states at once, even states that are mutually exclusive.  This comes as a shock after your Earthly life, where making one choice causes the other choices to disappear.”

So begins the short story titled “Quantum” in the David Eagleman’s book called, Sum: forty tales from the afterlives.  In these forty stories, each 2 or 3 short pages long, we experience possibility and mystery at the same time, someone with a deep irreverence that is salted with reverence (or is it a deep reverence that is salted with irreverence – I think you’ll need to decide), and someone who ably mixes science with godtalk, balancing cleverly on the edge between rationality and irrationality, curious about all the possibilities.

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist, an adjunct professor at Stanford, a former Guggenheim fellow,and host of a show about the brain that aired on PBS.  He calls himself a “Possiblian,” a term coined by a friend of his after reading the book.  Eagleman describes it this way:

 “Our ignorance of the cosmos is too vast to commit to atheism, and yet we know too much to commit to a particular religion. A third position,agnosticism, is often an uninteresting stance in which a person simply questions whether his traditional religious story (say, a man with a beard on a cloud) is true or not true. But with Possibilianism I’m hoping to define a new position — one that emphasizes the exploration of new, unconsidered possibilities. Possibilianism is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind; it is not interested in committing to any particular story.”[1]

What I find most brilliant about how this book works its way on the reader (or listener):whether you believe in a god-induced afterlife or believe that is utter poppycock and go for the “we’re all worm food” approach, these stories invite you to loosen your grip on whatever certainty you bring to this human question.  These little, innocent stories are neither little nor innocent in their power to be a pry bar applied to the arrogance of our own certainty.

Today’s service is strongly informed by two of Unitarian Universalism’s foundational tenets.  One of this is our humanist leanings, that whatever our beliefs about an afterlife, our focus returns again and again to this world, being not so much concerned with whether there is another world post-death.  (In this way, we share a commonality with Buddhism.) 

The other foundational tenet at work in our service today is Unitarian Universalism’s affirmation of religious pluralism.  With this in mind, I alert you to the delightful song we will hear during the offertory — Iris Dement’s, “Let the Mystery Be,” the lyrics of which go:

Some say once you’re gone you’re gone forever
And some say you’re gonna come back
Some say you rest in the arms of the Saviour
If in sinful ways you lack

Some say that they’re comin’ back in a garden
Bunch of carrots and little sweet peas
I think I’ll just let the mystery be

We not only tolerate different theological perspectives; we understand ourselves to be enriched by them. While each of us individually might lean one way or another on the question of an afterlife, how can we do anything but follow the wisdom of that song?  Just let the mystery be.

Death is a serious topic.  It can be heavy.  The afterlife, an afterlife, the possibility of afterlives – can stumble into causing unintended offense, can lead us to develop arrogant stances as we push away the doubts and fears that can arise when we enter into this topical territory.  In the spirit of today’s service, I invite us to actively invite in curiosity –not just intellectual curiosity but spiritual curiosity — about the mystery.  I invite us to engage with the topic seriously, without taking ourselves – or our own opinions – too seriously. 

This service includes five of the forty tales from the book, sum.  Four are read by people in this room.  One is a beautiful brief film.

It was not easy to cull and curate which tales to include – I wanted to stretch time and, I must admit, I might have overdone it.  It we go long and you need to leave before the service is over, please do so.

So let us begin our dancing and dallying with afterlives with this humorous video not at all related to David Eagleman, but from the comic duo, The Kloons.


[1] Stray questions for David Eagleman, New York Times Paper Cuts, July 10, 2009.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Little People Living Love Out Loud (sermon)

The Unitarian Society, East Brunswick

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

 

Our reading:

 

The sermon:

Little people living love out loud.

That’s what Kid President told us is ours to do.

That’s what the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is trying to do.

Given that it is the eve of election day, given that one of Unitarian Universalism’s core principles is to actively engage in democratic processes, it seems befitting that we explore how change is brought about.

I am a big fan of voting, even when the choices are not what I would choose, knowing that people have lost their lives striving to gain and protect the right ot vote.  I hope that any and all of you who are eligible to vote will do so on Tuesday – especially given the credible reports of active and intentional voter disenfranchisement happening across the nation, targeted at communities of color – Black voters in Georgia, Brown voters in Texas, indigenous voters throughout North Dakota.  I would love to hear of any of your efforts to support others in their voting, wherever they live.

