Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Are We Having an IMPACT?

Here is the tripartate sermon/exploration from this past Sunday:

Bob Gross:  Good morning!
I have some very good news to report.  The people of Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church-Unitarian Universalist are special in many ways! 
One of the particular ways in which you are special is that in the Spring of 2007 many of you gathered with our neighbors from dozens of other area congregations to call for improved public bus transportation on nights and weekends.  You were listened to….  Sunday bus service was launched on two routes;  night service was begun on Route 5;  and a new route was created to reach the County office building and the Southwood neighborhood south of town.
That happened because of you!
In the Spring of 2008 you showed up in large numbers along with our sisters and brothers from other congregations –  as a result, the Free Dental Clinic was expanded.  The waiting list of over 1000 people has been reduced by over two-thirds – and more than 3500 uninsured patients have been served since late 2009.
That happened because of you!
On account of your showing up in 2007, 2008 and 2009 – the City of Charlottesville has built or preserved more than 278 units of affordable housing and is about to complete the City’s first mixed-income development.  Also, Albemarle County has built or refurbished 188 units of affordable housing and has plans for 168 more.
That happened because of you!
You insisted in the Spring of 2010 that area law enforcement and the Regional Jail provide adequate language access services for persons with limited English proficiency.  Charlottesville has trained 100 percent of its officers in the proper protocol – and Albemarle and the Regional Jail are in the process of implementing their plans regarding Limited English Proficiency.
That happened because of you!
Inadequate educational experiences for low-income children lead to low achievement and a host of personal, economic and social ills.  In 2009 and 2010 our brothers and sisters from over 30 congregations insisted on maintaining and expanding Pre-Kindergarden services in the region.  As a result, the enrolment of children from low-income families has grown.  90 to 100% of the places in 3- and 4-year old classrooms are now filled by children from low-income families - and smaller gaps in achievement have resulted.  Almost 100 percent of students who took part in 3- and 4-year old Pre-K classes are passing the standardized PALS tests in Kindergarten.
Do you know who helped make this happen?  ….  YOU did!
Last March 121 of you showed up to demonstrate your support for both the City and County continuing to fund Healthy Transitions, a psychiatric re-entry program for ex-offenders.  People leaving jail with mental illness receive a 14- to 30-day supply of medication.  No other agency is equipped to provide treatment before 60 to 90 days go by.  The result is destabilization which may result in homelessness, emergency room visits, or going back to jail.   It’s estimated that Healthy Transitions – costing $85,000 this year – is saving the community $8. for every $1 spent.
Do you know who helped make this happen?  YOU DID.
In Charlottesville and Albemarle there are too many young people who are out of work and cannot support themselves or their families.  Specifically, people under 30 have an unemployment rate THREE times higher than the rest of the community  (14% as compared with 4.2%.)
Why are they unemployed?
·         Because 2/3rds of those 16 to 29 and not in school have a high school diploma or less;

·         Because too many young adults are not prepared to enter the work force:  they have little or no job experience, no interpersonal skills for the work place, and no technical skills

·         Because too many are trained for jobs that don’t exist:  cosmetology, emergency medical technician, massage therapy, and medical transcription are saturated!

The IMPACT Research Team – which includes our own Achsah Carrier and Carol Saliba – (please stand)  is working hard to come up with ways we can have a positive impact on these complex problems.
We will learn more about those proposed actions on March 5 – at the preliminary IMPACT Rally.
And then … on Monday, March 26, at 6 pm, at the JOHN PAUL JONES Arena … up to 2000 people from over 30 congregations will ask decision-makers to take effective action.
What are we urging all of you to do?    Please SHOW UP and, once again, help make it happen. 
Come to our table in the Social Hall and let us know you’re coming … and bring people with you.
Thank you.

