Monday, August 06, 2018


Today is the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan 73 years ago.  At the time of the bombing the city's population was approximately 340,00 - 350,000 people.  It is estimated that the bomb directly killed 70,000 people, including 20,000 Japanese combatants and 2,000 Korean slave laborers. By the end of the year, injury and radiation brought the total number of deaths to 90,000–166,000.  About 70% of the city's buildings were destroyed, and another 7% severely damaged.  This was the first time an atomic bomb was dropped on a city.  

Two days later another bomb was, this time on the city of Nagasaki.  At the time, the population of Nagasaki was estimated to be about 263,000 people -- 240,000 Japanese residents, 10,000 Korean residents, 2,500 conscripted Korean workers, 9,000 Japanese soldiers, 600 conscripted Chinese workers, and 400 Allied POWs  Less than a second after the detonation, the north of the city was destroyed and 35,000 people were killed.

On August 12, 2007 I preached this sermon at the congregation I was serving in Brewster, Massachusetts.  While many of the specifics are clearly of the time, I think the message still has relevance.

Opening Words:  The End and the Beginning

After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won't
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the sides of the road,
so the corpse-laden wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone must drag in a girder
to prop up a wall.
Someone must glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it's not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

Again we'll need bridges
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls how it was.
Someone listens
and nods with unsevered head.
Yet others milling about
already find it dull.

From behind the bush
sometimes someone still unearths
rust-eaten arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must give way to
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass which has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out,
blade of grass in his mouth,
gazing at the clouds.

by Wislawa Szymborska 

(translated by Joanna Trzeciak)

Szymborska is a Polish poet and essayist.
She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996. 

Reading:  “Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titantic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hand raised to catch a ball which never came down. The five spots of paint- the man, the woman, the children, the ball- remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.”

From “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury.