This morning’s sermon is an exploration into other ways in which we, little people living love out loud, might affect change.  I’m going to do it by looking at how change came about right here, in this locale, 200 years ago, nearly exactly, because it is related to one of the ways that we, as a congregation, are trying to affect change today.

So I share with you a quote from Rebecca Solnit – one of my favorite sources on hope — on the nature of change.  We’ll revisit it a bit later in the sermon.  She wrote,

Causes and effects assume history marches forward, but history is not an army.  It is a crab scuttling sideways, a drip of soft water wearing away stone, an earthquake breaking centuries of tension.  Sometimes one person inspires a movement, or her words do decades later; sometimes a few passionate people change the world; sometimes they start a mass movement and millions do; sometimes those millions are stirred by the same outrage or the same ideal and change comes upon us like a change of weather.  (Hope in the Dark)

Two hundred years ago, in 1818, someone spoke up for the vulnerable.  They spoke up because they had a connection to someone in a position of strength who used their voice.  They used their voice in a public setting.  It informed and inspired others who were outraged at the injustice at hand.  They met together.  The discussed and decided on a plan.  And not just in one place, but in three counties altogether.  They used the system – they petitioned the NJ Assembly, probably – because that was how it was done in those days, just as it is done today – they sought out their Assemblyperson (well, in those days, their AssemblyMAN) who petitioned the Assembly.  Unlike today, justice was swift.  On October 31, 1818, “An Act to Prohibit the Exportation of Slaves or Servants of Color out of New Jersey” was introduced.  Four days later, 200 years ago yesterday, the bill was taken up, amended, and voted on.  It passed unanimously.  Two days later, New Jersey petitions the U.S. Congress to end the illegal interstate slave trade.

During the decades running up to the civil war, there was a period in our national history that some have come to call the “Second Middle Passage.” The Middle Passage – the “first” one – is that era and process when Africans were stolen away from West Africa and forcibly brought to this continent (and parts of Europe) as slaves.  It is a believed that at least two million Africans lost their lives as part of the Middle Passage (and that does not count the twice that amount who died between being stolen from their homes and brought to the coastal ports where they were loaded onto ships.)

During this Second Middle Passage, approximately 835,000 enslaved African Americans – that’s far too close to a million — were moved to the Deep South, both overland and by boat.  Moved there from the more northern parts of slave-holding states and some, as we know from the movie, Twelve Years a Slave, and as we know from our local history, from the North, where slavery had been abolished outright, or gradually (as was true here in New Jersey). It is documented that enslaved peoples most feared being moved to Louisiana, fearing it to be a “death sentence” given the harsh conditions there.[1]  That destination, along with Mississippi, is where the Lost Souls ended up.

It is during this period that the infamous slave ring, located here in East Brunswick, overseen by a sitting Middlesex County judge, operated.  It is during eight months – February to October — that four boatloads with at least 144 people were sent from this region, South, to line the greedy pockets of a few white men, empowered by their formal and informal roles in society.

Here’s the thing that I want you to take away from this: yes, this travesty is a part of our history, as is the whole white supremacy in the form of slavery, that got transmuted into Jim Crow into mass incarceration via the 13th Amendment.  I don’t want you to forget that.

But what I want you to take away is that alongside that part of our nation is the outcry against injustice and in this case, that brought the injustice of the Van Wickle Slave Ring to an end.  People, once informed, gathered together and worked to end it.

Would that happen today?  Does it happen today?  When we hear of outrageous miscarriages of justice, do we act to bring them to an end?  Or is our response becoming ever-growing numbed to the relentlessly increasing tally of injustices?

When word of this infamous slave ring in the home of Judge Jacob Van Wickle got out – through an editorial in a Philadelphia newspaper written by the son-in-law of Benjamin Franklin – people (men, actually, given the era) in New Jersey gathered together.  The Middlesex County Association for the Prevention of Kidnapping met in 1818 – first on July 28 in Rahway, then in New Brunswick on August 10.

