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?
(This sermon was preceded by the poem, Monet Refuses the Operation.)
Are there Star Wars fans in the house? Can I get a sense with a show of hands: how many of you have seen the most recent Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi?
To get everyone on the same page about this, there is the expected hero – a reluctant hero, someone who lost everything, abandoned his past (as well he should, he was a Stormtrooper) but reluctant, sometimes scared, running away. In the movie, his name is Finn. In our own history, he’s John Murray.
The unexpected hero – heroine – of The Last Jedi is Rose – a lowly mechanic, fiercely devoted to the resistance and to bringing down the Empire. Rose has a vision and it is one she will not give up on, even when all odds are against it. In our Universalist story, Rose is Thomas Potter.
And in the movie, Rose is the one that says the most important line:
That’s how we’re going to win.
Not fighting what we hate.
Saving what we love.
Remember Finn and Rose. Because now, I’m going to tell you more about John Murray and Thomas Potter, because 248 years ago today, was the birth of Unitarian Universalism’s very own miracle story. But I have to go back a little in history before we can go forward.
Many of the Universalists in New England and here in the Mid-Atlantic emerged out of the ranks of Baptists, unsatisfied with the theology they were given. Through their direct experience of god (I hope you hear there the allusion to the first source of Unitarian Universalism) they came to understand that salvation was universal.
As such, these folks can be considered proto-Universalists and one of the roots that feed what became Universalism, which, I hope it is obvious, became Unitarian Universalism. There are many bright names associated with this heretical sect of Christianity. Some are from England. Some from this country:
Benjamin Rush (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence).
Olympia Brown – first woman whose ordination was recognized by a denomination.
And the best name, the horseback circuit-riding preacher who visited every state in the union (at the time): Quillen Shinn.
And, of course, John Murray.
I say, of course John Murray, because we just heard a jonty ditty about him – Preach the Gospel of Love, a song that reveals the story of the preacher who lost family and fortune in England, set sail for this continent, got stuck on a sandbar, was found by The Last Jedi’s Rose – I mean, Thomas Potter, and lived out our faith tradition’s very own miracle story – except it actually happened. And right here in New Jersey.
Potter was one of the proto-Universalists – he had come to believe in universal salvation, and it had isolated him, but it did not deter him. He waited ten years after building that chapel for the right preacher – Finn – I mean, Murray – to appear. The right preacher to affirm what his heart already knew: god’s love had to be bigger than anything horrible we mere humans could do, else god not be god. God had to be the very essence of love. God was, indeed, Love.
You don’t actually have to believe in god to see how powerful this understanding of god is.
Turns out that once Murray preached in Good Luck – now Murray Grove – the Universalist watershed was opened. He continued north to New England, eventually rooted himself in Gloucester and Boston, Massachusetts, but traveled some, including back to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Murray is described both as a zealous preacher, but also not particularly candid. It was still a heresy to preach Universalism – heresy with significant consequences. Universalists – decades and even a century after Murray’s heyday – were considered the source of mayhem in society. If they didn’t believe in hell, what kept them from perpetrating crime? Universalists were sometimes persecuted and accused of crimes they did not commit.
So, Murray was a bit cagey. He used logic, applied it to Scripture, and in his preaching, lead the congregation, step by step, to what to him was a forgone conclusion (god is love, there is no sole Elect who will be saved; instead, all will be), but left it for the listeners to come to that conclusion themselves.
Side note: His preaching was both zealous and logical…and primarily extemporaneous. The Unitarian John and Abigail Adams encountered Murray and found his style of preaching to be… “distasteful” — a quintessential conflict between Unitarians and Universalists at that time that still has echoes to this day in our Association. I’m guessing that was because it was more emotional than the style to which they were accustomed.
Consequences for heresy: pulpits were closed to Murray once his reputation for Universalism got around. Not only that, sometimes there was violence. There is the famous – and true – story of the time Murray was preaching and a stone was thrown through the window, landing near him. Without skipping a beat, Murray walked over to the stone, picked it up, and told the congregation, “This argument” (pointing to the stone in his hand) “is weighty, but it is neither rational nor convincing.” Not unlike today’s fake news: given its propensity, its influence is weighty, but it is not rational and we cannot let it be convincing.
What else do I want you to know about Universalism? Well, as I’ve alluded, having no hell below us was not an easy sell. How do you compel people to be good without fear of eternal damnation? It’s a fair question. One that lives with us today in many forms, including “How is it fair that people can do terrible things and too often seem to flourish?” We see it when we struggle with our First Principle to include people whose actions we find abhorrent.
Nineteenth century Universalists tussled with these very questions. Their answer led to two camps that ultimately created a schism. There were Restorationists – folks who believed that everyone goes to heaven, but depending on how they lived their lives on earth, it might take them awhile to be “restored” to heaven. They didn’t call it purgatory – that’s a Catholic term – but I can’t tell the difference. If you know, please make an appointment and fill me in.
Then there were the Ultra-Universalists – they believed that everyone goes to heaven and immediately, no matter how they conducted themselves in this earthly realm. They had a slogan that has been resurrected on a modern day UU t-shirt. The slogan went “Death & Glory!” meaning that immediately after death came “glory,” (another name for the heavenly hereafter). While it may be hard to see the fairness in this, it is logical within the parameters of Universalism.
And that was one of the things: Universalists welcomed logic. And science. Not fearing either in their understanding of god and the world – another thing that set them apart from some other Christian sects. And like the Unitarians, in the early 20th century, they were initially challenged by the emerging humanist movement. Yet, rather than turn their backs on it, they engaged it, and ultimately, found their balance with it by coming to the believe – and without denying the existence of god — that it was acceptable to no longer wait for divine intervention, but to take god’s work into our human hands.
John Murray had a vision, considered heretical by some, true beyond contemporary dogma, by others. What does the story of John Murray teach us now, all these years later? Is it anything more than just a piece of dead and gone history?
(If it were, I wouldn’t be preaching it today.)
One lesson – a hard one — from the John Murray miracle story is that one person’s vision can be powerful, but it is not enough. A vision, no matter how powerful, how real it is, can be broken and lost in the midst of oppression, trauma and unremitting loss.
Yet here’s the good news, the happier lesson: such a vision, in order to survive, needs to be shared by others, needs safe haven, needs more than just one person to give it shape and life.
This is where Thomas Potter comes in, with his persistent faith, his hope of ten years, enduring mockery from his neighbors, holding fast to a vision he had that it was possible to have a world in which there were no elect or chosen, but that what he would have called god’s embrace was wide enough, more inclusive than what the prevailing culture could imagine at that time.
What if Thomas Potter had not had a vision that caused him to build that chapel? Had not seen beyond what was in front of him, empty land, tangible, yes, but not the reality to come?
What if the vision that John Murray had for himself, sculpted from the rubble of betrayal and violence that led him to flee England, to be done of ministry and preaching, had remained solid, demarcated, untouched by the lens offered by Thomas Potter? What if – and I’m thinking now to our reading of the poem, Monet Refuses the Operation — it had stayed like the way the doctor sees the Houses of Parliament, not like how Monet saw them?
Even bigger, what if their vision of the world, of human relations, and ultimately how they understood god, had stayed stuck in the traditional, the orthodox, the lines clear between heaven and hell? What if they hadn’t visioned that there was no hell below us? That whatever of divine energies there are in the world, they are loving, not damning?
And so we encounter the question – how can we be like John Murray, sure, but how can we also be like Thomas Potter? How can we not necessarily be Finn, the reluctant hero in the Last Jedi– but be Rose, who tells us that in wanting the change the world, in resisting Empire, it is not that we fight what we hate, but that we save what we love.
Save (or invent) an immigration system that is fair.
Save (or invent for the first time) a criminal justice system that isn’t inherently racist.
Save a judicial system with judges who don’t harm women in their private hours. Or public ones.
What if we save a world we love in which there is an end of stark divisions in how we see the world, and that beauty and a deep unity are our guides in how we make and remake it – like Monet.
That we save a world we love that believes survivors of sexual assault, that doesn’t produce death threats and hostile, aggressive politicians, or judicial nominees with a barely-hidden propensity for misogyny.
That we save a world we love that not just tolerates, but celebrates, different theological, spiritual, and ethical world views, including – and this is part of both our history and our future legacy – those who do not claim any god as their guiding source, as well as honoring those who do – again, ending needless stark divisions in this realm of human co-existence.
May we, with Unitarian Universalism as the ground below us, covenanted relationship as what holds us together, and good companionship throughout our days, may we be able to see – as the poet’s Monet could – “how heaven pulls the earth into its arms and how infinitely the heart expands to claim this world.”
May we hear ever the call, given to us by our history, re-gifted to us every day we connect with our Unitarian Universalist values and principles, that Love is the guiding force in the world, and can be ours, if we choose it, over and over again – choosing not to fight what we hate, but to save what we love, giving the world not hell, but hope.
(A heads up: last Sunday, when I was not here, I was actually attending the 9am service at First Baptist of Lincoln Gardens, in Somerset. If you are not familiar with First Baptist, it is a Black Baptist church with at least 5,000 members. The worship and theology there are, shall I say, a little bit different than here. I attended as the guest of a new acquaintance. Nearly an hour had already gone by when the pastor warned us all that he was just about to start the sermon and that it was going to take 35 minutes. Now, this sermon is not going to be 35 minutes. But I am giving you a heads up that I think it’s going to be a bit longer than usual…)
We all are familiar with the “I Have a Dream Speech.”