* * *

At 8:14 there was a clear blue sky.  Birds flew in the morning sunshine.  Children laughed as they made their way to school.  People were doing tai chi and calisthenics in a city park.  There’d been a scare earlier in the morning but it seemed now that everything was okay.  Even when the world around you seems to be going crazy, days like this can make you feel alive and grateful.  The air is clean; the sun, warm.  You can forget the insanity.  On a day like this.  For a moment everything makes sense.
And in that moment—31,000 feet above the birds, and the children, and the men doing tai chi—the bomb doors on the Enola Gay opened and let loose a metal cylinder.  Ten feet long and two-and-a-half feet in diameter, it would change the world.  Not just for the people below or the people in the plane, but for every man, every woman, and every child who lived or ever would.
Forty-three seconds after it was flung loose that metal cylinder was 1,900 feet above the ground and it exploded with the force of 15,000 tons of TNT.  The birds burst into flame in mid-air.  So did combustible things like paper—even as far as a mile away.  Instantly.
The people in the park right below turned to ash.  Instantly.  A woman sitting on the steps of her bank, waiting for it to open, was reduced to a shadow.  You can see it today in the Hiroshima Peace Museum where they moved the steps so that she might not be forgotten.
Next came the blast wave.  Moving at a rate of two miles a second, people were blown from their feet, buildings were blown to the ground, trolleys and cars were blown from the roads.  Glass shattered twelve miles away.  A boy was blown through the windows of his house and across the street; his house collapsing behind him.  Within minutes, nine out of ten people half a mile or less from ground zero were dead.
And the numerous fires that erupted around Hiroshima soon joined together creating a monstrous firestorm that engulfed nearly four and half square miles of the city.  In its heart it is estimated that this beast reached temperatures of over seven thousand degrees.  (For comparison, the surface of the sun is just under ten thousand degrees.)  An interesting fact:  a postwar study showed that less than 4.5 percent of survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima suffered leg fractures.  That’s not, of course, because those injuries didn’t occur but because those who couldn’t walk died.
It’s estimated that somewhere around 100,000 people died as a direct result of the blast and the fires.  100,000 people. 
Yet these are just numbers:  15,000 tons of TNT.  Seven thousand degrees.  100,000 people dead.  60 million dead if you add in all those—military and civilians—who died during World War II. 
And wasn’t it World War I that was called “the war to end all wars”?
But it didn’t, did it?  And neither did World War II.  Or the Korean War.  Or Vietnam.
And now we’re embroiled in a war which we started without provocation, a “pre-emptive war” which it is clear that our leaders lied us into launching.  Over 135,000 people have died, and our country alone has spent roughly $451,345,000,000 on the war—that’s as of 9:00 this morning when I checked a running total on the web.  The money we’ve spent on the war in Iraq could have paid for 59,780,739 kids to attend Head Start, nationwide, for a year.  Or it could have built 114,832 additional units of affordable housing in Massachusetts.  Or it could have hired 7,170 new public school teachers in Barnstable County alone.  So, what is the cost of this war?
Yet even more important than that is the question, “what is the cost of war?”  Any war?  What do we loose—not just how many lives are lost but how much Life is lost—when nations take up arms against each other? 
How is it possible that we haven’t stopped fighting yet?  After Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Pearl Harbor, the Congo, Korea, Rwanda, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Sarajevo, Somalia, Northern Ireland, New York City, Bagdad—how can we still be slaughtering one another?  It’s been over thirty years since Edwin Starr shouted out, “War.  What is it good for?”  and answered himself, “Absolutely nothin’.”  How is it that we haven’t learned?
Maybe it’s because we keep talking about numbers.  Joseph Stalin said that the death of one person is a tragedy, while the death of millions is a statistic. But there are no statistics.  There is no such thing as “collateral damage.”  There are only people—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, grandchildren, neighbors, friends.  Strangers, even.  Enemies, even.  But no numbers.  Numbers don’t exist; only people do.  Until they don’t anymore.  Until they become shadows in a museum.
Or maybe it’s because we keep thinking that we can fight our way to peace, that the problem is some bad people over there and if we can just beat them into submission peace will prevail.  We believe that it’s in talking tough, acting tough, that we protect the peace.  We’re told—and many believe—that the best defense is a good offense and that while might might not make right, might in the hands of the good guys is there to be used.
Or maybe we’re still warring even with the mushroom cloud in our memories because we haven’t really explored an alternative.  One thing that gives me hope is the legislation currently before the U.S. House of Representatives to create a United States Department of Peace.  This legislation would:
l     Create a cabinet level position—the Secretary of Peace—who would be equal to the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State and would advise the president on peacebuilding needs, strategies, and tactics for use both domestically and internationally.
l     It would create a Peace Academy, on a par with our military service academies, which will build a world-class faculty of peacebuilding experts who would be able to analyze peacebuilding strategies at the highest level, advise other branches of government, and facilitate the training of peacebuilders for domestic and international service. 
l     This legislation calls for funds to create and expand proven domestic peace building programs in our communities.

In short, the Department of Peace would be dedicated to discovering, developing, and deploying methods to meaningfully prevent conditions of conflict before violence erupts—both abroad and at home.

Now, of course, lots of individuals and groups think that that’s just a nutty idea.  But peace will never be found at the end of the barrel of a gun.  Remember the quotations from the first of our peace services last year:
l     If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
~ Mother Teresa
l     There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.  ~ A.J. Muste
l     Peace is not merely the absence of war. It is also a state of mind. Lasting peace can come only to peaceful people.  ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
l     Peace is more important than all justice; and peace was not made for the sake of justice, but justice for the sake of peace.  ~ Martin Luther
I think that it was Einstein who, after seeing the devastation of the atomic bomb, said that humankind had progressed so far technologically that we now needed an evolution of consciousness if we hoped to survive.  And Al Gore, in his film An Inconvenient Truth, made the point that when old habits—and he used the example of humanity’s penchant for warfare—are joined to new technology—and here he showed a picture of an atomic mushroom cloud—the results can be devastating and so we have to somehow learn to break our old habits.
This week saw the sixty-second anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  During the service I’ve had this metronome beating out as fast as it can, and if each beat represents one person—one mother, father, husband, wife, sister, brother, daughter, son who died from the immediate effects of the bombing on August 6th—then when our hour is up . . . at this rate . . .  we will be halfway through remembering them all.
But it’s not about numbers, and it’s not even about what has been done.  It’s about people, and about what we can do.  I’d like to see First Parish take its place as a leader in this work for peace.  We have strongly staked our place as an open, anti-oppression congregation.  I would like to see us take and equally solid stand as a place of peace. 
We are known for stands against the demonization of people because of their race, or their gender expression, or their sexual orientation; I would like us to become known for standing against the demonization of people because of their nationality or their ideology.  We are engaged with the work of ending violence in the home, let’s expand that to our world home.  Let’s build on the work we’re already doing—which so many of us as individuals are already involved in—and make peace one of our priorities.
Protests, vigils, letter writing, hosting community forums, working on legislation, running for office . . . we can do so many things.
I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes.  Edward Everett Hale.  “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 must not fail to do the something that I can.”