Here is a text from a contemporary newspaper:

We are much gratified to find by the following articles from the New Brunswick Times of yesterday that the abominable business of kidnapping has been taken up in earnest in New Jersey, and that an Association is forming for the purpose of preventing that infamous and diabolical practice.  As that state appears, for some cause or other, to have become the central point of operations for the ruffians who are engaging in stealing men, women, and children such an Association has become most urgently necessary.  We hope the gentlemen concerned in it will make thorough work in bringing the kidnappers to speedy and condign punishment; and if the laws of the state are not sufficiently energetic to put an end to it, we trust they will use their influence to obtain from their legislature such as shall be effectual.

The efforts “to advise and adopt measures to prevent the illegal traffic in People of color” was lauded. Yet critiqued was the “thinly-attended” nature of the meeting, “a cause of sorrow, not only on account of the wretched victims of this traffic, but as it bespeaks an apathy in the community at large on a subject which ought to excite the feelings and call forth the exertions of all benevolent men [sic].”

I feel that.  Can you feel that?  Not enough people showing up.  The lion’s share of the work falling on few shoulders.  It’s demoralizing.  It’s exhausting.

Yet, as the crab of change, scuttling this way and that tells us, it need not be an indication that change won’t happen, that relief and healing won’t be on its way, that the moral arc of the universe won’t allow us to bend it towards justice.  There is a second half of that quote I shared from Rebecca Solnit — the one about change being a scuttling crab? – and it goes like this:

All that these [changes] have in common is that they begin in the imagination, in hope.  To hope is to gamble.  It’s to bet on the future, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty are better than gloom and safety.  To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed.  Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”

I have to say, as I hear these words aloud, that they sound like what must be going on in the hearts and minds of those people who left Honduras, are going through Mexico, and are going to ask for asylum at the U.S. border: betting on a future, uncertainty, another world might be possible.

“Hope just means another world might be possible…” like a world in which a free African American might not have to live in fear of being stolen into permanent slavery in the Deep South.  Like Black and Brown people need not live in fear of being killed by men with guns standing their ground, with law enforcement using disproportionate force, with white women reporting them for going about their day-to-day.  Our Jewish kindred and siblings don’t have to live in fear of losing their lives if they attend Shabbat services. Oh, the sorrowful list is too long for the spoken tongue, but it weighs heavy in our hearts.

Change happens, but we don’t always know how it will come about.  This does not give us permission to let it fall to others, for change is only possible, not guaranteed.  It does mean that while we act to bring about justice, we must be open to our efforts having impacts that we cannot foresee, as well as the efforts of others impacting us in ways that we cannot always understand.

Such was the case in 1818.  Newspapers wrote about the horrible slave ring and people read about it and weighed in.  Those few folks organized and in the end, petitions from Middlesex, Essex, and Somerset Counties went to the state legislature.

From that, exactly 200 years ago yesterday, because of small groups of outraged people who gathered together publicly (instead of just complaining aloud into their social media feed), stopped an abomination of a corrupt judge from stealing the freedom of other humans.

Little people living love out loud.