For many of us, perhaps most of us, it can still make your spine tingle. Dr. King’s oratory was fierce and moving, his vision: powerful. When he said – “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – it seemed actually possible.
This an undated photo shows Rosa Parks riding on the Montgomery Area Transit System bus. Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus on Dec. 1, 1955, and ignited the boycott that led to a federal court ruling against segregation in public transportation. In 1955, Montgomery’s racially segregated buses carried 30,000 to 40,000 blacks each day. (AP Photo/Daily Advertiser)
He spoke those words after Rosa sat down so that Martin could stand up with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
But that speech was before the Voting Rights Act of 1964 – its promise and its limitations — and the Noble Peace Prize of that same year, and Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. It was before John Kennedy was shot, before Malcolm was shot, and most certainly before Bobby Kennedy was shot, because he was killed after an assassin’s bullet killed Martin at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
That “I Have a Dream” speech was well before Dr. King joined his voice to those speaking against the war in Viet Nam. That he did a year before he died – actually, exactly a year: April 4, 1967, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. He had quietly stated his opposition to the war before then, but on that day, in front of the media, in this very public setting, he formally broke from the policies of President Johnson, a strategy that many in the civil rights movement thought foolhardy.
And it was way before Dr. King, in organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, spoke out in new ways, before he began to sound more like slain Malcolm or a representative of the newly emerging Black Panther movement, just a month before he was killed. In his speech to Union 1199 in New York City, a speech called, “The Other America,” Dr. King moved ever deeper into a radical analysis – radical, meaning getting at the root of a thing – of the causes of racial oppression, examining and identifying the interconnected means of oppression: racial, economic, and imperialistic.
On April 4, just ten days from now, we mark fifty years since Dr. King was murdered. Next Sunday is Easter, which does not seem like the right time to speak to this uneasy anniversary. And the following Sunday, April 8, I will be at the Revolutionary Love conference, where many of the people carrying on Dr. King’s radical legacy that justice is what love looks like in public, including Reverend Dr. William Barber and Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-coveners of a resurrection of the Poor People’s Campaign. Yes, that crushed legacy of Dr. King’s is being brought back to life, nationally, as well as in over 30 states, including here in New Jersey, with a planned forty days of action between Mother’s Day (May 13) and June 21, culminating in a rally to launch a multi-year campaign of massive non-violence to address economic poverty with a morally-centered agenda.
So today, we’re looking at Dr. King’s legacy, or lost legacy. Not the palpable legacy that has put Dr. King on a pedestal. Not the legacy that moves the King Estate to sell rights to his “I Have a Dream” speech to sell Ram pick-up trucks on Superbowl Sunday. Not the legacy that has made Dr. King into a milquetoast saint, allowing our revisionist histories of him, his vision, and our relationship with both.
(But maybe, just maybe, it’s the “I Have a Dream” legacy that his granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, 9-year-old granddaughter spoke about at yesterday’s March 4 Our Lives in Washington, D.C. where she said, in response to gun violence in our nation, that her dream was “enough is enough.”)
When I mention our revisionist tendencies, I’m talking about how in 1999, the Gallup Poll calculated a list of people most admired at that time by the American people. Dr. King was #2 (after Mother Teresa). The funny thing – not funny-haha, but funny ironic – was that in the years leading up to his death, thirty years before he came in at #2, Dr. King rarely appeared on their list of top ten most admired people. In fact, using their scientific means to measure such things, in 1965, the year after he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, it was 45% for both negative and positive regard. And in 1966 – the last year Gallup measured in this way – Dr. King was seen positively by 32% of those polled… and 63% saw him negatively.
It makes me think of the reading in the back of our grey hymnal, #565, from Clinton Lee Scott:
Grandchildren of those who stoned the prophet sometimes gather up the stone to build the prophet’s monument.
I am going to read some of Dr. King’s words from that speech fifty years ago; Kathy is going to offer current information on each of the areas of concern that Dr. King raises.
Dr. King: “There are literally two Americas. … I’m sure that each of us is painfully aware of the fact that there is another America and that other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of Hope into the fatigue of despair. In that other America, millions of people find themselves forced to live in inadequate substandard and often dilapidated housing conditions. And these conditions: they don’t have wall-to-wall carpets but all too often they find themselves living with wall-to-wall rats and roaches.”
“In New Jersey, the Fair Market Rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,420. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities — without paying more than 30% of income on housing — a household must earn $4,734 monthly or $56,810 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into an hourly Housing Wage of $27.31.”
The most expensive areas: Middlesex, Somerset, and Hunterdon Counties, where the necessary “hourly housing wage” (definition: what it takes to afford a two-bedroom fair market rental) increases to $31.81.
Dr. King “In this other America, thousands – yay even millions — of young people are forced to attend and adequate substandard inferior quality less schools. and year after year thousands of young people in this other America finish our high schools reading at an eighth- and a ninth-grade level sometimes.
Not because they are dumb. Not because they don’t have innate intelligence. But because the schools are so inadequate, so overcrowded, so devoid of quality, so segregated — if you will — that the best in these minds can never come out.”
[The UCLA Civil Rights Project report, published last September] shows that New Jersey has moved another substantial step toward a segregated future with no racial majority but severe racial stratification and division. The resulting harms affect a continually growing sector of the population and mean that schools are not serving their historical function of bringing newcomers and excluded groups into the mainstream of the society.
Although the state has invested billions in trying to equalize school funding under a remarkable series of orders from the NJ Supreme Court, profound racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps remain in educational outcomes. School segregation in NJ is not only by race, but it is double segregation by race and poverty with black and Latino students in schools with far poorer classmates—conditions research shows to be linked to educational inequality. There have been no significant efforts to change these patterns.
Dr. King: “The most critical problem in the other America is the economic problem. By the millions, people in the other America find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. … Now what we’ve got to do is to attack the problem of poverty and really mobilize the forces of our country to have an all-out war against poverty because what we have now is not even a good skirmish against poverty.
I need not remind you that poverty — the gaps in our society, the gulfs between inordinate superfluous wealth and abject deadening poverty have brought about a great deal of Despair, a great deal of tension, a great deal of bitterness.”
“The rich keep getting richer in New Jersey and the poor aren’t keeping pace, new data shows. Income inequality in New Jersey, or the gap between the rich and poor, now ranks 12th-highest in the nation, according to the latest 2012-2016 Census data. It’s getting worse in 14 of the 21 counties, with the other seven remaining steady. The gap is most pronounced in Essex County. Home to both Millburn, which has one of the state’s highest median household incomes at $190,625, and Newark, which has one of the state’s lowest at $33,025, Essex is one of the most economically segregated places in the country.”
It is hard to see much, if any, progress in the past half century since Dr. King’s death. Some progress in some areas, perhaps for a small slice of Black and Brown communities, but little or no movement, perhaps even movement backwards in other areas. I think to how the pervasive presence of gun culture – gun chaos, really — in communities of all shades and socio-economic statuses, has worsened most every ill in our society. It leaves a person feeling despondent, as Dr. King himself would speak to in some of his speeches, including in this speech about The Other America.
Perhaps this is where music – yes — and gathering together in community – such as happened across our nation yesterday with the March 4 Our Lives, which USA Today said was the largest single-day protest in our nation’s history (with an estimated 800,000 in attendance in DC – the first Women’s March, to compare it to, had 500,000). Perhaps these things can enter in and save us not from such a harsh reality, but from despondency in the face of that reality, so that we might change that harsh reality, so that we might bend that moral arc of the universe towards (what?) ___________________ (justice).
We are blessed and honored to have with us today Terri Lynne Goines, one of Nick’s students from Rider University, who has shared with us the gift of her voice. I knew when I began planning today’s service to honor the anniversary of this infamous deed in American history, that I would want for us to be able to sing what has been called and claimed as the National Black Anthem.
I am also very aware that for a congregation whose membership consists of some, but only a few, people who can claim this song as part of their cultural heritage, that it is important that we be thoughtful and intentional.
I knew the origin story of Lift Every Voice and Sing, but I didn’t know how it came to be part of our Unitarian Universalist hymnody. I learned that from a colleague, the UU minister Joanne Giannino. In a sermon she wrote, she asked the following questions:
Does it make sense for congregations made up mostly of people from the dominant culture to sing African American spirituals? … have they earned the right?
Does it make sense for people who have no lived experience of racism to sing songs that tell a story that isn’t their own? … As new voices try to learn something they can’t quite know but might access through the song, a story, an image, will that matter?
Perhaps singing songs together, and doing so from a variety of traditions, helps us to know one another, help us to recognize and honor each other, helps us to respect boundaries at the right times, to transcend them when that serves a greater good. Perhaps like James Weldon, who was so moved by the experience of turning his spoken word into song, even as the words to that very song recalled a brutal past (a brutality that did not stay only in the past but continued, continues, in the now), that we, too can be moved by the fires of commitment, to “sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, the hope that the present has brought us.”
For this song with gravitas and history, we come close to earning the privilege of its gift as part of our worship when we seek its story and context, when we give its history the respect it is due. As I thought about how to do this, I knew it would be wrong to just sing this song, so I knew that we would need to learn the history. Also, it did not seem right, given that we are a majority white congregation, for a white person to sing it. And because this is worship – not performance – it seemed wrong just to invite Terrie here to sing for us while we only passively received the song.
