Monday, June 20, 2016

Junteenth: a sermon

This is the sermon I delivered on Sunday, June 19, 2016 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  You listen to it if you'd prefer.

I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of “Juneteenth” until relatively recently.  I keep discovering just how much American history I never learned and, perhaps even more disturbingly, that no one ever thought important enough to try to teach me – all that history that gets lifted up each February, for instance, as though Black history and American history are not the same thing.  We don’t have a White history month, or a Straight, Cisgender Male history month, because as far as the wider society goes, that is American history.  Everything else is relegated to appendices and footnotes.
So:  “Juneteenth” is a fusing of “June” and “Nineteenth,” because it was on June 19, 1865 that Union General Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of a prominent building in Galveston, Texas and read aloud “General Order No. 3,” which said, in part:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
Can you imagine what that would have felt like for the, now, formerly enslaved population of Galveston?  They hadn’t yet heard about President Lincoln’s Proclamation of their freedom some three and a half years earlier, so this was a day that would cry out to be memorialized.  Juneteenth celebrations became annual events throughout Texas and, eventually, throughout the United States.  By 2008, nearly half of US states observed the holiday.  As of May of last year, 45 of the 50 states (and the District of Columbia) have formally and officially recognized the observance of Juneteenth, even here in Virginia.
Juneteenth is a really big thing, and I had never even heard of it.  Maybe this is new to some of you, too.  I would ask how that is possible, but we all know the answer, don’t we?  The dominant culture in which we live, the dominant narrative that defines us as a country, does not have time, or energy, or focus, or interest, really, in anything other than itself.  That’s why we have Black History Month in February, and Women’s History Month in March, and LGBT History Month in October, and Transgender Awareness Month in November (just to name a few).  This is one way that our culture – and by “our culture” I am referring to the dominant culture made by, for, and about people who look more or less like me – can recognize the undeniable fact that ours is not a homogeneous society while simultaneously reinforcing the “otherness” of everybody who … doesn’t look more or less like me.
One dimension of this dominant culture’s narrative is a mindset of what I’ll call “been there, done that, cross it off the list.”  Here are two examples of I mean by that:
·       Slavery was terrible, awful, heinous, but we fought and won the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation put an end to slavery.  Been there, done that, cross it off the list.
·       The Jim Crow era was terrible, awful, heinous, but the Civil Rights battles of the 50s and 60s won equality for all.  I mean look, today we even have a Black President!  Been there, done that, cross it off the list.
But that’s not how it works, of course.  The truth is that there is a river of pain that runs through our nation’s history, a river of torment and torture, a river of separation and segregation and dehumanization and demonization, a river that has never stopped flowing.  Ever.  We – and right now I’m really talking to people, like me, who’ve been raised to think of ourselves as White – we would like to think that at least it has gone underground, or slowed to a trickle, but it hasn’t, except, perhaps, in our own mind’s eye.  But we need to think this, we need to believe this, because if we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to go to sleep at night, so wet would our sheets be from all our tears.  Yet we – and here I do mean “we,” inclusively and collectively, meaning “we” as in “all of us” – we need to see together the truth of things as they really are.  We need to see those things that some of us try so hard not to see and some of us are so continually forced to see.  Here’s one such thing that seems appropriate to see on Juneteenth 2016:
The slaves weren’t freed when Lincoln declared their emancipation, nor when General Granger stood on that balcony, nor when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, nor when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the same United States in which his wife’s ancestors had been enslaved.  Certain freedoms, yes, have been grudgingly conceded, but real freedom?  The freedom to be and be seen as whole, as the individual you are and as part of the human family?  The freedom to have your value and worth affirmed and celebrated?  That has not yet been won, not yet wrested from the slaver’s fist. Not been there, not done that yet, nothing to cross off the list.
The Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray is one of the largely unknown and unsung heroes of the struggles for African American rights, and LGBT rights, and women’s rights.  She was the first female African American Episcopal priest, the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science degree from Yale Law School, a civil rights activist (fighting against both Jim Crow and what she called “Jane Crow”), a poet of profundity and power, and a friend of my mom’s.  She referred to herself as, “America’s problem child.”  (“I have never been able to accept what I believe to be an injustice,” she wrote. “Perhaps it is because of this I am America’s problem child, and will continue to be.”)  In many of her poems Pauli gave voice to the experience of what another great African American poet, Langston Hughes called, “a dream deferred,” this experience of the ongoing denial of the fundamental right to be seen as more than three-fifths of a person.  In the face of that, how can you keep on hoping for things to change?  What can hope mean when time and time again you have seen your hope whipped, and lynched, and set upon by dogs and firehoses, and denigrated and sneered at by what passes for politicians these days?  Here’s one of Pauli’s poems:
Hope is a crushed stalk
Between clenched fingers.
Hope is a bird’s wing
Broken by a stone.
Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty —
A word whispered with the wind,
A dream of forty acres and a mule,
A cabin of one’s own and a moment to rest,
A name and place for one’s children
And children’s children at last . . .
Hope is a song in a weary throat.