Bob Kiefer:  This morning I stand before you to confess that I am tired and frustrated and disillusioned with justice work right now.  Erik mentioned it last Sunday.  Justice work is hard work!  
In my 68 years, I have had some experience in justice work.  As a college youth I had the privilege to march into Montgomery with Dr Martin Luther King.  And yet racism still exists in this country—just not so overtly.  At least one state tried to require the purchase of a State issued ID in order to be able to vote.  Some Hispanic families are being torn apart, because of someone’s “illegal” status. Like most victims of racism, they just want for themselves and their children the same chances for a decent standard of living that you and I have.
Since joining this church 8 years ago I have learned much about Marriage rights.  I have written letters and signed petitions and joined many of you to march on Washington.  Yet our own state has one of the worst reputations when it comes to basic rights based on sexual orientation.
During the Vietnam War, I endured the Selective Service process to receive recognition as a Conscientious Objector and participated in anti-war protests.  And yet as a nation we still engage in questionable wars.  I can even now hear the beginnings of the drum beat which will become the justification for invading the next country in the name of “democracy”.
My malaise has been hanging over me for over a week now.  And to be perfectly honest I am not in the mood to be encouraged, and rah-rahed into picking up the banner and walking on toward the goal of justice for all. 
Here’s what brought me down.  Women’s rights to their own bodies are being assaulted once again.  So much so that the Virginia House has passed a bill that would mandate, for a woman who is considering a perfectly legal abortion, an invasive medical procedure without her consent.  A sonogram to help her make an “informed decision”.  As if a woman cannot make an informed decision on her own without outside interference!   Also, in Virginia a bill got introduced that would legally define a 2 cell entity as a person, an individual, with all the rights and privileges of you and me.  I can only imagine with horror what unforeseen consequences this would have had in the area of reproductive justice.  It now appears that neither of these bills will pass into law.  But the fact remains that they were introduced and were initially deemed worthwhile for consideration for the code of Virginia law.  And individuals who would propose such laws are deemed qualified to govern in our name.   
And don’t get me started about the recent debacle around access to contraceptives as an issue of religious freedom!….My wife a few days ago asked me in frustration, “Why can’t there at least be a rational discussion of reproductive rights, instead of these sound bites repeated for political gain?”  “Well that’s obvious.” I said.  “There are no women invited to the table! It isn’t rational because men are so arrogant they believe they know what is best for women.”
All this makes me question how much progress, if any, we have made in the last 50+ years.  Things seem to be getting worse, not better.
You probably know the story of the Greek guy who kept pushing the boulder up the hill only to have it, just as he was reaching the top, roll back down to the bottom.  His name was Sisyphus.  Right now my emotional and psychological connection to Justice Work is where I imagine Sisyphus was each time his boulder rolled down the hill.  Angry, frustrated, tired, and wondering why he keeps at it.  This morning I am the guy, standing near the top of the hill, looking down at the rock of justice which, it seems, has just rolled backwards about 30 or 40 years.
Individuals are being denied basic rights in the name of religion and in the name of security.  Here I stand.   And down there is the Rock of Justice. Despite all my work and effort of the past 50 years, the world seems to be no better off—maybe even worse off.  I am frustrated.  I am angry.  I am tired.  And I am disillusioned, demoralized.  So forgive me if, right now, I need some time to pull back and to grieve and mourn.  I need some time to digest this.  Maybe later I will slowly walk back down the hill to that rock and begin anew.  But this morning, I’m just not yet ready to start moving in that direction.  Justice work is hard work!

