Tuesday, April 28, 2015

An Open Letter to SCOTUS

Dear Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States,

Today you begin hearing arguments on the subject of marriage equality.  Perhaps I can be of service.  I have been making this argument for well over a decade now, and to tell you the truth I am surprised that its cogency has not yet settled this issue once and for all.  I guess that that's your job now.  As an aid, in case it's needed, here is what I have argued in letters to the editor, sermons, bulletin articles, previous blog posts, and anywhere else I find an opening:

  1. The "sanctity" of marriage is none of the government's concern.  Sanctity is a religious category and as such is irrelevant to political consideration.  Religious institutions bless unions and declare them sacred; the government can only decide if they are legal.
  2. The government does have an interest in regulating the contractual aspect of marriage, striving to ensure that it is effective in promoting social cohesion.  Denying gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to enter into marriages creates a two-tier system of unions which is a decidedly  less effective approach.  Bringing more people within the institution of marriage, and applying the same standards to this contract no matter the gender expression of those who enter into it, is the the most simple, and therefore most effective, approach.  
  3. To the argument that recognizing same-gender unions will impinge on religious freedom the first point comes into play again.  There currently legal marriages that have not been sanctified by a religious tradition -- many people choose to be married not in a church or other house of worship but in a courthouse.  These marriages coexist with religiously blessed marriages without any infringement on a religion's ability to establish their own requirements.  Nothing would be different here.
  4. To the argument that if the federal government were to overturn state bans they would be defying "the will of the people" who, in many cases, voted for these bans I would simply point out that if "the will of the people" was always paramount we would still have segregated drinking fountains.  (And interracial marriage would still be illegal.)
  5. To the argument that marriage, as an institution, must be limited to heterosexual couples because its primary purpose is to create a stable environment in which to bear and raise children all that needs to be noted are the hundreds of heterosexual couples who are infertile or uninterested in raising children.
  6. To the argument that gay and lesbian marriages would somehow endanger "the institution of marriage," six words:  Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?    The current high rate of divorce, and the extent of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse within heterosexual marriages would certainly suggest that gay and lesbian marriages are not the danger facing heterosexual marriages.

As an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister I have had the pleasure of officiating at both heterosexual marriages and homosexual unions.  I have seen no difference in the love, the devotion, and the commitment shown by these couples.  It seems inconceivable to me that anyone can still argue that there should be a legal distinction.

Pax tecum,


Friday, April 24, 2015

On Our Knees

I have been introduced recently to the Franciscan preacher, teacher, and monk, Richard Rohr.  Since then I've been voraciously reading everything of his that I can put my hands on.  I recently encountered a line that really jumped out at me:

I do not want to belong to a religion that cannot kneel.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Sit with it, as it were.  I've had these words circling around in my brain and heart since coming across them a couple of days ago, and I realize that I don't either.  Yet I do.

There's a paragraph that was written by a teenage member of the Unitarian Church of Ithaca, NY, after their youth group visited a local Benedictine Monastery for vespers.  (It was originally published in their church newsletter; I first came across it in the Worship Reader compiled by the Congregation of Abraxas.

“In the chapel there were only a few people watching the service, and I sat in front of them.  I wanted the sensation of being alone there.  I wanted to be open to the beauty of the chapel and the circle of monks and to the chanting.  And I see now that I wanted more than that.  I wanted thru some sort of magic to enter into the service, not simply because its forms were beautiful, but because they seemed at once mysterious and full of meaning. . . .  The monks knelt and rose and bowed; bowing, their bodies bent forward from the waist, torsos almost horizontal.  But I could not move. . . .  I was brought up I this [Unitarian] church where no one kneels and no one bows.  Physically I’m very inhibited, so that I don’t move easily.  And when has it ever been suggested that I might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?  I wanted to kneel, that’s the important thing.  But I could not. . . .  To kneel and to mean it would be frightening because there is a darkness in the kneeling and a darkness in us which we cannot reason about.  You [Unitarians] teach the fear of form without meaning, and that is right; but having avoided forms, you have sometimes avoided the darkness, and it is from the darkness that the real questions arise.” [Italics are mine.]

Not that long ago the Christian Fellowship in the church I serve held a communion service.  Afterward, one of the members came up to me and, very excitedly, told me that they had "used the original words."  By this she'd meant that they'd sung, "Let us break bread together on our knees" instead the oft used variation, "Let us break bread together you and me."  When has it ever been suggested that we might kneel, even figuratively kneel, before or to something?