Give me a song of hope
And a world where I can sing it.
Give me a song of faith
And a people to believe in it.
Give me a song of kindliness
And a country where I can live it.
Give me a song of hope and love
And a brown girl’s heart to hear it.

This is the still unfulfilled promise of Junteenth – a song of hope, and a world in which it can be sung by everyone; a song of faith, and a people who will truly believe it; a song of kindliness and a country in which it can be lived out; and a song of hope and love without having to give up who and what we are.  Hope is a song in a weary throat.  [This, by the way, was the original title of Pauli's autobiography, Song in a Weary ThroatSomeone at the publishing house, no doubt, decided that for the second printing the title should be changed to Pauli Murray: The Autobiography of a Black Activist, Feminist, Lawyer, Priest, and Poet.  It might be more descriptive for people who'd never heard of her, but oh what poetry was lost!]                               

One year ago this past week Dylan Roof walked into a Bible Study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered 9 people, at least in part because he did not see African Americans as fully human, at least not in the way he saw himself.  He apparently had not heard about the “absolute equality” affirmed by General Granger in Galveston one hundred and fifty-one years ago today, or he’d heard but didn’t believe it, and so he could believe that murdering these people was a justified and acceptable act.

This past week Omar Mateen walked into the nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida and murdered 49 people (wounding an additional 53), at least in part because he did not see people in the LGBTQ community, or the Latino community as fully human, at least not in the way he saw himself.  And whether it was this blind and blinding hatred, or the distortions and perversions of a twisted religious ideology, Mateen was able to believe that his murdering these people was a justified and acceptable act.

When you can deny the fundamental humanity of someone, you can justify doing just about anything to them.  It doesn’t count if they don’t count.  Fifty-three years ago, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that “all […] are created equal” to be a “promissory note” that had not yet been made good on.  It still hasn’t.  And so the weary throat must keep singing.

Someone else who knew and beautifully expressed that song was the poet-queen Maya Angelou.  She speaks of it in one of her most well-known and oft-quoted poems, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,”

The free bird leaps
On the back of the wind
And floats downstream
And dips his wings
In the orange sun rays
And dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
Down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through
His bars of rage
His wings are clipped
And his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of the things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
And the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
And the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
And he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
His shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
With a fearful trill
Of the things unknown
But longed for still
And his tune is heard
On the distant hill
For the caged bird sings of freedom.

Oh the throats that sing this song may indeed by weary, yet the song remains strong.  This song has many variations, yet still it is one song – the song of freedom and a long-ago made promise fulfilled.  But here’s some good news:  Dylan Roof didn’t silence it; Omar Pateen didn’t stop its steady beat; Donald Trump and his crowds can’t drown it out. 

But there’s work to be done.  We – those of us who have been taught that we are White – need to take it up, add our voices to those who have been singing so long that their throats are weary – oh so weary – of singing this song that should never have had to be sung.

the song of hope, and a world in which it can be sung by everyone; the song of faith, and a people who will truly believe it; the song of kindliness and a country in which it can be lived out; the song of hope and love without having to give up who and what we are to sing it. 

May it be so.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Love Always Wins

I wrote this as a Letter to the Editor for Charlottesville' paper, the Daily Progress after attending a candle light vigil on our downtown mall in response to the shootings in Orlando.

I had just finished leading worship in the congregation I serve when I learned of the atrocity that had taken place in Orlando just a relatively few hours before.  The topic of my sermon was love – that no matter how simple it might sound, wise teachers from every religious tradition have stressed that “doing unto others,” that “loving our neighbor,” is the only needed guide for how to live in this world.  Rabbi Hillel the Elder famously said that everything else in the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets was simply commentary and explanation of this central teaching, and Jesus (a near contemporary of Hillel’s) said much the same, as did the Prophet Muhammad.  Every religious tradition we humans have ever created has its own version of the “Golden Rule.”  And yet, in the aftermath of the mass murder of 49 people, the serious wounding of 53 others, and the devastation to  countless lives of families and friends and all those touched by this tragedy, this message of love seemed not just simple, but simplistic.

What a gift, then, to gather on Monday night with hundreds of others at the Free Speech Wall to mourn, express our shock, give vent to our outrage, and recommit ourselves to one another and to the vision of Beloved Community.  And we were a beautiful representation of that Beloved Community – we were gay, straight, bisexual, transgender, cisgender, Latino/a, African American, Asian American, White, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Atheist, Unitarian Universalist, old, young, radical, reticent, and virtually every other description of person you could think of.  We were what the United States looks like at its best – a beautiful, swirling rainbow of differences that came together to reveal an even more beautiful unity.  The acts of hate-filled violence, and the violence-tinged hate speech that is all too prevalent in our political discourse lately, may cause us to question our faith in humanity.  The vision of community made real on Monday night restored my faith, and renews my hope. 

