Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Let Justice Roll

Last night I was honored to have the opportunity to offer some words of reflection, hopefully inspirational, at the IMPACT Annual Meeting.  According to its website IMPACT is "a grassroots initiative that brings together a diverse group of congregations to live out our religious traditions' call for justice in our local community of Charlottesville & Albemarle County, VA."  (IMPACT stands for "Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.")  It is part of the congregation-based community organizing (CBCO) movement, and a very exciting way of doing real work  to address real community needs.  Here is the talk I gave (including the last page, which went missing):

~ Let Justice Roll ~
I have to say that I am really proud and grateful to be standing here tonight.  And by “here” I don’t just mean up here at this podium, with the opportunity of sharing some thoughts with you all.  By “here” I mean here – with all of you, among all of you, a part of this incredible gathering.  Thirty-one different faith communities have sent hundreds of different people to do one thing – to work together to do justice.
I’m new to Charlottesville.    My family and I moved here this summer when I began serving the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – Unitarian Universalist.  I have to say that one of the things that drew me to TJMC was its involvement in IMPACT.  Let me tell you, they did a real good job of representing this relationship prominently in the packet of materials they sent to prospective clergy people.  I read everything they had to say.  I followed up by reading the IMPACT web site.  And that led me to the DART Network site.  I suppose I should have been paying more attention to the congregation’s own budget and history, but I was fascinated by this stuff.  Drawn to it.
It’s not too hard for a congregation to be involved in social action.  Lots of congregations of all kinds would say that they’re interested in it.  They have a Social Action Committee.  Maybe there’s a Director of Social Justice Ministries.  Maybe checks get written to good causes.  Maybe some folks volunteer to bring food to the Food Bank once in a while.  Oh, it’s not too hard at all for a congregation to be involved in social action.
But for a congregation to be involved with others who are involved in social action?  To intentionally seek out other congregations, other communities – and not just others who are like us but also others who are not like us? And then to join with these  others – even those who are not like us – not simply to work toward those issues that we’re most excited about getting involved with but to try to determine the issue which actually is most pressing for our entire community?  Wow.
No wonder I feel proud to be standing here tonight.  Protestants of so many stripes, Roman Catholics, Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims – we’ve come together to try to do something that will benefit not only our own communities but, more importantly, the wider Charlottesville  - Albemarle County community.  That’s something to be proud of.
Are you proud of being here tonight? 
¿Se siente orgulloso de estar aquí esta noche?
I’m grateful, too, because this congregation based community organization, this CBCO, isn’t just one more opportunity for a bunch of well-meaning people to get together and moan about everything that’s wrong “out there” and then wring our hands because “they” aren’t listening to all of our good ideas.
No!  In the six years since its inception here in Charlottesville, IMPACT has . . . well . . . had an impact.  Things are different because of gatherings like this.  There have been substantive changes because of this work; and there are no doubt more to come.  Although Charlottesville has recently been described as the #1 city to live in in the country -- #4 for book lovers! – and has been called “the healthiest place to live” and “the number one city for retirement,” we all know that there’s still work to do here.  Lots of it.  We all know that this can be a tough place to live if you’re African American, or a refugee, or have a mental illness, or are poor.  We know that it’s not all like the glossy magazines portray it.
So let me not hold up the work we’re here to do much longer.  I would like to share one thing with you, though, an observation I made while working on a sermon for a congregation I was once serving up in Maine.  The text for the morning was the well-known passage from the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Amos, Chapter 5, verse twenty-four:  ¡Pero corra el juicio como un río, la justicia como un torrente inagotable!”  “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
I can’t tell you how many sermons I’ve heard that used this as a starting place.  Can’t tell you, even, how many sermons I’ve preached that have used this as a starting place.  And they all end up at pretty much the same destination – encouraging the congregation and the individuals that make it up to get more active in working for social justice. 
Oh, most of them have had a particular focus – a new project the congregation’s taking on, or an old one that appears to be running out of steam – but the general outlines are usually the same.  Amos is telling us to get out there and get busy doing justice in the world.  As a friend of mine likes to say, “Am I preaching to the choir?  Sure I’m preaching to the choir.  And what I’m preaching is, get out of your chairs and sing!”  ¡Salir de sus sillas y cantar!
Like I said, I’ve preached that sermon myself.  More than once.  Every choir needs a little encouraging now and then.  But this one time I had an honest-to-goodness revelation!  Suddenly I didn’t hear Amos telling us to get out and work building justice in the land.  I didn’t read those words as an encouragement to put more energy and more commitment into some social justice project or other.
But let justice roll on . . .  Pero corra el juicio . . . 
Suddenly I saw this river – fast and free-flowing.  Almost at flood stage.  Unstoppable.  A seething torrent.  Roiling.  White water of a class V or VI.  A get-out-of-the-way-because-I’m-comin’-through-and-nothing’s-gonna-stop-me-now kind of river.  You get the picture?
This is the river of justice, rolling on like a never-failing stream.  Flowing on.  Rich, and full, and life-giving.  A little dangerous too, maybe, but powerful.  And beautiful.  Awe-inspiring.
Except that it’s not flowing.  It’s dammed up.  I don’t know how.  Maybe some beavers got to it.  Or it was buried during a mountaintop removal.  Or some folks built a dam thinking that it could generate power for I don’t know what.  Or maybe people got to littering and stopped it up, and fouled it up, and filled it up so full of sludge and slime that now that river’s all backed up.  I don’t know how it happened; I just know that it happened.  That mighty river, that never-failing stream, has been clogged up and it just isn’t flowing anywhere like it used to.  Oh, maybe a trickle here and there, but nothing like it’s supposed to be – swollen with spring melt and flowing free.
I got this picture and suddenly realized that Amos wasn’t telling us to go out and make a river of justice.  He wasn’t telling us to construct a concrete culvert and to start pumping water into it.  Not at all!  The river’s already here, he’s telling us – we just got to get out and let it flow!
That’s the message I want to share with you tonight, my new friends.  Justice, righteousness . . . we aren’t responsible for going out and making them.  Creating them.  Building them.  Developing them.  They’re already here.  All we have to do is clean out the muck, get out the gunk, jettison the junk that’s been damming up the works for far too long.    That’s what our job is.
I want to remind each of us and us all that we’re not responsible for it all.  The river can take care of itself, thank you very much, and if given half a chance it can wash away any obstacle.  To mix my metaphors, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.  We just have to get it rolling.  And believe me, that’s hard enough.  We have to clear away all of those things that are damming up the works – the things that have gotten there by accident, the things we’ve put there on purpose, the things that some people think make life better and more enjoyable for them (even while there are people dying of thirst just a few feet downstream).  Our job is to do what needs to be done to let justice roll.
Nothing more.  And, of course, nothing less.
¿Es una buena noticia?  Is this Good News?
Let the people say, “Amen.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Strangers in a Strange Land

Preparation for the Sermon (by Pam Phillips):
I grew up in southern Oregon, in a valley known for its pear orchards. Migrant workers picked the pears. That was my first encounter with immigrants from Mexico. I remember going to the roller skating rink on a Saturday night and seeing the darker skinned boys with cigarette packs rolled up in their white t-shirt sleeves. I don’t know if they were "legal" or "illegal." I did know they were different from me; they were scary.