So on this day when we honor the vision and legacy of Dr. King, raising up that radical aspect of his vision so often erased, it is that we sing, lifting our voices to the chorus, a hundred years plus in the continual making, of voices singing together. Please rise in body or spirit, as we all sing together the National Black Anthem, our hearts and minds commemorating the tragic day nearly fifty years ago, when this nation and this world lost a voice for justice, peace, and true human decency.
In the 1960s, the Unilever corporation, in their quest to make and sell laundry detergent, encountered a problem. Now, remember, this is more than fifty years ago, so the ubiquitous form of laundry detergent in our homes was…powder, that came to us in rectangular cardboard boxes. Remember?
Unilever’s system involved pumping, at high pressure, from a gigantic outdoor tank, liquid detergent into an indoor space, through a hose, out a nozzle, where the fine mist of liquid detergent would make contact with air, dry, and fall to the floor where it was then scooped cardboard packaging.
However, the nozzle kept clogging. They had invested in a brilliant, knowledgeable engineer to design the correct nozzle but that did not work. The situation was too complex for the approach of analyze problem, design solution, experience success.
So they turned old school: trial and error.
Embracing failure as the teacher it is, they made ten copies of the nozzle, adjusting each one just a bit, each differently, then tried it out. They then took the one that was most successful, and copied it, creating another ten nozzles, varying that one ten different ways, just slightly. Over and over again, trial and error, refining the nozzle’s design.
After 45 generations and 449 ‘failures’, they had a nozzle that was outstanding.
I hope, whatever it is that you are trying to figure out in your life right now, that it does not take 449 trials for you to reach outstanding. However, given that you are still breathing, you will, no doubt, encounter moments of trial and error, of actual failure, sometimes more than you think you can in that moment bear, and you will have to choose how to respond. We will have to choose how to respond. I will have to choose how to respond.
I think this is a good question for each of us individually and most definitely an important question for us as a congregation in the 21st century.
The Berry Street Lecture is the longest, consecutively-running public lecture in the United States, and it’s ours – it is Unitarian Universalist. In 2015, Reverend Sean Dennison, who currently serves our UU congregation in Ashland, Oregon, gave a talk with the title “Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option.” But he was being clever, playing with words. He was suggesting that failure is not an option because it is inherent in the process, it is unavoidable. We cannot help but fail. Sean noted that, “If our mission is big enough, we will fail….It is inevitable.”
Oh, I am not a big fan of this particular growth opportunity. The lesson of befriending failure. The lesson of appreciating, or even just accepting, imperfection. They say that best sermons that a minister preaches are the ones that we ourselves need to hear. I don’t know if this one will be among my best, but I know I need to hear this. Over and over again. I need to hear and practice that failure is my friend. Is our friend. Is okay.
And, at least when it comes to the larger challenges we are facing in our shared congregational life, is just might be what we should be aiming for.
I’m guessing that you have heard Unitarian Universalism described as a non-creedal religion – we do not have a dogma, or set of beliefs, that we must affirm. I’m hoping that perhaps as a counter point to that description, you have heard that Unitarian Universalism is covenantal – that the promises we make to each other, the expectations of how we treat each other, the relational shape we take as a gathered people – these are what bind us, all the way back to our Puritan ancestors.
To live into this reality of covenant, many Unitarian Universalist congregations develop covenants to help, what my friend and colleague, Reverend Jordinn Nelson Long, make “explicit those things we each hold to be obvious.” There are board covenants, and covenants of right relations. Some congregations ask all their committees to develop a covenant. Youth groups have covenants and our children in religious education practice making them as well.
In this congregation, we have a Covenant of Right Relations, developed about eight years ago. The Committee on Shared Ministries developed a covenant this past fall. They are super proud of it and would love to share with anyone who is interested. Even the staff of this congregation has a covenant, finished just last month.
As the staff were in the process of developing our covenant, the outside facilitator noticed that there was a thread running through our process: an impulse towards perfectionism and creating compassionate ways to respond to the inevitable falling short. Responding to this, the covenant reads as follows:
Give each other permission to take creative risks, knowing that not all of our ideas will work out, recognizing that perfectionism is a barrier to growth, viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of relationship, and that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance this process. (**borrowed from another UU congregation because this language is so awesome!)
A more concise way to say that: embrace failure. Take as our ethos the quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Which sounds awesome and clever and poetic and all that, but there’s just one teensy-weensy thing: for some of us type-A personalities, but more importantly, for society in general, we don’t embrace failure. We fear it. Sean Dennison said it this way, “The system has taught us that our value comes from our proximity to perfection.”
While this may be my sh*t, it is not only my sh*t. I know that I am not alone. (Can I get an amen?)
The problem with this, as Sean Dennison also said, is that
… as long as we fear failure—as long as we use up vast amounts of energy trying to be perfect, absolutely and adamantly competent, we are not going to have the energy to be or become the relevant, responsive, passionate, and growing movement of Unitarian Universalists we yearn to be. As long as we are frozen in our tracks by the fear that we might fail or more accurately, that others might find out we fail, we are stuck thinking small, making only the safest of plans that we already know will succeed. But I am here to tell you: You might as well go ahead and plan to fail, because you’re going to do it anyway. You already are.
I want to share with you the closing words by the British author, Neil Gaiman, from his speech to a group of graduates called, “Make Good Art.”
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
Make good art. We could translate this into make good church. And he says make good art and make the art only you can make. This translates into “make good church that only we Unitarian Universalist can do,” so in our case it might be “make good Society” or “make good congregational life” neither of which have the same oomph as “make good church.”
This is what the 21st century America is calling us to do: figure out how to make good art with the ethical, spiritual, and community tools in our possession, here in the midst of a rapidly changing cultural landscape full of division, isolation, institutionalized exclusion, enormous shifts in cultural power and demographics, and at the same time, is becoming less and less interested in congregational life.
Do I think the need for people to gather and to belong and to find purpose will go away? No, because I don’t think the deep need to do these things will go away. In fact, I think these unmet existential longings – to gather, to belong, to find purpose – will only grow as materialism, climate constriction, and authoritarianism grows in our midst. But they are always being met by new means, and this requires of us to follow that Samuel Beckett’s advice, “ever [try]. Ever [fail]. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Two weeks from today, just after the service, and with light lunch provided so that your hungry stomachs will not distract you, our Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, will be facilitating a Town Hall open to all. This meeting was sparked by a series of workshops, the first one called, provocatively, “The Death of Sunday School,” and then re-titled for fear of scaring folks off to “The Future of Faith Formation,” and then the rest of the workshops called, “The Sequel to Sunday School.” Jillian is going to share with you all – since this is your congregation and its life and future, are in your hands and our hands as a shared ministry – information about the changing cultural landscape and how that is impacting religious education.
It turns out that the solutions that worked in the past, don’t apply in the same ways or, in many cases, at all. Just over twenty years ago, there were just over 80 kids enrolled in the RE program with 2/3 – ¾ of them attending regularly. This year we have 23 registered and we have somewhere between 1/3 and ½ attending on any given Sunday. Our nozzle is clogged.
Spoiler alert: no one knows what the solutions to this challenges facing religious education are or are going to be. We – each UU congregation and the whole of Unitarian Universalism (and really, the whole of mainline Protestantism, many Catholic congregations, and most of the Jewish congregations) – can’t just hire an engineer to develop the perfect nozzle. We are going to have to get friendly with risking and failing, with trial and error, with experi-learning, with embracing failure as the cruel and kind teacher it is. We get to practice viewing our inevitable mistakes as opportunities for growth and a deepening of our relationships with each other. We get to live into the understanding that apologies and forgiveness are tools to enhance our shared communal life.
It’s exciting and frightening and daunting and stimulating. And it calls on all of us to be a part of it, because while Jillian will be presenting on religious education, the dynamics and influences she will name impact nearly every aspect of congregational life. I hope you will join me in attending this important event.
Whenever I am given a big piece of news, particularly if there is a strong emotional component to it –something that might overwhelm me, or cause me to worry, or be afraid — I go to poetry. With poetry, I am more likely to feel held and I am more likely to feel not so much alone. So I offer you this poem from Wendell Berry, titled, [ten – the Roman numeral “X”], from his collection called, “Leavings:”
I go by a field where once
I cultivated a few poor crops.
It is now covered with young trees,
for the forest that belongs here
has come back and reclaimed its own.
And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that failed work and how much
it taught me. For in so failing
I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now
I welcome back the trees.
For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself. Ah, this will be my spiritual practice, this will be my mantra, repeated mostly for my own ears, my own heart to hear so that I might trust it: For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.
I need this spiritual practice because if our congregants are going to be relevant, while we cannot do it on our own, ministers must lead the way. Doing so not without fear, but in spite of the fear of failure. Perhaps like what Humpty Dumpty experienced as he climbed that very tall wall, before he found himself flying.
For in so failing, I learned something of my place, something of myself.
You have to keep on trying, just not the same thing.
It is essential to read between the lines. I had already learned this, but when I was in seminary, I had the chance to learn it again. For instance, in Christian scripture, when Paul writes that women should be silent, he is doing so because women are Not. Being. Silent. If we were, there would have been no need for Paul to tell the Corinthians to hush us up.
Reading between the lines gives us a richer understanding of the true texture of our own history. For instance, in her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander mentions that during the era of so-called “Southern Redemption,” authorities outlawed the game of chess…between Black and white people.
What does this tell us? That instead of a natural, god-given racial divide, African Americans and whites were socializing, were friendly: were playing chess together –– else there be no need to make a law against it. The powers that be longed for a wide and hostile division, constructed it through criminalizing such contact, then penalized only the Black folk.