Pax tecum,


While at the Freedom of Speech Wall we were told that following each of the annual C'ville Pride Festivals
there have been reports of someone being fired from their job because their boss or employer had seen their photograph
in the next day's paper.  This, then, is a photo (from the back) of a small portion of the hundreds who attended the vigil
and then walked with lighted candles to the Federal Courthouse building.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

You Already Know

I know what to do.

You know what to do, too.

We know what to do

     in spite of that voice

     in our head

telling us that we don't;

telling us that we have no idea

          to do;

telling us that the situation is


     and that we are


Even so ...

We know what to do.

You know what to do.

I know what to do, too.

The problem really is:

that I don't want to

or that I'm afraid to

or that I'm hesitating

because I'm not sure that I can


what I know I need

          to do.

In the biblical book of Judges,

God tells Gideon what to do.

But Gideon wants to make sure.

     Sometimes that voice in your head



So Gideon asks God for proof --

     "Do this and I'll know

          I should do

     what you've told me

          to do.

     Do this,

          and I'll know that it's you."

So God did.

But Gideon wants to make sure.

He knows about coincidence.

So he asks God to do something else --

     "Do this other thing

          and I'll know that it's you."

And God does.

But Gideon already knew.

He knew what to do,

Just like you do,

and just like I do.

He knew what to do,

     but he didn't want to.

So he kept asking for signs,

          for proof.

And so do I.

I'll bet you do, too.

But here's what we know,

     beneath and beyond the voices that tell us that we


here's what we know:

Get started.

Don't wait any longer.

Don't look for a sign to tell you when or how.

Start.  Do




And when you've done that first thing,

     do the next one.

Keep doing



Don't wait for proof.

     Look back for it

     if you must,

     but later.

     After you've been at

     it for a while.

For now,

     just do

          the thing

               you already know to do.

Pax tecum,


Monday, May 02, 2016

The Blessing of Belonging

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, May 1st, 2016 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.    You can listen to it here.

One of the prized possessions of our congregation in Concord, Massachusetts, is a letter from Henry David Thoreau. I thought of it this week, knowing that today we would be welcoming our newest formalize members. Thing I was thinking of is the letter Thoreau wrote to the Concord church in which he resigned his membership. This champion of the individual said, essentially, that he did not believe in belonging to groups, and that he would resign from the human race if he could.  Luckily the people we recognized today don't feel that way.

There's something I’ve said to every person who has joined any of the congregation's I've served. Two things, actually. First, I say congratulations. Congratulations because you’ve just joined a really cool community.  (I only serve really cool communities so I can always say that.)  The other thing I always say is thank you, because by formalizing your membership you've made this community cooler still.

With all due respect to Mr. Thoreau, belonging is a good thing. It's a necessary thing, actually. Carol Gilligan, the feminist psychologist who first earned notice from her challenge to the developmental theories of Lawrence Kohlberg, argued that the development of identity does not, as prevailing theories even still have it, come from the process of individuation, of separating ourselves from others. Rather, Dr. Gilligan and others asserted, we build our identity through our relationships.

My friend Takeo Fujikura has told me that this is an understanding that's built into the Japanese language. Takeo said that in Japanese there is no first person singular pronoun, no way to say I. More accurately, there's no one way to say I, there are eight. That's because we don't have just one identity -- I am in some very real ways different when I'm with my friends than when I'm with my parents, or when I'm with my child. Who I am depends on who I'm with, if you will, or with whom I'm in relationship.  There is a blessing in belonging -- an affirmational gift.  Belonging helps to make us who we are.

So when someone takes the step of formalizing their relationship with our congregation -- or any group, really -- we are saying something about who we are and who we want to be.  And as we change our relationship with that community, what we can say about who we are changes.

Last week we celebrated this beautiful planet on which, as a part of which, we live.  And we lifted up those who are committed to her health. Yesterday a number of us joined with UUs from something like five or six congregations in our area to talk about spiritual resources for doing anti-racism work. At the beginning of the service I highlighted the work of our Emotional Wellness ministry, and in a moment I'm going to steer this sermon toward the topics of addiction treatment and elder care. Ours is a congregation that's involved in working for justice in a whole lot of areas, and many of us have no doubt looked at all there is to do in this world and wished that we could resign from the human race. I know I have. Stop the world, I want to get off.

A few weeks back at IMPACT's pre-Action rally, the Rev. Brenda Brown Grooms offered the reflection. (Not to toot my own horn too loudly, but I'll be offering the opening reflection at the Nehemiah action itself in two days.). One of the things that Pastor Brenda used as part of the scaffolding of her talk was actually something said by a Unitarian. The Unitarian preacher Edward Everett Hale. I've said it here so often that some of you could no doubt say it with me:

“I am only one,
but still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
but still I can do something;
and because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
(And sometimes that last line is remembered as “I must not refuse to do something that I can.”)