Immigration as a political issue has been in my awareness for several years. Presidential candidates have been talking about fixing the system for as long as I’ve been voting. I didn’t become aware of it as a moral issue until the Unitarian Universalist Association was faced with the dilemma of holding our annual general assembly in Phoenix, Arizona. How could we support a state that has laws which discriminate against latino/latina people? Among the law’s requirements is the necessity for producing proof of legal residence if stopped by the police, for any reason.

I can hear my father and brother-in-law’s arguments when I told them about our dilemma: “What’s the problem? They don’t have to worry about anything unless they are illegal.” That made sense to me for a moment, but then I realized who “they” are. Anyone who doesn’t look like me. Anyone whose skin is dark enough or accent strong enough has to prove they are citizens. Anyone who looks or talks like me doesn’t have to prove anything. And if you don’t happen to have a passport or green card on you—then what happens?

On that same visit home, my niece made an illegal immigrant joke about the cartoon character “Dora the Explorer.” I asked this southern Californian teenager if she would think that joke was so funny if Dora looked like her. My niece is Asian-American. I’m afraid she didn’t get the point of my question. I guess she hasn’t felt the sting of racism yet. Maybe she looks like the right kind of different.

I’ve wanted to learn more about immigration, so I read The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands by Margaret Regan. The stories of immigrants suffering and dying in the desert southwest are chilling, but I also came to understand more about why so many risk the journey into the U.S. So much of it is economics. I was surprised to learn that because of NAFTA, Mexico went from being a corn-exporting to a corn-importing country. That translates into Mexican corn farmers losing their livelihoods. So many of the stories in the book were about people who wanted desperately to stay home, but they could not support their families without coming north to find jobs.

I was encouraged to learn that I could do something to help at least some people stay in their home countries. I can buy coffee—but not just any coffee. By spending just a little bit more on my caffeine habit, I can support the people who grow coffee in Mexico and Central America and help them stay home. Big coffee companies drive the price of coffee beans down, forcing the growers to sell their beans at depressed prices. Fair-trade coffee is purchased directly from the growers (rather than from buyers who take much of the profit). It takes so little—being mindful of which coffee I buy and being willing to spend a little more.

I will never know the coffee growers whose beans I buy, but I do know young immigrants from Mexico and Central America who go to the school where I teach. I don’t know if they are here legally or not. I hope Virginia never passes the racist anti- immigrant laws that seem to be sweeping the nation that will require me to know. Yes, I said racist. While the laws may be intended to deal with immigrants who are not here legally, I know that they will affect anyone who does not look like me.

I want to know more, though, about immigration issues and about what I am called to do as a Unitarian Universalist. I know it’s about more than buying the right kind of coffee. I think it may take me back to the Rollareena in Medford, Oregon where I saw those boys from Mexico as different, as scary.


What kind of world do you want to live in?

What kind of country do you want this to be for your children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren?

I’ll confess . . . I was having trouble with this sermon.  I just couldn’t get it down on paper.  The ideas – too many ideas – were swirling around in my brain and I just couldn’t find a focus.  (And I’m talking about during my drive to church this morning!)

But then my youngest son, Lester, called me.  He’d been asleep when I’d left and so he wanted to say goodbye.  And when I heard his voice on the phone – interrupting what I’d thought was finally the angle I was looking for – I heard this other voice as well:

What kind of world do you want to live in?

It’s certainly some kind of synchronicity that this sermon is being given on what is often called “UN Sunday,” the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.  That organization was born from a vision of a world community of peace and justice in which, as we’d say, “the inherent worth and dignity of each individual” in every corner of the globe was affirmed, protected, and nurtured.

I’d wager that this is the kind of world you want.  A world in which people are free to care for their families and their fellows, a world without oppression, a world of peace.

This topic of immigration is often cast as a purely legal one.  And a simple one at that.  They – and there’s always a “they” isn’t there? – are here illegally.  They are breaking the law.  They should have gotten “in line” and followed the rules – they wouldn’t be having (or causing) these problems if they had.

But few things in this world are as simple as some would like them to be.  For one thing, there really is no line.  It’s more like a maze, a tangle of red tape and bureaucratic hoops.  Due to application processing backlogs, the wait for a permanent residency visa for those who fall into the “Family Preference” category (and that’s the front of this supposed line) ranges from two or three years to over twenty, depending on an applicant’s sub-sub-category and country of origin. 

And then there’s the question of why.  Words are important.  If we hear, “we’re being overrun by hordes of illegals,” as some have been saying, then there’s the likelihood that we’ll have one kind of response – fear, defensiveness.  If, on the other hand, we hear that there’s been an increase in undocumented workers crossing the border illegally, we’re likely to have a different reaction – a desire to find out why.

For the vast majority of the people crossing our border from the south the answer is pretty simple.  We live in a global economy, and the movements of that economy are beyond the influence of the average individual.  We may bemoan here, in the United States, the outsourcing of our manufacturing jobs, or our information service jobs, but outsourcing is not just happening here.  Because of the global economy many of the subsistence farmers in Mexico and South America have found their jobs being outsourced to multinational agribusinesses here in the US and elsewhere.  They just can’t make a living doing what they’ve been doing, and there aren’t any alternatives to move into.  And so, as we’ve seen within our own country, when jobs dry up in one place people move to where the jobs are.

Yet with the legal process of emigration to the United States taking from two to twenty years . . . well . . . how long would you wait to take care of your family?

This is not how it should be in the world I want to live in.  And so I fully support those who are working to reform our immigration policies and practices.  We are, after all, a nation of immigrants.  There’s an image that’s been making the rounds for a while – it has a picture of the Apache leader Geronimo (who in his own language was known as Goyathlay), kneeling down and holding his rifle across his body.  To this picture has been added the caption, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re all illegal aliens.”

And this needs to be taken into consideration, I think, when we explore this topic.  The title of this sermon is taken both from the Robert Heinlein novel and from the Biblical passage to which Heinlein alluded.  In the Book of Exodus we’re told that after he ran away from Egypt to Midian, Moses married Zipporah and had a son.  This son he named “Gershom,” explaining the name by saying, “For I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  (The name means “sojourner there.”)

This recognition that the Hebrew people were once foreigners in a foreign land comes up over and over again.  Repeatedly, I’m tempted to say “constantly,” God has to remind the Israelites to treat well the foreigner, the stranger, the alien in their midst because they, too, were once aliens.  And we should remember this, too.  We all have ancestors who came to these shores as foreigners, and most faced prejudice and oppression in one form or another – or in many forms at the same time.