That teenager sure had it right -- to kneel and to mean it -- would be frightening.  Is frightening.  It means acknowledging that we are not the Grand High Poohbah of All Existence.  As the Rev. Barbara Merrit put once put it, "Whether or not we believe in God, we must recognize that we ourselves are not God."  And that means, ultimately, recognizing that there is absolutely nothing we can do to control the Universe and our part in it.  We cannot guarantee success for ourselves and our friends and doom for our enemies.  We cannot ensure that things will work out as we wish they would -- that we always will be safe, happy, and secure.  We just can't.  And whether or not we believe that there is some kind of Sacred Something that is holding us through it all, we do need to come to terms with the fact -- the inescapable and undeniable fact -- that we are not in charge.  That can be a terrifying thing for some of us, and kneeling -- and meaning it -- can be an embodiment of this truth.

If you haven't done it in a while, I encourage you to do so.  Kneel.  Literally get down on your knees
and see how it feels.  (Not so much how it feels in your knees and hips, but how it feels in your heart.)  Bow your head even, maybe, or lift it upward.  Do this in your home in front of a home altar or, just the end of your bed.  Do this in the sanctuary, before or during the service, with or without other people there.  Do this outside, in the woods or just a corner of your yard.

Richard Rohr said, "I do not want to be part of a religion that cannot kneel."  Neither should you.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Praying for Guidance

There is a classic film called The Bishop's Wife.  It stars David Niven as a Bishop who very much wants to build a grand new cathedral, Lorretta Young as his far too neglected wife, and Cary Grant, as the angel named Dudley who comes to help sort things out.  (If you've never seen it, go and watch it at once.  This post will be here when you get back.)

In an effort to raise the needed funds, the Bishop courts a wealthy widow, but she will only give her money with certain stipulations -- that it include a large stained glass window of St. George the Dragon Slayer, with her late husband's face.  Eventually the Bishop caves to her demands.

But things don't end there, because Dudley didn't come to help the Bishop build his cathedral.  In a fantastic exchange the Bishop challenges Dudley and says, "But I prayed for a cathedral."  "No," Dudley replies, "you prayed for guidance, and guidance has been given you."  The Bishop realizes that he was on the verge of losing his wife because his priorities had gotten skewed, and that he was no longer even really serving the God he claimed to be wanting to honor.

Dudley gave guidance elsewhere, too.  He visited the widow and convinces her not to give her money to the building project.  I'm paraphrasing here, but he says to her, "For the cost of that one big roof, I wonder how many little roofs you could build."  Why would God want a grand cathedral when there are people who need homes?

I think about this scene whenever I hear something like I did the other day.  Hillary Clinton's campaign aims to raise $2 billion.  $2 billion.  That's more than was spent in the entire 2008 election!  Think of all the good that could be done with that money -- the teachers who could be more fairly compensated, the people who are struggling with addictions who could receive treatment, the unhoused who could find homes.

Why in the name of all that is Holy do we have to drag out our campaigns for so long and spend so much money on them?  People have been informally positioning themselves for the run since before the 2008 election was over.  In England they have had elections that lasted no more than one month.  As Gerald D. Skoning wrote in his 2010 op ed in the Chicago Tribune,
How long does it take for candidates to communicate their positions on issues? How long does it take for the electorate to get to know the candidates, their qualifications and their election platform? Are voters from the U.K. that much smarter than Americans that they need so little time? Are the candidates in the U.K. so succinct and articulate in the expression of their position that they need only one month to run an effective campaign? Do the Brits go to the polls with inferior information? Are we better informed voters?
Obviously no.
There are millions billions that are spent on political campaigns (so that an electorate that has largely already solidified its opinions can watch their candidate extol the failings of the other candidates).  There are millions that are spent on holiday decorations at the White House.  There is so much money that is spent on the equivalent of "one big roof."  If only Dudley would return ...

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, April 21, 2015


When I was a kid one of the highlights of the year was the night they would show both "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" and "A Charlie Brown Christmas."  I would wait for it all year, and as Christmas loomed near, I looked forward to that night with almost as much anticipation as I did Santa himself.

One year I had a toothache.  That's too small of a word, actually -- it was a burning, stabbing, exploding pain in my mouth.  But I didn't say anything to my parents because I wanted to see these shows.  I was determined to see them, no matter what.  Even pretty excruciating pain.