Closing Words:  Every Day

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday. The hero
stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.
The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for desertion of the flag,
for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

by Ingeborg Bachmann, Austiran poet

Walking the High Wire

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on Sunday, August 5th, 2018.

It was 7:00 am on August 7th, 44 year’s ago. A young man, one week shy of his 25th birthday,  stood with one foot on the edge of a building, and the other foot on a steel cable ¾ of an inch in diameter. The man was French wire walker Philippe Petit; the building was the south tower of the World Trade Center in New York; and that cable was about a quarter of a mile off the ground. (By the way, in case you’re interested, 3/4 of an inch is about the diameter of an average adult thumb.)

Petit has described this moment before his walk in his book Man on Wire (which was also the name of the award winning 2008 documentary about the walk, and which is actually what one of the police officers wrote on a form to describe the incident):

“I place my left foot on the steel rope.

The weight of my body rests on my right leg, still anchored to the flank of the building

I still belong to the material world.

Should I ever so slightly shift the weight of my body to the left, my right leg will be unburdened, my right foot will freely meet the wire.

On one side, the mass of a mountain. A life I know.

On the other, the universe of the clouds, so full of unknown that it seems empty to us. Too much space.

Between the two, a thin line on which my being hesitates to distribute whatever strength it has left.

Around me, no thoughts.  Too much space.

At my feet a wire, nothing else.”

He then did shift his weight to the left, stepped free of the building, and proceeded to spend 45 minutes walking, dancing, kneeling, and even laying down ¼ of a mile above New York City’s financial district, on a wire the thickness of your thumb.

Just as the circus art of juggling is often used as a metaphor — you know, “I’m juggling too much right now, I don’t know how I can keep all the balls in the air” — so is the art of the wire walker.  When things are hard, when we feel we need to especially careful, we might say that we feel like we’re walking a tightrope, and that one wrong step …

You often hear relationships referred to as “mine fields,” but its maybe just as often said that you’ve got to be able to walk a tightrope to be in a relationship.  On the one side, your needs and desires; on the other side, theirs.  On once side, being empathetic and understanding; on the other, asserting yourself.  Cap on, cap off, the toothpaste.  Toilet paper over or under the roll.  This is some serious stuff here.

Most Sundays, while telling you to feel free to do here what it is that you, specifically and particularly, need to do to feel fully present while being aware that the people around you may well have other needs that are different than ours, I say that you get to engage the “spiritual practice” of balancing your needs with the needs of someone else.  I’m not just trying to be cute; I mean it.  Balancing my needs with the needs of someone else is spiritual work, and like all spiritual practices it is both really simple, and deceptively so.

A few weeks back I was talking about that near universal deeply seated fear that if someone knew the full truth of who we are they wouldn’t like us anymore and would reject us.  It’s amazing how common this fear is.  If you really know who I am, you’ll reject me.  So most of us have developed a myriad of ways to keep someone from discovering the full truth of who we are.  We keep part of ourselves stashed away – “hidden” may be too strong a word for some of us, but certainly “out of sight.”  (And not in a groovey 1960s way.) 

A couple of days ago I was driving and listening to Santana’s album Supernatural.  I got hooked (as I always do) on the song “Smooth.”  And since during the week I’m generally writing and rewriting that Sunday’s sermon in my head, a part of the chorus jumped out at me.  (And don’t worry.  I’m not going to start singing it now.)  Rob Thomas, vocalist for Matchbox Twenty, sings, “I would change my life to better suit your mood (because you’re so smooth).” 