And why is this relevant for Unitarian Universalists?
Reading between the lines allows us to see that our roots are in unexpected ground. Reading between the lines, particularly thanks to the Unitarian Universalist minister and historian, Susan Ritchie, has allowed us to trace back some of our Unitarian history – the founding happenings in what was Hungary then, what is now the Transylvanian region of Romania — to a relationship with the Ottoman Empire and with 16th century Islam.
Yes, you heard me right: Islam. Is your mind blown? Good.
We know this, not because it had been stated forthrightly. In fact, there is evidence of erasure. We know this because it can be read between the lines in anti-Islamic and anti-Unitarian tracts of the time. These treatises suggested, with nefarious intent, that the newly emerging Unitarian church was an agent of Mohammed, this being a quick way to sabotage its leaders as illegitimate.
I wonder, friends, do you hear the echoes of modern day Islamophobia there? I do.
I want us to spend most of our morning in the 16th century but I also want to make sure that all of us in the room are working with the same basic information about our modern history before we go several centuries back.
Unitarian Universalism comes out of the merger, in 1961, of two separate Christian denominations: the Unitarians and the Universalists. While both were considered heretical in their own way, they were still fully within the Christian fold; thus, our primary history is rooted firmly in Christianity.
Today, however, Unitarian Universalism no longer understands itself to be a Christian denomination (even as we honor and love individual UU Christians and practices among us). We do understand ourselves to be a religion of our own, and are recognized as such. While we value interfaith engagement and have amongst us many interfaith families, we, ourselves, are not an “interfaith religion,” though you sometimes hear people say that.
We are Unitarian Universalism: that plain and simple, that complex.
Back in the time of what was the Protestant Reformation – and remember, just this past October, 2017, we marked the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther hammering his 95 theses that sparked that revolution — our Unitarian and Universalist traditions were unsatisfied with these reforms, pressed for further adaptation beyond what would become mainstream Protestantism, and found ourselves more closely aligned with radical reformers of the time.
This year – 2018 — marks the 450th anniversary of one of our most cherished founding documents: the 1568 Edict of Torda. You heard it as our reading today. I’m going to read it again, in all its old language glory, noting that it uses the word, “diet” which means “assembly” and, of course, male pronouns where we moderns would choose otherwise:
His majesty, our Lord, in what manner he – together with his realm – legislated in the matter of religion at the previous Diets, in the same matter now, in this Diet, reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well. If not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.
Therefore none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching. For faith is the gift of God and this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.
That’s Francis David with the light of god inspiring him at the Diet where the Edict of Torda was declared
In this, I wonder if you can hear the echo of our own freedom of the pulpit and the pew – your minister gets to preach what she deems necessary and lay folk – you pew-sitters, you — are free to believe what you deem right and necessary.
This is good stuff. Particularly when you consider the wider political context: all around Europe there was a lot of killing for believing something other than what whatever leader where you lived believed or decreed should be believed. Catholics being killed for not being Protestant; Protestants being killed for not being Catholic. And outside of this part of Hungary, if you were Unitarian, you got killed for being neither.
And by good stuff, I do not perfect stuff. For instance, the tolerance extended only just so far: to the Catholics, the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Unitarians. Well, hey, it was the first time that we made the “marquee of religious tolerance.” We made it onto the marquee because of those four, in that small corner of the world, we were largest in number.
We made it on the “religious tolerance marquee” because the Edict of Torda was put forward by our one and our only Unitarian king, John Sigismund; was written by our Unitarian martyr, his court preacher, Francis Dávid; as well as by the king’s doctor, also a Unitarian, Giorgio Biandratta; and influenced by the king’s humanist mother, Queen Isabella.
King John Sigismund
(Also this good stuff wasn’t perfect stuff for another reason: it didn’t last. Because after that one and only Unitarian King died and the next one came, Francis Dávid, the one who wrote the Edict, was imprisoned for “innovation in religion,” one of the very things the Edict was protecting against. He died in a dungeon prison.)
Here’s the thing that blew my mind when I first heard about it. Here’s the thing about our roots being in unexpected ground. We also made it onto the “religious tolerance marquee” (and I swear that is the last time I will say that phrase) because the Sultan Suleyman of the Ottoman Empire, years earlier, came to the rescue of Queen Isabella, and her then-infant son, already-named-king, Sigismund, who were under attack by the Hapsburgs.
If this benevolent Muslim emperor had not created what Ritchie called “one of the safest places in Europe for the development of progressive Protestantism,” we Unitarians would not be on…well, no one would have seen our name in the lights of this new religious freedom. Without the protection of the Muslim-ruled Ottoman Empire, we would not have the lineage we have today and we would not be celebrating 450 years of an awesome declaration of religious freedom.
Blew my mind. Is it blowing yours, too?
It turns out, even though the Edict of Torda is often referenced as the first of its kind, that isn’t quite true. It’s been believed to be true until not all that long ago, mostly because of enacted impulse to erase all evidence of a liberal Islam that was part of that corner of the world, a liberal Islam that supported religious tolerance, and, in fact, provided the groundwork for the Edict of Torda we celebrate today.
It turns out that even before there was a Francis Dávid or a Unitarian King John Sigismund or even a Sultan Suleyman, there was a Pasha of Buda. Not Buddha, like Buddhism. But Buda, like the city of Budapest.
This Pasha – a Muslim official – twenty years before our beloved edict, in 1548, when asked by Catholic authorities in Tolna to kill a pastor for his unapologetic reformed ideas, refused the request. He refused and took it one step further, issuing an edict of toleration which stated, in part, that
“preachers of the faith invented by Luther should be allowed to preach the Gospel everywhere to everybody, whoever wants to hear, freely and without fear, and that all Hungarians and Slavs (who indeed wish to do so) should be able to listen to and receive the word of God without any danger.”
Do you hear the echo? The one about listening to and receiving, hearing the word of god? Do you hear the freedom of the pulpit and the pew? Ritchie tells us that there is no paper trail that links the Pasha’s edict and the one written by our Francis Dávid. However, she makes a compelling argument that if Dávid did not know the Pasha personally, he had to have been well aware of the Pasha, given his role as a church administrator who abided by the Pasha’s governance.
In general, Ritchie believes that rather than a cause-effect relationship between Islam and Unitarianism, she paints “a portrait of two cultures more greatly enmeshed in patterns of creative engagement, mutual attraction, and circular patterns of influence than we have imagined before” (p.15). In fact, she asks – and this is particularly provocative given modern depictions in mainstream media in America and Europe –
“Could it be that toleration, that most precious inheritance of the European Enlightenment, was instead a shared liberal Christian/Muslim undertaking?” (p.15)
Why all this history in today’s sermon? Because history is not just the story of yesterday, but often is the story of today and quite possibly tomorrow.
Have you ever noticed – in news reports and political speeches? in movies and novels? perhaps in your own mind? — the stereotype of the oppressed Muslim woman, forced to wear clothing against her will, living at the beck and call of Muslim men who restrict her and disrespect her? What if I were to tell you that there is evidence that our modern-day stereotypes are rooted in anti-Islamic propaganda contemporary to the time of the Edict of Torda? Are rooted in attempts to undermine the multi-faith, religiously tolerant societies that our religious ancestors were trying to cultivate?
There were accounts, the purpose of which was to “enflame ethnic hatred against Turks.” (Ritchie) Some were constructed with liberal Protestants in mind, particularly those living under oppressive conditions in the Hapsburg lands proximate to Hungary who might, given how hard their lives were under Catholic rule, be tempted to see the Ottomans in a friendly light.
If the line between the Pasha of Buda’s edict and the Unitarian Edict of Torda was not direct, this connection nearly is. It turns out that there is a genre of contemporary European literature that characterized Muslim women as gender oppressed and that this caricature – this stereotype – was constructed intentionally to offend liberal Christians who might have otherwise appreciated Islam or found within it beneficial aspects.
Now granted, patriarchy is everywhere, so I’m not saying that there’s not a culture of misogyny in Muslim-majority countries. I’m just saying, it’s not only there. We do a fair amount of scapegoating of Islam for a practice that exists in every religion, every nation, every culture.
My favorite modern response to this particular dynamic of scapegoating Islam for sexism is a political cartoon by Malcolm Evans.
A Western woman, wearing a bikini, high heels, and sunglasses, walks past a Muslim woman wearing a burka — all we can see is her eyes. The thought bubble in the Western woman is one we are familiar with, and perhaps even know in our own hearts, “Everything covered BUT her eyes! Cruel male-dominated culture!” The thought bubble in the Muslim woman goes like this: “NOTHING covered but her eyes: what a cruel male-dominated culture!”
I raise all this for your consideration for two reasons. Reason one: to lift up that some of the seeds for current-day Islamophobia, including the kind that finds its way into liberal and progressive hearts, were sown at the time our ancient people were trying to build within hearts and minds and society a way for religious tolerance; that these seeds were sown to subvert our religious ancestors and the world they dreamed about.
Those nefarious anti-Islamic and anti-Unitarian seed sowers, they were not wholly successful. Hallelujah!
But they were not unsuccessful, either. Which leads us to reason two: this was not just their work back then. It is our work now.