Yet while it is imperative that we deal with the subject of immigration law reform, that’s not the only issue for us to deal with.  What are we to do with those who are crossing our borders at this very moment?  There is suffering, exploitation, fear, dehumanization, pain, death.  182 people died crossing the border from Mexico into Arizona this past year.  Countless more suffered in ways that would be incomprehensible to most of us.  Rev. Dell McCormick, a UCC minister and the executive director of BorderLinks has written this evocative explanation of her involvement in this work:

When I first encountered the tiny handprint of a small child in the middle of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert – that vast stretch of land bordering Arizona and Sonora, Mexico – I knew I was called to work here. I had come from eight years of ministry in Central and Southern Mexico, and had been sent home to “be a missionary to my own people.” When I saw and touched that tiny print, I knew I had stumbled upon my next calling
Since then, I have been to the desert many times and witnessed evidence of many lives left behind. The once pristine paths through the desert are now littered with the precious “stuff” of people’s lives
I recall one desert visit with some professors from Chicago, when we came upon what is known as a lay-up site, where migrants who have crossed the desert must leave behind anything that identifies them as a “walker.” We sat and wept as we were confronted with tons of “trash” – baby bottles and diapers, women’s make-up, toothbrushes, bibles, bikes, high heels, clothes, and love letters
Even the most tender and private possessions lay open to our stranger’s gaze. “Trophy trees,” draped with pretty panties and bras commemorate the place where women’s bodies and souls are raped. Sanitary products, bras and panties, birth control pills, even breast cancer medicine were strewn about as though some tornado had picked their people up and carried them off from their things
One day, while on a Samaritan Patrol in which volunteers search for migrants hurt or left behind and provide food, water and medical supplies, I found a Dora backpack with a soiled pair of child’s panties inside. What had she gone through, out there in the middle of nowhere? In the smaller pocket, I found her Mom’s make-up and perfume. I wondered if they even made it to the “Promised Land.”
Another day a Samaritan volunteer found a worn walking stick with chord attached and two little nooses at each end, perfect to fit the tiny wrists of a child. The desert is a dangerous place and the pace that migrants must keep in the dark of the night is brutal. This was one woman’s way to keep her children safe in the least safe circumstances.
Temperatures in the desert can vary over 100 degrees between morning and night. Perilous terrain, snakes, wild animals, sharp thorns, shallow underground tunnels all make night travel a nightmare. Women carry a shawl or plastic bag to shield them from the elements, but far too many have died there, unable to keep up, lost, dehydrated and hot. Their bones are all that are left after a few days.
Yet they keep coming because, like the women at Jesus’ tomb, they know that life must go on. Women who migrate are incredibly creative, resourceful, and tenacious.
How far would you walk to feed your child?

How far would you walk to feed your child?  What kind of world do you want to live in?  What kind of country do you want this to be for your children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren?

These questions are not merely political – they are also deeply spiritual.  I do not come with answers this morning; I do encourage the questioning.  What can we do to make this world the one we dream of?  What can we do to alleviate the pain, and suffering, and fear, and oppression that surround us?  Each of us will find our own answers, of course, yet I do have a guide.

Earlier we sang “Standing on the Side of Love,” a wonderful song that’s become the theme song of some of the most exciting work being done by UUs in the realm of social witness today.  The song was written by Jason Shelton, as a gift to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign.  The tag line of SSL is “harnessing love’s power to stop oppression.”

And so, I think, we can ask ourselves, “where would love be standing in our world today?”  And wherever the answer takes us, we should find a way to make ourselves present.  We can’t, of course, individually all do all that is needed, but we can, as a community –this community here, our wider Association, and the even wider community of good-hearted, life-affirming, love-affirming people – see to it that love never has to stand alone.

And yes, this is a sermon on Atonement.  If last week we asked ourselves how we can atone for the actions of our ancestors, this week we’re looking at how to make sure our descendants won’t need to atone for ours.

What kind of world do you want to live in?

Where does love stand?

For Further Exploration:

UUA Immigration Justice pages -- http://www.uua.org/immigration/

Some background on the UUA’s immigration work -- http://socialjustice.blogs.uua.org/2010/06/16/puente-and-ndlon/

Standing on the Side of Love -- http://www.standingonthesideoflove.org/

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Of Gratitude and Grace

Last evening a group of us gathered at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist to explore the topic of "gratitude."  We've recently begun organizing our lifespan faith development efforts -- and in this I include our weekly worship -- around monthly themes.  In September we explored "hospitality."  In October we're dancing with "Atonement."  Next month our theme will be "gratitude," and our conversation last night was a way for our religious education leaders, and anyone else who was interested, to get a head start on thinking about our next month's focus.  (And the rich conversation also gave me gold for the sermons I'll be preaching!)

One of the things we did during this Conversation on Gratitude was to create collaborative an acrostic poem.  We thought about words that we associate with the idea of "gratitude" and then we took one of those words and wrote it vertically down the side of a piece of paper.  We then brainstormed words and phrases which begin with each of the letters of that word, and wove those together to create our poem.  (This is one of the things that our congregation's children will be doing during their religious explorations next month.)

Here is the poem we created:

          Gift of gladness
          Received and reciprocated.
          Aware of awe.   Ahhhhhhh.
          Cultivating communion with the cosmos.
          Embodying the energy of the entwined.

In Gassho,


Sunday, October 16, 2011

What's In A Name?

[Listen to the Sermon]

One morning a week or so ago I came to work and really noticed the front of our building – the way it echoes the Rotunda at UVA – and I was struck how, from the outside at least, this place really looks like a “Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.”

And then I came inside, and into that marvelous foyer, with those inspiring quotes from Jefferson’s writings:
No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship place,  or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or his goods, or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs . . .
I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. . .
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . .
And then there was the bust of the man himself – further reminders of the legacy to which we can lay claim.
Then I came into the sanctuary and took a seat in that pew right there.  I soaked in this inspiring edifice, painted in such clean and crisp white and Jeffersonian blue.  I sat here by myself that morning, and I began to cry.
Before coming to work that day I’d been reading the story of a little boy named Peter.  He’d grown up around here living what he later remembered was a pretty idyllic life.  His father was a well-respected artisan; his mother a classically trained French chef.   Peter, himself, would eventually grow up to be a tremendously successful caterer, community leader and, eventually, an ordained minister.
Yet at the time of his childhood all three – mother Edith, father Joseph, and young Peter – were all the property of this same Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson’s understanding of the way things were was that he owned these people.  They were his slaves.  And although Peter remembered his childhood as idyllic – he said that he had no idea that he and his family were slaves – everything changed on July 4, 1826 with Jefferson’s death.  Joseph was one of the five enslaved persons who were freed in Jefferson’s will.  But Edith, Peter (then only eleven years old), and six of his brothers and sisters were put on the auction block along with 130 other human beings and sold to help pay off Jefferson’s debt.  It took Peter twenty-three years to reunite with his family.
I’ve been reading two books for the past several weeks, both by Lucia Stanton.  One is called Slavery at Monticello and the other, Free Some Day:  TheAfrican-American Families of Monticello.  I’ve been immersing myself in this time and these stories.  Now, let me be clear – I’ve done a lot of anti-racism work; I know me some history.  I’m not new to the story of slavery in the south.  But that’s maybe the key thing, and one I hadn’t really been conscious of.  As a Northerner, it was the story of slavery-in-the-south.  Now, even though I know it’ll be several generations before y’all accept me as one of your own, I’ve already begun to see myself as a Southerner.  So this is now my story.  And it didn’t happen far, far away; it happened just down the road.  At the home of the man for whom our church is named.  What could I do but weep?
How do you wrap your mind around it?  This man who wrote that “all men are created equal” owned over 600 men, women, and children during the course of his lifetime.  He was, in fact, the second largest slave holder in Virginia in his day.  And though he strove to keep black families together – the record showed that he was opposed to selling a husband without his wife and children (and vice versa) – it is also a fact that when a child attained working age – about ten or twelve – she or he was no longer considered a child and, so, no longer entitled to that kind of familial protection.  Even more jarring, despite this noble sentiment, Jefferson did break up families whenever economic realities appeared to necessitate it.  There was always a disconnect between the ideal and the real.
As Lucia Stanton puts it:
“To protect himself from the realities of owning human beings, he needed the same psychological buffers as other well-intentioned slaveholders.  The constant tension between self-interest and humanity seems to have induced in him a gradual closing of the imagination that distanced and dehumanized the black families of Monticello.”  (Slavery, p. 33)
If the mind boggles at a reality in which a white boy could be raised with a black boy as his friend and constant companion, as Jefferson was, only to then consider that boy his property once the two reached the age of eighteen; if it’s incomprehensible that a person could “come out among [us], play the fiddle and dance half the night”, as Jefferson’s brother Randolph is known to have done, and then see that “us” as no different than the mules and the plows the next morning; if these contradictions are unfathomable to us perhaps, suggests Annette Gordon-Reed, it has something to do with most of us in this room being white.
Gordon-Reed is an associate professor of law at New York Law School and is the author of the book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings:  An American Controversy.  She wrote a truly fascinating article for the website that compliments the PBS Frontline program about Jefferson and Hemmings.  In it, she said this:
“The contradictions that make Jefferson seem problematic and frustrating – a figure of mystery to some whites, make him more accessible to blacks, who find his conflicted nature a perfect reflection of the America they know:  a place where high-minded ideals clash with the reality of racial ambivalence.  As this combination daily informs black lives, Jefferson could seem no more bizarre than America itself.  He is utterly predictable and familiar – the foremost exemplar of the true American spirit and psyche.” 
What are we to do with this?  What are we – an overwhelmingly white congregation that would like to become more truly diverse with regards to race, and ethnicity, and class; a congregation that occupies the highest point in Charlottesville, Virginia,  a stone’s throw from Monticello – what are we to do with this?
I know that, in recent years, there has been here, as there has been at the District level, a conversation – or, perhaps, more accurately a collection of conversations – about addressing these contradictions by changing our name.  If, in the 1950s, the American Unitarian Association saw Thomas Jefferson as an exemplar of all things right and good in liberal America and thought it proper to build a Memorial Church in Charlottesville, then now, in 2011, we know that the truth is much more complicated.  And perhaps we think that continuing to align ourselves with this slaveholder who truly believed that blacks were inferior and “made to carry burdens,” makes us complicit.  I know that this is a simplification, but this is a large part of the reason that there is now no longer a Thomas Jefferson District in the Unitarian Universalist Association.  Our District voted just this year to change its name to the Southeast District – a name less burdened with the baggage of the past.
Our theme this month is atonement, and up until now we’ve been talking about this at a personal level:  how do I (how do you) as an individual atone for those things we’ve done in our past that have caused there to be brokenness in our relationships – with ourselves, with others, and with that deeper truth in Life.  But can we also atone for “the sins of the fathers”?  Can we?  Should we?
My thinking in this has been greatly influenced by the story of the Rev. David Pettee, my friend and colleague who occupied the office next to mine when I started at UUHQ in Boston.  Dave has long been interested in genealogy, but he never expected to discover as he researched his family line that his ancestors included slave holders and slave traders.  It was, as you might imagine, something that was never talked about at family reunions.
But David heeded the encouragement of those who suggested that it would not be enough for him to simply uncover his own family’s role in perpetuating the institution of slavery; he needed to find a way to atone.  (That might not be the language that Dave, himself, would use, but as we’ve been discussing it the past couple of Sundays I can’t think of a better way to describe what he’s been doing.)  David began focusing his research, as best he could, on uncovering the genealogy of those enslaved persons who’d been owned by his ancestors.  And despite the paucity of records, he was able to find a line, a line that led directly to the widow of a great-great-great grandson of a man one of his ancestors had once held in bondage.
David reached out to her and to her family.  And in doing so he became part of a movement – spearheaded by the project Coming to the Table, which has successfully gathered the descendants of slaves and the descendants of slaveholders for dialogue.  David’s working on a book now about these experiences, one which has involved interviewing a hundred whites and blacks who’ve taken this step.  He writes:
 [T]ruth-telling and repentance can be an antidote to the abuse of power that was institutionalized in the practice of slavery. The elements of our history that are shameful and horrific must be named and remembered. We must be willing to believe that there is a way out of the cycle of despair and hopelessness that lies at the core of this brokenness. Without the commitment to remember and be held accountable for all of our history, the apocalyptic conditions that allow for the dehumanization and genocide of other people will continue to emerge. As the philosopher and poet George Santayana reminds us, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  (“The Ties That Bind”)
In part inspired by this phenomenal movement, and despite the decision of our District (which I happen to support), I find myself wondering whether our changing our name would not be a mistake.  After all, in this day and age, with the quality of political discourse being what it is, it would be good for someone to be a champion of Jefferson’s ideals of freedom.  His voice, his vision, would be a welcome reminder of the principles upon which this nation was founded – no matter how they have been forgotten and glossed over in the intervening years.  And as to the contradictions in the man?  I can’t help but wonder if changing our name wouldn’t be “the easy way out,” allowing us to “put all that behind us.” 
But “all that” isn’t easily put behind us, and I can’t help but feel that tremendous good could be done by even more fully embracing our connection to Jefferson and that, on his behalf and as his namesake, we might have a role to play in the work of atonement and reconciliation that is so desperately needed.
And that’s already going on.  There is the Dialog onRace, which members of our congregation have been tremendously involved with yet with which we, as a congregation, could be doing so much more. 
There’s the possibility of partnering with UVA in its University and Community Action for Racial Equity(UCARE) initiatives, that are “dedicated to helping the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville communities work together to understand the University role in slavery, racial segregation, and discrimination and to find ways to address and repair that legacy, particularly as they relate to present day disparities.” 
And as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello collaborates with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History to more fully explore what they’re calling “Jefferson and Slavery:  the paradox of freedom,” I can’t help but think that the only religious community in Charlottesville to bear Jefferson’s name might have some role to play.