This history is now remembered because of a small, stalwart community group that is based out of this congregation, but is larger than just this congregation, refuse to let this historical tragedy be erased, which really means, to let it fester with all the other wounds of white supremacy in our nation, the ones that are surfacing now and have been all along.  A small community group that welcomes your support and your participation to ensure that this piece of history gets some of the healing that it deserves.  A small community group that has room for more – room for you? — to help build a public memorial so that those people who were sold south are not forgotten, so that their names – Roda, 14 years; Mary, 2 years; Augustus, 4 years; Florah, 23 years;      Susan,  7 months; Margaret Coven, a free woman – as former members of our communities, are re-membered back home.  We can all do that – our children can do it, you can do it – pledge to re-member – Simon, a free man and Regina, six weeks old – any of the names that are on this poster.  We can be part of the healing.

~~~~~

I am drawn to the Lost Souls Public Memorial Project because I believe that remembering can be healing.  There are so many lasting wounds from the seeds of white supremacy planted in the past, its toxic flowers blooming still in our time.  This story, this history, is our nearest wound.  And one that was not getting much attention until we brought our attention as a congregation to it.  One that was not getting much healing, until we brought our institutional and personal attention to it.  We are the ones we have been waiting for.  We are made for these times.

We don’t have to get all of East Brunswick or Middlesex County or New Jersey involved.  My sense is that it would be beneficial to have more people involved – more from this congregation, more from other local congregations and community-based organizations throughout the region – but history tells us that change is not linear, change can happen even when it is a small group of people who come together in outrage and sorrow.

Change happens when we vote.

Change happens when you come to a Lost Souls planning meeting on the first Tuesday of each month (yes, that’s this Tuesday) at 7pm.

Change happens when you, your friend, our neighbors attend the December 16 Lost Souls event at the East Brunswick Public Library, called A Day of Remembrance.

Change happens when we understand that we all can be little people living love out loud.

May it be so.  Amen.

 

 

[1] Deyle, Stephen (2007). “Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life”. America: History and Life with Full Text.

 

Posted in Justice, Sermons, Standing on the Side of Love | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Lamentation for Violence (in Two Voices)

October 28, 2018

Spirit of Life and Love,
Possibility of Mercy and Peace,
Impulse towards Compassion,
Yearning for Comfort in times of Fear,
our hearts echo these words
from the poet Warsan Shire:

We lament the very fact of this lamentation.

A lamentation
making of our eyes
a fountain of tears
to weep for the death
of our human family
through needless violence.

We seek deep soul searching
and wide soul healing
in ourselves
throughout the land
and across the earth.

We witness a society
that fosters ever greater violence
among strangers and neighbors
among friends and lovers
among cities and nations,

We cry stop,
knowing it is our hands
that must do this work of peace.

Let it also be the hands
of neighbors and strangers,
Of friends and lovers.
But fervently, we pray,
Let it be our hands.

This congregation’s work this weekend
and in the coming months
is to cultivate the conditions of safety,
knowing we cannot do it just for ourselves,
sowing the seeds of peace not just in our own lives,
but in all the lives of all whom we touch,
and the communities in which we live.

May we use this strange privilege of being alive
 to honor those whose lives have been stolen and their families who miss them so.

We speak the names of the houses of worship where, in the United States, where there have been fatal shootings in the past twenty years, in their order of occurrence. As we do, you are invited to come forward and place a bright gem – like the flame of our chalice, a beacon of hope for so many — in either of these wells of grief, a symbol that though these places have experienced deep violence and though there are real people who have lost their lives to that deep violence, we shall do what we can to make that loss not be in vain, we shall do what we can to keep ourselves and others as safe as possible, we shall do what we can to build a safer, less violent world.

Let us begin.

Wedgewood Baptist Church
Greater Oak Missionary Baptist Church
Our Lady of Peace Catholic Church of Lynbrook
Conception Abbey
Turner Monumental AME Church
Living Church of God

World Changers Church International
West Nickel Mines Amish School
Zion Hope Missionary Baptist of Detroit
Ministry of Jesus Christ Church of Baton Rouge
First Presbyterian Church of Moscow
First Congregational Church of Neosho

New Life Church
First Baptist Church of Maryville
Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church
Reformation Lutheran Church of Wichita
Sikh Temple of Wisconsin
Victory Way Assembly Church of God in Christ

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church of Ellicott City
First United Presbyterian Church of Coudersport
Hiawatha Church of God in Christ
Overland Park Jewish Community Center
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Mosque in Queens

Keystone Fellowship Church
St. Peter’s Missionary Baptist Church
Islamic Center of Quebec City
Burnette Chapel Church of Christ
First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs
St. Alphonsus Church

And just yesterday, Tree of Life Synagogue, our hearts broken into far too many pieces.  For them we light these eleven candles for the eleven people killed.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the lamentations hold a particular structure, and somehow, despite the sorrow they convey, all the heartbreak they express, they end in praise of the Divine. This seems unbelievable.

While it is true that sometimes that praise is felt, it is also perhaps more often, aspirational — a declaration that in expressing gratitude, we retain, reinforce, and reignite our humanity.

As we bring this lamentation ritual to a close, let us remember the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and be inspired by them: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

Posted in grief, Prayers, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Seeking Safety in an Unsafe World (sermon)

October 28, 2018

The Unitarian Society   East Brunswick, NJ

 

Here is what I have been learning as we face the new normal of increased violence in our midst.