So this was part of the tapestry Pastor Brenda wove that night. I can't do everything, but I can do something, and I really ought to do that something that I can do.  But then she added a nice touch. "But oh,” she said, “how much sweeter it is when we do that thing together.”  And isn't that right?  One of my heroes, and a friend of my mom’s actually, the woefully under-celebrated Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray liked to say that one person, plus one typewriter, constitutes a movement.  And there's truth I that. Dated, perhaps, but absolutely true.  No question about it. And yet ... and yet … isn't it better when we're not alone, if we're writing, and marching, and teaching, and working for justice together with others?  There is a blessing -- an affirmation all gift -- in belonging to a community working for justice together.

In two nights, on Tuesday May 3rd, the largest public gathering in the Charlottesville area of any kind, and the largest interfaith gathering in central Virginia will take place at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Performing Arts Center. (Doors open at 6:00, by the way.). Roughly 2000 people from 27 faith communities will join together to experience and to be the blessing that comes from belonging. Mennonites, Quakers, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Jews, Methodists, Muslims, Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Episcopalians, non-denominational Christians, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and …well … us -- folks who might well not come together for any other reason but for our belief in justice. And there is most definitely a blessing in our coming together – a blessing for each and all of us who create this faith community of faith communities, and through that blessing – that affirmational gift – we are able to be a blessing to the larger community.  The blessing, the gift, for us is the affirmation that together we can do great things, and that the distinctions that so often divide us are nowhere near as important as those things that unite us.  The blessing for the wider community is the affirmation that the struggles any one of us face are struggles for us all, and that no one will be left out of the Beloved Community.

This year IMPACT has been continuing the work begun last year to create a local residential treatment option for women struggling with addictions to alcohol and drugs. Last year this was an identifiable need, an aching need, yet it just didn't seem possible that the will for this solution existed among those with the power to make something like this come about. By joining ourselves one to another at last year's Nehemiah Action, there are now plans, commitments, and the cash needed to build and operate a local center that should break ground this fall and be completed in the summer of 2017, serving up to 20 women a year without the need to travel long distances and be separated from their children.  Think of all those lives that will be touched by this.

Each year a new theme is discerned through a process involving listening circles in each of the member communities, with the ideas and concerns named in each being sifted and weighed until one rises to the top. This year it is the out of control cost of long term care for elders that became our focus -- a cost that averages 1 ½ times their average annual income.   This is unconscionable. Unbelievable, though, is that none of the agencies that are working to provide help to elders can say, specifically, the extent of the need – none knows how many people are in need of services yet are also unable to afford them. 

It’s clear that there’s a problem, and it’s clear that there are some extraordinarily caring and committed people working to address this problem, yet maybe in part because they are working so hard to address the problem none of them know exactly how large the problem is.  So IMPACT – which is, after all, us and those other faith communities working together – is proposing the creation of an entity to study the depth and breadth of the unmet need.  This, it seems to us, would of tremendous benefit to those already hard at work, and would provide a first step in developing new and creative ways of ensuring that all of the elders in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area can access the assistance that they need.

Why do the folk in our congregation who are most involved with the justice ministry of IMPACT try so hard to get you to turn out for the Nehemiah Action (on Tuesday, this Tuesday, May 3rd, at the MLK Performing Arts Center with the doors opening at 6:00)?  Simply because there is a blessing in belonging to a great assembly gathered to see that The Good prevails.  It’s not much to ask – one evening of our time – yet to those women, their children, their partners, their friends, to all those whose lives will be immeasurably improved because of this treatment center, its importance can simply not be overstated.  And I could decide to stay home, thinking that my presence in one of those seats doesn’t really matter much … aren’t we hearing a lot these days how about wrong, and potentially seriously problematic, such thinking can be? 

Others have already done the heavy lifting.  Our presence – yours and mine – (this Tuesday, May 3rd, at the MLK Performing Arts Center with the doors opening at 6:00) – is our declaration that we have not resigned our membership in the human race, that we do formalize our membership with those whose voices often go unheard and whose needs are so often, all too often, unseen.  During the offering we’ll have someone passing out tickets to those who are both feeling inspired and are able to come to the Action.  If you take a ticket, please swing by the IMPACT table in the Social Hall after the service so that they can know to expect you.

My friends, I really hope that I have not guilted anyone this morning, yet I know that this is one thing I can do.  This is one thing you can do.  This is one thing we can do.  I look forward to seeing you on Tuesday night.

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 18, 2016

One Body; Many Parts; All Not (Yet) Equal

This is the sermon I offered on Sunday, April 17th, 2016 to the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church while their pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lehman Bates, preached from the same text at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist where I serve.