Erik Wikstrom:  I have to say it – I LOVE being one of the preachers in this place!  I’ve been involved with religion in one way or another for going on fifty years now, and in all of my time out there in the pews and my time up here in the pulpit I have never heard said what Bob just said.  Oh, it’s often been given some kind of lip service; I’ve done it myself.  But in the end, when all’s said and done, the exhortations generally overwhelm the expressions of exhaustion.
Yet for many of us  . . . well . . . our exhaustion overwhelms everything else.  “Compassion fatigue” is not just a phrase but a phrase coined to describe an experience most of us know all too well.  We’ve fought the good fight and now are tired.  Or we’d like to fight the fight but there are just too many arenas to choose from, or we’re too busy being parents, or taking care of our parents, or just simply making ends meet doesn’t leave much time for marches.
Yes.  It's like this, right?  Isn’t it nice to hear this truth – this cold, hard, real truth – and know that what we’re feeling someone else is feeling too?
Now my preaching teachers told me that you should usually try to wrap up your sermon on an uplifting, inspiring note.  And as Bob, and Bob, and I bounced around drafts of our explorations we even thought for a bit that Bob Kiefer should put something positive in the end of his, but I’m glad we didn’t go that route because there is something positive there – a positive depiction of something that’s positively true for a whole lot of folks.  Nice to let it just sit there.
Of course, that leaves it up to me to look for the uplift, and to try to find a bridge between Bob Gross’ energy and Bob Kiefer’s enervation.
I think I found one.
When you leave the sanctuary today, if you use these doors over here, you’ll walk out into the Jefferson Foyer, and if you turn ever so slightly to your right you’ll see a set of stairs leading down.  At the top of those stairs there is a portrait of a wonderfully bearded fellow – we bearded fellows have to stick together, you know.  The man’s name is Edward Everett Hale.  He was a Unitarian clergy person, prolific author, and was involved in so many social reform movements that he gained the nickname “Edward Everything Hale.”
He once said, “If you have accomplished everything that you’ve planned for yourself, then you haven’t planned enough.”  (And I can’t resist telling you this one – while he was Chaplain to the U.S. Senate he was once asked if he prayed for the Senators.  “No,” he replied.  “I look at the Senators and I pray for the country.”)
But the reason I bring him up this morning is because of something else that he once said, something that’s preserved in the back of our hymnals.  “I am only one,” he said, “yet still I am one.  I cannot do everything, yet still I can do something.  And because I cannot do everything, I must not hesitate to do the something that I can.”  (I recently came across an alternative version of this maxim:  “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”)
I like them both – I am only one, but still I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something.  And because I can’t do everything, I will not hesitate to do the something that I can, nor will I let what I cannot do interfere with my doing what I can.  I find this a very powerful motto to call on when I myself am feeling overwhelmed or tired.
One of the things that I love about the way that IMPACT works is that it almost seems as though the model was created with Hale’s quote in mind.  For those who don’t know this yet, IMPACT is an example of something that’s known as congregationally based community organizing.  It takes the idea that we’ve been repeating for the past couple/three weeks and exponentially expands it.  If it’s true that all of us here who make up TJMC are smarter than any one of us alone, then that’s equally true at Holy Comforter; and Ebeneezer Baptist; and Iglesia Fuente de Vida; and the Islamic Society of Central Virginia; and Congregation Beth Israel; and the Faith, Hope and Love International Healing and Deliverance Center; and the Unity Church of Charlottesville.
And if you take all of these various faith communities – and it’s 31 at last count, I believe – and join them together . . . well . . . then that über community is going to be really, really smart.  And what IMPACT does is to take the vision, and the passion, and the compassion, and the courage, and the creativity of this multi-faceted multi-faith community and bring it all to bear on making a concrete substantive difference in this place in which we live.  We heard earlier from Bob, and we have an insert in our Order of Service, listing some of the real . . . yes . . . impact the work of IMPACT has had in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.  It’s a really impressive list, and it’s a real example of doing the something that we can – year, after year, after year.
But here’s the other thing I love about the way IMPACT works.  There are some people among the various faith communities – and several sitting in this sanctuary at this very moment – who are extraordinarily dedicated to this method of ministry.  They serve on IMPACT’s Board, or have done so; they work on the research teams that look into the particular issue that’s been chosen for a given year; they organize the local, congregational networks; they make phones calls and send out e-mails . . .  These people are kind of like Edward Everything Hale, and I gotta tell you that they have my respect, my admiration, and my gratitude that they’re the ones doing all of that and not me.  (‘Cause I’m kinda tired, to tell you the truth, and I’ve more than got my hands full here and at home.)
But here’s the thing – these “everything” folks can’t do it alone.  Oh, there are enough of them to do all of that work that I’ve just listed – and all the rest of the things that you can easily imagine that they’re doing – but by themselves they’re not enough.  When going up against entrenched systems you can’t just have good ideas and lots of passion.  You need numbers.
There’s an axiom that every time a politician sees someone speak up on an issue they hear the voices of ten.  Because each of us knows an interconnected network of people who share our views on a lot of things, so if any of us speak up it can be safely assumed that there are others who agree with us.
So if twenty or thirty people show up to this Nehemia action (in 29 days), the folks on that stage will know that there are two or three hundred people who care about the issue of jobs and job training as a way of addressing issues of economic justice before they get played out in really hurtful ways.  And if two or three hundred people show up, our political leaders will know that there are a couple of thousand people who care.
But what if we can get 2,000 or 2,500 people into the John Paul Jones arena on Monday, March 29th?  That’d be like 20,000 or 25,000 and that’s a lot of people.  That’s a lot of influence.  Numbers like that can have a real impact.  Half of the tree is spread out in the soil under your feet – so if there’s this much visible here at the Nehemia Action . . . ?
None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something.  And one of the “somethings” that we can do is to show up – for a couple of hours on one night – and lend the weight of our support to ensure that this voice for justice is a mighty stream and not just a trickle.  And even if you’re tired, all that’s being asked is that you come and sit there.  That you come and be there. 
Some of you have already indicated your willingness to attend this Action, to do this something that you can.  But it’s easy to forget such good intentions, and I noticed that not everyone stood up before.  So I’m going to ask everyone who has their calendar on their phone or whatever to take out their device now.  Open up your calendar.  Go to March 26th.  And put “Nehemia Action” down at 6:00 – John Paul Jones Arena.
We can’t all do everything, but we can do something.  Let’s not let all that we cannot do interfere with our doing what we can.  I look forward to being with you next month.

[And here's the IMPACT video that we showed in the sanctuary.]

In Gassho,


Thursday, February 23, 2012

What does it mean to be who we are?