  • First: Of the emergencies that happen at houses of worship – the violence that erupts – only 1% are about an active shooter. So many more are about medical emergencies, or the aftermath of weather-related disasters.  So, while we need to take seriously the risk and reality of human-spawn violence, we must also put it in proper perspective.
  • Secondly: more often than the media would have us understand, violence at houses of worship is often rooted in domestic violence, a societal and individual disease that can be traced back to many of the mass shootings in this country.

[and I feel the need to say here, in case that any one of us is feeling smug, that Unitarian Universalists we are not immune from that kind of violence, either being a victim, survivor, or perpetrator. ]

  • Thirdly: there are things we can do to increase our security (hint: we need a different key and lock system to our front door!), but there are no guarantees, no iron-clad contracts we can sign, no perfect solutions that we can buy or barter, that offer absolute security, that give us complete safety. Humans are complex animals – the ones out there and the ones in here.  That complexity allows for inexplicable beauty.  And that complexity allows for gut-wrenching violence we cannot fully guard against.

All that and there are things we can do that are worthy of our time and treasure, worth of our efforts, worthy of the great love that wells between us and among us.

In one of the materials that FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency – puts out to help houses of worship prepare for emergencies, they have this useful four-word advice, presented in linear and chronological order:

  • Connect
  • Plan
  • Train (which I take to mean: learn and teach)
  • Report

We spent yesterday in a workshop, ably led by Rev. Aaron Payson, our guest today, who is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry.  It was the planning of a small group that is relatively new to the congregation –so new, that our name didn’t make it onto the updated list of committees and task forces (though we fixed that) – called the Safety Task Force, that brought that training to fruition and will take on the work of making what we learned operational.

Thank you, too, to all of you who brought that workshop into being and all who attended.  We were over thirty in the room, including some folks from the UU congregations in Hunterdon County and in Montclair.  We had invited other UU congregations and some of our interfaith neighbors to attend – knowing that our faith calls us to share our resources whenever we can.

So there’s two of the four FEMA points: plan and train, teach and learn.  And plan some more.

When it comes to report, I think FEMA means: talk with each other, talk about the worries and the fears, don’t keep them inside, where they fester, where they can take on the worst aspects of what fear does, sometimes coming out racialized, sometimes coming out as distrust of a stranger without clear basis, sometimes as isolation.

[Okay, that’s probably not what FEMA meant by report, that might be my generous, spiritual, optimistic of what they mean. I’m willing to acknowledge that possibility.]

What about that first bullet point?  Connect. The most important.  I think of as both the first and the last, for I don’t see this list as linear or chronological, but circular: we start with connection and we end with connection.  And repeating: we connect throughout, as well as training (or learning) and planning and yes, even reporting (talking), over and over and over again.

What FEMA means when they say “connection” is not all that far off from what I might say: attend to and nurture connections with other houses of worship and with first responders.  FEMA suggests that we invite someone from the nearest house of worship to be on our safety task force and, if invited, someone from here serve on theirs.

[Think of that!  I just met one of the pastors from the closest church to us.  Do any of you know where it is or what its name is?  This is a little bit of a trick question because they don’t have their own building yet.  They rent at the Y, just a little bit down Tices Lane. Some of our older members and those who keep our own history will remember that is how we started, too, meeting at the Y, meeting in school classrooms.  Their name is Point Community Church.]

So that’s what FEMA says about connection.  I want to add to it that the solutions at hand, imperfect and limited in scope as they are, are very much like the poet Mark Nepo says, “Everything I could need or ask for is right here— in flawed abundance.”  The strategies for connection are ones we have known all along:

  • Know each other.
  • Weave tighter the tapestry of our covenantal life together.
  • Show kindness and care for one another beyond what is easy or quick. Such kindness is the gift that keeps on giving, good and right at the time and also a seed that sprouts and blossoms in times of emergency and dire need.  There is a sudden, urgent, choiceless trust that emergencies demand of us – this becomes more available if we cultivate the ground with kindness and generosity well ahead of time.  Often and early, they say. Often and early.

And I mean this among ourselves for sure.  I mean this for today.  At coffee hour.  Get to know someone unfamiliar to you, deepen your polite surface relationship with another, reach out to someone whose absence has become bigger than their presence lately.

And I mean this among our neighbors and fellow residents.  Ones with whom we feel an immediate resonance and ones with whom we might fear that there is no common ground.

Let me share a story of why I think this might be worth the effort and any discomfort.

In one of my seminary classes, we had two guest speakers.   A minister from Newtown, Connecticut, where the Sandy Hook mass shooting took place, and the minister at Old South Church in Boston, which stands next to the finish line of the marathon. She had been in the church tower when the bombs went off.  The minister from Newtown – several years after the massacre — spoke of how in that town they don’t much like the term, “healing” but speak of “continuing the journey.” The minister from Boston shared the story of area clergy going out to check in on folks who were homeless and living in the area, people already quite vulnerable, making sure they were not lost or losing it.

Each minister shared their perspective on what helped them to help their communities and congregations.  Both tragedies were quite different from each other: different causes, different communities, different impacts. Yet both clergy affirmed that their interfaith connections and connections in the wider community served them well in the aftermath of the traumas.  It made quite an impression on me.