With the rise in Islamophobic actions and crimes; with our very government targeting Muslim communities with travel bans and restrictions on immigration, this is very much our work to do now. Ours as Unitarian Universalists and ours as residents living in Central Jersey, where one of our greatest natural resources is the ethnic and religious diversity that the 21st century has gifted us in our neighbors, our co-workers, tradespeople we encounter every day, elected officials who serve our communities, friendships that expand our worlds.
Let us honor our roots in this unexpected ground.
Let us defy the stereotypes handed to us, sometimes handmade for our own sensibilities, and seek larger possibilities of a shared world.
Let us amplify the presence of liberal Islam in the past and in the present, including among devoted Unitarian Universalists who understand themselves as sharing identities in both spiritual worlds.
Let us be more than a little bit subversive, building friendships and partnerships across divides that others attempt to coarsen – across differences of religion, of nationality.
Francis Dávid, our early Unitarian ancestor, famously said, “God is One.” To end this sermon, let us raise up our voices singing the hymn, “We Would Be One,” bringing melody from deep within our hearts, voicing these words: “We would be one in living for each other to show to all a new community.”
A grandmother — who was not only the end of all arguments in his large extended family, but often the start of them as well. This is how Bryan Stevenson often begins his talks: with the story of his grandmother and her propensity to hug so hard… and so long… and then – because she wasn’t finished – would ask, hours later: do you still feel my hug?
Perhaps this is where he learned in such an embodied way about the importance of “getting proximate.”
If you listen to this founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama; author of the compelling book, Just Mercy, which I know some of you have read; this death row lawyer who represented dozens of prisoners, many of whom had been wrongly imprisoned, some of whom he was able to exonerate; this leader who has created a new “museum of conscience” called The National Memorial for Peace and Justice that will commemorate, lest we erase, the history of lynching in this country, that we might be liberated by its ghosts; if you listen to this man, you will hear that there are many reasons he believes the first thing we ALL must do is get more proximate.
That is the first of the four essential things that Bryan Stevenson, that lawyer, the man who gave the annual Ware Lecture at our annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists last June in New Orleans names. These four essential things are meant to bring about justice. They are four essential things to lend our weight, and the hefty weight of the Word of Love, in order to bend the moral arc of the universe towards what, my friends?
Perhaps feeling the insistent hug of this grandmother, herself the child of parents who had once been enslaved, Bryan Stevenson tells us to do four things:
Number One: Get proximate. Get closer to the people and places of suffering, to those things and people we each care most deeply about. Do not do your caring from a distance. Get out of the armchair. Do not do your expressing of outrage from a distance. Get away from the screens. Do not join in lamentation or give relief remotely. Do it up close. Closer than is convenient. Closer than feels familiar, at least at first. Closer than is polite (though choose consent, my friends: always choose consent.)
Why? Well, the words on your order of service give a fine reason:
“When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”
Mercy – giving it, receiving it – is only possible through close proximity. You may be able to forgive and forget from a distance, but you cannot grant or accept mercy unless you are right in the mess of things.
Number Two: to bring about justice, we must change the narrative. For Stevenson, with his history of working with death row inmates, of working with Black and Brown people whose actions have been disproportionately criminalized, it means believing — in head and heart — that no one – none of us — is wholly defined by the worst thing they have done.
This is also the same person using his MacArthur Genius grant to establish not only that National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a memorial to our nation’s history of lynching, ostensibly scheduled to open on April 26 this year. What does it mean that a man who says “we are not defined by the worst thing we have done” is the founder of our nation’s first comprehensive memorial to lynching? With this, he is trying to change the narrative to make sure that by remembering such history we will, instead, be liberated by it, instead of living in this viscous morass in which we are doomed to repeat the sins of the past, in which we are repeating the sins of the past. I invite you to seek out – you can google it, or I will put a link to it in next Wednesday’s weekly eblast – the three-minute video clip that shows the artist’s representation of this memorial. It’s stunning. I have not yet had reason to want to go to Montgomery, but this new memorial, and its sibling new institution, The Legacy Museum, also opening around the same time, are giving me cause to change my mind.
We here in East Brunswick have special reason to be paying attention to the creation of new memorials. In fact, this Tuesday at 7pm – and you all are invited – we are having our next meeting to talk about what to do with this history of the Van Wickle Slave Ring and how we might build a memorial to its victims. And on Saturday evening, February 17 – mark your calendars now – we are hosting a community presentation with a local historian, someone from Rutgers who specializes in public history, and community members who want to change the narrative and build a memorial. I hope you will consider coming.
When Stevenson speaks about changing the narrative, he talks about living into the reality that there is always the possibility for change, for progress, for redemption. Closely aligned with our Universalist theology of a God called Love – can you still feel that hug from Bryan’s grandmother? do you still feel the weight of the Word around your neck? – a theology that asserts it is profound arrogance to suggest that any human act of sin could be greater than god’s loving capacity to forgive – ours, perhaps, but not god’s.
Number Three: Stay hopeful. Given the era in which we find ourselves, given the rising authoritarianism in the land, given the increase in hate crimes, given the skewed and lewd nature of our politics — Friends, we are living in a time when hope is utterly essential and downright difficult to find, much less sustain. Stay hopeful?
I don’t know about you, but for me, this is the hardest of the four. And so I compel myself to listen to these words from Stevenson, who straight out says that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”
So, when I am struggling to stay hopeful, or get to hopeful so that I can attempt to stay there, I think of the wisdom that comes to us from the twelve-step movement: fake it til you make it. Sometimes by acting hopeful, you find that you can come to feel the hope.
Of course, that is not enough, so I couple it with the practice of humility. Near the beginning of the first world war, Virginia Woolf wrote these words:
‘The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.’
She is using dark here not as terrible, but as unknowable. We humans confuse these things on all the time.
Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for you: I confuse these things on the daily. Not intending it as such, it is a form of arrogance, all the doom and gloom saying about the future that I can engage in – it’s as if my dismal certainty is preferable than not knowing. Preferable? I think it takes the cultivation of emotional intelligence, possibly through spiritual practice, to walk away from this particular form of arrogance. I’m trying. Every day, I promise you, I’m trying. And in my more spacious, ironic moments, I turn to these words from the author Rebecca Solnit:
“Again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.”
So, stay hopeful, friends.
Number Four: Do uncomfortable things. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Really? Yes.
That heavy word of Love that god gave us – gave me, gave you, gives all of us if we are willing, even if only metaphorically – that’s not convenient by any stretch, not always comfortable, not if we are doing it right.
Uncomfortable might be a whole slew of things:
Be the only one of your kind someplace – the only straight person in a gay bar; the only white person in a room that is full of people of color – and doing so with humility, curiosity, and respect.
Be in a space where Spanish – or Hindi or Urdu — is the primary language and it’s not yours.
If you are a man and in a room where decisions are being made, it’s staying silent, or ceding your turn to a woman or a gender non-conforming person.
It’s using the pronoun “they” in its singular form, moving into the reality that the pronouns “he” and “she” are no longer sufficient for the beautiful human cacophony of diversity we experience.
Maybe doing uncomfortable things involves inviting uncomfortable feelings. Confusion or grief; some forms of shame or – and I say this as one white person to a room with many white people in it – our own white fragility – all these forms of discomfort can be a teacher. Some social theorists call it an interrupter, a positive thing because it is interrupting archaic habits and allowing new ones – new neurological thought patterns – to emerge. So number four asks us to welcome discomfort: it can be a gift.
This is by no means a linear list. These are not four distinct injunctions that you take separately, one at a time, in order, and then, voilá, you are somehow complete and done and get to rest on your laurels. I have come to believe that while each is its own, they are also very much interdependent and circle around to each other.
When I have gotten more proximate with, as Bryan Stevenson says, “a place or a people rich with suffering,” my unbidden fantasies of being noble are quickly replaced by the experience of discomfort, sometimes deeply so – uncomfortable with difference; uncomfortable because the rules for social interaction are upended; uncomfortable because I observe judgment or some other unbidden shadow rise up within me.
Or uncomfortable “sleeping” on a couch in an overheated room in a nearly empty building, my body on alert and so my sleep disrupted, yet being of greater service.
It is when I get proximate, even with that inconvenience or discomfort, that I also am more likely to experience that which makes me hopeful: I feel that I am being of use. Even if I am clumsy, having mustered the courage to attempt it, cultivates confidence and this, too, usually feeds hope.
When I am able to sustain a hopeful orientation to the world, the doom narrative that too often dwells inside me changes, and thus changes the narrative I spread in the wider world.
All this helps me carry around that heavy Word of Love, the one hanging from my neck, held in my mouth, burned into my heart as I get proximate with the poor and broken hearted, the queer boi or angry girl, closer to the man (and woman) with no papers.
Or with all of the screwed up and pushed over and too tired and the I can’t take no more’s.
And perhaps even – and here take a deep breath — the politician spewing hatred or the minister in the costume of a saint – though, my friends, that is infinitely harder.
Most definitely when I start moving to and with the saints and sinners and scramblers inbetween – that’s when it’s more likely that I can stay hopeful, when I am with the scramblers inbetween, when I am with my people, when I am with you, dear ones, when I am with you.
Long ago, in a Galilee far, far away…[nah, just kidding…]
(the actual sermon…)
With the story of the birth of baby Jesus, numerous angels make an appearance.
An angel informs Mary she will miraculously bear a child.
Before that, Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were visited too; were told that she, in her old age, would conceive and bear a son (Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist).
The shepherds, tending their flocks by night, were visited by angels.
And later, to Joseph, twice an angel appears, both times with a message of protection in the midst of danger.