I can't now remember which order they were in but let's say that "A Charlie Brown Christmas" came first.   The pain finally got to be too much for me and, so, during the last few minutes of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" I let out a scream.

Luckily one of our neighbors across the street was a dentist who worked out of his home.  My parents rushed me over to him and he determined that I had an exposed nerve.  He said he couldn't imagine how I had been able to bear that kind of pain; it took a whole lot of Novocaine to numb it.  (I remember five shots, but my memory might exaggerate.)  And through it all I cried and protested that I simply had to get back home or I'd miss "The Grinch ..."

I tell this story to my children and they can't really comprehend it.  They're growing up in an on-demand world where they can watch pretty new movies in full HD right in our living room.  They can go onto Netflix or Amazon and watch several seasons of some show they become interested in, one episode after another.  No waiting involved.  I tell them that you once had to wait from week to week to see what would happen next in something you were watching.  They get impatient when Netflix makes you wait something like 17 seconds for the next episode to being.

I'll admit, I've gotten pretty used to it myself.  When Netflix released the entire season of "Daredevil" on the day it premiered I rejoiced that I could watch as much of it as I was able at a time.  When I wanted to relive the pleasure of "Lie to Me" I could do it without commercials and without distraction.  

Yet I think we pay a price for this convenience.  In Robert Heinlein's classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land.  An expedition to Mars goes silent shortly after landing.  Twenty-five years later another expedition returns and finds only one survivor -- a young man who had apparently been born there and raised by Martians, Valentine Michael Smith.  When he is brought back to earth he encounters a very different culture that the one he'd known, which provide Heinlein a wonderful vehicle for cultural critiques.

One aspect of Martian philosophy that Smith shares is the importance of waiting.  He finds humans to be extremely hectic, moving way too fast for our own good.  "Waiting is fullness," he says.  Even as he is eventually greatly acculturated to our ways, even when he, himself, begins to move more at our pace, he does not entirely give up on his Martian philosophy.
"He was not in a hurry, "hurry" being one human concept he had failed to grok at all. He was sensitively aware of the key importance of correct timing in all acts — but with the Martian approach: correct timing was accomplished by waiting. He had noticed, of course, that his human brothers lacked his own fine discrimination of time and often were forced to wait a little faster than a Martian would — but he did not hold their innocent awkwardness against them; he simply learned to wait faster himself to cover their lack
The timeless wisdom of the Tao te Ching asks us, "Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?"  I worry that our on-demand, binge-watching world is making that harder than ever.

Pax tecum,


Monday, April 20, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth

This is the text of the sermon deliverd on Sunday April 19th at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.  If you would like to hear it, you can listen to the podcast on our website.  (I began by holding a plastic inflatable globe ...)

This is it.  The earth.  Our home.  (Well, this isn’t it, actually.  It’s not clear plastic, and when you see it from this distance the various continents are differently colored, and they don’t have labels on them.  And that makes a difference.

There’s a song by Julie Gold that’s been sung by Nancy Griffiths and Bette Middler that’s called, “From a Distance.”  Beautiful song.  And it says that from a distance you can’t see any of the problems that we can see all too clearly.  From a distance, all you can see is the beauty of this planet.  And it is a beautiful planet.  And the only home we have.

It’s easy to talk about the threats the planet faces.  Climate change – and I can say that because this isn’t Florida – climate change is just what it sounds like:  the changing of the climate, and those changes aren’t going to be good for us or for the vast majority of the things on the planet that need clean air and water to live.  That’d be most things.

So it’d be easy to talk about the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere and what that’s doing -- and projected to do – to global temperatures and weather patterns.  It’d be easy to talk about the diversity of plants and animals that are dying off; easy to talk about rising sea levels and the destruction of essential habitats.  (Including ours.)  It’d be easy to talk about the apathy, the indifference, the sheer ignorance of so many among our political leaders and the ordinary person on the street.  All of that would be easy; ad all of that you’ve heard before.  As one of our own environmental activists put is:  “if we don’t have a habitable planet, no other social justice issue will make much difference.”

When the subject of the environment comes up it often does so in the context of how endangered it is.  Climate change – which since we’re not in Florida I can say – climate change seems to intractable that,

Yet we needn’t simply bemoan our fate.  We can also celebrate our successes, and there are successes in the environmental movement.   According to a report published by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, we are well on our way to repairing the damage to our ozone layer such that it might actually recover fully in the next few decades.  Some of thought we might never see that.