~~~~~

Just last month, we had the great fortune to have Rev. Kimberley Debus facilitate a workshop for us and then preach from this pulpit.  You might know this, though I am not sure why you would, but Rev. Kimberley is a HUGE fan of the old television show, The West Wing.  Are there any West Wing fans in the house?

By huge fan, I mean she recently helped organize the very first convention of fans of West Wing, where several hundred people gathered in a hotel outside the DC Beltway, to gush and swoon over the show.  Rev. Kimberley preached on Sunday morning, using one of the episodes – the one titled, “War Crimes” from season 3 – as her scripture.  The sermon is utterly fantastic; I will post a link to it in next week’s eblast.  Her sermon was so motivating that I re-watched that episode.  It made me think of us gathering today, a day after taking a training about how to protect ourselves after a worst-case-scenario.

You see, one of the threads in the show, which aired 17 years ago, is a church shooting. I don’t know about you, but sometimes my memory can lead me to a certain kind of amnesia. I seem to remember only the most recent horror, in this case, even though I know about the other too many shootings in houses of worship: Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, at the Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin in 2012.

And there is the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 2008 – the facts of which share at least one echo with the West Wing story, as well as in Sutherland Springs, Texas last year: a white man with a history of domestic violence came seeking to do violence to his partner (or ex-partner) and brought that violence into that congregation’s sacred space.  Which, as I mentioned earlier, is what the data tells us, too.

The other thread of the show, intertwined with the first one, is President Bartlett’s interpretation of a passage from the Christian scriptures, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “be subject to one another.”

The show’s message, and mine here too, is that the strongest and best antidote we seek when seeking safety in an unsafe world: be subject to one another. Know one another.  Be beholden to each other.  Be accountable.  Be in relationship.  Go out of your way for each other.  Be in covenant with one another.  Connect, connect again, and then re-connect.

It is a short quote from the Christian Scriptures, which I don’t often use as a source for my sermons, but I offer it here now because I think there is deep wisdom for us to take up if we are willing.  If it is a struggle for you to gain wisdom of that particular set of ancient texts, then I encourage you to source it from the Church of the West Wing, a people who might not revere, but do appreciate, the not-quite-prophet-but-damn-fine-television-writer, Aaron Sorkin.

Be subject to one another. And while we’re at it, let’s make sure that there is an abundance of home-made French fries, or whatever comfort food we need, enough to help all of us navigate these stressful and distressing times.

May it be so.  Amen.

Posted in Interfaith, Justice, Sermons, Unitarian Universalism | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lost Souls Public Comment to Middlesex County Freeholders

October 18, 2018

It is time to remember them.

Harriet

Susan

Mary

Augustus

Simon and Margaret – who were both already free

Not fictional characters. People with real lives: deceived, stolen, sold back into slavery, removed to a place with no promise of emancipation. Real people, with real lives, and real names:

Sarah

George

Moses

Clarisse

Lidia

Regina, aged just 6 weeks

Hercules

Dianah

Dorcas

Florah

And many more. It is past time to re-member them.

