Sunday, February 15, 2015

Unitarian Universalism Saves Lives

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

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

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

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

Some stories:

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

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

Friends, Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

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

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

Unitarian Universalism saves lives and changes communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Jesus: What's The Big Deal?

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

Pax tecum,


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

* * *

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

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