From 2010 to 2013, 441 new species have been scientifically identified in the Amazon, including a titi monkey that purrs like a cat and a new passion flower that sprouts spaghetti-like filaments from the center of the bloom. Various scientists described the new species and World Wildlife Federation compiled the list of 258 plants, 84 fish, 58 amphibians, 22 reptiles, 18 birds and one mammal.
While the West African Black Rhino has now been officially declared extinct, still the remaining population of Northern White Rhino in Kenya is under 24-hour protection, and the Indian Rhino has returned from the brink of extinction.

Closer to home, Charlottesville is taking part in The Georgetown University Energy Prize,  a nation-wide competition open to small and medium-sized localities with the goal of reducing energy use.  The Grand Prize -- the $5 million grand prize –will be awarded in 2017. It’s exciting to note that Charlottesville has moved into the semi-finals, competing against 49 other communities across the country.  (And these 50 were winnowed down from the 8,000 communities who entered!)  There is a city employee, Susan Elliott, whose sole objective is to lead the EnergizeCharlottesville effort to win the grant, which has to be used to reward the community as a whole and to further its energy savings efforts.  If you are a city resident you may have noticed Susan’s call for citizens to take specific actions to reduce their environmental impact which appeared in the City News that comes with the gas & water bill.  In order to win the grant Charlottesville has to show that it is already making meaningful and significant changes even without the money.  We have 2 years to accomplish this; and by our status as a semi-finalist we seem to be doing well.

Members of our Forever Green group – formerly the Environmental Action Committee – will be handing out something called the “Greenfaith Pledge.”  It is a list dozens of things – things large and small – that each of us can do to help reduce the damage our species is doing to our planet.  Things that you and I can do.

Did you know that our congregation has already been doing quite a lot to make a difference?   Our incredible Environmental Action Committee led us in a process that culminated in our being officially recognized UUA “Green Sanctuary.”  (And I’m sure that any of these folks would be proud to tell you about all that went into that accomplishment.  A couple of years ago we mounted solar panels on our roof to help offset our dependence on fossil fuel derived electricity (the only church in Charlottesville, I believe, to do so).  This decision was controversial at the time, but it’s exciting to be able to say that we are currently displacing approximately 25% of our electrical energy costs here in the main church building.  (That’s roughly $1,500 a year in savings as well as reducing our impact on the planet.)

And we are working to further reduce our impact on our environment when we voted at our last congregational meeting to divest our endowment fund of all fossil-fuel related investments.  (We have already sent $200,000 of our endowment to be managed as part of the UUA’s socially responsible Common Endowment Fund.) 

Even close to home, there are individuals and families in this congregation who are actively and conscientiously making decisions in the way they live their lives so as to make to make a difference.  Some have put solar panels on their homes, some are careful about what cleaning products they use, or the kind of car they drive (and how often), the temperature they set their thermostat, or dozens of other measures to help the environment.  If you are one of these people who are consciously trying to make a difference, would you please rise.  You may not have been honored this morning as our 2015 Eco Hero, but you are all heroes nonetheless.

Bust so far all I’ve given you is information.  Useful information, I hope.  Inspiring, even.  Yet that’s not what makes a sermon.  That’s what makes a lecture.  At best a “talk.”  And if all we offer are talks and lectures, we have already lost.  If environmental justice is a simply a cause we struggle for, then we will, in fact, be part of the problem.

I say that because the challenges facing the earth are not “out there.”  We are not apart from the earth; we are a part of the earth.  That wonderful astrophysics Neil deGrasse Tyson revels in pointing out that the iron in our blood is exactly the same thing as the iron in the rocks around us, is exactly the same thing as the iron in the stars in the universe.  We are made of the same stuff.  We are a part of the world.

And thinking that we are apart from it, that we are separated from it and some how different, is a good bit of how we got in this mess in the first place.  Some trace it back to the Judeo-Christian traditions which, in the book of Genesis remember God as saying that humanity should have “dominion over the earth.”  For generations we have acted as though that meant that we could do anything we wanted with it.  We’ve acted as though the earth and all that’s on and in it were objects for our use.

Yet today many scholars and theologians are saying, as some scholars and theologians have always said, that what that passage really meant is that we are to be stewards of the earth.  That we are to care for it.  As the only species that we know of that is capable of understanding the consequences of our actions and of thinking ahead, we have the responsibility – whether called by God or not – to care for this place, our home.