This year marks 200 years since a travesty took place right here in Middlesex County.

I am Reverend Karen G. Johnston, the minister of The Unitarian Society in East Brunswick.  East Brunswick is the town where the corrupt Middlesex County Judge Jacob Van Wickle lived and used his home and property to hold captive African Americans, some of them free, some of them soon to be free.  It is there he held a kangaroo court, abusing his power and a strange loophole in the law that said if someone – and let’s be clear, it was someone Black – consented to being sent to the Deep South, it would be okay.

This is how he called before his court a six-week-old baby, “asked” her if she would like to go South, at which she cried, at which he took this as her consent.  Then he turned to her mother with the same “choice.”  Your daughter is going South – and you?

These enslaved people were members of our larger community, some lived locally, some were from further afield, but all were lost to us, sold down the river, leaving on four ships that sailed from Perth Amboy February through October.  It is around this time in October, 1818, that the fourth and final ship sailed and why I read you some of their names tonight.

Final ship, because good people of this region came together, bringing this travesty to an end. Because of their outrage, their organizing, and their lobbying, a law was passed in the NJ Assembly on November 3, 1818, outlawing the sale of enslaved people from this state to other states in this nation.

The Lost Souls Public Memorial Project is an all-volunteer effort, made up of community members working towards ensuring these souls lost from our community are RE-membered.  We are working towards building a public memorial that will include all the names and ensure this history cannot be erased, forgotten, or white-washed again.

We are thankful to the NJ Council for the Humanities for granting us an Incubation Grant this year so that we can hold community conversations and grow community awareness.  We welcome the support of the Middlesex County Freeholders, and any other folk present today.  We invite you to look for our Facebook page where we post updates.  We hope you will attend our Day of Remembrance at the East Brunswick Public Library on Sunday, December 16 at 2pm.

At a time in our nation’s story when some communities choose to keep statues that glorify a past of harm and oppression, this public memorial can be an act of healing.  We hope you will help us build it.  We hope you will help us re-member these lost souls.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Answering the Call of Love (sermon)

The Unitarian Society

East Brunwick, NJ

Reverend Karen G. Johnston

Time for All Ages was the story of the change in title of the Jason Shelton hymn from Standing on the Side of Love to Answering the Call of Love to be more inclusive of all the bodies we humans have.

What if we were to paint the exterior of the building, to make it shiny and bright again?  Oh, yes, we did that this summer.

What if we were to fix the rotting wood that was letting it “rain” on the inside, over by the piano, in fact, was allowing mushrooms to grow?  What if we re-glazed the windows up there?  Or replace the windows in the TUS wing, the ones frames that would sometimes let the panes  slip down to the ground outside?  What if we were to do that?

Oh, right: we already did!  Thank you, Building Task Force, and the many others who helped, for your work in making this happen and nearly seamlessly so!

 

Those of you who have been around for a long time, you know that we didn’t have our nicely-sized kitchen until the 1980s, didn’t have the Montessori wing until 2000. Buildings change (though the jury is out on parking lots).  While this building has always stayed a sanctuary for many, the physical form has shifted over the years, on the outside, and even more so on the inside.

This is a “What If” sermon.  Perhaps last week could be characterized as a “what if everything goes wrong” sermon.  Today is opposite of that.  It’s a sermon that asks “what if we could do ANYthing?”  It asks, “if you didn’t worry about money, or how much effort, or whether you personally had the time, what if we did…[fill in the blank]?”  My request to you is — just for the next half hour — leave outside these walls and the walls of your mind, any limitations and notice what wild ideas spark excitement or possibility in you on behalf of this community.

Let us begin.

What if this beautiful plot of land our founders gifted us could feed anyone who might need sustenance, decades and dozens of decades from now, as the reality of food scarcity grows for more of us?  I wonder if our land could sustain berry bushes, fruit trees, or other perennial foods?  Might this be our gesture of love?