I would change my life to better suit your mood.  I would become who you want (or need) me to be to make (or keep) you happy.  This might be a little extreme for some of us – actually, I hope it is – yet don’t most of us recognize the impulse behind it?  Haven’t most of us, at some time or another, tried to morph ourselves into something else for the sake of someone else?  Laughed at a joke we really didn’t find all that funny?  Found delicious – or, at least palatable – a meal that we really didn’t find to be either?  Sat through the latest Marvel movie when we really wanted to be one theatre over watching the new romantic comedy? Listened to a story when we’re rather have been watching the game?

Does any of that sound familiar to anyone?  I’d think so, because the folks who gather in Unitarian Universalist congregations on Sunday mornings tend to be good hearted, caring folks. And if we’re at all evolved human beings – as I hope most of us are at least somewhat, and at least some of the time – then I know that you’re needs matter if you matter at all to me.  And being the caring person I am, I want to see that you get your needs me to the extent that I’m able influence that at all.  So while there’s an extreme form of this impulse, there’s also a more reasonable version as well – sometimes it’s good, it’s right, to put someone else’s wants and needs before our own.

At the same time, though, we UUs also tend to be pretty darned individualistic.  And we’re well aware of how easy it is to go too far in the direction of giving ourselves over to another person.  We know that it’s possible to lose ourselves in the process; that it’s not healthy to follow Rob Thomas’ relationship advice and change our lives to better suit someone else’s moods.  So, individualists that we are, we are likely to have in us a spark of assertive “You Can’t Tell Me What To Do.”  Yes, yes, yes, your feelings matter, but so do mine!  The majority of us UUs are part of the “baby boomer generation,” and we were raised knowing how important it is to be authentic, to be real, to be ourselves.  We’ve committed to memory saint Mary Oliver’s poem The Journey – or, at least its sentiment – that we have to leave behind us “the voices … that kept shouting their bad advice … ‘Mend my life!’ each voice cried. … [Nonetheless,] “[we] strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing [we] could do—determined to save the only life [we] could save.”  I can’t fix anyone else; I can’t “mend” anyone else’s life; I can’t change anyone except myself.  And since I can’t it’s important – essential, even – that I focus my energy working “my side of the street.”  That kind of game playing where I try to pretend to be who you want me to be is unhealthy – for both of us.  I mean, we’re not narcissistic or anything, but as Sammy Davis, Jr. used to sing, “I’ve got to be me!”


And, so, the balance.  On the one side, the oh so very human need to do whatever we can to deal with that deep, deep fear in us that who we are is not enough and that we need to show the world a more acceptable face than the face we fear will cause us to be rejected.  And there’s the mature and compassionate desire to be understanding of the person (or people) with whom I’m in relationship, to care about their needs as much as my own, to want to do for them what I’d want them to do for me (to coin a phrase).  To want to put their needs first – at least some of the time.  That’s on the one side.

On the other is the felt need to project – and, at the same time – protect my Self, to proudly proclaim my individuality, to declare “this is who I am!”  And there’s the mature and compassionate recognition that it’s unhealthy to collapse myself into another, to change my life so much for the other person (or people) with whom I’m in relationship, that it really is no longer my life.  

Between the two, a thin line on which our being hesitates.  At our feet a wire, nothing else.

I said a couple of times there “the person (or people) with whom I’m relationship,” because all of this is applicable to relationships other than the one-to-one relationships I’d wager most of us were thinking about.  All of this is true to some extent in our relationships with our bosses, our employees, our teachers, our students, our friends, our children, our parents, the people in our Covenant Group, the people on the Board (and vice versa), the people sitting closest to us this morning who might well have needs that are different than our own. 

It’s true, too, in our relationships with whole groups – theists and atheists; parents with young children and retirees with more time for volunteering; people who want more music, people who want more words, people who want more silence; people who want things the way they were and people who want things to be the way they could be; people who want the same thing yet see different ways of getting there; people who want donut holes during coffee hour and people who want only healthful snacks.