And it’s important that we remain mindful that the earth is not just the home in which we live.  Calling on St. Francis again, one of his great gifts is his modeling of a recognition that everything that is is part of one great family.  The rocks, the trees, the sun, the wind, the water, the birds, the wolves … brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles.  This is our family, and just as we are beholden to take care of our human families, so, too, are we beholden to care for all of our relatives.

Turning down the thermostat is good, but why do we do it?  Because our family needs us to.  Deciding not to drive gas-guzzling vehicles is good, but why do we make that choice?  Because our relatives are crying out to us.  As in so many other areas there is no “us” and “them” here.  There is only “us.”  One family.  One home. Let us do what we can.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Making an IMPACT

This is the text of the sermons given at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church -- Unitarian Universalist on Sunday, April 12, 2015.  The service was created collaboratively by Adam Slate and myself.  If you'd like to listen, the podcast will be available here.

IMPACT Opening Words
TJMC is part of a CBCO.  (Don’t you love acronyms?)  What I mean is that our congregation – Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church – is part of a congregation based community organizing effort:  IMPACT.  IMPACT’s name serves dual purposes.  On the one hand, it describes what we aim to do – make an impact.  But it’s also another one of those wonderful acronyms – Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.  And for the past nine years, under the auspices of IMPACT, 27 faith communities have worked together to create action for justice in the greater Charlottesville Area.

In the fall each of these congregations hold a series of listening circles (house meetings) in which participants are asked to identify needs they see in our community, and every contribution is recorded.  These lists are then given to IMPACT’s staff who sift through them all, looking for themes and commonalities.  This consolidated list is then presented to a gathering of representatives of the congregations (a gathering we’re all encouraged to attend), and a prioritizing exercise brings one issue to the top.  That will be IMPACT’s focus for the coming year.

Research teams are formed – and, again, anyone can participate—and the issue is explored:  how can the need be most clearly defined; what are possible workable solutions; who might have the resources to put those solutions into effect.  Those people are met with – often repeatedly – and collaboration ensues.  At the end of this year-long process a proposal is presented at a large meeting and those “power people” (for want of a better term) are asked publically if they intend to commit to making things happen.  This last meeting is the Nehemiah Action, the thing we’ve been encouraging you to attend, the meeting that happens on Thursday, April 30th, at 6:30, at the John Paul Jones Arena.
In past years issues tackled have included: transportation, dental care, pre-K education, language access/translation services for folks in the criminal justice system, mental health services for children and youth, affordable housing, and youth unemployment.

This year some 350 people participated in those listening circle/ house meetings in the fall.  Again and again people shared stories about friends and family who have become entangled in a web of addiction, crime, and abuse. It was decided that crime and drugs should be this year’s focus.  During the research process we learned that 70% of Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail inmates, about 3,150 people, need substance abuse treatment each year. A majority of inmates who are women are also survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence.  And when these women and men are released from jail there are virtually no treatment options available that can address all of these interrelated issues.  This year IMPACT’s goal is to get commitments for the creation of a plan to develop residential treatment facilities right here, close to home, to help these members of our human family who so desperately need help.  (As of now there are no residential treatment facilities for women, and the men’s facility can serve only ten people at a time.  There are more options for people with means – as there always are – and people can go to Richmond or even further afield, but there is a real need right here.)

The annual Nehemiah Action is the time when people with the power to make things happen come face to face with people whose power is their numbers and their will.  People representing 27 diverse faith communities – Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Quakers, Evangelicals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and even us Unitarian Universalists – all gather together to speak with one voice in the name of justice.  It’s a powerful thing to behold.  It’s a powerful thing to be a part of.

At this time I’d like to invite anyone who has ever been to a Nehemiah Action in the past nine years, as well as those who are already committed to attending this year, to come to the front of the sanctuary.

Making an IMPACT (Adam Slate)

Part 1
In a service intended to highlight IMPACT, it might seem odd to start the sermon talking about eliminating programs that help people. However Erik posted an article recently about a church that’s doing just that—getting rid of programs like their food pantry and clothing ministry that help people in need, in order to begin thinking about those constituencies as potential resources of the church, rather than people needing assistance.

