Monday, February 20, 2017

Can You Be Anybody You Want to Be?

This is the text of the sermon I delivered on Sunday, February 19, 2017 with the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to the podcast, but it should be noted that there were differences between the two services.  This, the sermon I preached at the second service, benefited from feedback I received after the first -- feedback which helped me to see that I had originally expressed my thoughts in a way which was less clear than I'd thought and, so, was easy to misinterpret my intent.  (Thank God for editors!)

We’ve been saying the same words of welcome to and with one another for several years now.  “Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity … you have a place here.  We all have a place here.  We all are welcome here.” 

At the end of this morning’s service we’re going to sing together Fred Small’s beautifully moving song, “Everything Possible”:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still

This song – which never fails to bring a whole lot of us to tears whenever we hear it – and our welcoming words express the sentiment that so many of us believe is the beating heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith – ours is a tradition in which everybody, anybody, is welcome.  All are welcome here.

But is that true?  Is everybody welcome here?  The classic challenge to this idea is asking whether a card-carrying, sheet-wearing member of the KKK would be truly welcomed into this community.  Just this past Friday night one of our members was talking to me about this very thing – he raised the question of whether someone who was wearing, with no sense of irony, a “Make America Great” tee shirt would find a warm welcome here. 

Just as our tradition is often incorrectly described as one in which, “you can believe anything you want to,” the idea that “everyone is welcome here,” is equally lovely sounding, and equally untrue.  I’ll come back in a moment to ask if we’d actually want it to be true, but first I want to look at some of the reasons it might be said so often.

The Unitarian and Universalist traditions – the “parents,” if you will, that gave birth to our modern Unitarian Universalist faith – have a long history of valuing and reaching out to traditionally marginalized communities.

One of the founders, in 1784, of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery was the Universalist Benjamin Rush, and in 1785, one of the signers of the founding compact of the first Universalist congregation in the United States – then called the Independent Christian Church and now known as the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church – was an African American man named Gloster Dalton.  Although our history also includes the Unitarian President Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 signed into law the odious “Fugitive Slave Act,” it also includes the Unitarian clergyman John Haynes Holmes, who was a founding member of NAACP.

Universalists Lydia Ann Jenkins and Olympia Brown were the first two ordained women in the United States whose ordination was recognized by a full denominational authority (in 1858 and 1863, respectively).   Suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are part of our Unitarian heritage, and although their focus on women’s rights came at the cost of attention to, and support of, the liberation of people of color, we also are descendants of people who understood the connections, such as Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and the Rev. Theodore Parker, a radical on women's rights and slavery, who often wrote his sermons with a handgun on his desk, ready if necessary to defend the lives of the runaway slaves who were staying that night in his cellar on their way to Canada and freedom.

Dorothea Dix, who was an early, and tireless, advocate for the rights of people with mental illness; Octavia Hill, who, was a pioneer in the areas of housing and education reform for the working class; and Lydia Maria Child who, among other things, was a proponent of Native American rights – they were all led to their convictions and their activism for social justice by their Unitarian faith.

In this century, the first ordained minister of a major religious group in the U.S. or Canada to come out as gay was UU Minister James Stoll in 1969.  (Although, to be completely transparent, after coming out he never again was called to serve a congregation.)  Unitarian Universalism was the first denomination to accept openly transgender people as full members with eligibility to become clergy, and in 1988 it was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that ordained the first openly transgender person in the United States.

Although our faith tradition, and those that preceded it, do not have a 100% sterling history, we have often been in the forefront of advocating for people who were marginalized and rejected by other faith communities, and by the wider US society.  Our Universalist ancestors avowed their belief in, “the supreme worth of every human personality,” a way of looking at and understanding the world which lives on, today, in the UUA’s first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  The French fashion designer and oft-quoted figure Coco Channel famously said, “A girl should be two things:  who and what she wants.”  Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, and our present Unitarian Universalist tradition, would only disagree with the gender limitation in her sentiment.

“Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity … your presence here is a gift … we all are welcome here.”  “You can be anybody you want to be … and know I will love you still.”

This is one of the great gifts of our faith to the world.  I remember the day, going on twenty years ago now, that I received a call from a woman who wanted to know if I would officiate her wedding.  She wasn’t a member of our congregation, she wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist, but she had been calling churches all morning to find one where she could be married to the love of her life.  As soon as they found out that the love of her life was also a woman, though, church after church hung up on her.  One even laughed before doing so.  When I told her that I’d be honored to celebrate their love, she wept.

It has been, and is still, often virtually impossible to simply, and freely, and openly be “who and what [you] want.”  Often it’s not even a matter of who you want to be.  Our multiple and intersecting identities are most often not a matter of choice – it’s who we are.  The only choice is whether or not to be open and out about it, and too often that’s not really all that much of a choice, either.  Simply put, it simply isn’t safe to simply be who we are in so many places.  We know, we’ve been taught, we’re reminded in ways both large and small, both implicit and explicit, that we can’t be both who and what we are, if who and what we are deviates in any way from the straight, white, cis-male, well-educated norm.

So it is, I believe, one of our missions in the world, as Unitarian Universalists, to create safe haven for those who have found themselves unsafe in so many other places.  If South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu is right that the religious community should be “an audio visual aid for the sake of the world,” showing the world how it could be, then it is one of our missions as a religious tradition to show the world that each and every “human personality,” each and every person is born with worth and dignity – whoever we are, whomever we love, however we express our identity.  The way the world should be is one in which each and every one of us is welcomed, and celebrated, for who we are … who we really and truly are.

And here’s the rub:  we can’t really be this welcoming place if “everybody’s welcome here.”  It is an paradox inherent within much liberal thought that “liberal” implies an expansiveness which includes everything.  If we’re really a liberal community, then everybody should be welcome here, right?  Even that non-ironic wearer of the Donald Trump tee shirt.  Right?