In each of these relationships, in all of our relationships, we can see at least something of the dynamic I’ve been talking about – the one side, the other side, and that thin tightrope down the middle.

I want to say something about tightropes:  they’re not really tight.  They’re not as loose as a slack rope, of course.  Nor as tight as a solid rod.  What we call a “tightrope” has to have a little play, a little give, a little “life” to it.  

Does that remind you of anything?  I’ve told many times before the story from the Buddhist tradition (but a good story always bears repeating, and not everyone has been here when I’ve told it before).  Siddhartha Gautama was involved in extreme practices of austere self-denial, when he overheard a sitar teacher talking to her student about the necessity of tightening the strings on the instrument just the right amount. (It’s coming back to some of you now, right?)  Too loose, and they won’t make any sound; too tight, and they’ll snap.  If you tighten them just right — neither too loose nor too tight — the music they make will be perfect.  The Buddha-to-be realized that he, too, needed to tread “the middle path,” between a too harsh asceticism and a too wanton hedonism.  The Middle Way, the Middle Path, that’s what the Buddha called his teachings of the Four Noble Truths which make up the heart of Buddhist teaching to this.  Not leaning too much to one side or to the other.

I want to say something about tightrope walkers, too (both literal and metaphoric).  Actually, I’m going to quote Sgt. Charles Daniels, a member of the New York City Port Authority Police, and one of the people who tried for over half an hour to get Petite off that wire 44 years ago.  When being interviewed soon afterward he said, “Officer Munoz and I observed the, uh, … tight rope dancer … because you couldn’t call him a walker.”  Those people who mount the wire don’t so much walk – at least in the plodding, pedestrian way we usually think about walking.  They dance.

I want to squeeze one last drop out of this metaphor – it doesn’t really matter how high the high is.  In fact, four years ago, for the 40th anniversary of what I call “the dance between the towers,” Petit celebrated by doing a walk at the LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, New York.  The wire would be only 25 feet in the air – not the 1,400 feet it was in 1974 – yet Petit said that in many ways he was more nervous about this anniversary walk.  Not because he thought his skills had in any way deteriorate – in fact, he said at the time, “I am better at 65 than when I was an arrogant little bastard at 18.”  Rather, this seemingly far simpler walk – dance – was worrying him more because the wire would go over a pond, and he hates water because he can’t swim.  You see?  It doesn’t matter how high or how low the wire is, what matters is that we walk on it, dance on it, lightly.

This all may seem too simplistic, too … airy? (pun intended).  It may seem to have too little substance for a Sunday morning.  Yet spiritual teachings quite often look like that.  At least that’s what I’ve generally found.  And as I said about spiritual practices, the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the world’s great religions are generally both really simple, and deceptively so.  And one of my mentors often says that what we preachers do here in the pulpit on a Sunday morning is really just the beginning of the sermon – what we do with it during the rest of the week is where the heart of it lies.

So I’m going to encourage each of us, and all of us, to spend some times this week we look through this lens at our relationships -- relationships with individuals in our lives, in the groups we belong to – to look at all of our relationships in all their varied permutations.  Use this metaphor to ask:
  • Am I leaning too far to one side or the other here?  Am I off balance?
  • What is the wire beneath my feet?  Where do I find a healthy equilibrium between this and that?
  • How tightly strung is that wire?  Too loose?  Too tight?  Just tight enough that it’ll hold me up yet still have play?
  • And, perhaps most important of all:  am I simply walking through this relationship, or am I dancing?

Pax tecum,


Note:  If read the book, watch the documentary, or see the more recent fictional film (starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt), you are getting what Petit’s friend and collaborative partner Jean Louis Blondeau has called, “the fairy tale.”  I have had the privilege of corresponding with Jean Louis, and he has reminded me that there is always more to the story of the singular hero.  It took many people to make Petit’s walk possible; they were not simply his helpers or assistants.  In a very real way it was their walk as well.  It was Petit, alone, who danced on that wire that day, but he could not have gotten there without the collaborative relationships that are usually glossed over in the telling of “the fairy tale.”