Reverend Mike Mather of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis has said, “The church… has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

Instead, the church has been hiring staff to be “listeners” in its neighborhood, to learn who people are, what their talents might be, and how the church can be a good neighbor. I pictured us here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church doing that. I pictured us going out into the communities we traditionally help and getting to know those constituencies as partners rather than beneficiaries of our generosity. I suspect some of you who read the article might have imagined the same thing.

But Broadway United Methodist didn’t seek out or hand pick the neighborhoods where its listeners were assigned. It went into its own neighborhood, where its church physically resides. Remember that their goal wasn’t to help people, it was to be better partners with those in their immediate community.

Our church is located here at the corner of Rugby Road and Edgewood Lane, yet I didn’t envision us going out into these neighborhoods around us, nor do I have any recollection of any significant efforts to do so in the 20 years I’ve been a member here. Why? I don’t really think there’s a reason. Reaching out to fairly affluent, primarily white people just hasn’t been high on our list of priorities. Even with our own neighbors.

Why is this the case? Like the church in Erik’s article, our social justice work may be distorting our perspective a little. Our Seventh Principle tells us to respect our connectedness to everyone. But while the message may have started as “Love everyone, with special attention to those who need our help,” the emphasis seemed to have shifted more exclusively toward those groups that are in need. We have become helpers. We’re advocates for the underdog. And while that’s an important aim, and something many of us value immensely about our church, we should be mindful not to make it our sole focus. It’s too easy to hand pick who we let into our community. It doesn’t fully honor the interdependent web. And just between us, it’s not going to save the world.

The Reverend Barbara Prose of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma said recently that "if we don’t change direction, meaning if we continue to insist we can favor some and ignore others, we may end up exactly where we’re heading: toward a more violent world.”

Dr. Martin Luther King warned that we must all learn to live together, or perish together as fools.

Part 2
But we were talking about IMPACT.

When Erik and I got together to talk about this service, we were struck by two things right off the bat. First, IMPACT has accomplished remarkable, transformative, wonderful things. Dental care for the uninsured, affordable low-income housing, more public transportation, pre-kindergarten education, training for law enforcement officers to deal with people who have limited English language proficiency, and transitional mental health services for ex-offenders.

The other thing that stood out was how often people in our church mention that IMPACT events typically include religious language about a personal God that’s not consistent with their own spiritual views. In spite of being part of a church that calls us to respect everyone’s religious path, many of us take pause at this aspect of IMPACT, and treat it as something that must be tolerated in order to be part of the cause.

IMPACT is, by definition, an interfaith initiative. It currently consists of 27 member congregations, 22 of which are Christian-oriented denominations, 2 are Jewish, one is Quaker, one is Muslim, and one is UU. Assuming a rotating assignment of invocations and benedictions at the annual Nehemiah Action event, and an assumption that religious leaders will pray according to their own faith tradition, 80% of prayers will be Christian, and 96% will be in a form different from what we typically see in our own sanctuary here at TJMC.

Let me suggest that this diversity of religious expression isn’t something we can think of as separate from IMPACT. Rather it’s a fundamental aspect of it, and one to be celebrated. The intent of the program is for people of all faiths to come together to solve a problem here in Charlottesville. In fact, it's likely that this broad diversity of belief is what allows the Nehemiah Action event to work. When a Muslim leader does the opening prayer and invokes the name of Allah, or a Christian leader prays in the name of Jesus, or Reverend Wik offers more inclusive language invoking the Spirit of Life... that’s part of what’s so powerful about IMPACT. That IS IMPACT. And if we’re committed to what IMPACT is about, we should love the diversity of religious expression we encounter. It has moved mountains. It continues to move mountains.

So often we get involved in fighting for our causes--abortion rights, marriage equality, even poverty--mainly with people who are like us. We have a good sense of the beliefs of the people with whom we’re aligning before we organize with them. Think about whether this was true for you at the most recent thing you volunteered for, or the last rally you attended.

The IMPACT Nehemiah Action has us join together with other area congregations without making that kind of judgment. So when differences between you and another religious group become evident through their prayer, think of it not as something to tolerate, but an opportunity to do better, to find more love to accept other people. We don’t have--we don’t create--many opportunities like this for ourselves. And this acceptance, this love, is ultimately the only glue that will hold us all together.

When you hear a prayer at the Nehemiah Action that’s outside your faith tradition, say “Amen,” because this is likely the largest truly interfaith event most of us will ever be involved with. And if there’s hope for our world, if there's something that's going to address the misunderstanding, and intolerance, and anger that exists among us... IMPACT is a snapshot of what it’s going to look like.