At the very least, couldn’t we reach out to more of the African American churches in the area to develop real, ongoing relationships?  And couldn’t we add to our collection of Jeffersonian memorabilia photos (like the haunting image of Isaac Jefferson that’s on our Order of Service) and other information about the enslaved members of Jefferson’s “family” (as he called them)?  Might we not have a justifiable role to play in reaching out to the descendants of all those who lived in Monticello?
While talking with Dave about all of this he offered to introduce me to Prinny Anderson, a 4th generation granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson, (and Unitarian Universalist in Durham, NC).  Prinny has made connections with the 4th generation descendants of Sally Hemmings as part of her involvement with Come to the Table. 
[T]here is much good in what Jefferson wrote and said.  [. . .]  I am inordinately proud of his stand for liberty and equality.  In getting to know and love my Hemings cousins, I have also had to accept that he was very much a man of his time, *including* his support for freedom.  But he was a white patriarchal slave-owning plantation owner who held his wife, minor children, adult unmarried daughters, enslaved people, farm lands, and farm animals - ALL as chattel - as one did in his time.  He *loved* all of them, but he also *owned* all of them.  Every man did in that time, so throwing him out as an unacceptable role model means throwing out most of our Revolutionary heroes.

Keeping the Jefferson name also opens a door to becoming vastly better informed about our ancestors and their world, becoming much clearer about the real story - all the details included - of where we come from.  That insight in turn makes us much better able to really see, hear, and feel the legacies, good and bad, of the past at play in the present, allowing us to make really substantive, systemic changes for the better, for the future.  Just throwing the hero out with yesterday's paper means we forge ahead, still ignorant, without confronting the demons and ghosts of the past, and blind to how they affect us now.

This is a huge trap for UUs, in my limited experience.  Many whom I've encountered are of good hearts and good intentions, but somewhat superficial.  There is a lack of rooted connection to tough issues, lack of a sense of direct ownership and involvement with the system, with the "bad" stuff.  Without that sense of being connected to the "perpetrator" as well as to the "victim," it is hard to make sustainable change at any level, individual, community, nation or globe.”

Could this be part of our mission, our purpose, our work in the world?  Would it be scary?  Sure.  Will it be hard?  Absolutely.  But as my friend David has written,
“In my introspection prior to [my first] visit, I worried that I might represent a target for long pent-up anger and resentment. Even though Patricia had gracefully welcomed my interest in visiting her, I kept struggling with the false but deeply-held conviction that open conversation about slavery and white privilege with people of color was a dangerous threshold that should never be crossed. I knew I needed to find a way to break through the force field that perpetuated my unnecessary segregation from people of color.”  (“The Ties That Bind.”)
I believe that we do, too.  As individuals.  As a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Charlottesville, Virginia in the year 2011.  And, perhaps, most especially, as a church that was built in memorial to a man who embodied these contradictions that so desperately need to be addressed.

Monday, October 10, 2011


Sometimes . . . okay, often . . . someone will come up to me, knowing that I'm an ordained minister, and ask me "Why?"

Why did this bad thing happen?

Why didn't this good thing happen?

Why is life the way it is?  (Why is MY life the way it is?)

Usually I try to refrain from giving any kind of answer.  It's my experience that most people, when asking the question, are not really looking for some kind of answer.  The question is a way of giving voice to grief, or anger, or confusion.  So instead of providing some kind of answer that's not really wanted anyway, I try to find out what other thing is embedded in those words that seem like a question.

But every once in a while I do answer.  And when I do, I usually go to the place that Rabbi Harold Kushner went in his classic book When Bad Things Happen To Good People.  This is my interpretation, of course, but what I took away from that book is that the reason bad things happen to good people is . . . well . . . because.

There's a story told about a man who was living a really miserable life.  It had been miserable for some time and seemed like it was only going to get more miserable as time went on.  He sought help from psychiatrists and psychologists.  He talked to ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams.  He sought out philosophers and poets.  And then one day, after seeking for years the answer to why his life was so miserable and what he could do about it, the man found himself in a remote wilderness area where there was rumored to be an incredibly wise guru.  He found this guru and said to her:

"My life has been filled with disappointments for as long as I can remember.  One thing after another seemed to go wrong or didn't live up to my expectations.  There has been pain and suffering -- both physical and mental. Things I wanted I wouldn't get; things I had I'd lose.  Why, oh why, is my life like this?"

The guru paused for a moment.  She looked on the man with eyes filled with compassion.  And then she said, simply, "because everyone's life is like that."

That's what I remember Rabbi Kushner as saying -- bad things happen to good people because bad things happen sometimes.  There is no "why" to it.

At the same time as I was reading Harold Kushner's book I was also reading James Gleick's book Chaos:  making of a new science.  I remember thinking that there was a connection to be made between the two.  Chaos theory holds that what at first might appear to be chaotic randomness in fact contains at a deep level a tremendous amount of order and that, at the same time, what might seem orderly and structured has within it incredible levels of chaos.

I thought of all of this because, this evening, someone asked of me the question "why?"  And also because I came across this video.  I think that there's a connection to be made:

In Gassho,


Sunday, October 09, 2011


[Listen to the Sermon]

Chalice Lighting:
We light this chalice as a symbol of our search for truth
We light this chalice in appreciation for this supportive community
We light this chalice in celebration of our humanity
We light this chalice in gratitude for life's amazing gifts
We light this chalice in love

Opening Words:  "Broken, Unbroken" by Mary Oliver

Reading:  From Charlotte Kasl's If Buddha Married

We are all fallible, imperfect beings.

Reconciliation is the blessing of two people stepping past hurt, pride, and ego, and revealing their hearts.  We go from separation to connection, from dissonance to harmony.  We unmask our buried grief and hurt.  Sometimes, we weep together.  We were out of harmony, separated, and now we come together back into harmony, into the "us" place.  The more we reconcile with everyone in our lives through our capacity to forgive, the more we come into oneness with ourselves.  Through our daily relations of forgiving and being forgiven, we start to experience the marvelous vastness of loving.  That's what makes life so beautiful and allows us to enter into loving relationships with others.   

* * *

I want to invite you to share a vision with me.  Get yourselves comfortable in your seats.  Take a slow, deep breath in.  If you’re okay with it, close your eyes.  (If you’re not okay with it . . . close your eyes – or don’t, whatever lets you get comfortable.)  Breathe in . . . and out.  Again . . . in . . . and out.  [. . .]

And now, try to imagine what it would feel like – not how you’d think about it, but how it would feel – to be at peace.  To know that you have “a right to be here.”  To feel whole – body, mind, and spirit.  No anxiety.  No fear.  No guilt.  Completely at home – in the world, and in yourself.  [. . .]