What if we put together families with young children (who naturally make noise – bless them and keep them coming back) and folks with mobility challenges (who don’t want to have to navigate our stairs inside this room – bless them and keep them coming back)? Oh, wait.  We already do that.  Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.  What if we imagined our space anew, perhaps emptying it out completely, and imaging the space based not on our past patterns and needs, but based on our current aspirations and our future needs?  What losses might we grapple with?  What aspirations might we move towards?  There used to be what seemed a permanent structure here, where these intended-to-be curtains are now – what might seem immovable, just might not be, if the will is there.

What if we met at a different time, a time that didn’t conflict with mandatory sports practice or theater rehearsals?  Late Sunday afternoons, staying for an early shared dinner – no dishes to wash at home?  This idea was raised at last month’s workshop; not by me, though I am intrigued.

What if we created a private, welcoming space for those with breastfeeding needs?  Oh, right – that need was raised and immediately, you made it happen.  It’s one of the classrooms – there’s a little sign on the window to let you know.

What if every other January we were thank all the chairs of all the unelected committees and task forces and teams, and then de-chair them?  Why stop with chairs?  What if we emptied out all those groups and then let them fill up again?

It sounds whacky, doesn’t it?  Well, for some of you, who have been serving as a lay leader for long period of time, it probably sounds like relief.  It makes me nervous just to think about – so much so that I want to be clear that I am not proposing this.  But I do wonder about it.  What might we lose? What might we gain? Can it hurt to talk about?

It is the nature of congregational life to have good-byes – congregants leave, staff leave, groups finish their lifespan. There used to be a Men’s Group here, I have heard told.  And a writer’s group.  A Green Sanctuary effort.  In the past two or so years, we’ve said the Social Justice Committee, the Knitting Group, the Book Club all stopped meeting.  I like to think of this as right-sizing ourselves and allowing a fallow time to make fertile ground for what comes next.

What if we had a flat screen that allowed us to show announcements before and after the service ended? That could allow us to show video clips or images without creating a tripping hazard with electrical cords and visual clutter with a laptop and projector? What if it didn’t ruin our Sunday morning service, but enhanced it?

What if we had a small group of people who listened to the joys and sorrows spoken here on Sunday mornings, and sent out cards of condolence or cards of shared joy, extending the circle of sanctuary beyond the time we meet in person together?

What if we were to answer the call of love, not just changing the words in a hymn, but by growing the accessibility of our space? More and more of us will have trouble navigating these few steps. There are already people for whom this sanctuary is no sanctuary for them because it is not accessible.  What if we built a ramp along that wall that allowed folks who already love it here to continue to love it as they age or as their body changes?  One of our members, an architect whose expertise is accessibility, says it’s possible.

What if we were to acquire a generator – remember last week when I preached about building “islands of sanity”?  Given extreme weather related to global warming, given how climate chaos will mean that more often there will be storms like Hurricane Michael (bless those in its direct path), there will be more super storms that directly impact our community – might we equip ourselves to be a community center?  Might we acquire stores of food and water so that if there is a last emergency, we might be one of those needed islands of sanity?  Could this be our gesture of love?

What if, given the possible threats some of us are seeing to access to reproductive health, we were to keep a stash of Plan B, the expensive oral medication that if taken within 72 hours after unprotected intercourse, stops conception?  Frankly, that is something I recently put in place and want to let you know.  It is my hope that if you know someone who has need of it, please get them in touch with me right away.  At this point, it’s a small stash that I keep, bought at a significant discount; if there is a use, I will keep replenishing it as long as I can.

~~~

You might have noticed that the sermon came a bit earlier today that is typical.  In a few minutes, after we sing our final hymn – one that I hope will remind us all that so much is possible, especially when we lean on one another – we will take the offertory and get to hear a beautiful song about being refuge and sanctuary to one another.  Then we have time set aside for you to speak with one another, forming small groups where you are seated (though you are welcome to get up and move, especially if you notice that someone is on their own and does not want to be).  Small groups of 2 or 3 or 4 – more is probably a bit cumbersome – and do some “what if-fing” of your own.  You can reflect and connect about ideas that I raised or come up with some of your own.  You’ll hear the chime ring when it is time to extinguish the chalice and bring the service to an end.

What if all that we do, we do awake and purposeful, we do as a gesture of love?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment