Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unitarian Universalism Saves Lives

This sermon was offered at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalism in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, February 15th, 2015.  If you'd to hear it, a recording will be posted here.

This is the morning we’re really giving our pledge drive a real push.  Oh, I know that Alex gave a stirring sermon last week, and that we’ve had announcements, testimonials, dinners, and brunches since the beginning of the month.  But this is “Generosity Sunday.”  And as such you’re probably expecting from me a traditional pledge drive sermon – the sermon we UU preachers call amongst ourselves, “The Sermon on the Amount.”  You probably expect me to have a prop that looks something like this:  an actual approved reproduction of Andy Warhol’s 1981 piece “dollar sign” … on a tote bag.  (I got this at the staff’s annual holiday party this year, and that’s all I’m going to say about it, so don’t ask.)

And that’s actually all I’m going to say about the pledge drive, and money, and why you should give generously to the church.

I've been thinking about someone I knew in Divinity School.  She'd come to Boston from Texas, and one day early on she decided to get the lay of the land by driving around a bit.  She told me that as she drove she kept crying.  She cried because her UU church in Texas -- the only one anywhere around -- met in the basement of a store in a strip mall.  Around Boston, though, every town had a UU church, and they were often in a place of honor -- at the end of the town green, or at the top of the highest hill.  She couldn't keep from crying to see this.

Some stories:

When the news spread about Leela Alcorn’s death by suicide on December 28th of last year, one of my colleagues got to thinking.  Miss Alcorn is the 17 year old transgender girl whose death – she walked out into oncoming highway traffic – gained international attention.  Her death, and the suicide note she left on her Tumblr blog.  In that suicide note she talked about the challenges – the impossibilities – of being a trans kid in our country, with the biases and bigotry that exists.  Miss Alcorn had no support – not at home, not in the community around her.  She got no support, but also no end of grief simply because of who she was.  In the end, it was too much … or, maybe, too little.

So, as I said, when news about Leela Alcorn’s death by suicide spread, the Rev. Sarah Gibbs Milspaugh found herself thinking about a Christmas pageant she’d attended at the Boulder Valley UU fellowship just a few weeks before.  One of the co-narrators, whose role included not just reading a narration but acting and singing as well, one of the co-narrators was a strong, proud, self-confident teenage girl. A transgender teenage girl.  A teenage girl who could have been Leela Alcorn, accept that she was surrounded by love and acceptance.  No, let me correct that.  She is embraced as who she is, and because of who she is – another person of inherent worth and dignity, as are we all.

Friends, Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

Let me say that again:  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities. 

This week I asked colleagues to send me stories.  So I heard about the lesbian teen who was suicidal when she began attending a UU church.  She is now thriving.  And I heard about a couple of Mormon parents who are eternally grateful to Unitarian Universalism because their gay son has found a place that loves and supports him in a way that their own faith communities could not.  I heard about the clergy person who called the pastor of the local black Baptist church in the days following the incidents in Ferguson to ask if there were any local responses planned who then heard a thankful sigh of relief because that Baptist pastor had thought no one else would care.

Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

That last story reminded me of one I experienced during my first pastorate up in Yarmouth, Maine.  This was back in the day when the only option for gay couples was civil unions, and one day I got a call from a couple who very tentatively, fearfully, asked if I’d be willing to perform their union service.  When I responded with enthusiasm the woman on the phone began to cry.  More than one of the other churches in town had actually hung up on her; the pastor of her own church had actually laughed at her when she’d asked.  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

I’d like a show of hands – how many of you are what we call “birthright Unitarian Universalists?”  (That is, you were born into the Unitarian Universalist, Unitarian, or Universalist church.)  And how many are “come outers”?  (That’d be folks who’ve come out of some other tradition or, perhaps, no religious tradition, in your past.)  Of that number, how many have said that you’d wished you’d known that a faith like this existed long before you’d ever found it?  That you’d been looking for something like this?

In the days and weeks after the tragic slaughter at Columbine High School back in 1999, the Unitarian Universalist church there became a haven for the area’s teens – not just the members of the church, but for other hurting young people who didn’t want their grief answered by dogmas and creeds.  Unitarian Universalism at work saving lives and changing communities.

Our own young people, year after year, tell us in their Coming of Age service that this – this – is the place where they feel fully free to be their true and authentic selves.  High school is, well, high school, and families are families.  We all remember what it was like to be a teenager.  But here, in this Unitarian Universalist community, our youth find unconditional acceptance, support, and love.  Can you imagine the difference that makes?

I want to quote at length the email I received from one of my colleagues.  Shortly after he began a new ministry in one of our congregations one of his children, about to start her junior year at Yale, was killed in a car accident precipitated by a drunk drive.  This is what he wrote:
In the next days, weeks, months, I came to know that Unitarian Universalism was not just a good-time religion. My liberal religious, non-creedal faith sustained and saved.  Whether it was the presence at her Memorial Service of many area Unitarian Universalist colleagues I had not yet met, or the theological reassurance of the prevailing goodness of existence despite momentary times of suffering, or the abiding emphasis on the fact that there can be meaning on the other side of anything (and we are the agents of finding it), or the awareness that all of this was not either a judgment nor a infliction on us personally, or the quiet embracing community who offered no magic words others but rather their comforting care, we moved through the passage of deep loss.  Nothing was denied, nothing was explained away, nothing was converted into vengeance, nothing was made supernatural, nothing was done or said that would later linger as a vestigial remnant of either fear or doubt.
This all became all the more evident as the larger world, the world of the families of the fellow victims and the world of the larger community, tried to salve the wounds and bind up lives with pronouncements, prayers, judgments, and calls for retribution, all of which would have denied us our identities.  Yes, we had suffered a loss, a profound loss, a gut-wrenching loss, but our Unitarian Universalism helped us see that we did not have to also lose ourselves in the process.  We, life, existence, meaning, were all affirmed because our values and our community helped us walk the grief journey.
How many of us have walked our own grief journey with the help of this congregation?  (No hands needed.)  Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities

I’ve been saving this one for last because, well, it’s perhaps the hardest to believe.
One of our congregations began, more recently, as a fairly typical UU church comfortably ensconced in the suburbs.  But they realized that that really wasn’t who they were being called on to be, so they closed up shop and moved to an abandoned, derelict church building in, as they say, the zip code with the lowest life expectancy in the area.  Rather than put energy into fixing up their building – not even pausing to clean up the graffiti in the sanctuary – they began trying to make a difference.  In that same derelict building they established a free food store that serves over 1,000 people each month, a free bookstore, computer center, and laundry.  Until the Health Department set up shop they hosted a health clinic in their space.  They’ve also managed to buy a block of abandoned buildings and a trash dump and turned it into garden space and an orchard.  They’ve done all this in their seven year existence, with an average Sunday worship attendance – the gold standard of church success measures – and average Sunday worship attendance of three to twelve.
Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.
PACEM, the Soup Kitchen, the Food Bank, IMPACT, the community groups we support with our monthly Social Justice collections, the 12 Step groups we host, our partnerships with other area congregations, the children and youth who are nurtured here, the adults who have found a place that is filled not only with like-minded people but, more importantly I think, with like-hearted people.  I know of people who not only chose to join this congregation but who chose to move to Charlottesville because of that marriage equality banner we so proudly fly.  This Unitarian Universalist church saves lives and changes our community.
I said I wasn’t going to talk about our pledge drive.  I lied.  Here goes:
We’re often told (as we even were earlier in this service) that as we consider our pledge we should think about what the church means to us.  I’m going to suggest that while that is important, perhaps even more important is what the church means to others.  What it can mean to others.  The lives it can save; the ways it can change our community.
So often we think about the things we get out of being a part of TJMC, and we do a kind of cost/benefit analysis – what do we get out of it and what should we, therefore, put into it.  But what does it mean that there is a Unitarian Universalist church here on the highest point in Charlottesville?  What does it mean to our town, and our region, that liberal religion has a champion? 
Please, don’t just think of what TJMC means to you.  And don’t even think about what it takes to support this congregation.  Think about the impact of Unitarian Universalism in other cities and states.  Think about the power of Unitarian Universalism across the country.  Think about how our faith – the faith that informs and infuses our own community here and so many, many more – think about how it truly saves lives and changes communities.  Think about how it can change the world.  Think on that, my friends.  Think about that.

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Jesus: What's The Big Deal?

“All of God’s promises find their Yes in him.”
--2 Corinthians 1:20
I recently came across a sermon I delivered back in 2004 that, given the focus of my last few posts, seems worth re-publishing.  My book Teacher, Guide, Companion had recently been published, and Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ had just been released.  This was a sermon I'd take"on the road" when I was asked to guest preach in other congregations.  This particular iteration was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Augusta, Maine on March 28, 2004.

Pax tecum,


Unison Affirmation:  “I am mortal, like everyone else, a descendant of the first formed child of earth, and in the womb of a mother was I molded into flesh within a period of ten months.  When I was born I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth.  My first sound was a cry, as is true of all.  I was nursed with care in swaddling clothes; no king has had a different beginning of existence.  There is for all one entrance and one way out.  Therefore, I prayed and the spirit of wisdom came to me.” ~  Wisdom of Solomon 7
Responsive Reading:  “Let us learn the revelation of all nature and thought; that the Highest dwells within us, that the sources of nature are in our own minds.  As there is no screen or ceiling between our heads and the infinite heavens, so there is no bar or wall in the soul where we, the effect, cease, and God, the cause, begins.  I am constrained every moment to acknowledge a higher origin for events than the will I call mine.  There is deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is accessible to us.  Every moment when the individual feels invaded by it is memorable.  It comes to the lowly and the simple; it comes to whosoever will put off what is foreign and proud; it comes as insight; it comes as serenity and grandeur.  The soul’s health consists in the fullness of its reception.  For ever and ever the influx of this better and more universal self is new and unsearchable.  Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One.  When it breaks thought our intellect, it is genius; when it breathes through our will, it is virtue; when it flows through our affections, it is love. ~  Ralph Waldo Emerson (SLT #531)
Reading:  “Trying to find the actual Jesus is like trying, in atomic physics, to locate a submicroscopic particle and determine its charge.  The particle cannot be seen directly, but on a photographic place we see the lines left by the trajectories of larger particles it put in motion.  By tracing these trajectories back to their common origin, and by calculating the force necessary to make the particles move as they did, we can locate and describe the invisible cause.  Admittedly, history is more complex than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy; the intervention of unknown factors has to be allowed for.  Consequently, results can never claim more than probability; but ‘probability.’ As Bishop Butler said, ‘is the very guide of life.’” ~  Morton Smith, Jesus the Magician

* * *

The tale is told of a preacher whose children’s stories had become a tad bit predictable.  One Sunday he gathered the kids around him and began, “Who can tell me what’s small, grey, and furry; has a big tail; and likes to eat nuts?”  One of the kids wearily raised his hand and, when called on, said with a sigh, “I don’t know, pastor, but I’ll bet you’re going to tell us it’s Jesus.”
That obviously wasn’t a Unitarian Universalist church!
Out there—beyond our walls—and even to a large extent in here among ourselves, there’s a perception that Unitarian Universalism is anti-Christian; that we’d prefer to draw wisdom from any of the other world religions but that the Christian traditions are off limits; that, as the old joke puts it, the only time the words “Jesus Christ” are spoken in a UU church is when the sexton stubs his toe.  I’ve heard this from non-UUs, and quite a number of folks in the congregations I know best have told me the same thing.
Still, I don’t think that most people in our movement dislike Jesus.  In the movie Casablanca there’s a scene in which Peter Lorre’s character says to Humphrey Bogart’s character, “You despise me, don’t you Rick?”  To which Rick replies, “I suppose I would if I gave you any thought.”  I don’t think most people in our movement dislike Jesus, but I don’t think most of us give him too much thought, either.
This may have changed recently, what with the release of Mel Gibson’s movie which Steve Martin has renamed, “Lethal Passion,” and about which, I think, the less said the better.  We may be thinking about him more now, but I’ve been giving Jesus some thought for the last several years while I was working on my book Teacher, Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus in a secular world.  And as I’m now being asked to speak at events around the country on the theme of this “rediscovery,” I’m thinking a lot about what to say about thinking about him.  So you might imagine that I am eager for these opportunities to discuss this topic, and this person, that I love.  
Well, yes and no.  There are safer things for a guest preacher to preach about!  For most of us Jesus has so much baggage that it’s hard to see our way past the boxes, bags, and  bundles to the man buried behind (or beneath!) the pile.  We may not actually know more about him than we do about Moses, or Mohammed, or Siddhartha, but we think we do.  For most of us the image was cast in cement a long time ago.  We think we know all there is to know or, at least, all that is worth our knowing.  
I’d certainly thought so.  Raised in liberal Presbyterian and Methodist churches—or, more precisely, in their church camps—I was pretty sure I knew what Jesus was all about—a good guy; an ethical teacher, who died young and was converted into a God.   I had all but dismissed him when, in my twenties, I turned toward Buddhism and Wicca on my spiritual search.  By the time I was ordained and came to the church in Yarmouth, Jesus had become for me essentially a literary figure—one of the mythic hero’s “thousand faces”—well worth mentioning in sermons from time to time, but little else.
And then my mom died.  In the weeks and months that followed I found that the theology I had “built” for myself was not as strong as I would have liked.  It was far more flimsy and hollow than I’d imagined.  I wanted—honestly, I needed—something more and I found myself reexamining the traditions in which I’d been raised.
I decided to begin by studying the man upon whom the traditions had been built, the man I once described in an Easter sermon as “an old friend I seem intent on forgetting”—Yeshua ben Miriam, Jesus son of Mary.  In my reading I came across Bishop Spong’s book on Jesus, This Hebrew Lord, in which he wrote,
“In [the story of Jesus] I found . . . a center for my being.  Behind the supernatural framework of the first century . . . I discovered a life I wanted to know; a life that possessed a power I wanted to possess; a freedom, a wholeness for which I had yearned for years.”
There are those who say that seeking the historic Jesus is a fool’s errand.  On the one hand, whatever else they may be, the Gospels are not reliable journalism.  I’ve often said to the congregation I serve that all religious language is poetry.  This is as true for the Gospels as it is for the Psalms.  The four Gospel writers—the folks we call Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are poets, not reporters.  Or to use another metaphor, they are painters; the Gospels can be seen as a portrait of Jesus.  Or, more accurately, are portraits, in the plural; it’s worth noting that each painted a different picture of the man.  They each include different stories, and even the stories they tell in common they tell differently.  The feeling, the flavor of the man is different with each, from Mark’s humble healer to John’s self-assured cosmic Christ.  And then, as anyone who’s read The DaVinci Code knows, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are only the four portraits that were enshrined in the canon of the Bible—there are dozens of other Gospels that paint their own pictures of the man.  How, then, are we to find out who he was if there are so many different pictures and none of their authors were concerned with writing reliable history?
Well, we can look at these various pictures and, as Morton Smith put it, attempt to “trace the trajectories” back to their source.  What kind of man would Jesus have had to have been for the Gospel writers to have told the kinds of stories they did?  What are the elements that are consistent among the various stories, or which seem so incongruous that they almost have to be true?  (There are things in the Gospels that are so unflattering or so just plain weird that no one would have made them up and inserted them into the story if they didn’t have to be there because they were true.)  From clues such as these we can begin to form our own portrait.
Beyond this, we can study what can be known about life in first century Palestine and, in particular, about the lives of holy men in Jesus’ day.  Even more broadly, we can find out what can be known about itinerant preacher/healers in pre-industrial, agrarian societies generally.  Then, we can compare this to the information gleaned from the Gospels and, while not being absolutely certain, we can have reason to believe that our guesses are at least well educated.
So what do we know?  Jesus was born about one hundred years after Rome had spread the Pax Romana into his homeland.  During this time, most of the people in the Roman Empire—some 80 per cent of the population—lived at a subsistence level.  The Roman social system was shaped like a pyramid, with the emperor on top, supported by retainers who were supported by merchants, traders, and others, who were in turn supported by the work of the vast majority of the people.  This lowest strata of the population, from which Jesus came, made the Pax Romana possible, but at tremendous cost.  As Stephen Patterson put it in The God of Jesus, “Rome slowly siphoned the life out of places like Palestine.”
There were more immediate and brutal costs, as well.  Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Roman General Varus quelled a peasant uprising in Palestine by attacking the cities of Galilee and Samaria, selling their inhabitants into slavery and publicly crucifying two thousand of the uprising’s leaders.  Shortly after Jesus’ death, all the people of the nearby towns of Gophna, Emmaus, Lydda, and Thamma were sold into slavery because they had been slow to pay their share of the Judean tribute to Rome.  This was the world in which Jesus lived, and we can be sure that this environment affected him.  Gibson got that part of the picture right, at least.
It should probably be unnecessary to say it, but just in case it’s not—Jesus was Jewish.  He was never a Christian.  He was not even the founder of a new religion.  He was someone who grew out of and spoke to the religion which raised him; he sought a renewed Judaism, and his teachings are in line with many rabbis before and since.  He sought to help his people re-clarify their image of the sacred, and to re-imagine their relationship with their God.  
Yet it’s also clear that his message was not only religious, but political.  Actually, almost no matter what his message was we’d have to say this because the first century Jewish mind would not have conceived of the sacred/secular split that we twenty-first century people seem to take for granted—everything was the province of God, so everything was religious.  But when you look at what his message was, distilled from two millennia of institutional interpretation, it is easy to see why Prof. John Dominic Crossan says that one of the few things we can know for certain about Jesus was that he was executed by the Romans as a political criminal.
Jesus spoke incessantly of “the kingdom of God.”  The Greek word that is usually translated as “kingdom” is basileia, which in just about every other ancient text is translated as “empire.”  In Jesus’ day there was only one empire—the empire of Rome.  To speak of an empire of God was to make a comparison with the empire of Rome, a comparison that would not have been flattering to the Romans.  In the empire of God, the weighty societal pyramid did not fatally crush the poor; in fact, there was no pyramid.  All were invited to the banquet table.  The Romans who were listening in would have heard this as radical stuff, as would the Jews to whom he was speaking.
But Jesus’ message wasn’t, at heart, about societal shake up.  It was about human relationships.  A story is told, with slight modifications, in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke:  A group comes to ask Jesus a question and begin by saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with particularity, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.”  (Mark 12:14.)  Jesus lived a life in which the distinctions between rich and poor, holy and unholy, righteous and sinner, male and female, Jewish and Gentile became increasingly meaningless.  The lines of demarcation and division that we humans draw with ever greater clarity became for him invisible.  Much has been made about Jesus eating with tax collectors and prostitutes; reading, particularly, the Gospel of Luke I was struck by how often he ate with Pharisees!  It doesn’t seem to have mattered to him—left wing aid worker or right wing shock jock; homeless veteran or conservative lobbyist—Jesus saw everyone he met as children of the same “Father” and reached out to them as to a brother or sister.
And that, I think, is the point.  (At least it’s the point for this morning.)  Looking at the world with God’s eyes, Jesus came to see all people as divine and recognized all things as sacred; for him there were no distinctions.  Reflecting on this aspect of Jesus, the apostle Paul wrote, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28)  This is the source of that “freedom [and] wholeness” that Bishop Spong found, and which I found in my search as well.
What about all the “God” stuff?  When Mohandas Gandhi died, Albert Einstein said of him, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this in flesh and blood did walk upon this earth.”  When we meet a person who lives her or his life the way Emerson described in our responsive reading, truly in touch with that “deep power in which we exist,” it makes an impression on us.  I believe that Jesus lived such a life, that those who knew him were able to see the Divine shining through him.  It was as if he provided them with a window through which they could see God, or a doorway through which they found they could access those holy “beatitudes.”  Over time, the door became identified with the room to which it opened; the widow came to be seen as one with the view.  The man named Jesus, in whom and through whom people had seen the Sacred, came to be seen as sacred himself.  Came to be seen as God himself.  But again, we should remember, that all religious language is poetry.
This is not as heretical as some might think.  At the dramatic height of the story of the Transfiguration, told in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples see a vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, and they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”  
Note that the voice does not say, “Bow down and worship him,” but, simply, “Listen to him.”  How like Marcus Borg’s definition of being a Christian, “taking seriously what Jesus took seriously.”  Perhaps we should take that advice.  
Still, why should we twenty-first century Unitarian Universalists pay him any mind?  Two thousand years ago a young man—a young, “God-intoxicated” carpenter and itinerant preacher—called people to a vision of a world made fair with all her people one.  He demonstrated with his life that you could look at all people as your sisters and your brothers, recognizing our common heritage as children of one Divine Reality.  This is a lesson our world still desperately needs.  Yet I believe there’s more to it than that.  I believe that Jesus is, or at least for some of us can be, more than merely a teacher or a guide.  I believe he can be a companion, for I believe that in some way far beyond my ability to comprehend it, the spirit of this man lives on and continues to offer us a doorway and an invitation to walk through it or, if you prefer, offers across the millennia a window on the way things really are and encourages us to take a deep look.
He is not the only door or the only window, of course, but for many of us he can be one.  And once we’ve cleaned off the accretion of soot and grime that generations of church teachings have deposited on him, we might discover for ourselves just what Bishop Spong, and I, and countless others have found him to be: “a life [we want] to know; a life that [possess] a power [we want] to possess; a freedom, a wholeness for which [we have] yearned for years.”
And so this morning I commend to you this old friend with whom I’ve recently become reacquainted.  This teacher and preacher, this healer and seer, this passionate lover of life who encourages us to live as one with the source of all things.  Who calls us to see everyone we meet as our brothers and sisters and all things as holy.  Who calls for commitment to a vision of a world of freedom and beauty and who was willing to die for his faith.  Such a person should most certainly be welcome in a Unitarian Universalist church, and maybe, just maybe, even in your own heart.

Closing Words:  Perhaps this young man, this Jewish peasant from so long ago, deserves another hearing.  Perhaps there is more to his message than we were taught in Sunday School.  Perhaps this itinerant healer, and teacher, and prophet—whose life and ministry was so short yet whose influence is still felt two thousand years after his death—has something to say to us.  And perhaps, if we listen closely—if we have ears to hear—we, too, will find in him what countless others have found and what we have been looking for. ~ Erik Walker Wikstrom, Teacher, Guide, Companion

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Why I Wear a Cross (the power of the cross, part 2)

In my last post I noted that I wear a cross beneath my shirt every day.  However I also bemoaned the devolution of the cross from powerfully potent symbol of subversive defiance to mere fashion accessory.  Doesn't my wearing of one play into that downward spiral?

A story:  The first church I served after my ordination was the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine.  It's lovely New England meeting house was built in 1860, shortly after the Unitarians split off from the Congregationalists (whose meeting house is still right across the street!).  (As an aside, the congregation is called First Universalist instead of First Unitarian because the Unitarians and Universalists of Yarmouth merged in the early 1920s, long before the national merger in 1961.  The Unitarians had the better building, but the Universalists had just received a sizable bequest.  Guess whose name went above the door!)

Over time the sanctuary came to have a fairly large chancel area, separated from the pews with a dark wooden wall that extends up to just below the chest of someone standing on the platform.  There is a pulpit on one side, and a lectern on the other, with a set of stairs between.  Beneath the pulpit and the lectern there were beautiful red velvet drapes.

One Sunday, as I was preaching about modern Unitarian Universalism's historic roots in the Christian tradition(s), I had two parishioners come forward and lift up those drapes.  The long-time members were not at all surprised by what was revealed, of course, but many of the more recent members had never even thought to look behind the drapes and, so, an audible gasp arose as people saw the two golden crosses that were built into that wall.

I said in that sermon that no matter how much the congregation wished to distance itself from its Christian "parents," the fact is that it would be impossible to do so. As Unitarian Universalists, our Christian heritage is part of our DNA, and is always with us whether or not we know or acknowledge it.  Similarly, I think, I have chosen to wear a cross as a reminder that Christianity is part of my religious DNA, too.

I was born into the Presbyterian Church, but I like to say that I was raised by the summer camp programs of the New York Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I took religion seriously.  (At 16 I was already feeling a call to the ordained ministry.)  Eventually I was ordained -- an Elder in the Presbyterian Church.  (I was the "youngest Elder" in the history of the Long Island Presbytery!)  I remember quite vividly that moment during the service when the Elders placed their hands on me and Rev. Princh read words from the Gospel of John:
"You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would abide ..."
At that moment I felt as though an electric charge was running through my body.  And, as I said, to this day I can remember it vividly.  So no matter how much I may have tried to distance myself from my religious roots, they are always with me.  Perhaps I have finally decided to stop running from that appointment.  I wear the cross as a reminder.

I don't always were my cross.  There are days that I forget, and days when I don't feel "worthy" (whatever that means).  Most days, though, I put it on as I get dressed in the morning.  And I do not always think about the "powerfully potent symbol of subversive defiance" I am putting around my neck, but I often do.  And it reminds me that each day -- in each moment -- I have a choice of whether or not to settle more deeply into my comfort or to "launch out into the deep" and take the risk that I believe all real religion is.  More often than not, I confess, I make the first choice.  But because I've chosen to wear the cross, though, I have with me always a reminder ... and an encouragement to make a better choice.

So ... a question:  do you have a touchstone, a talisman, something that reminds you of the higher self your faith calls you to?  Perhaps it's something you wear, or carry in your pocket, of have sitting on a private altar at home or in the office.  Maybe it's an image you have on your phone.  Please -- I encourage you to leave a comment telling what serves for you the purpose(s) the wearing of a cross serves for me.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Power of the Cross

In my post a couple of days ago I used this picture of a Celtic cross and received several very appreciative comments.  For the record, I bought it at a Michael's arts and crafts store.  It is cast metal.  And ever day, beneath my shirt, I wear this cross.

But I'm an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, right?  Do I really buy into all this Christ-died-for-our-sins-on-a-cross stuff?  No.  But for me, at least, that's not the point.  As I noted yesterday, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Christian is the one Marcus Borg devised, "it means taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."

If that's so, then what's the big deal about the cross? 

In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth -- chapter 1, verses 23 and 24 -- he wrote, "we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."  Scholars believe that this letter was written around 55 C.E., or roughly 20-25 years after Jesus was crucified.  According to Marcus Borg and other New Testament scholars, this letter is the third oldest piece of Christian writing in the official canon.  (Only the first letter to the Thessalonians and the letter to the Galatians are thought to be older.)  That would make this assertion that "we preach Christ crucified" to be an extremely early expression of Christian theology.

What makes the message of "Christ crucified" so important?  You might think that the answer is, "Christ resurrected," but that's not necessarily true.  The earliest of the Gospels -- Mark -- doesn't mention resurrection at all and, at least according to scholars like John Dominic Crossan, the Greek word that's used later for the idea of "resurrection" is not the same word that would be used to describe, as Crossan puts it, the resuscitation of a corpse.

Besides, if it's the resurrection that's important then that wasn't unique to Jesus.  After all, in Luke's Gospel we're told that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, and both Luke and Matthew tell of him bringing back to life a little girl who'd died.  And in Matthew's telling of the crucifixion of Jesus there's this detail -- at the moment of Jesus' death, "the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many."  It seems to me, then, that the resurrection really isn't the most important part of the story.

I think it's the crucifixion itself.  Not because his death "redeemed" humankind from our essential nature as sinners.  I'm too much a Universalist to think that God demanded a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity -- both corporate and individual.  (And, while we're at it, I don't believe that "sin" is our essential nature, but that might need to be it's own topic for another post.)  I think that the real importance of the crucifixion is the cross itself.

Jesus was not the only person who was crucified, of course.  Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Roman General Varus quelled a peasant uprising in Palestine by attacking the cities of Galilee and Samaria, selling their inhabitants into slavery and publicly crucifying two thousand of the uprising’s leaders. In her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Paula Frederickson said this about crucifixion:
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

That's what makes the cross such a powerful symbol, and why "preaching Christ crucified" would be thought of as a "stumbling block" and sheer "foolishness."  Getting crucified was not a sign of God's favor.  If anything it would be a sign of God's rejection and abandonment.  There was nothing worse that could be done to you than to hang you on a cross.  (And John Dominic Crossan adds the detail that the bodies of the victims of crucifixion were unceremoniously dumped outside the city wall and left there for wild dogs to scavenge.)

Yet the early Christians were saying something utterly astonishing -- that God was with Jesus on that cross.  That God could make even something as horrific as the cross of crucifixion into a symbol of hope.  And as you can imagine, to embrace the cross as a symbol was an act of bold defiance.  It says, "You may want to terrorize us.  You may want to demoralize and dispirit us.  You may want to crush our will, but we will rise again.  Your instrument of torture holds no fear for us.  Do your worst.  We will survive."

Two more thoughts.  First, to paraphrase Jesus, you have heard it said that Jesus' death was preordained and that he had to be crucified for God's plan to manifest, but I say to you that Jesus most likely did not want to die.  He did not go to Jerusalem so that he could get arrested, tried, and executed.  He did not commit, as one person has said to me, "suicide by cop." 

I believe that Jesus didn't want to die, but was willing to.  That's a distinction I made in my recent sermon "I May Not Get There With You."  Martin Luther King made clear that he did not want to die.  In his last speech he said, "Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place."  Yet he also made equally clear that he was not going to let the threat of death stop him from the work of building the Beloved Community.  I cannot but believe that this was true of young Yeshua ben Miriam, as well.

The last thing I want to say about the cross -- for this post at least -- is that I believe the cross has largely lost what power it once held.  When Constantine looked up before a battle and saw a cross in the air, the cross ceased to be a bold declaration of defiance against "the powers that be" -- it became the sign of the powers that be.  It was no longer heretical and counter-cultural.  We need no proof that this transformation is complete than to see how often the cross, today, is used simply as a fashion accessory. 

Having recently read James Cone's groundbreaking book The Cross and the Lynching Tree I can't help but wonder whether a noose might be a better symbol today.  The cross was originally a shocking symbol of God's presence with the lowest of the low, a promise to the oppressed that there oppressor did not wield ultimate power.  The cross was a tool of the oppressor; it became a rallying sign of the opposition.

Especially in the United States, who has been more marginalized than African Americans?  And what tool was used most often, in the words of Paula Frederickson, as "a form of public service announcement?"  The lynching tree.

Christianity is supposed to be challenging, is supposed to be daring, is supposed to be risky, is supposed to engage in the work of overturning the status quo and ushering in a very different kind of kingdom, a radically new kind of commonwealth, a truly transformed nation state, a new world.  It is supposed to be subversive.  Yet Christianity as it is most commonly found today seems to have forgotten all of this.  (And, I would argue, this seems especially true among liberal Christians.)  The work, though, still needs to be done.

Perhaps it would help if we stopped looking at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized Jewish man hanging on a cross (when we know the man is really God in disguise and the cross is a fashion statement).  Perhaps, instead, we should look at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized African American man hanging from a tree.  In both cases an innocent man was murdered to maintain a system of oppression that desperately needs to be overturned.  In both cases we are promised that death is not the final word.  In one, though, the death is merely a story and, so, the promise is not something to believe.  In the other, though, the horrific reality of the death may serve to shock us awake to the reality of that promise of life.

Pax tecum,


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Twelve Little Words

I have continued to think about Marcus Borg, who died on Wednesday.  I noted in my last post that his work deeply influenced me, and I hope it was clear that this influence was both in my personal and my professional life.  I concluded by saying, "I would not be who I am today if it weren't for him."

I've been thinking about how, out of all the words of his I've read there are a dozen that were revelatory and revolutionary for me.  Of Christianity he said, "it has everything to do with taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."

Let that sink in for a minute.  To be a Christian, he is saying, has very little to do with the affirmation of certain creedal declarations.  Instead, being a Christian means "taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."  And according to the Gospel accounts, at least, he was consistently clear about what he took seriously.

In the Gospel of Luke, the 4th chapter, the story is told that after spending 40 days in the wilderness being temped by the devil, Jesus begins to preach and teach in the local synagogues.  Luke 4:14-21 gives these details:
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Proclaiming good news to the poor.  Proclaiming freedom to the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind.  Setting the oppressed free.  Proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor.  Not a lot in there about doctrinal correctness. Not a lot about purity of belief.  He is not remembered as having said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim that this denomination is better than that one."  Or "because he has anointed me to proclaim that some people matter more than others."  Or that, "your material success in the world is a sign of his blessings."  He doesn't even say anything about traditional vs. contemporary music in worship!

No.  He's pretty clear, and not just in this scene from Luke, either.  Re-read the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 5, 6. and 7).  If that weren't enough, in chapter 25 Matthew depicts a now famous scene in which Jesus separates those bound from heaven from those bound for "the eternal fire."  What was his criteria?  Did you give something to eat to the hungry and something to drink to the thirsty.  Did you invite the stranger in, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner?  Again, nothing about being able to quote chapter and verse (I had to look up these references!).  Nothing about have the "right" stance on abortion or marriage equality.  If being a Christian has "everything to do with taking seriously what Jesus took seriously," then being a Christian means caring for your society's "least."  And not caring in some kind of abstract way, but in a direct, active, hands-on way.

At one point I thought that I'd given up the Christian identity I had in my childhood.  I'd become a Buddhist, an eclectic, a Unitarian Universalist.  Yet something keep tugging at me; something that hadn't let go of me even if I'd rejected it.  And it was Marcus Borg who opened my mind so that my heart could once again be touched.  "Being a Christian" didn't mean I had to get plugged back into the matrix and forget all that I had learned beyond what I'd been taught in Sunday School.  It meant, simply, looking again to the stories of Jesus -- and to the stories of the Jewish people, only in the context of which could the stories of this particular Jewish teacher make any sense.  

Yes, other people have pointed in this same direction; yes, there are other teachers.  I respect and honor them, and my heart and mind have been touched by their teachings as well.  They continue to be.  One of the great gifts of being a preacher and teacher in the Unitarian Universalist tradition is that I don't have to limit myself to only one expression of these universal truths.  But for me, in my own spiritual life, the example in the stories of Yeshua ben Miriam calls to me as does no other. 

But doesn't one have to "buy" all of the stuff that comes with the name "Christian"?  Doesn't a Christian at least have to worship Jesus as God?  Not if Borg is right.  All one needs do is "take seriously what Jesus took seriously;" all one needs to do is to look to the model Jesus offers as we try to live our own lives.  A Franciscan -- another "label" I embrace -- doesn't worship Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (known to his family and friends as "Francesco").  A Franciscan simply seeks to emulate this simple saint -- including his admonition on his death bed, "I have done what is mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours."  The question isn't "What would Francis do?" or "What would Jesus do?"  More to the point is the question, "How will the love of God that inspired Jesus and Francis manifest itself in and through my life?  That, to me, is what makes one a Christian.  And without Marcus Borg, I would never have known that.

Pax tecum,


Thursday, January 22, 2015

R.I.P. Marcus Borg -- thanks for reintroducing me to an old friend

March 11, 1942 – January 21, 2015

The New Testament scholar and prophet of progressive Christianity, Marcus J. Borg, died yesterday at the age of 72.  I never met him, yet I wouldn't be who I am today without him.  And I know that I am not alone in having been deeply and profoundly touched by Marcus Borg's keen mind and compassionate heart without ever having any kind of direct, personal encounter.  His spirit flowed through his words, and his words reached millions.
These are just a few of the nearly two dozen books Borg wrote over the years, and through them and his prolific public speaking, he became one of the leading voices in progressive Christianity.  This is the kind of Christianity that encourages intelligent questioning, is unafraid to challenge long-standing traditions and teachings, and focuses on love and justice more than creeds and catechisms. 

As I've written in my own book -- Teacher, Guide, Companion:  rediscovering Jesus in a secular world -- after my mother died I had a "crisis of faith."  By this I mean that I suddenly found myself entertaining thoughts and having experiences that I thought I'd long left behind me.  I was rediscovering a feeling of faith, and it was a "crisis" because I had thought I'd "not only thrown out the baby with the bathwater, but [had] tossed out the tub, shut off the lights, and walked out of the house, locking the door behind [me]."  So I didn't know what to do with the experiences I was having.

Marcus Borg was one of the people who helped me to see a way to bring together my, if you will, post-Christian understanding of the world with my deeply rooted Christian identity.  He offered me, indeed, a "new vision."  And his invitation to "meet Jesus again for the first time" was incredibly exciting -- I had, of course, previous "met" Jesus in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches of my youth, but this would be the "first time" I did so with my more mature perspectives.  I had by this time studied Buddhism on and off for a couple of decades, had gone to divinity school where I focused on cross-cultural studies of spirituality, had been ordained to the Unitarian Universalist ministry, and had started serving a congregation.  I was not the same person who'd encountered Jesus before and, as Borg showed me, neither was Jesus.

I have since continued to renew my acquaintance with Jesus, who I once described in an Easter sermon as "an old friend I seem intent on forgetting."  And I have found other guides: John Spong, Dominic Crossan, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Karen Armstrong, and Anne Lamott, to name just a few.  Still, it was Marcus Borg who opened my eyes in such a gentle yet powerful way.  I would not be who I am today if it weren't for him.

Pax tecum,


PS:  If you're interested in learning more about progressive Christianity, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of any one of Marcus Borg's books.  You could, of course, always get a copy of my own Teacher, Guide, Companion, or the truly wonderful Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism.  You might also want to visit or the website of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What About Robin?

This past week I preached a sermon about heroes as a means of exploring issues of identity.  On Wednesday I posted a reflection on a comment someone made as they left that service, "How many identities does the Joker have?"  Somebody else that morning made a request:  "Next time talk about Robin."

Of course, as my fellow comic nerds will tell you, that's not such an easy thing to do.  First, you'd have to decide which Robin you're going to talk about.  Dick Grayson, the first of the Robins?  Jason Todd, the one who got killed by the Joker?  (Actually, he was killed by-a phone in vote in which readers were asked if he should live or die -- he lost.)  What about Tim Drake, who actually figured out the Batman's secret identity, and who was temporarily replaced by Stephanie Brown?  Damien Wayne, Bruce Wayne's son with Talia al Ghul?  Duke Thomas, who becomes Robin five years or so after current continuity?  What about Carrie Kelly, the Robin of Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Night Returns?  (Which, as an aside, my good friend Jimbo gave me years ago and which reignited my childhood fascination with comic book heroes.  Yes, this is all Jimbo's fault!)  There are others in other iterations of the DC comics universe(s), but that's probably enough links for now.  Suffice it to say, there have been a lot of Robins, so to talk about Robin we need to know who we're talking about.

It gets even more complicated when we consider that some of these Robins have also been other costumed heroes.  Dick Grayson becomes Nightwing.  Jason Todd becomes Red Hood (and a few others).  (Yes, I know, I'd said he'd died.  Not, apparently, such a final thing in the comics!)  Tim Drake becomes Red Robin.  And if this weren't enough to scramble your brain cells, there have been different versions of the DC multiverse that contain different stories for these characters.  The combinations are virtually endless.

All that said, though, I think that this is much more than that parishioner wanted to know.  I think she was saying, "What about the dark and brooding Batman having a young and bright sidekick?"A good question and one which, as with so many other things, the comics have explored over the years.  In his fabulously interesting -- and fun! -- book Batman and Psychology:  a dark and stormy knight, Professor of Psychology Travis Langley devotes a chapter to the question of "Why Robin?"  He demonstrates that, whether the comics' authors were aware of it or not, the various Robins actually show traits appropriate for their "birth order" and psychosocial stage at the time they joined the Caped Crusader's crusade.

He also addresses the charge, originally made in 1954 by Dr. Fredric Wertham, that Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson are gay.  (He never actually said this straight out.  He did say that the two lived "a homosexual fantasy lifestyle."  In his book The Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham wrote, "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychology and psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend 'Robin.'")  This understanding of the relationship continues to this day.  Frank Miller, creator of some of the most compelling comic book storytelling (including the aforementioned The Dark Knight Returns), had this to say about the Batman's sexuality:
"Batman isn't gay.  His sexual urges are so drastically sublimated into crime-fighting that there's no room for any other emotional activity.  Notice how insipid are the stories where Batman has a girlfriends or some sort of romance.  It's not because he's gay, but because he's borderline pathological, he's obsessive.  He be much healthier if he were gay."
So why then this steady stream of young side kicks?  And why are they so often so bright and colorful, a marked contrast from the Dark Knight himself?  One reason is that Bruce Wayne was himself a young child when his parents were murdered during that mugging-gone-wrong, the event that gave birth to the Batman.  Bringing these young men -- some no more than children -- into his mission can be seen as trying to provide the mentorship and support that he never received.  There are exceptions, but several of the Robins -- including the first -- suffered losses similar to Bruce's.  Young Dick Grayson was part of an acrobatic troupe -- the Flying Graysons -- and saw his parents murdered as part of an intended extortion scheme.  Bruce Wayne was in the audience that night when their trapeze wires suspiciously broke and he recognized something of himself in the suddenly orphaned Grayson.  It's been noted that Grayson, Todd, and Drake have often been drawn as looking like younger versions of Bruce Wayne.

Practically speaking, the authors of the comic who actually introduced the Robin character have said that it was getting difficult writing all of the "thought balloons" necessary to convey the Dark Knight's thinking.  With a partner, a side kick, he could talk out loud the things that were going on in his head, and with someone who was a little less perfect with whom the reader might be able to relate a little more readily.  After all, didn't Holmes need a Watson?

From a psychological point of view it can be said that Bruce needs a Robin to remind himself of himself and the reasons for his crusade.  He also, at some level, is aware that he cannot continue this fight forever and so he's training the next generation of crime-fighters, as it were.

But why so bright and cheery?  That original Robin costume, with it's bright yellow cape, red jacket and, as they're not so affectionately known, "pixie boots" would certainly stand out, contrasting quite dramatically with the shadowy Batman.  So what's up with that?  Again, a practical answer is that the too grim detective/vigilante needed to be toned down for readers and that a bright side kick was a way of doing it.  (Adam West and the rest of the gang did it even more in the Batman television show of the 1960s.)  It also makes some good psychological sense.  With his parents gunned down before him at such a young age, it could easily be argued that part of his psychosocial development was halted there, and that while he matured in many other ways a part of him remains that little child.  The brightly clad Robin -- which in a recent depiction of his origins is noted to be a sign of spring -- represents his childlike hope and optimism.

My favorite understanding, though, comes from a flashback in a one-shot from November 2014:
Robin (apparently looking at his costume for the first time):  It's a little, I don't know, bright.  I mean, you get to wear all the black stuff.  You get to use the night and the shadows and things.  Won't everyone, like, see me out there?
 Batman:  Do you know how to use the shadows and the night?
Robin:  No, but ... 
Batman:  You wear black and you rely on the dark.  It becomes your crutch.  Someone takes it from you, and you fall.  Wear your outfit so they will see you.  Then beat them when they see you.  When you're ready, wear mine.  Earn the night.
Earn the night.  And he does.  As Nightwing, his costume is mostly black.  And when it is thought that Bruce Wayne had died, Dick Grayson dons the cape and cowl of his mentor and friend.

One of my mentors charged me, at my ordination, "don't be an old curmudgeon until you are one."  He might have been saying, "earn your curmudgeonliness."  And I can think of so many other parts of my personality that I have had to "earn," as well as many I'd have to admit that I haven't quite earned yet.  Perhaps you can, too.

And I think that all of us can stand reminders from time to time of who we once were -- of the optimism, and the dreams, and the ideals we once had.  St. Paul aside, we should not always "put away childish things."  Perhaps we could all use a Robin in our lives.

Pax tecum,


A portion of the so-called "Bat Family" (l-r) Red Robin, Batwoman, Robin, the Batman, Nighwing, Batgirl, Red Hood