Keep breathing.  [. . .]

Come on back now.  Don’t put that feeling completely away; we’re going to come back to it.

Last week we looked together at the fact that all of us – each of us – you and me – we all know the experience of feeling less than.  We all know those things we don’t want anyone else to know for fear that we wouldn’t be welcomed anymore, wouldn’t be accepted anymore, wouldn’t be loved anymore.  We all know what it’s like to make mistakes, and we all know full well the mistakes we’ve made.  Probably could tick off a list, couldn’t we?  (Didn’t listen real well to my kids this morning; was sarcastic with my spouse last night; didn’t speak up during that awkward conversation the other day; was more resentful than called for when my parents asked for help last week; a little too comfortable with my lifestyle even though I know I need to change things.)

This month’s theme is Atonement and, as Lord Byron said, “The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.”  Listen to that again:  the beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.  Said simply, we can’t do anything about the brokenness we don’t know about.  Whether brokenness in our relationship with someone else; brokenness in our relationship with our own values; brokenness in our relationship with Life – we can’t do anything about fixing it if we don’t see it first.

So this is the part of Atonement, the recognition of its “necessity,” that last week we identified with what’s often called “confession.” 

Our Jewish neighbors, family, and friends have just gone through their most sacred season, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  This is the time each year for that “searching and fearless moral inventory” we talked about last week, that examination of one’s life to see where I’ve “missed the mark,” or “fallen down when I should have been standing,” or where I “intentionally crossed a line” or was “ignorant when I should have known.” 

For those of you who weren’t here last week, those are definitions of some of the seven different Greek words that are translated in the Christian New Testament documents as the one English word, “sin.”  To “sin” I suggested, is therefore more about making a mistake of some kind than it is about doing something on someone else’s list of proscribed behaviors.  And because making a mistake is not, in and of itself, all that big a deal, what makes a mistake a “sin” is that it causes a relationship to be broken.

It could be, and most often is, your relationship with another person.  It could be, and almost always is, your relationship with yourself.  It most certainly could be your relationship with God, the Divine, the Spirit of Life, whatever it is you call that overarching totality within which we live, and move, and have our being.  The “Sacred Something” I often call it.

So if “sin” has to do with breaking a relationship, “atonement” has to do with repairing it. It’s important to keep in mind that this confession, this moral inventory, isn’t the end of the process; it’s only the beginning.  Because atonement isn’t a static state.  It is a process – the process of rebuilding relationships.  If you change the pronunciation a bit “atonement” becomes “at-one-ment.”  The creation of wholeness where there was fragmentation, division, brokenness.

But how do you do it?  When I was meeting with the Active Minds group this past week we agreed that in a lot of ways it’d be easier if we were Christians or Jews.  Those traditions offer specific methods for engaging the work of atonement whereas we Unitarian Universalists . . . well . . . we’re kind of left to figure it out for ourselves.

But, of course, so is everybody else, really.  Anyone who takes the work of atonement seriously has to figure it out for herself or himself.  After all, going to a priest and sitting in a confessional is all well and good, but you know that if you’ve really broken a relationship it’s going to take a lot more than a few “Hail Marys” and a couple of “Our Fathers” to set things right again.  That’s just an outer form; the inner work is a whole lot more complicated.

Because relationships are complicated.  And unique.  Since no two relationships are the same – even the relationship between the same two people changes over time – how could any one approach to atonement suffice in every situation?  An outer form?  A guide?  A reminder?  Sure.  But the work itself? 

And, of course, that work is a lot more involved than simply saying “I’m sorry.”  Anyone can say, “I’m sorry.”  (In fact, I’ve heard it said that saying “I’m sorry” means never having to say “I love you.”)  That’s why religion don’t talk about importance of apologizing but, rather, the importance of repenting.

That’s another one of those words, like “sin,” that’s got a lot of baggage for a lot of people, but really it means “to turn,” or “to reorient.”  Bottom line?  It means, “to change.”  You have to change; I have to change; we have to change, not the person we’ve hurt.

Let me say that again – the person with whom the relationship has been broken is not the one who needs to change.  I’d never really thought about it like that before – and I’ll bet that most of you haven’t either – but when most of us think about making amends, or seeking forgiveness, this is really what we’re thinking about:

·         I discover that I’ve done something that has broken our relationship.

·         I go to you and say “I’m sorry.”

·         And because I’ve said, “I’m sorry,” I’m more or less expecting that there’s going to be some kind of internal change within you so that you’ll forgive me.  And when you’ve been transformed and forgiven me . . . well . . . then my atonement is complete.

I think this is why so many people get hung up on questions like, “how can I atone if the other person won’t forgive me?”  Or, “what if the thing I need to atone for happened a long time ago and the person is completely out of my life, or has died?”

I’ll let you in on a secret.  Atonement – the spiritual practice of atonement – ultimately has nothing to do with externals.  It has, essentially – in its essence – nothing to do with seeking and receiving forgiveness from someone else.  If we can do that, great.  Good.  And trying to do that may be a part of the atonement process.  Probably is.  But the spiritual practice of atonement has to do entirely with the reconciliation of myself with my Self.  With that deep part of me, that inner voice, what Hindus might call the God in me.

That’s where atonement happens, and that’s why it’s so darned hard.  We can get distracted from the real work of atonement by trying to get that other person to forgive us, or by fretting over the fact that we can’t.  Yet all along what we’re really doing, whether we know it or not, is keeping ourselves safe from the real task of real atonement.

Because it’s hard.  And it can be scary.  And we’d rather not change, thank you very much.  Yet if atonement first requires confession, it then requires repentance, a real change on our part. 

But then . . . well . . . get yourselves comfortable again.  Breathe.  And remember that feeling of being at peace.  Knowing that you have “a right to be here.”  Feeling whole – body, mind, and spirit.  No anxiety.  No fear.  No guilt.  Completely home – in the world, and in yourself. 

Closing Words:      “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann (excepted)

Beyond a wholesome discipline, 
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, 
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

In Gassho,


Monday, October 03, 2011

The Rev. Peter Fossett Calls To Me

The Rev. Peter Fossett was born to Joseph and Edith Fossett.  As an adult, his family lived in Cincinatti, Ohio, where Peter was, first, a well-known and respected caterer.  He eventually left that profession and was ordained a Baptist minister, organizing the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville, a suburb of Cincinatti.  He served that church faithfully and well for thirty years, and became a respected leader in his community.  After his death, fifteen hundred people (both black and white) attended his funeral.

Peter Fossett was born into slavery on the Monticello plantation of Thomas Jefferson.

His parents were two of the most influential of the enslaved persons living on the mountain.  Joseph was the head blacksmith; Edith was the head cook.  As a child, Peter lived a life of relative ease.  He later recalled, "I knew nothing of the horrors of slavery till our good master died, on July 4, 1826."  Upon Jefferson's death, the vast majority of those who'd been enslaved were sold at auction to pay off debts.  This included eleven year old Peter. 