Well … no.  Not right.  At least, not necessarily.

I’ll bet some of you may be feeling your stomach knot up a bit when you heard me say that.  Maybe your heart’s beating a little more quickly, this is such a challenge to our usual self-understanding. Others may be feeling a sense of relief that we don’t have to wrestle with how to be welcoming to people that are hateful or those who are actively trying to hurt others.

You might be feeling all sorts of things, but check in with what you’re feeling when you hear me say that we absolutely should not even try to welcome everyone.  That we should, in fact, intentionally exclude some people.

One of the things that can be hard about being who and what you really are, is that it means being clear about who and what you’re not.  To really and truly, fully authentically be ourselves we have to resist the temptation to try to be everything to everyone.  This is true for individuals, it’s true for communities, it’s true for nations.

Look at our congregation and you can see how hard it is.  We want to be welcoming.  We think that means we should strive to be welcoming to everyone … no matter what.  But we can’t.  We shouldn’t even try.  We shouldn’t even want to.  Because there’s a reason not every place feels safe and welcoming to people who have traditionally been marginalized – because many places are full of the very people who have perpetuated and protected that marginalization. 

Do such people have “inherent worth and dignity?”  Of course.  They, too, descend from the stars and are intimately interrelated with all that is.  And there is a difference between a person and their behavior … their actions.  We could make this distinction to say that every one is welcome here, but not every kind of behavior is.

Still some people have so bonded their beliefs and their actions that they are indistinguishable.  With some people you can’t separate the to, and those people are not welcome here; those people should not be welcome here.  Because if we do extend our welcome to them, we’ll be closing it off to others.  (Or won’t feel themselves to be welcome, which is really the same thing.)

I know longer say, “all are welcome here.”  Instead, just about every Sunday I say, “We are a Unitarian Universalist congregation that welcomes all who welcome all.”  Semantics?  Perhaps.  But words matter, and thinking carefully about what you say and the impact your words may have is, itself, a step toward greater justice.  If we are to be true to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values, then we need to be a congregation that is sure enough about who we are what we stand for, that we can be equally clear about who we are not, and what we will not stand for.  Not everyone should be welcome here, because not every kind of behavior should be welcome here, and sometimes you just can’t discern a difference.  You can’t be anybody you want to be here, because there are some ways of being that are anathema to who we are, because we’re committed to being a safe and nurturing place for those for whom there are so few, a place where we can sing that song that for far too long was rarely sung, and rarely very loudly. 

If you have felt unwelcome because of who you are, whom you love, how you express your identity, your situation in life … if you wish to make this a community that strives to invite the uninvited … then we have a place here.  Ours is, ours needs to be, a community that welcomes all who welcome all.


Pax tecum,

RevWik







Monday, January 30, 2017

The Making of a People of Prophecy: the book report

In the sermon I delivered (and posted) yesterday I said that I'd actually written another sermon which I came to realize was not the sermon I needed to deliver.  For what it's worth, here's that first version:

After coming home from General Assembly this past summer, our Director of Faith Development, Leia Durland-Jones, told me that I should watch the Sunday morning service and, particularly, to listen to the sermon that had been given by the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd.  Not that much after, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, told me that I needed to hear it –  “You’ve really got to listen to this sermon!” she said.  It’s really, really powerful.”  That was in early July.
Well … a week or so ago, while I was home sick, I finally cued it up and watched.  And they were right.  Oh my goodness, they were right.  I put a link to the video of the sermon – and the whole service, actually – in the insert in your Order of Service, and I strongly encourage you to watch it, because it isn’t just Nancy’s words, but her delivery – and not just her tempo, tone, and body language, but her presence as she delivered it – that makes it so powerful.
I mention all of this because in this powerful, and truly prophetic, sermon, Nancy says some really important things about just what it takes to make “a people of prophecy,” and, perhaps more specifically, what it will take to make us – Unitarian Universalists – able to live into this role. 
She grounds her prophetic charge in the importance of relationship for building up our communities into places where real change, real transformation, can come about.  She quotes the anti-racist organizer MickeyScottBey Jones – whom she calls “wonderful” and “deep-spirited” – as saying:
relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward.  Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own - it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences.  We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters. 
Let me say that again – “We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those encounters.”  You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.”  The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has said, “The task of religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.”  In other words, as Nancy said, we exist to facilitate these kinds of deep, real, and, yes, raw-rubbing encounters. 
And yet we know [Nancy continues] that there are so many ways to hide from the discomfort inherent in a holy abrasion. There are plenty of opportunities presented each and every day in the life of the church to back away from the hard work of continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world.
And one of them is to insist [she says], at any possible juncture, that you get what you want out of the experience of congregational life, as if church is a short order menu and community is a product to be consumed on your terms, in your time, without making you uncomfortable or demanding a whole lot of you in the first place. 
One of the ways to block the holy abrasion that brings change is to imagine that both congregational life and religious liberalism itself are contests compete with winners and losers and if we don’t get our way – well – we are wanderers, worshipers – and lovers of leaving, are we not?
Does any of that resonate with you?  I can tell you that as I was watching the sermon, when I’d reached this point, I was glad I don’t wear mascara.  She’d brought me to tears.  There she was, behind that pulpit, speaking to a couple of thousand of us UUs, and speaking truth to us.  Hard truth.  Challenging truth.  Truth we need to hear.
One of the ways we hobble ourselves – as a movement, and here in our own “local franchise” – one of the ways we hobble ourselves is by spending … wasting … so much of our time and energy on trying to make sure that everything is arranged just so … just so that I feel comfortable and affirmed. 
When we hear – as Christina reminded us just a couple of weeks ago – that one task of the religious enterprise is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” we give a deep sigh of gratitude that there is a place like this that will offer us such comfort.  We rarely, though, if ever, see ourselves as the ones in need of afflicting.  As I said last week, we’d like them to change so that we can just get on doing what we’ve been doing, the way we’ve been doing it.  But, as I also said last week, that’s just not the way things work. 
Nancy got even more specific, and offered us language that will no doubt be used for years to come:
[T]he greatest impediment to the efficacy of the liberal church today [she said] is not the real fights and real failures we get into when we’re doing hard work – it is the fake fights [that’s the phrase!] we waste our time on while our own people and the people all around us struggle to survive. 
I worry literally every day [she continued], that in this moment of utmost urgency - we, the very ones the world has been waiting for, are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights that distract us from the work at hand.
We go over and over again who’s a humanist and who’s a theist and who got their way in what bylaw discussion and what color we should paint the church bathroom - so protected by our busyness that the real fights, the honest conversations, and the transformative sandpaper of real relationship presented to us Sunday after Sunday, week after week, slip right past us and we remain thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.
“Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”  As I watched the video I sat there, weeping at the power of this prophetic preacher who was speaking truth to us – to me – with such love.  Yet I was weeping, too, because her words were unveiling in me a deep sense of cynicism, revealing to me my own crisis of faith.  “Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”  “Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.” 
Again and again, that crowd of a couple of thousand Unitarian Universalists applauded and cheered as Nancy challenged them with hard truths.  I’ve preached hard-truth sermons here, as well, and people have afterward told me how brave I was to do so, commended me for taking such a risk.  Yet as I listened to Nancy do just this, I was struck by the idea that, really, there is so little risk involved.  Those people in that hall that Sunday morning wanted to be challenged – they ate it up.  You all want me to challenge you – I’ve also received applause and affirmation whenever I’ve spoken “hard truths with love.”  We want to be challenged, but I fear that we want to be challenged because, on the one hand, we know – know in our bones – that something is wrong, and it fills us with anxiety, stress … with agita.  On the other hand, though, I fear that we want to be challenged because we know – know beneath our consciousness of our knowing – that by listening to these hard truths our agitation can be assuaged, and that by affirming them we can allow ourselves to remain, “fundamentally unchanged.”
Nancy told me that when she looked out at that crowd of thousands of Unitarian Universalists from around the country and around the world and said she worries, “literally every day that [we] are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights” that she meant exactly that.  She meant that she worries about this all the time, that we, as a movement, are far too often “thoroughly agitated and fundamentally unchanged.”  She told me that she understood my frustrations, but she also said that she did not share my despair. 
Instead, in her sermon she’d decided to take advantage of that bully pulpit to publicly declare:
I tell you what, I’m tapping out.  Right now.  And I invite you to join me.  I’m tapping out of every fake fight in our congregations and our movement about getting what I want or what you want or what we think we want - because in this age the stakes are too high and we don’t have time for fake fights anymore. […]
[T]he world does not need another place for like-minded  liberal leaning people to hang out together and fight about who’s in charge.  The world does not need a place where you or I or any single one of us is going to get what we want.
What the world needs is a movement like ours to step more fully into our higher calling - to serve as an instrument for encounter - with one another, with the holy and with the world.  So that we might love more fully, and speak more truly and serve with greater efficacy, in such a time as this.
More tears poured down my cheeks, my friends.  New tears.  Because her faith had reignited mine; her hope had brought my own back to life.  Having lived with this sermon – its vision, its challenge, its truth, its hope – I can honestly say that I feel thoroughly less agitated, and can feel the stirrings of change.


Pax tecum,
RevWik


Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Making of a People of Prophecy

This is the text of the sermon I delivered to the congregation I serve-- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist -- on Sunday, January 29, 2017.  As always, you can listen if you've prefer.