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Here We Have Gathered

This is the text of the reflections I offered to the congregation I serve on July 29, 2018.  I have also included the Opening and Closing words, and hope UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray will understand their importance to the whole.

Opening Words:
As a people—a people of faith—that say we are committed to justice, compassion, and equity. As a faith that says we are committed to the inherent worth and dignity of all people. As a faith that says we are committed to respect for the interdependent web of all life—we have a critical role to play in this time.
Two things that are absolutely clear. #1—This is no time for a casual commitment to your faith, your community, and your values, and
#2—this is not time to think we are in this alone. 
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, from her sermon, “No Time for a Casual Faith,”
 delivered at the 2018 General Assembly Sunday service

Sermon:  “Here We Have Gathered”
It is not uncommon to hear people talk about being “cultural Christians.”  They are acknowledging that there is something Christian-ish about them, but don’t mistake them for strong adherents of the faith; these are not what you might call “committed Christians.”  The scholar of comparative religion, Winston Smith, was once asked why, after he’d studied the great religions of the world and incorporated into his own life many of the spiritual understandings and practices he’d encountered, why he still referred to himself as a Methodist.  He replied, without skipping a beat, “ancestor worship.”  He had been born into the Methodist tradition, and he continued to claim it long after it’d had ceased to have any claim on him.  (This is true in all religious traditions – there are “cultural” Jews, and Buddhists, and Hindus, and, for that matter, Atheists.  People for whom their relationship with the spiritual/religious tradition they claim has little or no claim on them; people who we might say are “casual” in their religious affiliations.)
Leia, our Director of Faith Development, and I once ran a two-day training for staff teams – ordained ministers and the professional religious educators with whom they worked.  One of the exercises that we’d borrowed from some place began with participants calling out things that the congregation they served did that they were particularly proud of.  “Our monthly food pantry!” one said.  “Our collaboration with other faith communities to provide housing for the homeless during the coldest months of the year,” said another.  “The work we do to keep the vision of the United Nations alive in the minds of our congregation.”  “Our ministry with, for, and by young adults.”  Someone said, “Our religious education programming,” with someone else quickly adding, “especially our youth!”  “Meaningful worship.”  (That came from one of the clergy people present.)  “Our covenant groups that bring small groups together in powerful ways.”  “Our support of the Movement for Black Lives.”  “Having become a Green Sanctuary.”  Having become a Welcoming Congregation.”  “Our program to bring food to members of the congregation when they are sick.”  “Our practice of raising money monthly for non-profits doing meaningful work in our wider community.” 
I could go on.  They certainly did.  They had no problem listing program after program, project after project, one after another, of which they were proud.  (The list I just read, by the way, didn’t come from my notes after that weekend: they’re all things we do here that I’m proud of.)
Like I said, this group had no problem coming up with a long list of things the congregations they served were doing that were making a difference in the lives of their members and their wider communities.  It was the second part of the exercise that we tough.  Participants were asked to read together an item from that list beginning with the words, “We do …” and ending with, “. . . because we’re Unitarian Universalists.”
·    We have a monthly food pantry because we’re Unitarian Universalists. 

·    We collaborate with other faith communities to provide housing for the homeless during the coldest months of the year because we’re Unitarian Universalists.

·    We have a ministry with, for, and by young adults because we’re Unitarian Universalists

·    We bring food to members of the congregation who are sick because we’re Unitarian Universalists.