The message of the angels? Be Not Afraid.
You need not believe in angels for this story to resonate. The authors of these stories that became Christian scripture chose, like others of their time, divine messengers. They did this will full knowledge of their audience, author and audience steeped in their own time and culture. They chose powerful angels, aligned with a relatively newly monotheistic god who was also nearly always omnipotent. How else, given how deep and widespread the fear in the land ruled by a violent and mighty tyrant would such a message be believed?
Be not afraid.
Some of you, beloveds, with your rational minds overshadowing your capacity to be delighted by metaphor, are likely struggling with this parable replete with supernatural entities as it is. If this is you, let me invite you to substitute for “angel,” the word, “messenger.”
Be not afraid.
In order to hear this message, to discover its possibility, I have found that I cannot be like Elizabeth, or Mary, or the shepherds, living my life passively until a supernatural messenger appears. I have found – more and more – that I must actively seek out angels, messengers, sources of hope and assurance. I must co-create a message of hope.
And I have found that I must be exactly like Elizabeth, and Mary, and the shepherds: I must be willing to open my senses to that which at first seems unlikely, even impossible; open to that which my current inherently limited perspective does not allow me to take in. It is not I who must go out seeking the message, but it is I who must be open to a messenger that I might not, at first, recognize.
We humans need all sorts of messengers. Metaphorical and literal, representative of the whole diverse human family, heroic and humble, nearly perfect and deeply flawed. Why do you think there are so many super hero movies these days? We go looking for angels we can believe, messengers whose integrity and confidence we trust to inform us, to inspire us, to steer us right, to comfort us, to motivate us, that we might be not afraid.
It’s the children in our anthem this evening, so beautifully rendered – thank you – who in “each different place will see the baby Jesus’ face like theirs.” It’s Tyler looking for an angel that looks just like him in the picture book by Mary Hoffman. That book was published twenty years ago. Just two days ago, I was at the mall just down the road, buying gifts with money from the Ministerial Discretionary Fund for a family of five in New Brunswick, that single mother raising four on her own (oh, my heart goes out to her, having raised my two on my own), she a Black mother raising Black children in a nation that still seethes with racism, making it hard to see one’s own image reflected as beautiful, as angelic, I was at the mall shopping for this family and I saw many, many angels – just like Tyler – figurines and wall hangings and wrapping paper – and all of them had pale skin like mine, not like Tyler.
The littler girl in that family of five likes doing arts and crafts, so I went to the Toys R Us looking for something that would bring her joy when she opens presents tomorrow morning. All the packaging for such things reflected girls – and only girls, as if boys don’t like that kind of thing, oh the gendered toy packaging of our age makes me furious – and reflected mostly white girls, with a few possibly Latina girls here and there. No Black girls. Or Asian girls, for that matter.
Our little friend, Tyler, searched for an angel who looked just like him. He settled for a star, though beautiful and universal, still it was not specific enough to speak deeply to him, to that place of all human need. He needed an angel that he could recognize; an angel at the top of his family tree reflecting his essential human divinity inside him, given the too many cultural and psychological messages that obscure his connection to all our divine origins, our connection to the Original Blessing, what is also called Buddha Nature residing within all sentient beings, what Unitarian Universalists call the inherent worth and dignity of each person.
Be not afraid. We need a diversity of angels to deliver this universal message because we all need to hear it, have it nestle and take root within each of our hearts. Tyler needs to see a Black angel and frankly, so do I. So do we all.
In the time of Jesus’ birth, there was legit’ reason to be afraid. While the vast majority of the story of Jesus’ birth is mythology, we do know that the tyrant Herod, was real – and by tyrant, I mean power hungry to the point that he had members of his own family killed.
The people needed to hear that hope was possible; that hope was on the way. They needed the dreams of the wise ones to be influenced by angels so that they avoided torturous Herod. Joseph, the father of Baby Jesus, needed angels to whisper into his dreams: Go! Now! Escape with your family! Become refugees that you might find safe harbor, that you might find refuge, might receive sanctuary.
There are far too many echoes today of this need and this message. We live in a time when fear is alive and well in the land. We all need the message of safety, of protection. Be not afraid.
And we need to be its messenger.
Might you be somebody’s angel? I bet you already are. I know you can be. I believe we all can be.
Might we be a stranger’s necessary messenger? Might our actions convey a message of safety to someone who needs to hear it, hear it now, needs to have it nestle and root within their heart where otherwise fear is making a home?
On Friday, the same day I was at the mall (it was a busy day here), once I was back in my office, I took a phone call. A man called wanting to know about our sign on Tices Lane. He wanted to know how to get one because, and here I use his words, “everything has gotten so divisive and it just seems like it’s the right message, so I want to put one up at my house.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard from someone I’ve never met that they appreciate this sign. Facebook connected me with someone in Milltown who expressed appreciation for our signs as she drove to and from work; she was thankful that we put out such a positive, affirming message. And she had even noticed when one of them went missing (I’m pretty sure it was stolen).
The one sign that we do have still – it’s actually too small for its purpose, would be so much more effective if it were larger, like the one I saw earlier in the month in Fairfax, Virginia – carries the message “We are stronger together; we are love’s hands in the world; we are all connected; we are called to create justice in the world.”
The one that was stolen said “We love our neighbors: immigrant, LGBTQ, of color, with disabilities, of all faiths.”
Literally hours after those signs were put along the road in early September, three young gay men showed up at our doorstep. They saw them, stopped, came to thank us, and went on their way. They knew here not to be afraid – precious currency in these times.
A refrain that has been in my mind, over and over.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I have finally noticed it this past week, but really it has been insisting itself into most of my sermons these past few months, perhaps the whole year or more.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I felt it as I planned for today’s service and helped give input into last night’s fellowship fest: a yearning for the children and youth of this congregation to be folded safely within our embrace. A yearning for their utter and absolute safety, a yearning I know that each and every one of you share and one we try – oh, do we try – to craft and conjure and cajole with our insistent breath, despite what the world has been handing us.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
It is where, in lighting this rainbow chalice, we honor Transgender Awareness week here in New Jersey, knowing that tomorrow is Transgender Day of Remembrance. TDOR a day to mourn those who have met violent ends and renamed by some within the trans community as Transgender Day of Resilience, as a way to remember not just victim status, but strength and beautiful survival.
This is why we are doing the small, and yet so big, thing at our Congregational Meeting to make wide the welcome and be explicit in our inclusivity by the choice of signage we use for our bathrooms. We want folks who are trans, folks who are gender non-conforming, to know this place as a safe, as a people who sees them as whole.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
It has to do with the heartrending cause behind in this week’s message about being more careful when we answer the door here during the week, how each of us no matter where we live or work, wonders and fears in new ways, living with the reminder that security is never guaranteed, and still we go on living and loving.
This is why we support refugee settlement, knowing that everyone has the human right to be free of war, violence, torture and the traumatic legacy of these horrible things. This is why we should continually find ways to support those congregations who offer sanctuary and who already are doing so, shielding fellow humans from persecution by this nation’s government, trying to protect families and keeping them whole. This is why we gather food throughout the year, and today for the upcoming holiday, for families who experience not enough.
Safety. And wholeness. And a deep yearning for it.
I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister, to be with you as you seek safety and wholeness for yourself, as you seek safety and wholeness for your family, as you seek safety and wholeness in this wide aching world.
And I feel so deeply blessed to be your minister as I seek these things: in my own life, for my family, for and with you, and in this wide aching beautiful chaotic resplendent voluptuous tumultuous world.
Let me begin with gratitude to my colleague, the Reverend Peter Boulatta, as I borrow from his sermonic playbook.
How many of you remember phone booths?
How many of you have used a phone booth?
How many of you have used a phone booth in the past week?
Does that mean that you have not made a call outside your home in the past week? Unlikely. What is more likely, is that the phone you use to make calls in public is the same one you use to make calls in private. It is, more than likely, a little computer that fits in your pocket or purse. It is, more than likely, a device that even if you watched the original Star Trek, we could not imagine would be so deeply integrated into our daily lives here on this planet in your life time.
Things are changing. While this is the very essence of life, there is empirical data to suggest that change is happening at a faster rate, posing innumerable challenges. This means, among all the other changing things, that congregational life is changing. What was once a reliable reality for one generation is no longer even a point of reference. And I mean this literally: there used to be a phone booth in this very building! And it’s long gone.
There are many contributing factors for this, and there are many implications. Today, I am hoping to touch on the rather narrow topic of what this means for Unitarian Universalist congregational life in the 21st century.
Nick, will you help us set the stage?
Nick is going to play parts of four songs. When you hear a song that you recognize as coming from your generation, however you understand that, please rise in body or arms up so that others can see you. If this experiment works as I hope, you will only rise for one song. Nick, can you play the first one?
Okay, Nick: our second song.
Once more: our third selection.
And lastly, our final piece.
Thank you for taking part in our little musical experiment.
Just so we are fully informed, the first song, made popular in the year 1939, was “In the Mood” made famous by Glenn Miller. The second song was “I want to hold your hand” by The Beatles and came out in 1964. The third song’s title is “(I’ve had) The Time of my Life”, made famous in the film Dirty Dancing, and came out in 1987. And lastly, “Home,” was the final song, made popular by Phillip Phillips, who came to be widely known by the American public because he was “discovered” through American Idol, a television talent hunt show.