It is really wonderful to be back at what is beginning to feel like my second church home here in Charlottesville.  The last time we did this, your pastor chose the text we drew on, a story from the Gospel of Luke.  This time I got to choose, but my heart wasn’t drawn to a story.  Instead, I immediately heard in my ear words from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth.  It’s the passage that begins, “There is one body, but it has many parts,” and ends, “You are the body of Christ.  Each of you is a part of it.”
This is one of those passages that even people who don’t memorize scripture seem to know.  There is one body, and each of us – all of us – are a part of it.  You, and me, and people we’ve never met, and even people we don’t particularly like are all a part of it.  One body, and we’re all included.
1st Corinthians is more formally known as Paul’s First Epistle to the Church in Corinth, because that’s what it was.  Paul wasn’t writing a book of scripture that he expected us to be studying a couple thousand years later.  He was writing an epistle, a letter, to the church in Corinth … a church he’d planted some few years before.  He’d brought together some good hearted folks who seemed open to hearing God’s good news, and showed them how to be a church.  And then he left them to fend for themselves.
Now … maybe it’s not the same here, but I have to say that as much as I love church folk I’ve known my share who I wouldn’t want to leave in charge of making coffee, much less the whole church!  So if I left you know I’d want to keep my eye on them, just to make sure that everything was going along okay.
Well, Paul did too.  And when he heard that one of the congregations he’d helped start had begun going down a slippery slope, he’d write them a letter.  “Are you serious,” he’d write. “Hold on here … you’re doing what now?” 
That’s what the epistles are.  Reminders.  Corrections.  He apparently needed to write letters like that to the church in Rome, Ephesia, and Philippi; he wrote to a bunch of churches in Galatia; and he wrote to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians twice.
So, it seems that Paul had heard that the people in Corinth had forgotten that they were one body, that they were a single and unified community and that everyone was a part of it.  No distinctions; no exceptions.  He had to remind them:  you are one people.  You belong togetherAll of you.
It’s really easy, isn’t it, to see all the ways you and I – and, maybe even more so, how those other people, over there – aren’t connected.  It’s easy to see all of the ways that we’re different, partly because we live in a culture that teaches us to look for those differences.  Our shared history shows us that no matter how much we may say that we’re all one happy family, we’re not.  If nothing else, some of us have been treated very differently, are being treated very differently.  We’ve been reminding ourselves over and over again that those differences are supposed to matter.  And we know that sometimes being aware of those differences has been – and can be still – the difference between life and death.
There were differences and distinctions back in Paul’s time too, of course, and in his letter to this particular congregation he knew and loved he was reminding them that from God’s point of view those differences don’t matter.  That, in an ultimate sense, we’re all part of one body.  The holy body of Life itself.
But he said more than this, too.  His message was a little more nuanced than that.
“There is one body,” Paul wrote, “but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body.”  And then he says again, “the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.”
See?  He’s done a friend of mine calls “complexifying.”  We are one body, yes, but we’re not all the same.  We’re not even supposed to try to be all the same.  We’re supposed to be different.  Not in the distorted way our culture and our history keeps trying to tell us that we’re different, but in the beautiful ways we just naturally are.  Remember the workshop you all did here about “temperament types?”  Differences.  Here’s Paul again:
“Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.”  […]  And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.”  […]  If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell?  God has placed each part in the body just as God wanted it to be.  If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body?  As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.”
One body.  Many parts.  Different parts.  Even though, ultimately, those differences don’t matter, we need to be aware of them and appreciate them for the gifts they are.
So maybe we could say that Paul’s telling them – and us, because this letter to them has become scripture to us – that we aren’t supposed to let the differences divide us; that we shouldn’t be blind to them, but that we’re not supposed to be blinded by them either.
But even that’s not all that Paul wanted to remind that fledgling church in Corinth, or that we still need to be reminded of today.  We’re one body – yes.  And that one body has many parts – got it.  But then there’s still one thing more.
The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without.  The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care.  The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And God has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any.  In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another.   If one part suffers, every part suffers with it.
We’re all one body – one body, even though we’re not all the same.  And … it’s those parts of that body that are different in ways which can make them seem “less than” that need special attention.  “Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, the persecuted.”  You know the list.  Liberation theologians say that God has a “preferential option for the poor.”  Paul says that it’s the parts of the body that seem the weakest that are the ones we can’t do without.  And, he says, that all of the parts – all of the parts – need to take care of each other because if any one part suffers, every other part suffers too, the whole body suffers.  It’s Dr. King’s “inescapable network of mutuality,” that, “single garment of destiny.”
After we’re done here together this morning, I’m going back to the church I serve because we’re having a congregational meeting – the first of two to consider affirming and adopting a statement of public witness that was endorsed at our national convention this past summer.  It’s a statement of support for, and solidarity with, the Black Lives Matter movement.  It’s true, of course, as some would have us say, that “all live matter,” but after 400 years of acting as though the lives of African Americans don’t matter in this country, there’s a growing urgency to say today – often, loudly, and explicitly – that they do.  We are one body – but that truth has been violently ignored.  We are one body, with each part necessary to the whole – but some parts have acted as though they are all the body needs.  As though they are the body.  As though they can say to some other parts of the body, “You don’t belong here.”
But that’s not the way this works.  That’s not the way God works!  So today we need to remind ourselves – all of us – that for God it’s those parts that have been pushed to the margins that matter most; those parts that have received the least regard that really deserve their due; those parts that that have been treated unjustly – even brutally, inhumanely – that ought now to be treated as they should have been treated all along:  as members of the one body to which all belong, as essential as any other.  
God said it.  Paul wrote it.  Let us hear it.  The parts of the body should not take sides.  All of them must take care of one another, because if one part suffers, every part suffers with it.  The body cannot be whole, cannot be holy, if its parts are at war.