After coming home from General Assembly this past summer, our Director of Faith Development, Leia Durland-Jones, told me that I should watch the Sunday morning service and, particularly, to listen to the sermon that had been given by the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd.  Not that much after, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, told me that I needed to hear it –  “You’ve really got to listen to this sermon!” she said.  It’s really, really powerful.”  That was in early July.
Well … a week or so ago, while I was home sick, I finally cued it up and watched.  And they were right.  Oh my goodness, they were right.  I put a link to the video of the sermon in the order of service.  (Or you can watch the whole service.) I strongly encourage you to watch it, because it isn’t just Nancy’s words, but her delivery – and not just her tempo, tone, and body language, but her presence as she delivered it – that makes it so powerful.  (And please, please don't wait half a year to watch it!)
Her sermon called out a sermon from me.  Two, actually.  The first one I’d written a little earlier in the week, so it was all done and I was feeling pretty good about it last night when I decided to re-watch Nancy’s.  Afterward, I realized that that first sermon was really only a little more than a book report, and that the real sermon hadn’t made its way to the surface yet.
Nancy begins by lifting up the importance of relationship in building up our communities into places where real change, real transformation, can come about.  She quotes the anti-racist organizer Mickey ScottBey Jones – whom she calls “wonderful” and “deep-spirited” – as saying:
relationship is the sandpaper that wears away our resistance to change. Relationship is the abrasion that agitates enough to make a way forward.  Relationship, consistent and ongoing encounter with people and perspectives different than our own - it smooths the way for the sacred, even as it rubs us raw.
There is a holy abrasion of the spirit born in deep relational encounters across differences.  We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters. 
Let me say that again – “We, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those encounters.”  You may have seen the bumper sticker that says, “The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another.”  The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed has said, “The task of religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all.”  In other words, we exist to facilitate these kinds of deep, real, and, yes, raw-rubbing encounters. 
“And yet,” and I’m quoting Nancy again here, “we know that there are so many ways to hide from the discomfort inherent in a holy abrasion. There are plenty of opportunities presented each and every day in the life of the church to back away from the hard work of continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world.”
The first she names is our misunderstanding that congregational life is going well when we’re happy.  When we’re getting what we want out of it.  She says:
One of the ways to block the holy abrasion that brings change is to imagine that both congregational life and religious liberalism itself are contests complete with winners and losers and if we don’t get our way – well – we are wanderers, worshippers – and lovers of leaving, are we not?
Ours is a religious movement that is part of the “free faith” tradition, and many of us interpret that to mean that we are free to come and go as we please.  If things get unpleasant, or not to our liking, there’s nothing saying that we have to come, is there?  Even if we did have a hell to threaten you with, most of us are such questioners of authority that we wouldn’t take it seriously anyway.  For many of us, here and in our wider movement, we take full advantage of the escape clause we see in our “free faith,” and feel no compulsion to show up when we get busy or things here get hard.
Yet this work of “continually and repeatedly relating meaningfully to one another and the world,” that is our work takes showing up again and again, even when we don’t particularly want to.  Even, truth be told, when we’d really rather not, because we know it’s going to be messy and we know it’s going to be hard, and we know we’re not going to get what we want.
Yet there’s an even more pernicious way we undercut the possibility of that sandpaper of relationship bringing about that holy abrasion that may rub us raw at times but which ultimately and inevitably smooths the way for change.  In her sermon, Nancy put it this way.:
[T]he greatest impediment to the efficacy of the liberal church today is not the real fights and real failures we get into when we’re doing hard work – it is the fake fights we waste our time on while our own people and the people all around us struggle to survive. 
I worry literally every day [she continued], that in this moment of utmost urgency - we, the very ones the world has been waiting for, are wasting our capacity to build change on fake fights that distract us from the work at hand.
We go over and over again who’s a humanist and who’s a theist and who got their way in what bylaw discussion and what color we should paint the church bathroom - so protected by our busyness that the real fights, the honest conversations, and the transformative sandpaper of real relationship presented to us Sunday after Sunday, week after week, slip right past us and we remain thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.
“Thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”  I will confess that as I listened to this prophet in our midst speaking truth to our movement I felt … depressed and discouraged.  A cynicism overtook me, and I discovered a despair that we, as a movement, as a congregation, and as individuals, may well simply and forever remain stuck being “thoroughly agitated but fundamentally unchanged.”
A couple of days later, I had a dream.  I was an observer, not a participant, and what I observed is what I took to be a Jewish congregation about to begin its worship.  The Rabbi – who undoubtedly not coincidentally looked exactly like Nancy McDonald Ladd – was feeling anxious about what she knew was going to happen.  And just before she entered the sanctuary she had an idea, and called over a few of the congregation’s children.  She gave each a small, flat piece of wax and asked them to bring it to her when she called on them.
I don’t remember anything about the beginning of the service, but during the sermon portion, the Rabbi held up a small, think, black-bound book that was clearly one of their sacred texts.  She called it “the Tishuba,” and she began a litany saying, “the Tishuba calls us to <this>, and the Tishuba calls us to <that>.”  I don’t remember all of the this-es and that-s, but I do recall her saying that the Tishuba called them to welcome people from the transgender community, and to work with undocumented immigrants and refugees.  And after she named each of these callings, she asked one of the children to come up and melt their wax onto the cover of the book, so that in not too long the face of it was complete obscured with blobs of differently colored wax.  When it was, she held it up and said that this was no longer a generic Tishuba, it was now their Tishuba, they had made it their own, so that now, instead of saying, “the Tishuba calls us to …”, she would say, “our Tishuba call us …”
I woke from this dream with tears pouring down my face.  And that day I got to wondering what our “Tishuba” might be.  We don’t have a sacred book to point to, we share no holy writ.   We don’t even share all that many rituals and traditions throughout our movement.  And then I thought about the flaming chalice.
As we prepare to light the chalice at the beginning of the service I often say that it is “a sign and symbol of our faith.”  During World War II, the Unitarian Service Committee was in Europe, among other things helping Jews and other persecuted people to find safety.  Other organizations there had a logo, something to put on business cards and letter heads, but also something to signify who they were.  The Service Committee commissioned a man named Hans Desutsch, a German cartoonist who’d fled German, to create for them a symbol, and he created the first flaming chalice.
This symbol, this flaming chalice is more than just, as someone once disparaged it, “a candle in a martini glass.”  And it’s more than just a light to illuminate and affirm the views and positions we already hold, or to provide warmth for us to bask in in our self-satisfied complacency.  No.  It is a beacon, a beacon that should be leading us forward, out of our sanctuaries, out of our congregational buildings, out, even, of our devotion to our false fights, and out into the world that so desperately needs its light.  It is our Tishuba.
And our Tishuba calls us to leave behind the false fight of who has the authority to make what decision to have, instead, the real conversation about what the right decision is;
Our Tishuba calls on us to leave behind the false fight of whether Joys and Sorrows and spoken, or written, or eliminate completely to have, instead, the real conversation about whether we are really listening to one another – not just for those things we agree on but where we truly differ;
Our Tishuba calls on us to leave behind the false fight of Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter to have, instead, the real conversation about the system of White Supremacy that saturates our society and in which we are all complicit, and what we can do to dismantle it and build a new way in the world;
It calls on us to leave behind the false fight of whether to use God language, or not use God language, and to have, instead, the real conversation about what is holy, and what is sacred, and what the holy and sacred call us to do;
Our Tishuba calls us to leave behind the false fight of who’s right and who’s wrong, so that we might have, instead, the real conversation of who we are and how we can be together and how can model this for the world.
When I woke from my dream I thought that the word “tishuba” sounded familiar, so I looked it up.  Google told me that Gora Tish Uba is a city in western Kazakhstan.  But the similar sounding word “teshuvah,” is a Hebrew word which means “repentance,” or, “returning.”  The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are sometimes called The Days of Teshuvah, and it is said that an observant Jew will do teshva each and every day, searching for the ways they have fallen short, committing to not make the same mistakes again, and making amends when amends are appropriate.  (Those are the three aspects of teshuvah.)
I find it meaningful that that which was calling that congregation – and which is calling ours – is the idea of repentance, or returning to our true selves, of emptying ourselves of our hubris so that we might humbly engage with that holy abrasion we experience in real relationship.  To paraphrase the Reverend McDonald Ladd, this holy abrasion of the spirit is only born in deep relational encounters across differences, and we, as congregations and as a movement, exist to be instruments of those very encounters. 
The stakes are high, my friends – higher than many of us have had any idea – and there simply isn’t time to waste on our fake fights – no matter how important they may seem – and our instance on having things the way we want them to be.  We must leave these behind – must leave these behind – so that we can do the oh so necessary work the world calls us to.
I’m going to give Nancy the last words:
[T]he world does not need another place for like-minded  liberal leaning people to hang out together and fight about who’s in charge.  The world does not need a place where you or I or any single one of us is going to get what we want.
What the world needs is a movement like ours to step more fully into our higher calling - to serve as an instrument for encounter - with one another, with the holy and with the world.  So that we might love more fully, and speak more truly and serve with greater efficacy, in such a time as this.