His father, Joseph, was given his freedom in Jefferson's will.  Peter's mother and six of his brothers and sisters, on the other hand, were sold.  Despite Jefferson's stated desire during his lifetime that families remain together, this family -- and many others -- were broken up during this mass sale.  It took twenty three years for Peter to be reunited with his family.

During the time of his enslavement after Jefferson's death he secretly pursued his education, despite his master's declaration that he'd get a whipping if he was ever seen with a book.  Peter didn't keep his desire to learn entirely to himself, however.  He remembered, "All the time I was teaching all the people around me to read and write."

When his father, with the help help of family and neighbors both black and white, was able to secure Peter's freedom, Peter moved to Ohio where his family had resettled.  Begining as a whitewasher and waiter he and his brother William evetually started their own catering business, which was hugely successful.  Peter served on the board of directors of the segregated school board and belonged to both the National Prison Reform Congress and the University Extension Society.  It is also know that he was active in the Underground Railroad.

I'm currently reading the book Free Some Day:  The African-American Families of Monticello by Lucia Stanton.  It's powerful, painful stuff.  The Rev. Peter Fossett's story is just one story of the over six hundred women, men, and children who lived lives of enslavement as the "property" of the man who wrote the words, "All men are created equal."  (You can read more about Peter Fossett in the pages of the web site for the magnificent project -- Getting Word:  African Americans at Monticello.)

As a European American man, and now especially as the Lead Minister of a congregation in Charlottesville, VA built as a memorial to Thomas Jefferson, I find these stories weighing on me.  I walked into our lovely building today and can just barely keep myself from crying.  Especially after just recently being reminded by the movie The Help how little things really changed even after emancipation.  And the current immigration situation reminds me how much the same things still are.

The monthly theme for October here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church is Atonement, so I find myself asking the question:  What can I do, what can we do, to atone for our part in this history?  I'll be exploring this in the service on October 16th.  In the meantime, though, I'm sitting with this.  I thought I'd invite you to sit with it, too.

In Gassho,


Sunday, October 02, 2011

Confession is Good for the Soul

[Listen to the Sermon]
Preparation for the Sermon:  I would like to introduce that Atonement is the topic for the next “Month of Sundays”. When we – all of us, the Worship Weavers started talking about this topic and preparing for the month, I thought, “what for? Atonement, really what for?” It’s a big religious word that can carry a lot of “you-are-worthless”ness because one atones for Sin.

Sin, the word and the question of its meaning reminds me of one of my first “real” encounters with Religion. I didn’t really have any interest in any religious matter until I was about twelve. When I was little, my Mom let me put my head down in her lap and go to sleep during the service. But by about the age of twelve, I started to snore. That didn’t work very well, so I had to stay awake and pay attention to the service. One of the things that I found out from paying attention, though, is that the Greek root of the word Sin is “error” – to miss the mark. We are in error, we make mistakes (some of us more frequently that others) and so we are all sinners – no one is perfect. However, instead of causing me to see the obvious need for an intermediary between myself, capable of making errors, and That Which IS Perfect: GOD; it raised, for me, this little question: If God is All-Knowing then God knew we were going make errors when he made us, so why is God so upset at our sins? (So why does God have to save us from our sins when God knew we are going to make them to begin with? Why all the hooplah over SIN?)

So, Atonement – what for? We are sinners, we are in error, we make mistakes - its natural! So why does ATONEMENT still loom so large? If Sin, as error, doesn’t really seem so serious, then why does atonement still seem to still need reverence. What really is the Spiritual Nature of our “mistakes”?

I could turn to any religious tradition for the reason. Today, since I started with my earlier Christian roots, then I will stick with them. God knew we were going to make mistakes, as God is the source of creation and creativity. “All Knowing”, brings us to the Medieval quandary over God’s Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnipresence (the western gift to all Zen Koans in my opinion, because if you spend time in contemplation, the conundrum is both nonsensical and revealing). For reasons I can outline later (an Omnipotent God begs the question of evil/suffering and an Omniscient God means a localized/separate "knower" which counters omnipresence,), the only part of this conundrum that can possibly survive is Omnipresence – God is everywhere and in everything (which coincides with almost every mystical tradition of every major religious tradition on the planet).

If God is everywhere then God is all people. And God is our self. Our goal then is to stay open to the greatness of ourselves and the divine possibility in each person. Sin, error, is when we lose this focus, when we (I hate to use the word Fail, but when we) fail to recognize our greatness or the greatness of others. And that’s hard. We know what "perfect" looks like, but we end up doing the best we can given our time and energy. Even when we aren’t in a rush and we are feeling fresh, mistakes creep in. And the even harder goal is to always acknowledge the greatness of others. Therefore we are constantly in a state of needing to atone for where we "missed the mark", where we broke the relationship with God-within or God-within-others, where we lost our focus. The beauty is that there is no gatekeeper for atonement. Missing our mark, loosing our focus is normal. Atonement is the work to "fix" our lapse, to return to focus and really see the damage (tear?). To do the work of forgiveness is not to be given forgiveness, but to work towards, to ask for it, even if it is unacknowledged.

~ Thomas Collier

* * * * *

“Confession is good for the soul.” 

Really?  Fifth service of the new season and I’m taking on confession?

 Right now the ex-Catholics are remembering why they left the Catholic Church and the ex-Protestants are remembering why they’re not ex-Catholics.  My hunch is that few of you ever thought you’d see your Unitarian Universalist preacher heading into this minefield.  As Thomas just pointed out, how can you talk about “confession” without also talking about things like “sin,” and “absolution,” and “salvation,” and, well, “God”?  For many of us, any one of those words is an explosive packed full of jagged emotional and intellectual junk.  A person could get hurt in here.

Well I want to tell you something – I want to direct our attention to this topic this morning precisely because someone has already been hurt.  You have.  I have.  Each of us is already hurting in greater or lesser degrees – and that difference might just be dependent on the season, or the day, or the hour.  All of us are already hurting and unless we Unitarian Universalists learn how to face this fact and deal with this fact there’ll be nothing our religious tradition can offer us to help heal that hurt.  That’s why I’m willing to go here today.

Now before I say anything else I’m going to tell you what I’m not going to be talking about.  I’m not going to be talking about what a whole bunch of you are assuming that I am going to be talking about.  I’m not going to be telling you that we should institute some rites and rituals in which a lay person goes before an ordained person and delivers a list of things she’s “done wrong.”  I won’t be talking about checking off items from someone else’s laundry list of “sins” so that you can get someone else’s “absolution.”  I don’t think most of that does anyone any good.