I believe that those Corinthians learned that lesson.  I hope that we, today, do too.  The health of the one body of which we are each and all parts depends on it.  May it be so, and amen.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Rite of Spring

A Rite of Spring 
An Eastertide Celebration in Three Acts
~ Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom ~

 “[God] has written the promise of the resurrection not in books alone,
but in every leaf in springtime.”
~ Martin Luther

~ Prelude ~

Opening Words
The Unitarian Universalist minister Max Coots once wrote:
“We need a celebration that speaks the spring-inspired word about life and death, about us as we live and die, through all the cycling seasons, days, and years. We need the sense of deity to crack our own hard, brown, December husks and push life out of inner tombs and outer pain. Unless we move the seasons of the self, and spring can come for us, the winter will go on and on. And Easter will remain a myth, and life will never come again, despite the fact of spring.”[1]
On this morning when our Christian brothers and sisters celebrate Easter, may we open our hearts and minds to all of the “spring-inspired” truths our human kin have found and that we, and our world, so desperately need to hear.
Ringing of the Bell
Chalice Lighting
“You who have an eye for miracles, regard the bud now appearing on the bare branch of the fragile young tree.  It’s a mere dot, a nothing.  But already it’s a flower, already a fruit, already its own death and resurrection.” [2]
Congregational response:  We light our chalice in peace and friendship.

~ Act 1:  winter and the tomb ~
Reader 1:  the Story of Winter
In a small galaxy in a far corner of the Universe there is a tiny ball of water and rock that is spinning around its own axis once every day, and around its sun at approximately 66,000 miles per hour, taking a full year to complete its course. This is where we live, the Earth, third planet from the sun.
Roughly four and a half billion years ago the Earth and her neighbors  came into existence from within the swirling stellar stew caused by the supernova of the primal star Tiamat.  It took nearly two billion years for the landmasses to stabilize, and the first eukaryotic cell — one with a membrane and a nucleus and chromosomes with DNA—the ancestor of all forms of advanced life, did not emerge for another five hundred million years.  Over the next one and a half billion years there arose a great diversity of life, nearly ninety percent of which were destroyed during the Cambrian extinctions of five hundred and seventy million years ago.  It is around this time that the earth’s axis stabilizes at its current 23 ½ degrees.  We are part of a story that is older than we can imagine.
Because the Earth spins on a slightly tilted axis, for part of the year the northern half of the globe is closer to the sun, and for half of the year its the southern hemisphere that receives the extra warmth of more direct sunshine.  Whatever part is farther away experiences winter.  This shift from summer through fall to winter and from winter through spring back to summer has been going on for nearly half a billion years.
Leaves have changed color and dropped from the trees.  Warm days and cool nights have given way to cold days and even colder nights.  Plants die, or close in on themselves.  The ground hardens; the air dries out.  Snow falls and covers the grasses, the rocks . . . everything.  Streams and ponds freeze solid, and even the larger rivers and lakes hide their movement in the depths, beneath a layer of frozen stillness.  It’s as if nothing grows; nothing moves.
In the animal realm, many species of birds, some bats, and animals like caribou, elk, and even whales have begun traveling to warmer climes.  Squirrels, mice, and beavers start eating the extra food they gathered and stored in the fall, expending their energy on staying warm rather than the now futile effort of foraging.  Bears, skunks, chipmunk, some fish, frogs, snakes, and turtles hibernate or go dormant, going within themselves, essentially shutting down. 
And that is how humans experienced this time of year since our emergence on the earth some two and a half million years ago until relatively recently when we mastered the science of creating artificial environments in our climate controlled homes and workplaces.  Still, in our cells, we remember.  Short days and long nights encourage us to slow down.  We, too, tend to fold inward, to mirror the stillness of the world around us.
Hymn: Now the Day Is Over  (SLT #46, vs. 2, 4, 5)
Now the leafless landscape settles in repose,
Waiting for the quiet of the winter snows.
May the season’s rhythms, slow and strong and deep
Soothe the mind and spirit, lulling us to sleep.
Sleep until the rising of another spring
Keeps the ancient promise fall and winter bring.
Reader 2:  the Story of Jesus
There once was a little boy born to poor parents from an oppressed people in a tiny backwater village from which no one thought any good could come.[3]  Not much is known about his early years except that he was sharp of mind and large of heart and “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”[4]  It seems likely that he took seriously the religion of his people—so seriously that it set him apart from his earliest days.
As a young man he began to preach and teach and heal.  He taught that all people are God’s children and that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do—God loves you anyway and will embrace you with joy if you’ll only turn toward that Love.  It is said that this boy—known in his day as Yeshua—was so filled with this Love that when he spoke it was as if God were speaking and when you looked on him it was as if you were looking at God face-to-face.
Crowds began to gather around him, crowds mostly of the poor, the disconsolate, the outcast—those whom others deemed unworthy.  A community grew, a community with a welcome more wide and more deep than any anyone had known before.  Even some of the scholars, and the priests, and the well-to-do found a home with the itinerant band that followed this wandering preacher and healer.
When[ever] the crowds learned [where he was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing.”[5]   He taught that God’s kingdom was not some far off dream to be yearned for but something real within and around each of us, that it was something to be worked for.  He taught that each of us, with faith, could “move mountains”[6] and that “if you bring forth what is within you, what is within you will save you.”[7]  He taught that love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably intertwined and that pious words alone are worth nothing.
None of these teachings were well received by the authorities, of course — neither the religious authorities nor the authorities of the state who heard in his description of the “kingdom of God” a decidedly negative comparison with the kingdom of Caesar.  Such radical egalitarianism was a threat to the status quo, and the growing crowds were worrisome, too.  And so Jesus was arrested, tried, and sentenced to die.
On Friday evening he was taken out, publicly humiliated and brutally flogged, and brought outside the city walls to be nailed to a cross.  The crowds who had so recently invoked hymns now hurled invectives.  His closest companions abandoned him and hid in fear.  Yet even in the face of all this he refused to return evil for evil—offering only love, as he had all his life—praying to God from the cross for forgiveness on behalf of those who did these things.
In time, and in agony, Jesus died.  His disciples removed his body from the cross and placed it in a stone tomb, but as the Sabbath was beginning they could not properly prepare the body for burial. A stone was rolled in front of the entrance, and this man in whom so many had seen God was gone.  The “light of the world” was snuffed out, and those who knew him were bereft.
Hymn:  Now in the Tomb is Laid (SLT # 264, adapted)
Now in the tomb is laid, who welcomed everyone
and lived the Love of God.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Now in the tomb is laid, who told the sparrow’s worth,
the lily’s praises said.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Now in the tomb is laid, promise left unfulfilled.
Light of the world grown cold.  Now in the tomb is laid.