Pax tecum,

RevWik



Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Prophetic Role

This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the congregation I serve -- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to it if you'd prefer.

“After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive and controversial productions in broadcast history.”  This description of a then still upcoming television program was published in a Scottish newspaper last week.  It continues, “Sci-fi writers have dabbled often with alternative history stories – among the most common is the ‘What If The Nazis Had Won The Second World War’ setting – but this huge interactive virtual reality project, which will unfold on TV, in the press, and on Twitter over the next four years, sets out to build an ongoing alternative present. The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into voting to make Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible. Today’s feature-length opener concentrates on the gaudy inauguration of President Trump, and the stirrings of protest and despair surrounding the ceremony, while pundits speculate gravely on what lies ahead. It’s a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we’re not careful.”
I checked it out.  This was actually published in Scotland’s Sunday Herald as its description of Friday’s coverage of the Inauguration.  “The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 …”
It was quite the weekend in DC, wasn’t it?  About a quarter of a million people gathered on the Washington Mall on Friday to see Donald J. Trump sworn in as the nation’s 45th President.  On Saturday, an estimated half of a million women, children, and men – but mostly women – descended on DC to make their presence and their voices seen, heard, and felt.  Throughout the country, it’s been estimated that roughly 3-4 million people gathered in solidarity with what was once called “the Million Woman March.”  And initial, rough estimates says that nearly 30,000 people gathered in the more than 670 sister demonstrations around the world.  That … well … that’s a lot of people wanting to “speak truth to power,” a phrase that’s often identified as being of old Quaker origin but which seems to have actually been coined by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
We’ve been exploring this month what it means to be “a people of prophecy,” and, perhaps more specifically, what it would mean to say that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us – as congregations and as individuals – calls on us to be “a people of prophecy.”  The two busloads from our congregation who joined that gathered throng in DC, and the thousands of other UUs around the country, were living examples of at least part of the answer.
One way of understanding the word “prophecy,” of course, is to think about soothsayers and oracles, fortunetellers and clairvoyants.  That’s not how I’m using the word this morning.  Instead, I’m talking about “prophecy” as that thing those well-known prophets of the Jewish tradition were all about.  I’m talking about “prophecy” as, “speaking truth to power.”
The Talmud teaches that during the Biblical period there were hundreds of thousands of prophets: at least twice as many as the 600,000 who were said to have left Egypt.  For a variety of reasons, however, Jewish scripture only identifies 55 of them.  The majority, but not all of those remembered, were men – there are stories of seven female prophets.  And while that certainly isn’t it a lot, it’s worth noting that the Talmud reports that the prophetic ability of at least one of them, Sarah, was superior to that of her husband, Abraham.  God told Abraham to listen to his wife and to do whatever she told him to, and said that he did not “ennoble” her, but that she “ennobled” him.  Sarah would have brought Abraham to the March.
Gender identity aside, the prophets all spoke out for justice and against the injustices they saw in the society around them.  Amos, for instance, cried out because he saw that the wealthy and the powerful oppressed the poor and dispossessed while, at the same time, pretending to be religiously observant.  He said that the way those who had power treated those who did not was the measuring stick by which God would judge the whole nation.  “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I take no delight in your assemblies. … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Hosea preached that the primary focus of God’s judgement was on the religious and secular leadership who willfully ignored God and deliberately abused those under their control.  And while both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were to pay the price for this, the people themselves, if they repented, would feel God’s mercy.  “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings"
Micah rebuked Israel because of dishonesty in the marketplace and corruption in government, and warned that when a nation’s leadership fails to set the right example for their society, the society will crumble.  He has shown you, O human, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
Over and over again the men and women the Jewish tradition remembers as prophets bravely lifted their voices to warn, to rebuke, to challenge.  They said, in essence, “the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be, and if things don’t change, there’s going to be hell to pay.” 
Cypress did some research for this morning, and came across the book What Manner of Man is the Prophet? written in by the Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Heschel.  Heschel was one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, as well as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.  In his book, Heschel identifies a number of characteristics of the Hebrew prophets.  Here are a few:
In and through the prophet’s words, the invisible God becomes audible.  The Hebrew word for prophet – navi – comes from the term niv sefatayim, which means “fruit of the lips.”  In his initiatory vision, the prophet Isaiah sees a seraphim take a live coal from the altar in the Temple and place it, burning, on his lips.  The prophet speaks for God – you could say that through the prophet the people heard God’s words in a human voice. 
It doesn’t really matter what word you use to describe this thing the Hebrew Scriptures call “God.”  Call it, “The Good,” or “Truth;” call it, “Justice,” or “Love,” or “Spirit of Life.”  The point here is that the prophet speaks for – and from – something larger than themselves.  It isn’t just an individual noting her or his preferences or personal biases.  When the prophet speaks, something larger is speaking.  When Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; or Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby; or Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother; or Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X's Daughter; or Gloria Steinem; or Angela Davis – when these women spoke yesterday, it was not simply their voices that were heard.  Each of them – and all of the other speakers on the dais in DC, and those at rallies and marches around the country and the world – spoke for and from something larger than themselves.  The spoke on behalf of the three million women, children, and men who had gathered, of course, and the hundreds of thousands more who were there in spirit, yet they spoke on behalf of something even more than that.  Call it “Love,” call it “Justice,” call it “God” … call it what you will, but it was speaking in and through those human lips.
And like the prophets of old, these modern-day prophets challenged the whole country, not just those individuals or groups that might seem most at fault.  That’s another one of Heschel’s observations about the prophets of the Jewish tradition – they never said that society’s problems were simply the fault of “those other guys.”  You never heard a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures warn of God’s judgement only on the “one percenters,” or the “fat cats on Wall Street.,”  or “the crooked media.”  Oh, they had no problem calling out the politically powerful and the wealthy elite for their behavior, or misbehavior.  Yet they were equally clear that when things got really bad – as they inevitably would – it was going to be everyone’s head.  Heschel says that the message of the prophets was that while “few are guilty; all are responsible.  While few are guilty, all are responsible.
Drawing again on the rallies yesterday, no one was intended to take away the idea that “those people,” over there, the ones who voted for Trump, let’s say, or the ones who were, and are now, actively working with him, no one was saying that “those people” need to change their ways while the rest of us just go only living as we always have.  On the contrary, the hard truth of the prophetic imperative is that each of us is going to have to make some fundamental, and unvaryingly unwelcome, changes in the way we live.  We, together, all of us, have to change, have to do things differently, have to be different.  Heschel says that “the purpose of prophesy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner person as well as to revolutionize history.”  It’s not just “them,” it’s “us” too.  Because, of course, ultimately there is no “us” and “them.”  “We” is all there really is.
There is one other aspect which Heschel says is common to all of the Biblical prophets – besides the fact that it seems like an awful job – is that while their message begins with a message of doom, but ends with a message of hope.  “the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be, and if things don’t change, there’s going to be hell to pay.”  That’s how it begins.  Invariably, though, the prophet then says, “but things can change.  Things don’t have to continue being the way things are right now.  Instead of descending into hell, we can, together, create heaven on earth.”
Those 3 million women, children, and men – cis, trans, and other – did not gather in cities and towns from Abaline to Zebulon did not come together to declare, “We give up.  We’ve lost.  We have been overcome.”  Quite the contrary.  They said, “We’re not gonna take it.  We will not be silenced.  We will not be cowed.  We will change the way things are into the way they should be.”
To say that we Unitarian Universalists are called to be “a people of prophecy” is to say that it is our faith’s mission to affirm and promote, to advocate for, to work for the principles we hold so dear:
·         The Inherent worth and dignity of every person;
·         Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
·         Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
·         [The] free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
·         The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
·         The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
·         Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.