This is the column I've written for the March issue of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church's monthly bulletin.  I promised that I would use this blog throughout the month as a place to explore these ideas more fully.  To do this, here's where it'll begin:

As I write this I am in between the reading of two books.  I’ve just finished How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston.  (Whose inside jacket flap defiantly declares, “If you don’t buy this book you’re a racist!”) I’m following that up by reading Who’s Afraidof Post-Blackness:  what it means to beblack now by Touré.  Both of these books are giving me new insights into the richness of that “us-ness” that is part of the reality of being “one human family, on one fragile planet, in one miraculous universe, bound by love.”  Both of these books are explorations of identity, travelogues on these authors’ journeys into being who they are.  The scenery along the way is both different than anything I’ve ever experienced and ever so familiar.  One human family, indeed.
One (of the many) thing(s) that stand out for me in both books is the intentionality of the question – what does it mean to be Black?  There is a powerful moment in the extraordinary documentary The Color of Fear in which one of the African American participants asks one of the European American participants why it doesn’t freak him out that he’s never even thought about what it means to be white.  (Not his exact words, but that was certainly the thrust of it.)  It becomes clear that this is one of the differences between these two experiences – whites don’t have to think about their “whiteness” because it is held to be normalized; Blacks, on the other hand, have their blackness thrust in their face every single day.  They have to think about it.  And this turns out to be a positive.
Above the entrance to the famous Oracle of Delphi in Greece were carved the words, “Know Thyself.”  This is not always an easy thing, to be intentionally, consciously exploring our own identity.  Yet this is, of course, one of the purposes of the religious endeavor – to ask ourselves what it is we believe about ourselves, about one another, about the world and the universe around us.  Then we can look at how we live in the world – how we behave, what we do – and see how that aligns with who we have learned we are.  Sometimes this calls for a change in behavior; sometimes it calls for a revision of our self-understanding.  Always the process continues – reflection/action, reflection/action . . .
This is important for congregations, too.  Who is Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church?  What does it mean to be a Unitarian Universalist congregation?  What does it mean to be this UU congregation in this place at this time?  And from this, of course, then action/reflection, action/reflection . . .
For now, I toss out the questions.  As we continue “cultivating connections,” let’s see where those connections lead us. 
In Gassho,

Monday, February 13, 2012


This is the twin exploration that Thomas Collier and I shared at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church this past Sunday.  It was our Canvass Kick-Off, and it was the second week of the month in which we're looking at the theme of Justice.  Made for an interesting pair of sermons!

Thomas Collier
Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah has a beautiful image that we are ALL shards of the divine.  God made a vessel and filled it with a divine emanation but the emanation of the divine was far more than any vessel could hold and it shattered.  We, our world, everything is a shard of the divine.  Unity, therefore is the real goal of humanity. 
Now if we, if everything, is divine or shares in a divine nature or shares in a collective spirit (however it is that you apprehend our unity), if unity is a spiritual goal, then Justice is critical to our path. 
Justice – not blame.  In blame, we assign the label wrong-do-er and if necessary we punish.  In real justice, we seek out the problem and we try to help ameliorate or fix the problem.  This may seem simple, and sometimes it is, but frequently it is not. Why not just fix the problem? But we don’t. Deporting the illegal, even if he or she has gotten into gangs and violence will not help fix the problem of why some people will do anything to get here. OUR incarcerated have been put in jail, but where are they helped back into society.  Blame will not help our politics.  Blame won’t help you or me with any of our  interpersonal relationships.  Blame, most surely won’t feed the hungry, or house the homeless.  Only justice, real justice, will. 
Justice is spiritual, holy work because justice re-unifies US.  It brings a face to homeless and it brings humanity to the wrong-do-er.  It brings US back into relationship. 
I mention this on the first day of canvassing week because this church does A LOT of justice work. From the people IN our church who have protested, so that the 1% hears and sees the 99% to the work BY our church to feed and shelter the homeless.  And many many more programs through our church.  Pledging the church is about financially supporting this work.  Financially supporting the justice work of this church. 
But when we think of Justice work we usually think of external work.  Working with or for others.  But we need to always remember the other type of Justice work that this church does an amazing job at:  Doing Justice to ourselves.  We come to church every Sunday, we come together here to help re-unify our selves, to push past the superficial self and re-connect with the divine “I”, the spiritual “I”.  We come here because we appreciate the hint, the push, the reminder, the nourishment that we get out of being here.  Justice is the work of healing our separateness and that may be towards others or it could be towards our self – our highest, truest self. 
Supporting this church is about supporting this work, outward or inward.  Supporting this church is about supporting our re-union, with each other and with our true self.  Supporting this church is supporting the work of healing our separateness.  Supporting this church is supporting our whole-ness. 

Erik Walker Wikstrom
The annual canvas sermon.  I’d say that if you were to poll my clergy colleagues you’d find that this particular preaching opportunity ranks in the top one or two percent of least favorite.  “The Sermon on the Amount,” it’s often called.  Hard not to sound like an NPR host telling y’all that you know you like our services, you know you count on your programming, so it’s time to pony up and contribute your fair share.  “The Sermon on the Amount.”  I once preached a canvass sermon titled, “We Don’t Need Your Money,” but I’ll save that for another year.
Because this year – this particular canvass kick-off sermon – presents a couple of interesting twists.  For one thing, a lot of you have already given in your pledge cards!  This idea of publically receiving the congregation’s pledges during a ritual moment of a Sunday service?  I’d never seen that before, but I like it.  As Bob Gross said in a different context, “We don’t have a lot of altar calls in the UU church.”  If you ask me, though, I’ll tell you that I think that they’re good for the soul – coming forward, your gift (or at least your pledge of your gift) in hand, declaring in front of the community your commitment.  Martin Luther King, Sr. once said that “anonymous giving leads to anonymous non-giving.”  It’s hard to disagree.
So I don’t have to inspire you – most of you, at any rate – to pledge.  You’ve done it.  Thank you.  Congratulations.  Feels good doesn’t it?  Now I’m sure that there are ways for you to increase that pledge if you’re so moved after my little soliloquy here, but I don’t have to make a heavy pitch for pledging.  That’s a difference from the norm.
And this year’s canvass sermon comes during the middle of the month when we’re exploring the topic of “Justice.”  (And thank you to Thomas for making sure we stayed rooted in our theme.)  It’d be more typical to preach a canvass sermon during a month we were focusing on, say, “generosity.”  Or in November when we looked at “gratitude.”  Or even in June, for goodness sakes, when our theme will be “letting go.”  But it’s here in February – Justice Month.  Not the usual connector points, I gotta tell you.
When the Worship Weavers were discussing this sermon last month we started talking about the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  Did you know that in New Zealand, just to pick a place out of a hat, CEOs make approximately 50 times what the average worker earns in a year?  Did you know that in the United States that figure is more like 325 to 1?  To talk about money, especially in this day and age, is to talk about justice.
Interestingly, I once did a search of the resources represented on the UUA’s online worship resource database – The WorshipWeb – and discovered that the only time “money” was referenced in a sermon, or a reading, or a chalice lighting, was to support the church’s asking for it.  There were no resources related to money that weren’t also related to the canvass.  I’m happy to say that that’s changed now, because money matters.
It matters because yes, fundamentally, as I’ve often preached before, money is a symbol of energy, a representation of what we care about, but it’s also how we put food on the table and clothes on our backs.  It’s how we pay our rent, get new sneakers for our kids, and help our aging parents navigate what used to be called their “golden years.”  Money matters.
And for so many people times are hard.  Times are hard for the people in our congregations, too; it’s not just folks “out there” who are hurting.  There used to be a commonly repeated statistic that Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, had the highest per capita level of income of all other religious groups in the United States.  (We also recorded the lowest per capita charitable giving, too, but that’s for a sermon in another year.)  It used to be fairly common – and oft repeated – knowledge that we UUs had the highest levels of income and education of any religious group around.
But that’s not true anymore.  The perception remains in a whole lot of people’s minds – even people within our own congregations – but it’s just not true.  I was really proud – and this might sound a little odd – but I was really proud earlier this year when we announced our efforts to make up food baskets for Thanksgiving and Christmas and it was noted that we would be giving many of them to our own members in addition to folks-in-need in the wider Charlottesville community.  Now, I wasn’t proud that some of our own folks are having such a hard time of it, but I was proud that the TJMC community wasn’t ashamed of it.  Would acknowledge it.  Was even aware of it, frankly.  Times are hard, and there’s no way to talk about money – and especially to talk about the giving away of money – without setting it in that context, not with any kind of integrity, anyway.
And yet once a year the members and friends of this congregation are asked to give away some of their money in order to support the work of this congregation, to support its very existence.  Even more than NPR TJMC depends on donations.  And this year our canvass committee is asking people to consider giving “110%.”