Reader 3:  the Story of Our Lives
The story has been told in so many ways, the story of the seasonal cycle from springtime through autumn to winter:  it’s the story of Persephone’s descent into the underworld; it’s the story of Osiris’ death at the hands of his brother Set; it’s the Phoenix dying in a blaze of fire; and it’s Jesus on the cross and in the tomb. 
Of course, these mythological stories exist not just to explain how the world works out there, but how it works in here.  So these are also the stories of you and me.  You and me when our relationships falter, or fail.  You and me when worries about making ends meet keep us up at night.  You and me when depression clouds our souls.  You and me when concern for the world leaves us immobilized.  You and me when one we love dies.  You and me as we face our own mortality.
These stories of the coming of winter—these stories of death and despair—are not just stories from some far away people in some far away time.  They are our stories.  And while we may want to rush from cross to resurrection, from the first flurry to the first crocus, it is important that we spend some time here, for each of us has what Sarah Moores Campbell calls a “tomb of the soul” in which, “we carry secret yearnings, pains, frustrations, loneliness, fears, regrets, [and] worries.”  To gloss over them, to ignore this place and this season, is not to rid ourselves of it but rather to ensure that we come back here again and again and again, like an injury left untreated that flares up each time worse than the last. 
Douglas John Hall has written, “It is the propensity of religion to avoid, precisely, suffering:  to have light without darkness, vision without trust and risk, hope without an ongoing dialog with despair—in short, Easter without Good Friday.”  Perhaps the poet Wendell Berry put it most succinctly:  “To go in the dark with a light is to know the light. To know the dark, go dark.”  And if we are to honor life—not just the wonder of it but the whole of it, not just it’s triumph but its truth—then we must learn to honor, even embrace, both winter and the tomb.
Innana goes down to the underworld; Baldur is killed by Loki’s deadly mistletoe; and you and me—the story is told again and again. 
Hymn:  In the Bleak Midwinter (adapted)
In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter long ago.

You and I know winter, you and I know pain,
Times we feel the sun will never shine again.
Darkness all around us, with no end in sight
You and I know winter, when there is no light.

In the bleak midwinter earth and we are one.
Both in frozen darkness, hidden from the sun.
Yet we hope despite ourselves--what else can we do?
Hope that in the springtime we'll be born anew. 

~ Interlude ~

Offering & Offertory Music

Anne Sexton wrote:  “Look to your heart that flutters in and out like a moth.  God is not indifferent to your need.  You have a thousand prayers but God has one.”  [Let us, then] give thanks for those moments when we can feel that we live in a world that is not indifferent to our need.
We all have so many needs—a thousand prayers—a thousand needs—that really only need one answer:  let the world not be indifferent.  And may we live and be with each other in the way that shows this truth whatever the day brings:  that neither are we indifferent to each other.[8]
[So] let there [now] be an offering to sustain and strengthen this place which is sacred to so many of us, a community of memory and of hope, for we are now the keepers of the dream.[9]
And as our ushers collect your financial offerings, our choir will make an offering of its own.