As “a people of prophecy” we add our voices to all those prophetic voices – past, present, and into the future – who will not stop until justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.
Pax tecum,

RevWik

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Doing Nothing ...

This coming Friday -- January 20th -- is the day on which Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States.  There will be, not surprisingly, protests and demonstrations as well, but "the eyes of the world" will be on the West Lawn of the Capital Building in Washington, DC.  People have wondered what our congregation is going to do on the 20th, what our response is going to be.

Nothing.

Individuals, of course, will be doing all sorts of things.  And the congregation I serve is sending two busloads of people to join with the thousands of other women, children, and men who are gathering the next day for the Women's March on Washington!  In the days, weeks, months, and years ahead the members of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist will be doing many things in response to the actions of this new Administration and the Congress.  But on Inauguration Day itself, we will not have any formal response at all.

Why?

This is not a case of "sticking our head in the sand."  In the days since the election it's been a not uncommon thing to hear people say that they intend to turn off their TVs and stop reading the paper for the next four years.  I've heard many people say that it's just too painful to pay attention to the daily -- hourly -- bombardment of bad new and surreal behavior.  I've heard this from people within the congregation and from the wider national and international community.  It is just too painful to bear, so they're going to tune it all out.

While understandable, that is a response born out of privilege.  (Not surprisingly, the vast majority of those I've heard saying this have been people who identify as White.)  People who look like me have the choice to pay attention or not.  It is one of the privileges our White Supremacist culture bestows on people who look more or less like me -- the ability to decide how much to let our lives be disturbed.

Of course, as you move down the privilege pyramid -- which places white, heterosexual, cis-male, well educated, financially comfortable people people at the top of the pile -- the number of discomforts a person cannot escape increases.  People who identify as women, for instance, have no choice but to be aware of misogyny, whereas those who identify as men can, if they wish, push it out of their consciousness.  Women of color are forced to continually face both misogyny and racism.  You see how this works.  Poor, lesbian, trans-women of color, with little formal education have very limited ability to tune out things that are disturbing.  Those of us who say that we just can't bear to think about any these things are demonstrating our relative places of privilege.