Nick and I chose these songs to represent four primary generations that have emerged in American culture and that generational theorists have recognized, though there is some wrangling around the edges about exact start and ending years for each of these generations. Most of what I am going to refer to in this sermon comes to us from Strauss and Howe, interpreted for me by my colleague, Reverend Kimberly Debus. Should you want to know more about this, in the lobby there are hard copies of a handout that Reverend Debus put together if you are interested in this topic.
In the Mood – is for what has come to be called “the Silent generation:” folks born 1925-1942 and who are currently ages 75-92. Who is here from the Silent generation?
The next generation – Boomers, a much more widely used term than the one for the generation before them — was born, according to these particular theorists, between 1943 and 1960. Not all theorists, professional or lay, agree; but I’ll stick with the years and ages based on Howe and Strauss, just to provide a coherent reference point. The current age of Boomers is 57 -74. The song we chose to represent this generation was I Want to Hold Your Hand. Who is here from the Boomer generation?
The song from the movie, Dirty Dancing – Time of My Life – was chosen to represent Generation X, folks born between 1960 – 1982 (though some place it later, like 1984-5). This is my generation. Anyone else out there who identifies as GenX?
The fourth song, Home, is for the Millennial generation (originally called GenY because it’s the generation after GenX — but that name didn’t take hold). These are folks born from 1983-2004. They range from those just entering high school to those who are in their mid-thirties and already raising children of their own, which may well be a single generation but covers several developmental stages. Do we have any Millennials in the room?
There is another generation, the one that comes after the Millennials. These are folks born after 2005. There are names that theorists have suggested for this Generation Z (comes after Y?), but none of caught hold yet – Homeland Generation, iGeneration, Digital Natives, etc.. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with Pew Research has been using the term, “post-Millennial” to describe this youngest demographic cohort.
Our reading today, the Mindset List, gave us a window into the reality of a subgroup within the Millennials – folks born in 1998ish, so the younger half of the Millennial generation. There are some interesting facts there, but I raise them here because they are more than facts: they influence how one experiences reality, as well as cause confusion for those of us who have not experienced some of those realities. They influence how that generation sees the past, what ideas they carry with them, and what images they conjure for the future. This is, of course, true for all of us: what happens in our lifetimes influences the new paradigms we can imagine, based on what we carry and what we have let go and the ones we are still carrying around with us.
How can we not notice, given last Sunday’s mass shooting at a Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the observation by the Mindset List that
[quote] This year’s list observes that entering college students will generally not find “Columbine” to be an infamous and iconic name, yet for an older generation it was the first and most evil of all high school massacres. Is it true that they have little knowledge of “Columbine,” and if so, what are the implications? That school shootings have become so frequent that we have become dangerously numb to their enormous consequences? [unquote]
What does it mean to one’s sense of what is normal, if mass shootings have been the norm your whole life? And for those of us for whom this has not been true, who cling desperately to the attitude that such a reality should never be the norm, what does it mean for the future we are trying to shift and shape?
Things are always changing, right now they are changing fast and they are changing in ways that make relatively ineffective reliance on any toolkit of past solutions to problems or responses to needs. Take, for example, our response to the faith formation, otherwise called religious education, of our children – one of the primary focuses of this congregation’s mission statement.
Last month, the chair of the Religious Education Committee, Lynn Mayfryer, and the Director of Religious Education, Jillian Post, and I attended a day-long conference in New York City, along with other UU ministers, religious education leaders, and lay folk interested in the future of faith formation. The presenter, Kimberly Sweeney, had published a paper provocatively titled, “The Death of Sunday School.”
Provocative, yes, and also apt, given trends that have been emerging for decades or have already taken hold. And while that provocative phrase may have its reality, so, too, does this one, paraphrasing a French idiom:
Church is dead!
Long live the Church!
Sunday School is dead!
Long live the next version of faith formation!
You are invited to learn more about this when Jillian holds a town meeting in March – in addition to that one-day workshop, she is attending over the next few months a series of webinars to explore these trends, to brainstorms responses, and to imagine religious education for children transforming from a phone booth into … into… well, I don’t think anyone knows quite yet.
There are shifting trends in UU congregations across the continent; we see it here, in this congregation. It’s not just about religious education for children and youth. These shifts impact nearly every aspect of congregational life. For instance, in surveys on church healthy and growth, one measurement looks at attendance. What was once considered “regular attendance” — three out of our weeks per month – is now, once per month (at least for many non-ethnic churches and congregations). Fewer people are going to church (or synagogue, any congregational setting, really) as American society becomes more secular.
This particular aspect of the changing landscape makes it challenging to have enough kids in RE on any given Sunday to facilitate an engaging class. It impacts other aspects of congregational life, like how how lay leaders make congregational life hum. Not all that long ago, it was understood that to be both inclusive and effective, committees and boards should be big. But this only works if there are people to fill those seats.
While the number of Millennials is equal or slightly surpasses the number of Boomers, what we are finding is that Millennials are willing – more than willing – to do work, they are less interested in serving on committees and attending meetings – they are more interested in project-based work – or so say the social scientists out there who are looking at these things.
Which is to say, we cannot invent the next response to our children’s faith formation needs – and frankly, our adult needs as well – based solely on what has worked before. We need to change our mindset. We need to expand our mindset. We need to become more aware of our mindset and then use this awareness to feed curiosity so that we can notice generational assumptions that likely do not apply in the same ways as they used to, or at all.
On the first Tuesday of each month, you are invited to take part in a book and dinner group that is exploring how to sustain the vibrancy of congregational life in the midst of all this change. We had our first meeting this past week. We read a chapter each month – so not too much homework – and we connect with each other in person and reflect together. On a side note, if I were to guess, getting together to eat will always be something we do in congregational life, at least I hope so.
In the introduction to the book we are reading, the author, Mike Durrall, writes this somewhat daunting, somewhat painful, and exciting sentence: “The hopeful tomorrow will require discarding a sizeable number of practices that have outlived their usefulness.”
When I hear that, it sounds like we are going to have to stop carrying all sorts of metaphorical phone booths, just like we decided, however many years ago it was, to discard an actual phone booth in this building. If you notice, where the phone booth used to be, we still haven’t quite figured out what to do with the space. These things take time.
But we will figure it out; metaphorically or literally, we will. For this is a place and you are a people determined in your vibrancy, resolute in your scrappy approach to the world, and unwavering in your efforts to help and heal the world, and each other.
Not to mention, that when we all are In the Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we have our closing circle and say to each other I Want To Hold Your Hand Mood [Nick play a line or two], and we’ve just spent the morning together Having the Time of Our Lives Mood [Nick play a line or two] , we’ll be sure to make this place Home Mood [Nick play a line or two] for us now and for those generations into the future.
Sister Simone Campbell, Ware Lecture, 2014, image from UUWorld
Sister Simone Campbell, the 2014 Ware Lecturer at our own General Assembly, known as one of the Nuns on the Bus, spoke in that lecture about how essential doubt is to faith, for without doubt, faith becomes something altogether else: it becomes certitude. You can see one of her quotes written on your order of service.
It’s interesting that this is a Catholic woman religious speaking of faith and doubt this way. Interesting for two reasons. The first is – and this is for the many folks in the room who grew up Catholic and walked away — because it is likely not what you felt were the lessons you were taught. And secondly, what she has to say is so similar to what the Western Buddhist Sharon Salzberg has to say about faith.
Salzberg, one of the co-founders of the Western iteration of Buddhism called Insight Meditation, which is the stream I swim in, wrote a book, published in 2003, called Faith. In that book, Salzberg writes,
In order to deepen our faith, we have to be able to try things out, to wonder, to doubt. In fact, faith is strengthened by doubt when doubt is a sincere, critical questioning combined with deep trust in our own right and ability to discern truth.
Sounds like Sister Simone.
Let me back up just a bit to talk about what Salzberg means by faith and what are the stages of faith that she identifies. First of all, Salzberg defines faith as independent of any presence or absence of a deity, or as independent of one’s belief system, and as “an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.”
Especially for those in the room for whom the word and concept “faith” is a trigger, for it has been a source of spiritual wounding for many, I’ll say that again:
Faith is independent of any deity
It is not about a set of beliefs
It is an inner quality of trust
According to Salzberg, in Buddhism there are three stages of faith, related to each other with increasing elegance: Bright Faith, Verifiable Faith, and Abiding or Unshakeable Faith.
Bright Faith is like being crushed out on someone. It’s intoxicating. An idea, or a teacher, sparks the imagination. There is a sense of new possibility and openness to a new engagement of the world. While it can be exhilarating, like infatuation of any kind, it cannot and does not last forever.
Next is Verified Faith, which relies less on external sources, and requires more effort because it is fed – and verified – by one’s own intentional seeking and experiences of reality. We move from believing what we are told, no matter how charismatic or wise or persuasive the source, to confirming the truth by our own seeking and examination.
In the transition from Bright Faith to Verifiable Faith, doubt plays an essential role. This is where the skeptics in the room will do a little happy dance. This is where the Buddhist directive to figure it out for yourself resonates with the Unitarian Universalist principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Listen to what Salzburg says about this:
“It is a common assumption that faith deepens as we are taught more about what to believe; in Buddhism, on the contrary, faith grows only as we question what we are told, as we try teachings out by putting them into practice to see if they really make a difference in our lives.”
But not just any doubt – it must be skillful doubt. This kind of doubt is curiosity, engagement, trying it out, trying it on, seeking to know it by your own experience rather than become someone else, not just intellectually but experientially – that quality of doubt, moves us out of bright faith into verified faith, moves us out of being crushed out into something sustainable over the long haul, over decades, perhaps even over a life time.