·    We became a Green Sanctuary and a Welcoming Congregation because we’re Unitarian Universalists
Not everyone had a hard time with this, but a lot of the people there found it really hard to say that they and the congregations they served do the good and important things they do because they are Unitarian Universalists.  They would have felt comfortable saying that they did them because they were good people, because they cared about each other and the world, because they were the right things to do.  But to say that they did them because of being Unitarian Universalists, because our faith traditions compels them to, because as Unitarian Universalists they felt a mandate to make the world a better place … well … a lot of the folks in that workshop weren’t all that comfortable saying that.  And these were religious professionals!
Last week during the annual “Questions & Responses” service I was asked what I found most frustrating about Unitarian Universalism (and, by extension, I’d think, “about Unitarian Universalists”).  In addition to the things I mentioned then, I’d add this – the number of people who are, for lack of a better phrase, cultural, or casual, UUs.  Oh we’re good-hearted people, just as are most “cultural Christians.”  If asked, we will claim our connection to this Unitarian Universalist tradition, yet if we’re being really honest, it has little to no claim on us.  It isn’t truly a part of our identity – our core ­identity.  It’s what we do, where we go on Sunday mornings (and a few other times during the week), yet it’s not really who we are.
And I find that frustrating – and more than a little sad, frankly – because our Unitarian Universalist faith is something.  Our tradition has a history, and an identity, and a power that is different than the history, identity, and power of other religious traditions or civic groups.  Unitarian Universalism is more than, as one joke at our expense puts it, “halfway between the Methodists and the golf course.”  Yet when we don’t feel, don’t know ourselves to be part of something larger than ourselves, larger than the congregation we happen to go to when we think there’ll be something interesting to us, it is so easy to become focused on our own congregation and what’s happening there right now.  This is true in and about Unitarian Universalist congregations wherever we’ve set up shop, and whatever is, or that we might think isn’t, happening in them at any particular moment.  (And how we feel about it.)
When we become so isolated and insular, we cut ourselves off from the power of our association, and I’m not talking about our institutional Association, but the reality that our congregations are associated with one another, connected with one another, can draw strength from and offer support to one another.  When we lose sight of the fact that we are part of something larger than merely the group of people who gather at 717 Rugby Road in Charlottesville, or 351 Boylston Street in Boston, or 2952 South Peoria Avenue in Tulsa, or online through the Church of the Larger Ministry, then we all too often also lose sight of the fact that we are a part of an association of several hundred thousand people, over 1,600 congregations, and a faith that, in the United States, can trace its roots back to the founding of the Universalist Church of America in 1793. Our Unitarian Universalist tradition is something, and we lose something when we don’t fully recognize, acknowledge, and own that as a part of who we are.  We lose something, and our congregations, and our wider Association loses much when we are just “cultural UUs” or, “casual” about our Unitarian Universalism.
In the sermon I quoted from as our Opening Words, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray also said,
“Friends, this is no time to go it alone—we as Unitarian Universalists can’t go it alone. We as individual congregations cannot be in this struggle alone.
This time we are living in is one of tremendous opportunity and needed change—and the health and strength of our communities and our commitment to our values, to this theology of love and interdependence is crucial”
And she said,
“This is no time for a casual faith. As Unitarian Universalists, we are first and foremost religious communities, religious communities that practice love as our foundation—and we are living in times of heartbreak, violence, struggle, and pain. In this time, we need communities that remind us of our humanity in this very inhumane time.”
And these are very “inhumane” times, indeed. 
Hate crimes “more than doubled the day after the 2016 election, with a 92 percent spike in average daily hate crimes in the two weeks following the election compared to the daily average from the beginning of the year. Crimes against Latinos increased by the greatest percent, followed by Muslims and Arabs and African-Americans.  (I quoted that from an article co-authored by the Director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University San Bernardino.)
These are inhumane times
This past Thursday the Justice Department issued a legal brief arguing that federal civil rights law does not ban discrimination on sexual orientation.  In April the administration rewrote a federal rule that had bared discrimination in health care due to “gender identity,” and the State Department reportedly has been, “retroactively revoking passports for transgender women, forcing them to provide proof of their gender.”  Some in the EPA have come out and said that under Trump their mission is changing, “from protecting human health and the environment to protecting industry.” 
These are inhumane times.
All this, and I haven’t yet mentioned that, according to U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw, the administration is responsible for “losing several hundred parents” of the more than 2,700 children forcible separated at the U.S. boarder since October of last year, nor that, as a recent article in New York magazine put it, it seems increasingly plausible that “Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.”
These are inhumane times indeed.  Frightening times.  Dangerous times.  And times that call on us to work, perhaps harder than we’ve ever worked before, to both stem and then reverse the rising tide of hatred.  These are times that call on us as Unitarian Universalists to do this work, because as Unitarian Universalists we have something rare and unique to offer.  We know more about interfaith collaboration than just about anyone, because every Sunday in every UU sanctuary is something of an interfaith service.  We know a lot about working for justice as an expression of our spirituality, because the work of justice has been at the core of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the Unitarian and Universalist faiths which preceded it.  We know so much about inclusion, for it has been a principle around which we have rallied since the beginning that every person has inherent worth and dignity.
I’m going to give the last words here to the Rev. Olympia Brown who, among other things, was the first woman ordained in the United States with the full support and backing of a denomination.  In a well-known passage from her writings (included in the back of our hymnal at #569) she said,
Stand by this faith. Work for it and sacrifice for it. There is nothing in all the world so important as to be loyal to this faith which has placed before us the loftiest ideals, which has comforted us in sorrow, strengthened us for noble duty and made the world beautiful. Do not demand immediate results but rejoice that we are worthy to be entrusted with this great message, that you are strong enough to work for a great true principle without counting the cost.