The reason TJMC is making no formal response to the inauguration is not, then, because of a desire to "pretend it isn't happening."  Nor is it an oversight.  Instead, it's a choice.  Of the many things that can be said of our incoming President, one that is inarguable is that he craves attention.  He hungers for the spotlight ... thirsts for the affirmation of the masses.  As I noted, on Inauguration Day the eyes of the world will be upon him and all of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds such an event.  And all of that attention will feed him.  He will be at a feast.

On both Twitter and Facebook I recently suggested that an appropriate response -- an act of resistance -- is to pay absolutely no attention to President-elect Trump as he assumes the highest office in the land.  For this one day, avoid watching or listening to coverage, don't click or comment on anything you see on social media, hold back from writing anything about him, the incoming administration, the inauguration itself.  Demonstrate resistance through a disciplined decision to afford him absolutely no attention at all on the day which under other circumstances is one of the most celebrated days in a President's term.  I'd encourage people not to even speak his name.

For that one day only.

Then, of course, we all need to turn our attention back to making sure we show up where needed, ally ourselves with those whose voices and whose presences are routinely marginalized and ignored, struggle to become comfortable with the discomfort of being with others whose pain is different than ours and who may even see us as part of the source of that pain.  Tune in to the coverage of the Women's March to ensure that it has tremendous ratings.  Spend Saturday the 21st writing letters to your elected representatives, speaking up and out for those who are most threatened.  But for that one day, refuse to give Donald J. Trump what he seeks most of all -- our attention.

This is why the congregation I serve has no plans for any formal response.  Our faith calls us to resist injustice, and this is one way we can do that.

Pax tecum,

RevWik

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Day of Silence

In The Wizard of Earthsea wizard Ged inadvertently lets loose on the world a great evil.  He tries to undo his mistake, but the evil is too powerful for him.  And then it begins to chase him.  To hunt him.  And as Ged flees, his pursuer grows more powerful.  Eventually, the young wizard decides, "not the hunted, but the hunter be," and he begins to chase down his enemy.  And as he does, the evil grows weaker and weaker.  It fed on his fear.

When I took  myself and my dog to class so that they could train me to help him behave his best -- stay with me for a minute -- they said that what a dog craves nearly as much as food is attention.  So when, for instance, a dog jumps, and you loudly scold it for doing so, you are actually reinforcing the unwanted behavior because you're giving the dog the attention they crave.  (Even if it is negative attention.)  The best thing to do is to turn your back on your dog, ignore it, refuse to give it what it wants.

Donald Trump craves attention.  Hungers for it.  Feeds on it.  We know this about him.  Whatever else may be true of him, we know this.  Is he mentally ill?  Stupid?  Cunningly shrewd?  We honestly can't claim to know.  But we can know that whether he his mentally ill, stupid, and/or cunningly shrewd, he has an insatiable need for attention.

This Friday, Inauguration Day, he's going to get it.  The "eyes of the world," as they say, will be upon him.  And oh how he will feed on it.

So let's not feed him.  By most accounts Donald Trump lost the popular vote by roughly 2.5 million votes.  The majority of the people who voted did not support him, and no doubt many of those who did are now wishing that they hadn't.  What would happen if each of these people refused to give Trump any attention -- positive or negative -- on Inauguration day?

Let's commit to each other that on Friday, January 20th, we will not:
  • watch, listen to, or read any coverage of the inauguration
  • post anything having to do with Trump, or his administration, on any social media;
  • respond to anything we see posted;
  • click on anything we see posted;
  • talk about the Inauguration, the new President, or his administration.

I am not suggesting that we bury our heads in the sand.  Vigilance will be required during this Presidency as, perhaps, in no other.  But for one day let's refuse to give Donald Trump the thing he wants most -- our attention.

Spread the word -- #TwitterSilence

Pax tecum,

RevWik


Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Be Here Now

This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist, on Sunday, December 4, 2016.  You can listen to it if you prefer.

When I was a kid, two of my favorite possessions were a copy of The Whole Earth Catalog and Baba Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now, admittedly a pretty trippy book that has been called a “countercultural bible,” and a “seminal” text for the 1970s hippie culture.  And while it’s three-word title is now quite common parlance, at the time it was not.  Apparently it was something that his guide, Bhagavan Das, said to Ram Dass during his journeys in India.