The third, and most elegant, is Abiding Faith. This is a kind of faith that personally, I have not often touched, though I have met people – of all different spiritual traditions – in whom I sense this kind of faith resides. This faith remains deep in one’s bones so much so that there is no need for an external reference. I imagine it being a source of comfort and grounding in times of deep uncertainty and distress.
There is a fourth kind of faith – I’m not sure if “stage” is the right word – that Salzberg calls “blind faith.” This can be associated with unthinking devotion or be confused for the fulfillment of a faith journey. This is the kind of blind faith we most often recognize, and sometimes arrogantly, in others. But it can also be fed by unskillful doubt – a different kind of doubt, one that I think we often seen in Unitarian Universalist circles — that takes the form of cynicism, subtle apathy, and undiscerning intelligence, as well as a lack of willingness to venture from our own entrenched way of seeing the world. This kind of unskillful doubt leads with a dismissive edge. As Salzburg says,
[Unskillful doubt] is actually an excuse to remove ourselves from a situation and not put something into practice. We can then stand back and judge, speculate, not commit ourselves, not take a risk, not see what happens if we practice. But all of this is a process of intellectualization; it is not at all from our own experience.
I ask you to hold these ideas about faith and doubt, that faith requires active, skillful doubting, which I think is an easy thing for many in a room of Unitarian Universalists to accept. But I also ask you to accept what is likely harder, again in a room full of UUs to honor: that skillful doubting requires us to try out concepts and ideas by experiencing their possibility, rather than outright dismissing them.
Part II: #metoo
Who recognizes the source of the title of these reflections? I believe. Help my unbelief.
It’s one of my favorite lines in the Christian scriptures, from the Gospel of Mark, one that feels close to my heart.
I couldn’t deliver a sermon with the title containing belief/unbelief, focusing just on the spiritual issue of faith and doubt. Not at this time, given the national conversation around sexual harassment and assault, and generalized-yet-ever-so-harmful misogyny.
Some women, and some men, and genderfluid folx, have been brave – which only means they – we – have faced our fear, not vanquished it – and come forward to say #metoo, a hashtag movement, first started in 2007 by an African American woman named Tarana Burke, and one that came alive in the past month after allegations about Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul, finally found a full public hearing.
In the past five years there has been a positive deluge of victims speaking out — an uncountable number that represents not just the acute trauma of an unwanted touch or a dehumanizing comment, but the invisible ripples of confidence lost, jobs quit, careers stalled, women’s influence diminished, men’s power entrenched.
This is not the first time our nation has been here. Those of you who remember the Clarence Thomas hearings, when he was nominated to the Supreme Court, and what Dr. Anita Hill went through to tell her truth, to speak the truth of so many women, facing the race-tinged misogyny of elected (male) representatives as they interrogated her, not him.
Not enough has changed since then, given the ever-expanding list of powerful men who are being called out for misusing their power in highly gendered and sexually aggressive ways. Not enough has changed, given the ways in which so many forms of cultural dominance are used to exclude, or marginalize, or harm, and even kill. I am thinking here of the inequities and outright harm (including violence and loss of life) within our criminal justice system disproportionally visited upon communities of color. How the numbers of trans women, particularly of color, who die violent deaths continues to grow each year. Last year 23 trans women met violent deaths in this country; already this year, with still nearly two months until the calendar’s end, 24 have been killed.
So, if failure to take as true these victims’ realities is a symptom of cultural disbelief, then what might it look like if we were to practice believing? And while, yes, I mean this when it comes to those trans women’s lives cut short, and what so many communities of color have been saying for way too long about how they are mistreated, I am also talking about any women close to home, ones known to you, perhaps loved by you: women and girls and people who born into girl bodies. What if we were to turn the Gospel of Mark, particularly for those of us with privileged identities, such as being white, or being heterosexual, or male, or cisgendered — on its head and say, “I have unbelieved. Help my belief.”
What might the world look like? What might our world look like? Can we imagine it, a world without sexual harassment? Without implied or realized violence based on gender? Can we create it here? Can we create a space where belief is what we offer, not unbelief? A whole-hearted, public unbelief that just might heal the personal shame, the individual stigma, that too many women have taken as our own, have internalized?
One thing, small but not small, when it comes to sexual violence, is to stop using the passive tense. Instead of asking how we can stop women from being harassed or raped, we can start asking, how and when will men stop harassing or abusing or raping? When will some men stop other men from doing these things?
If thoughts taking shape in your mind are these: — not all men harm; not only women are harmed – I ask you to slow down, notice, and stay with me. While true statements, I ask you to practice that skillful doubting that Sharon Salzberg introduced to us – instead of countering the question with cynicism or skepticism, try curiosity, like asking yourself why the discomfort? why the need to defend or dilute? Instead I ask you to choose to make space for this particular hurt that women are naming at this moment in time.
This is a powerful moment and the momentum is building. This is not just glamorous movie stars, or ones wishing they could be. This is women in every walk of life and for those women
with added layers of vulnerability due to marginalization, like women of color, like women who are economically disadvantaged, like women who are disabled, we must acknowledge and believe the hazard is higher.
The more who share their experience, the more can see themselves in this act of courage, in your act of courage and survival, and add their voice and their story.
Change can come. Change will come. The more we coax it along, the more likely it is to be the arc of the universe bending towards justice. It was only after the public spectacle of those hearings with Dr. Hill that complaints of workplace sexual harassment began to be officially filed in strong numbers. Collective visibility, while painful, can also be empowering. It reminds us that none of us is ever alone.
For folx who identify as men in the room, you can read and add your name to a document created by Rev. Rob Keithan, the UU social justice minister at All Souls in Washington, DC, who co-founded a response to the #metoo movement called, #wecommit, which is a “Declaration of Response and Responsibility from the Undersigned Men.” The declaration begins
To all the people–and especially the women and gender nonconforming people–who have publicly self-identified as experiencing sexual harassment or assault: We hear you. We believe you. We support you. And we know that there are countless others who choose not to or who cannot safely self-identify as having survived harm and violence. We understand that you should not have to share personal stories or re-experience trauma in order for men to take responsibility for our role in perpetuating sexual harassment and assault. And we know that we must do more than just acknowledge your experience with our words.
How powerful to hear those words from the mouth of a man – a co-worker, a lover, a brother, a friend:
I believe you.
I want to support you.
What can I do?
What else is there to do? All of us can learn to be upstanders – when we see or hear something with an ick-factor directed at a woman – it need not even fit some hard-to-define category called “abuse” – we can say something. If you cannot interrupt the act or words, reach out to the person who was its target. Too often, and without our intending it to be so, our silence comes across as endorsement and we become complicit. This is true about misogyny, but also racism, assumptions about heterosexism as the norm, and other forms of cultural hegemony. Instead of being a bystander to this, you can be – we all can choose to be — an upstander.
We all have the power to create an environment for victims of sexual violence and harassment that will meet them with empathy and support, and help give them the confidence to speak their truth without fear or shame. This is not theoretical. After the musical interlude, it is the time in our service for prayer and meditation. Today, this prayer will include an invitation to women in the room who understand themselves as part of the #metoo movement, to come forward and be seen and believed in this place that is your spiritual home. The invitation will include one to men to be our witness, to hold these realities in the spirit of belief, offering that powerful validation that amplifies healing, that is part of building the world we dream about.
Part III: what if?
The most powerful invitation of faith I have been exposed to this past year – not requiring me to believe, but asking me to trust, offering up inspiration, delivered with contagious confidence – came in the form of poem from the Sikh lawyer and community organizer, Valerie Kaur.
I share this poem with you today as a way to bring together Parts I and II, the first on the symbiotic relationship of doubt to faith, the other on the mandate to believe in the midst of societal unbelief. I offer it here, in part, because it names this era’s divide not only between political stances and ideologies, or faith and doubt, but also hope and despair. I offer it here, because it asks some powerful “what if” questions.
In a speech Kaur gave last New Year’s Eve (see video above), with such heartbreak in her voice, she reflected on her experience as a parent:
I am leaving my son a world more dangerous than the one I was given. I am raising – we are raising – a brown boy in America who may one day wear a turban as a part of his faith. And in America today, in an era of enormous rage, as white Nationalists hail this moment as their great awakening, as hate acts against Sikhs and our Muslim brothers and sisters are at an all-time high, I know that there will be moments – whether on the streets or in the school yard – where my son will be seen as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist; just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls still seen as someone else’s property, and when we see these bodies not as brothers and sisters then it becomes easier to bully them, to rape them, to allow policies that neglect them, incarcerate them, to kill them.
And then she spoke her poem, only an excerpt of which I offer here:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?
What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?
What if all the [ancestors] who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave.
What powerful images: not doom, not tomb, but womb. That these increases in hate crimes, that these ever-continuing assaults on women, that these might be, cause for eventual hope, rather than for ultimate despair?
What if this movement of #metoo and #sayhername and Black Lives Matter and naming white supremacy in our midst and backlash against the browning of America is moving our whole society toward a long overdue tipping point?
What if we might be able to leave behind all forms of our unskillful doubt and exchange it for the skillful kind that engages curiosity, suspends disbelief of those different from us, and allows us to see a new world that is in the midst of being born, that is asking us to be midwife to it?
Let this be the time and let it be our task to join the midwifing of this moment.