Parting Words
For our Parting Words I will once again return to Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray’s GA sermon:
The promise of our faith means liberating ourselves from the systems of dominance and exploitation we all suffer under. The promise of our faith means making compassion a way of being, it means creating a collective sense of both community and responsibility. It holds the vision of a yet to be realized future where our collective survival, our liberation, and a practice of the fullness of our theology is possible.
Theologically, our Universalism tells us that no one is outside the circle of love. However, we must understand that in our lives, in the context of oppression and discrimination, that the circle has never been drawn wider from the center. It has always grown wider because of the vision, leadership and organizing of people living on the margins who truly understand the limits and costs of oppressive policies—and what liberation means.
This time we are living in is one of tremendous opportunity and needed change—and the health and strength of our communities and our commitment to our values, to this theology of love and interdependence is crucial. I know this work is calling more from us, but I also know that we have been readying for it. And I know it will change us, but I also see that day when we will look back and see the measurable change in our hearts, in our communities, in our faith and in our society that were nurtured by our struggles and our courageous love today.
Now this change won’t come through optimistic hope or casual practice. It will take a greater commitment and generosity to communities that sustain courage, love, hope and resiliency. It will mean new ways of living our faith and reaching out more boldly, lovingly and faithfully with others for justice. And it will take each of us finding our work, our place—where our gifts help call something new—something life giving—into this world.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray

Instead of our usual benediction, this morning I offer the words with which Susan concluded her sermon:
May the spiritual community that we practice strengthen all of our hearts, may it give us courage, may we not be silent or shrink back from the demands of love. May we hold one another in love as we follow new pathways of joy, of community, of change, of risk and of joy. And may we all be held the practice of agape love that leads us to the liberation we all need—until all are free.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray

Introduction to the Closing Hymn
These are the words Jason Shelton spoke at the 2017 General Assembly when he premiered the updated lyrics for his beloved song, “Standing on the Side of Love” (now “Answering the Call of Love”).  This morning was the first time we sang the new words, so we shared Jason’s introduction:

Sometimes we build a barrier to keep love tightly bound.
Sometimes our words themselves are the barriers.
The metaphors we use for the work of justice matter.

If we are called to be in this work together, then we have to understand when our words become barriers to full participation.

What does love call us to do? For some, it’s standing on the side of love. For some, standing is not an option. And the continued use of that metaphor is a painful reminder of the barriers to full inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations and at our General Assemblies.

What is my responsibility as an artist when awareness of this pain comes to my consciousness?

I am clear that the SSL metaphor — as I intended it — has nothing to do with the physical act of standing. It’s about aligning ourselves with what love calls us to do. But I am also clear that intent is not the same thing is impact, and the impact of this metaphor has become a barrier for some among us.

Friends, when love calls, it sometimes asks us to let go of our attachments, and maybe even our t-shirts. I’m not sure what to do about those t-shirts, but I do know that love is calling us to a new and deeper awareness, and I can do something about the song that I wrote.

So I ask you to rise not in body, but truly to rise in spirit — mindful of all that might mean for you — and join me in Answering the Call of Love.