When my dad was in the Navy, he was a Catholic.  He told me that he used to think back fondly to that time.  He once sat up in a private spot on the ship at night, looking up at the stars, and had what he came to recognize as a mystical experience of oneness with his fellow humans, the world, and God.  He once went ashore to an island in the Pacific where Mass was being celebrated in a little stone chapel with a mud floor, and he realized that the very thing he was doing was being done all around the world at that very moment, and had been, virtually unchanged for centuries.  He felt himself connecting not only through space but time.  These experiences he credited to the Catholic Church.

Yet in time he felt he had to leave that Church.  He did so over confession.  In a typically Wik Wikstrom way of thinking, he began to wrestle with the fact that one of the “sins” he was required to confess was the sin of doubt.  Yet he knew that he could never believe anything that he was not free to doubt; he didn’t see doubt as any kind of sin at all but, rather, as a great good.  And so he felt himself caught.  On the one hand, the teachings of the Church required that he confess his sins, and taught that doubt was one of those sins so he felt compelled to confess his doubt.  On the other hand, though, he himself saw doubt as a blessing, and so he felt that to confess it as a sin would be hypocrisy.  Unable to resolve this dilemma, my dad left the Catholic Church.

That’s in my bones.  It’s in my blood.  So that’s not what I’m going to be talking about this morning. 

Thomas gave us some help here when he talked a moment ago about the roots of the word “sin.”  There are actually at least seven Greek words used in the New Testament writings that are translated as our one English word, “sin.”  One means “to miss the mark.”  Another means, “falling down when you should have been standing up.”  Another means, “Shrinking.”  And then there’s “Lawlessness.” “Mishearing.”  “To intentionally cross a line.”  And, finally, “Ignorance when you should have known.” 

Please note that none of these words means “sex,” premarital or otherwise.  Not one of them has anything to do with gender expression or sexual orientation.   There’s nothing about card playing, or rock and roll music, or eating chocolate cake during Lent.

A few weeks ago I said that I understand “sin” to be whatever convinces me that you and I are not related, that there is a separation between us, that puts me into “us” and “them” thinking.  At the Conversation on Atonement a couple of weeks back we were reminded of that scene from The Kite Runner in which the father says that the only sin is theft, taking something that belongs to someone else.  (And this need not be limited to physical, material things, of course.)

Understood this way, sin is not the ridiculously punitive thing so many of us grew up thinking it was.  I say “ridiculous” because, well, when you think about it, what else could you call the idea that the Lord High God, Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, would give a fig about whether you were wearing black patent leather shoes to your school dance? 

There’s a great story that Cardinal Basil Hume, used to tell on himself.

When he was a child, his mother would take his brothers and him into the pantry where there was a cookie jar.  She would tell them that God was always watching, and would know if they ever took a cookie out of that jar between meals.  And, so, young Basil grew up thinking of God as some kind of Cosmic Cop, always on the lookout for even the smallest infringement of the rules.  Even so – or, perhaps, because of this – he went on to become a priest.

But he remembers the day when in prayer he received what he considered a tremendous grace.  He suddenly realized that if God had been watching him take one of those cookies, God would have said, “My dear boy.  Why don’t you take another?

My dear boy, why don’t you take another?

When I was a teenager, still laying down the foundations for some of the things I believe today, I had a wonderful conversation with an older friend who was an Episcopal priest.  I knew her theology.  I knew that she believed in a loving, forgiving God, and knew that she believed in the ability to have a direct, personal relationship with this God.  Why, then, did she believe so strongly in the sacrament of confession?  I’ll never forget her answer.  Father Kathleen – that’s what I used to call her – said that theologically she thought the idea of saying confession to a priest in order to obtain absolution was silly.  Psychologically¸ though, she thought it was pretty darned important.

She thought that confession was important psychologically because she understood people like me, and probably you, too.  She knew that there are things that keep me up at night, sometimes.  Things that I don’t write about on FaceBook, and didn’t bring up during my Candidating Week discussions.  Things I think that if you found out about me you probably wouldn’t like me so well anymore.  I’ve done enough work on myself that I know that a lot of these things aren’t objectively true, of course, but that doesn’t really matter.  They’re true enough for me, in that all too quiet place ‘round midnight.

You have your things too, don’t you?  Those things that make you feel not quite as good as somebody else, or as you’d like to feel?  Those things that make you feel like you’re not enough – not strong enough, or smart enough, or patient enough, or clever enough, or financially secure enough, or fun enough, or whatever enough.  You have these things, don’t you?  Oh, maybe they’re not upper most on your mind all the time, but you know what I’m talking about, don’t you? 
If you’re anything like me – and I’m going to go out on a limb here and bet that you are, since you and I are both part of this crazy human family – then we spend a fair bit of our conscious and unconscious energy trying to keep these things under wraps.  We don’t want others to see them because we, ourselves, don’t even want to see them.
But what Father Kathleen knew, and what I’d suggest that those who’ve made some sort of confession a part of every single religious tradition we humans have ever created knew, is that unless we see these things we can’t do anything about them.  If we keep them under wraps, push them away, they can grow and multiply.  They get stronger.

That’s really why – whether you knew it or not or even whether they knew it or not – the Catholic Church wanted you to go to confession.  That’s why the Presbyterian Church and the Methodist Church have prayers of communal confession at the beginning of every service.  That’s why all of the Twelve Step programs encourage a “searching and fearless moral inventory.”  It’s because these things hurt us when we keep them hidden. 

You see?  This is what I was talking about before.  This is the way we’ve all been hurt.  We’ve been hurt by the diminishment these things have caused in our sense of self.  We’ve been hurt by the distance these things have created between us and others.  Because when you look around and see a whole bunch of people who seem to have their . . . stuff . . . together a whole lot better than you do, a division is created.  And that division grows the harder you try to look like you’ve got your stuff together too, especially when you know full well how far from that ideal you really are.  That division becomes a split, and pretty soon we’re back to “us” and “them” thinking.  (Or, really, “me” and “them” thinking because I know that no one else could be as messed up and broken up as I am.  Right?)

So we’re back at sin again, aren’t we?  That which convinces me that you and I are not related, that there is a separation between us, that puts me into “us” and “them” thinking.  The good news here, though, is that when I take a serious look at this sin – especially if I do so within the context of a loving spiritual community such as the one we have here – then I discover something pretty awesome:  we’re all sinners!
Each of us feels like this sometimes.  Any one of us is not as together as the people we keep looking at as models of togetherness, some of whom (I have to tell you) are looking back at you as their model.  That’s the power of the Fourth Step when coupled with the Fifth – you take your searching and fearless moral inventory and you share it with someone else –take it out from under the wraps – and you discover that you’re not alone.  You discover that this other person has their own stuff that keeps them up.  You rediscover your connectedness.

This is what Father Kathleen knew.  Theologically, it makes no sense for someone to go to a priest – or anyone else, for that matter – to “say their confession.”  That’s between you and God, theologically.  But psychologically!  Oh the power of cleaning out the closets and showing the skeletons to someone else and experiencing their acceptance, their understanding, their forgiveness.  That’s powerful stuff.