Now I’ll admit – and my apologies in advance to Adam Slate and the canvass committee – I’ll admit that when I first heard this I flashed back on junior high school where I had a friend who had a stock response whenever a coach, or a choir director, or a band leader would ask us to give “110%.”  He’d say, “but we can’t give 110%!  Once we’ve given 100% there’s nothing less for us to give!”
Mathematically, though, it’s quite possible and, as has been noted in the letter you’ve hopefully all received, in this particular context it’s not only possible but necessary.  We need people to increase their pledges by an average of 10% so that our overall budget can increase by 10%.  And this is really a minimum reflection of the growth in financial resources that are necessary to be who and how we want to be as a community.  (And if all of this talk about 10% makes you feel kind of uncomfortable because it sounds too much like tithing, don’t worry – you can increase your pledge by 15% or 20%.  I’m sure that that’ll be okay.)
But there’s a mixed message, I think, in this year’s canvass theme of giving 110%.  It implies that folks didn’t give 100% last year, that there was something left over that could have been given to the church but wasn’t.  Perhaps, “implies” is the wrong word.  I think I want to say, “recognizes,” because it is just true that there are folks who are giving far less to the church than they could.  I’ve known people who’s annual pledge to their church was less than what they spent each year on their daily half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.  And if that is the relative relationship of the church and their coffee in their life, well, then, I guess that’s okay. 
But I’m also guessing that for a whole lot of the folks here this morning the church means more than that.  It’s been said that you can tell what a person values by looking at their checkbook.  (Or, I suppose, now, online bank statement.)  So I can understand why our wonderful canvass committee is encouraging us to give 110%.  But I don’t want anyone to get caught up in the numbers. 
Because while this canvass effort is all about the money, it’s not about the money at all.  It’s about growing our budget to fit the reality of what we’re trying to do and be, and it’s not about that at all.  What I’d say it’s all really about is each of us, and all of us together, getting better and better at living lives that align with our values, at living lives that proclaim to the world what matters most to us, at living lives that really reflect who we are and who we want to be.  This is not easy, by any means, but thankfully our faith community provides us with myriad opportunities to practice and encourages us to look for – and step up to – the opportunities we can find all around us in our daily living.
So, for those of you who haven’t yet made your pledge – and even those who have – I encourage you to think about the place of this community in your life.  Think about who this place helps you to be.  Think about what it has done for you, is doing for you, will do down the line.  Think about the other people in the congregation, and what this community has done for them.  Think, too, about Charlottesville and Virginia and, for that matter, the country and the world – think about what it means that there is a Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church.  Think about what it could mean in the days to come.
And then, with all of that in mind, look at your life as it really is.  Look at the way(s) the economy has impacted you.  Look at the resources you have at your disposal, as well as the very real needs that are competing for each and every dollar in your wallet and each and every hour of your day.  Mix it all together and from out of that mix, make your pledge to the church.
And I want to be so bold as to encourage you to give what my old friend would have called 100%!  I’m not talking about selling all you have and giving it to the church, but I do want each of us to consider giving everything we honestly can to support this place which gives us so much.  Forget the numerical goals, for a moment, and think, more simply, about giving all that you can, all that you should, all that this community is worth to you.
For some this will be 110% of what you gave last year.  For some it will be more like 200% or 300%.  (And that might sound shocking to some folks but you know it’s true.  We didn’t earn the reputation of having the lowest level of giving of any religious movement for nothing, folks.  In every congregation there are people who are giving woefully less than they could, especially considering what they say of the place of the church in their lives.)  All that said, for some a true reckoning would have this year’s giving at 95% of last year’s – times are hard for many of us.
The church, Archbishop Desmond Tutu has said, should be “an audiovisual aid showing how the world should be.”  And our lives, Mohandas Gandhi once said, should be our message to the world.  This is really the meaning behind the church’s annual canvass.  Let’s do it justice.