  ~ Act 2:  springtime resurrection ~
Reader 1:  the Story of Spring
Some notice first the skunkweed.  For others it’s the crocus flowering amidst the melting snow, or just the fact of the snow’s retreat and the re-appearance of browns and greens where there had been perpetual white.  We hear the peepers again, and the subtle change in the song of the chickadee.  The pussy willows bloom, and robins return as do their earthworm dinners.  Perhaps you perceive the sound of water running in underground pipes, the “gurgling brook” sound as you walk past a catch basin. Or you find yourself unable to stop from stepping on the brittle shelf of ice that’s “detached” itself and is standing an inch or two above the sandy pavement.  There’s the bright, rich yellow of willow branches, and temperatures that, in October, would have had us bundling up now making us want to shed our coats and celebrate warmth.
And bears leave their winter caves and begin looking for the fish that are now breaking the surface for the first time in months.  Iron-hard earth becomes oozy, and everywhere things seem to be opening.  Birds return, filling the air with song.  And animals that had horded and hungered are now out seeking for food just as the needed nutriment is sprouting forth anew.  This is what we celebrate today:  Spring has sprung again!
Hymn:  Lo the Earth Awakes Again  (SLT # 61)
Lo the earth awakes again — Alleluia! —
From the winter’s bond and pain.  Alleluia!
Bring we leaf and flower and spray — Alleluia! —
To adorn this happy day.  Alleluia!

Once again the word comes true  — Alleluia! —
“All the earth shall be made new.”  Alleluia!
Now the dark, cold days are o’er — Alleluia! —
Spring and gladness are before.  Alleluia!

Change, then, mourning into praise — Alleluia! —
And, for dirges, anthems raise.  Alleluia!
How the Spirits soar and sing — Alleluia! —
How our hearts leap with the spring.  Alleluia!

Reader 2:  the Story of Jesus
On the third day the women of Jesus’ community went to the tomb to wash and care for the body.  To their astonishment they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty.  Beside themselves, they asked everyone they met:  “Where have they taken him?”  A man they supposed to be a gardener said, “The one you are looking for is not here,” but that was hardly helpful.  And yet, finding no answer from others they found one in themselves—Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end of the Love-filled life they had known.  Jesus of Nazareth, Yeshua ben Mirriam, was still alive, and they ran to tell the others.
The companions, still frightened and despondent, were locked together in an upper room.  They would not believe the women’s story, would not believe that all was not lost.  Yet even though the doors were locked—and, perhaps, their hearts as well — the spirit of their teacher came, assuring them that death is not the end of life.  And this is what we celebrate today: that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than anything!
Hymn:  Jesus Christ is Risen Today (SLT # 268)
Jesus Christ is risen today  — Alleluia!
Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!
Raise your joys and triumphs high — Alleluia!
Sing, ye heavens, and earth reply, Alleluia!

Love’s redeeming work is done  — Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won.  — Alleluia!
Death in vain forbids him rise — Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise.  — Alleluia!

Hearts are strong, and voices sing  — Alleluia!
Where, O Death, is now thy sting?  — Alleluia!
As he died his truth to save — Alleluia!
Where thy victory, O grave?  — Alleluia!

Soar we now where Christ has led  — Alleluia!
Living out the words he said.  — Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise — Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies.  — Alleluia!

Reader 3:  the Story of our Lives
There is a promise here.  And, as Martin Luther noted, the promise is written not just in books but in every springtime leaf. It’s even closer than that.  The question is not whether we believe in resurrection but whether we have known it — known it in our own lived experience, seen it in the lives of others, felt it in the world around us.  
Persephone returns to the world of light; Osiris is resurrected by the power of the love of his wife Isis; the Phoenix is born anew from its own ashes; Jesus leaves behind the tomb.  Snow and ice melts, giving way to new life.
The promise of our Unitarian Universalist faith is the promise of the seasons and these stories—winter is not perpetual, the wheel will keep on turning, the tomb is not the end.  We affirm the promise of rebirth, of resurrection; of life’s ultimate victory over death; of hope’s triumph over hopelessness—not just as some abstract concept but as the miraculous reality of our lives.  And this is what we celebrate today!
~ Act 3:  alleluiah! ~
Closing Words
So let us go out into the world – this world of such darkness and such light, of such hard cold and luxurious warmth; this world of death and this world of life – let us go out into the world and share the good news that life is stronger than death, that hope is stronger than hate, and that love is stronger than anything … that love is the strongest thing there is.
Alleluia.  Amen.  May it be so.

~ Postlude ~

Endnotes: sources and citations
[1]   “Seasons of the Self” by Max A. Coots  (SLT # 627)
[2]   “An Eye for Miracles” by Diego Valeri (SLT # 625)
[3]   John 1:46
[4]   Luke 2:52
[5]   Luke 9:11
[6]   Matthew 17:20
[7]   Thomas, saying 70
[8]   Judith Meyer (SLT # 672, adapated)
[9]   Brandoch L. Lovely  (SLT #674, adapted)