Be Here Now.  Three simple words.  A phrase so simple, and now so common, that we hardly think about it anymore.  But I’m in the “think about it” business, so here we go.  We’ll take them one at a time.
I.  Be.  What does it mean to be, to really and truly be?  You’ve no doubt seen the bumper stickers – “we are human beings, not human doings.”  Yet the dominant culture in our country puts such an emphasis on doing.  After a generally superficial greeting of “how are you?”, one of the first questions we ask people we’re meeting for the first time is, “what do you do?”  In this culture, most people tend to define themselves by what they do as opposed to what they … be.
Most spiritual traditions teach that we are far more than what we do, that what we do is, quite simply, just “what we do.”  Who we are is something far more important and, perhaps, more ephemeral.  I’d wager that most of us would have to dig deep to answer the question, “who are you?” without first going through a litany of what we do.  This is one of the reasons that people often have something of an identity crisis when they’ve recently retired, or after their kids have just “left the nest” for one reason or another, or have just come through a divorce, or had a spouse die.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people who’ve come to me for counsel say, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” after one of these major life transitions.
So here’s a question:  What is the core, the essence of who you are?  Can you name it?  Can you put it into words? Can you say what is ultimately, fundamentally, foundationally “you” even if all of the things you do were to pass away? 
One aspect of being “a people of presence” is being a people who are so alive – so truly and deeply alive – that we can say who we are.  Because knowing who you are – knowing who you are – makes it possible to be present in a real and powerful way.  And some would say – I, at least, am saying – that the ongoing development and discovery of that answer is a primary purpose of the spiritual life.  That’s why one of the principles we hold dear is, “encouragement to spiritual growth.”  That is what we’re here for.  Not just the popcorn and hummus during the Social Hour.
II.  Be hereBut just where is “here”?  I had the privilege of spending some time in Japan, now many years ago, and I wanted to be able to get around on my own.  So I asked my friend and host, Takeo Fujikura, how to say some basic phrases in Japanese.  One that I thought might be important was, “Where am I?”  (It might come in handy.)  Takeo said that there’s really no way to ask that question in Japanese because the answer is self-evident – you are “here.”  The question to ask, then, is “Where is here?”  (To be honest, I wasn’t sure I remembered that correctly, so I texted Takeo the other day and he told me that I had.  When want to know where you are you ask, “Where is here?”)
So where is here?  In the context of the spiritual quest, the answer is not only geographic but temporal.  Let’s agree that it goes without (much) saying that “be here now” encourages us to be – to be our true, full, authentic self – in the particular locality on the map we happen to find ourselves.  In fact, if you think about it from a purely physical point of view, we can’t ever really be anywhere other than where we are.  So “be here” must refer to something else, and I’m suggesting this morning that it means to be present here, in this moment.
It is said that most of us spend most of the time anywhere but here in this moment.  Nearly all of the spiritual practices we humans have ever devised take that as a foundational assumption.  We actually live in the past, or in the future, even when we appear to be present in the present. 
“Those roses under my window make no reference to former roses …”  That’s what St. Ralph said, and what he meant was that he was looking at these roses, the ones right then outside of his window, and was seeing them in their own particular and specific individual glory.  He was not looking at them and seeing the roses he put on his mother’s grave, or the one that his daughter gave to him one day, or the bouquet he gave to his first and truest love, Ellen Louisa Tucker, when he asked her to marry him.  (I made those details up, by the way.)  What he meant was that his experience of these roses wasn’t clouded by the memories of any of those previous, those “former” roses.  Instead, he was seeing only these roses.  He wasn’t living in his memories of the past; he was living fully in his present moment.
And if many of us, most of us, carry with us the past in such a way that it clouds the present, so, too, we leapfrog from the present into the future.  Some of you right now – hard as it is to imagine – are thinking more about where you’re going to lunch, or how much laundry there is to do when you get home, than the spiritually stirring syllables slipping from my lips.  (Astonishing alliteration not withstanding.)   As I was cooking the Thanksgiving feast with my family – with a remarkable lack of stress, I might add – I wasn’t so much experiencing that time of familial togetherness as I was wondering if everything would be cooked and on the table on time.  And as the meal neared its conclusion I was thinking about how sad it would be when our friends eventually had to leave.  And I’ll admit that I was somewhat distracted during that goodbye by the thought of the job ahead of me of putting the food away and doing all those dishes.  And while I was doing that I was really thinking about how good it was going to feel to finally crawl into bed.  You could say that I missed all of those moment – missed, at least, the full, rich experience of them – because I was thinking about moments yet to come.
Most of us, most of the time, are living in the past or the future more fully than we are in the present.  Emerson again:  “We postpone or remember.  We do not live in the present, but with reverted eye lament the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround us, stand on tiptoe to forsee the future.”  We’re not here.  We’re there (past) or there (future).  Be here.  That’s what we’re being encouraged to do. 
Yet there’s still one last word.  Be here, yes, but be here … now.
Now, you might think that we just covered that while looking at the temporal side of being here.  But this here, this now, is not just any here and now.  It’s not March 8, 1965, for instance, one day after Bloody Sunday and one day before the marchers’ second attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.  It’s not January 20, 2009, the day that Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.  It’s not even November 8 of this year, the day that Donald Trump was announced as President-elect.  It’s today.  December 4.  And my friends … we’re living in dangerous and frightening times.
And I’m not talking about the policies and practices our incoming President has promised to put in place – disturbing and dangerous though they are.  And I’m not talking about the rancorous divide in our country which has never been greater and which seems to be beyond bridging.  I’m not talking about the rampant sexism, misogyny, homophobia, outright hatred of all things not white, not Christian, not cis-male, not heterosexual, not “1950’s traditional.”  Those things are all frightening, no doubt about it, but they’re not new.  Some of us may have been able to ignore or dismiss them, others have been living with them day in and day out.  The difference now is that so many more of us have had our eyes opened and are awake to them.
And that’s what makes this such a dangerous and frightening time.  So many more of us are awake to the vitriolic injustice that permeates our culture, but when one is just waking up it is so easy – so easy – to hit that snooze button and go back to sleep again, to adjust oneself to the so-called “new normal,” to fall into an acceptance of what should be unacceptable.
When Dr. King spoke to the General Assembly of the UUA back in 1966 he reaffirmed his call for the creation of what he called, “the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment,” because there are some things, he said, to which everyone ought to be maladjusted.
But he said something else that evening.  He reminded us of Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, a man who went to sleep one afternoon only to wake up some twenty years later, to a very changed world.  But he’d not just slept through any old twenty years, he’d slept through the years of the American Revolution.  And Dr. King admonished us not to sleep through the revolution.
One of the great misfortunes of history is that all too many individuals and institutions find themselves in a great period of change and yet fail to achieve the new attitudes and outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.  […]
The great question is, what do we do when we find ourselves in such a period?
And part of his answer was, “stay awake.”
Being a people of presence means, at least in part, that we are called to be our true, full, authentic selves; that we are called to be here, alive in the fullness of the present moment; and that we are called to be here in this moment, this “now.”  To be here and to stay awake.
The great question is, what are we going to do having found ourselves in such a period? 

Pax tecum,

RevWik