~ Benediction ~

A Franciscan Benediction
May God bless you with discomfort …At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger …At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears …To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them And turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness …To believe that you can make a difference in this world,So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

Through The Door

I've gotten a bit behind in my practice of posting my sermons from TJMC here on the blog.  In part that's because for a couple of weeks I was preaching extemporaneously from notes.  Nothing, then, to post except the audio -- which is available at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church website.

Here, though are the twin explorations from February 5th, 2012, the beginning of "Justice Month."

Elizabeth Breeden
In the late 1800’s the mathematician, Frances Galton, went to a county fair.  There you could guess the weight of an ox and if you guessed it you won a half/penny.  The fellow was writing the people’s guesses on a slip of paper.  Sir Galton was sure these simple country people could not guess correctly and certainly it was a rare person who came within the range necessary to win a prize.  At the end however, he asked the carnival fellow for the slips of paper, went home and found the average and realized that it was indeed within one pound of the actual weight of the ox. Sir Galton concluded (and reaffirmed by many, many studies of college sophomores) that we are together much smarter that any one of us alone.  As some of you already know, Sir Frances Galton is considered the father of Eugenics, a science trying to describe humans in better and worse paradigms which has taken us so sadly awry in awful decisions about sterilization but even thoughtfully in discussions about “best embryos.”
But, I’m not going there.  I’m stuck in the idea that together we are smarter than any one of us.  I think and I believe that that is true.  Of course, Jesus said it slightly more viscerally saying we are all one body and if your finger hurts, your whole body hurts, and how can we ignore our mangled finger.
So how do we regard the whole arc of our community, rich and poor, educated and not so educated, weird and plain, entertaining and boring, disabled and powerfully able as US?  How do we make sure we are ALL taken care of, not enabled, not given a fish but taught to fish?  How do we create an atmosphere that makes THOSE doors FEEL open…welcoming.  WE are a place that is helped by your presence, no matter who you are.
On Friday we are unloading the trucks, the place is brimming over with folks sitting around the edges of the room watching other folks work, walking 2 tons of food up that ramp, watching the food go into 108 bags, hauling 1000 lbs of potatoes, and… I mess up the chocolate pudding, mistaking it for jello because they both come in the same size boxes and they both say “jello” on the side.  What I want more than anything is for this room to feel like it is WE, not church people and we’re-so-bad-off-we’re-sitting-in-a-food-bank people, who are putting out this food and taking it home. So the Chocolate pudding is all put in the last row of bags and the folks sitting watching us (many of whom are tearing down boxes too) get it right away.  Luckily one of the ladies who is helping put out food and is very strong and forceful, starts to straighten it out by laboriously trading jello for pudding, bag by 108 bag.  The mood in the room starts to smooth a little and then (I don’t see this only the results are clear) one of our main, hard working, there early family helpers has stashed extra pudding in the first bags because she always gets the first bags and the strong forceful lady will have none of her (but I can do it because I’m special) and makes all of the puddings even, fair, equal for all.  Did you really think I was talking about pudding?  No, it’s about the feeling that we all should treat each other fairly and actually the worker who gets there early doesn’t necessarily get more special treatment. (oops that’s a jesus story too)  I think this is the part where everyone is heard.  Everybody in the room hopes to be there for the same bags of food and potatoes and I want us all to be working up a sweat to make sure we are all honoring that endpoint.
Most of all, I don’t want us all to be the same.  I am willing to look like I work harder if I know the poet is gazing at the geese crossing the sky, the hermit is walking in the woods and the engineer is inventing another darn screw that will have a different head and length because it is stronger in some indecipherable way.  I know that we reward folks who go to school successfully in outlandish ways, but god save us if we start to believe that it makes them better, because frequently they are not much fun to live with.  I want to be part of the stew and you can be the meat and even the potatoes and salt and especially the water but, well,  I want to be the corn or the pepper.
So here we are after our first night hosting PACEM.  If we were a truly warm, welcoming, socially just church our guests would not be able to resist being among us this morning.  I don’t think we know how to invite them. I think we have been doing this for 6 years.  Most of the churches where the guests are sheltered have begun to have conversations about the deeper issues we realize after this experience.  It is not enough to offer a band aide of winter shelter without thinking TOGETHER (where we are smarter than any one of us) about the ways to welcome into our congregation those with addiction issues, those who have been shoved out of any system of care for mental health issues, or how to assure there are hopeful steps to homefulness for those who have fallen into economic hardship.  I know that it should feel like collaboration and not competition.  I know that it should feel hopeful. Us is them, we are us, our doors must be found open.  Because we all know, they don’t change, we change. We are in this soup together.  Social justice…it’s not about giving, it’s about receiving.

Erik Walker Wikstrom
Last week, as part of the service, we lit candles while naming some of the many things that we’re doing here at TJMC and beyond our walls.  This morning, as we begin our month-long exploration of the theme of justice, I’d like to read part of that list again:
Adopt-a-highway, Chalice Lighters, Children’s Worship Collections, Emotional Wellness Ministry, Environmental Action – Green Sanctuary, Food Pantry, Gay/Straight Alliance, Giving Tree, Guest at Your Table, Hospital Food Packets, IMPACT, Marriage Equality, PACEM, Partner Church(es), Peace Action - UNO, Refugee Partnerships, Social Action Collections, Soup Kitchen, Undoing Racism, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, our Youth’s work in relationship building with the residents of the Cedars.  (And beginning next week our children and youth will be introducing us to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign that’s spreading like wildfire throughout our movement.)
These things are all in different stages of activity at the moment, but they present a good picture of the social action efforts of this congregation.  We’re doing a lot.  How many of you have been involved in one or more of these things – either as a leader/organizer or as a participant?  I can’t say why y’all chose me, but I know that this list is one of the reasons I chose you.
We’re doing a lot.  We’ve done a lot.  There’s a lot here to be proud of.
And yet . . .
And yet, this week I received an e-mail from Kip Newland, chair of our Social Action Council.  He wanted to be clear that this wasn’t a critique, just an observation, but he noted that as the Worship Weavers prepared to engage the congregation in a month-long exploration of the theme of justice no one had reached out to the Social Action Council.  No one sought – or maybe even more apropos, no one thought – to engage the Social Action Council in the planning for this month, to elicit their thoughts about what we could say, to get their feedback on what our congregation needed to hear.  I replied that this was a very important observation.  Very telling. 
To be honest, I also noted that the themes of the year have been known since September and that the fact that February was going to be “Justice” month had long been public knowledge and that no one on the Social Action Council had made an invitation for the Worship Weavers to come visit and get to know the goings on of the SAC in preparation for this month’s worship.  We agreed that a real opportunity had been missed.
The overarching theme of this year, as set out in that wonderful joint Leadership Development/Board of Trustees retreat at the beginning of the year, has been “cultivating connections.”  And by this we haven’t just meant making connections among us as individuals.  We meant cultivating the entire web of connections that makes this place what it is.  As I said, I see this as a missed opportunity – the folks focusing on social action and the folks focusing on worship could have used this as an opportunity to deepen the connections among these often-seen-as-separate spheres.
One reason that’s been suggested by some for why no one thought of this is that the Social Action efforts of the church can sometimes feel like more of a collection of individual’s particular passions than a coherent, organic, integrated social action program of the church.  The Social Action Council, then, can seem like a coordinating body more than a collaborative co-creator of one of the ministries of our congregation.  What, then, does the SAC, as a whole, have to say to or for the congregation?  What is its voice?  What is its place in the ongoing conversation of who we are and who we want to be?
To the extent that any of this rings true, this points to another place where connections could be cultivated.  How do our various Social Action efforts relate to one another and to the mission, the ministry, and the message of TJMC?  I’m planning on attending the SAC’s February 22nd meeting, and I’m really looking forward to this seeing where this conversation will take us.
One thing that might help guide this conversation – or, perhaps, galvanize it – is the question that Elizabeth told us that the folks involved with PACEM have begun to ask.  It is well and good that temporary shelter is being provided for our unhoused sisters and brothers during the coldest months of the year, but what comes next?  Where do we go from here?  Having opened the door between the two worlds of the housed and the unhoused, what would it look like to go through it?
Some of you may remember an illustration I used earlier in the year.  It comes out of the writings of John Dominic Crossan, and is his way of trying to capture just how radical was (and still would be) Jesus’ practice of “open commensality.”  For those who don’t remember, “open commensality” is the anthropological jargon for, “he’d eat with anybody.”  Prostitute or Pharisee or Priest, it didn’t matter to Jesus.  We’re told that he made no such distinctions between people and blurred the lines that society had so carefully constructed.
To vividly illustrate this, Crossan suggests that you imagine that you’re having a dinner party.  Someone rings your doorbell, and when you answer it you see a poor family that’s been living under the bridge just down the road.  They’re hungry.  And you, at this point, have several possible responses.
·         You could send them away, saying that you’re too busy to be bothered.  (And you might or might not offer them a little cash to help tide them over.)

·         You could invite them around back where you’d give them some food and then send them on their way.

·         You could invite them around back and then into your kitchen so that they could both eat and warm up.

·         You could invite them to come into your dining room and join the party.

·         Or you could invite your guests to gather up all the food and beverage and dishes and head out together to the bridge, bringing the party where, perhaps, it’s needed most.
Lots of options, but this last, Crossan argues, is Jesus’ way.  I would argue that we’re called for it to be our way as well.  Because only in this last scenario is the encounter the catalyst for real transformation . . . of everyone.  The people under the bridge have their humanity reaffirmed, are reminded that even in their current circumstances they are worthy of a party (if you will).  And the original dinner guests are reminded that their china and their cutlery and their pate d’ foie gras doesn’t make them any different than these other people, just more delicately fed.  Only in this last scenario is the essential “only-us-ness” of the universe fully expressed.
So some of us roll up our sleeves and feed a good meal to some unhoused women and men twice a year.  And some of us, while working with also talk with and joke with and get to know a bit the women and men who come to our food pantry each month.  Good.  Important.  But what can we do to blur the boundaries even further?  What can we do to help more of these women and men get into their own homes so that they don’t need to go church to church to church in the winter?  What can we do to raise the standard of living around here so that folks don’t need to get their groceries in paper bags from the floor of a church social hall?  And what can we do to more fully realize a community, a world, in which “us and them” is replaced with “just us”?
That’s right.  As I said in my newsletter column this month, I believe that the true heart of all work toward justice is the deep and abiding conviction that it’s “just us.”  Just us.  Yet the world in which we live seems to predicated upon anything but.  There are so many ways that we make distinctions and differences between and among ourselves, and from these grow injustice.
So what, of all the things that cry out for attention, should we – the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – what should we be putting our particular attention toward?  At the beginning of this sermon I named a lot of wonderful things that we’ve done and are doing, yet I have to ask the same question that PACEM’s asking – after opening up these doors, what comes next?  And to answer that, as a congregation, I think we also have to answer the question what is our unique calling in this community?  What is our true voice?  What can we offer that is ours to say and do?
These aren’t just questions for a Social Action Council, or the Worship Weavers, or even for a collection of dedicated activists among us.  They are questions for us all because the answers depend upon the connections among us all, and among us and those “Others” out there with whom we are truly one.