If there is a shortcoming to the Nehemiah Action, it's not that we have to listen to each other's prayers. It's that even after years of successful collaboration, we still listen to them each sitting safely in our own church's section rather than mixing and blending in the arena to the point that we can't tell one congregation from another. That’s where I’d like to see us end up someday.

Part 3
There’s a movement out there, perpetuated mostly by the Millennial generation, called the Free Hugs Movement, where people advertising with signs in public places offer hugs to strangers. There’s a YouTube video about the movement and its founder that’s gotten 77 million views, and I hope some of you are among those 77 million. I love this movement, because it represents a gesture of acceptance not tied to what someone may or may not believe.

When you’re hugging a stranger, you do it without knowing what they think about God, what kind of family they come from, where they stand on Ferguson, or the environment. You don’t know the extent to which they may struggle with feelings of anti-semitism or homophobia. It acknowledges that we’re all part of an interdependent web that we’re called to honor.

This is what IMPACT is about. So often our support and our energy is directed to specific target groups. But the message of Ghandi, and Jesus, and Dr. King is that love doesn’t work that way. We cannot “continue to insist we can favor some and ignore others.” We have to love before we apply a litmus test to what someone believes, or whether their needs allow us to satisfy our need to be helpful. We must love everybody. And I understand that there are those out there who want to harm people because of their beliefs. But while that is true, this message is also true. We must find more love to encompass everyone. Reverend Prose of All Souls Tulsa didn’t mince words when she said: “We must love each other or perish… We must love each other no matter what is said ... or done.”

I have a friend who recently sent around a picture that someone she knows posted on Facebook. She had let the poster know she thought it was racist, and he disagreed, so to make sure she wasn’t just having a super-liberal knee-jerk reaction, she asked her Facebook friends for their opinion. I won’t describe the picture, but I found it to be terribly racist. It set off a string of tirades against the person who originally posted it, and against everyone who thinks like him. It went exactly the way you’d expect socially-minded people to react. But when someone made the assumption that my friend had unfriended the guy, she indicated she hadn’t. “I am hoping,” she said, “that my acceptance of him will help him understand the folly of his ways.”

I used to think the world would be saved by those who could elegantly argue for what’s right. But now I realize it’ll be saved by people who can teach us how not to. We have to accept each other without first evaluating each other’s ideologies. It’s the only way we’ll ever be one community. And as UUs--we’ve already committed to pray, to work side by side, to seek better mutual understanding, with Christians, and Muslims, and Jews, and athiests, and everyone we meet on their search for truth and meaning. Let’s honor our tradition of embracing diverse beliefs, and be the ones to model that acceptance, with the hope that others will follow our example.

Making an IMPACT (Erik Wikstrom)

Adam’s reflection reminds me of something said by the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.  Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and peace activist who, as a young man, during the Vietnam War, visited the United States asking for our help in finding a peaceful solution to the conflict in his country.  When asked what he thought of the U.S. peace movement, he replied that we were very good at writing protest letters but that peace would not be achieved until we had learned to write love letters. That’s still a lesson we need to be learn, and not just in the peace movement.

A few years back the Honorable Louis Farrakhan called for a “million man march” on Washington, DC, and a whole lot of people showed up.  And some of those people who showed up, who participated publically, got a lot of grief for it because not everyone agrees that the Honorable Louis Farrakhan is, to put it bluntly, all that honorable.  I remember, though … I remember one speaker … I don’t any longer remember who … but one of the speakers talked about the grief he’d gotten when he announced that he was going to participate and then said, “but when the house is on fire I don’t care who’s next to me with a bucket.  And friends, our house is on fire.”  When the house is on fire I don’t care who is next to me with a bucket.

During newcomer orientations I say that one of the things that makes Unitarian Universalism unique in the religious landscape is that our first question isn’t, “What do you believe?”  Rather, we ask first, “What kind of world do you want to see?”  And if we see that we’re standing together on that line, fighting the same fire, we recognize each other as kin.

Of course, we know that there are people who are out there starting fires, or fanning their flames.  Not everyone is trying to put them out, and that makes this whole “inherent worth and dignity” thing, and this “love everybody” thing really, really hard.  (But that’s a different sermon.)

For us, at our best, it’s only after we’ve seen that we’re standing on that line together trying to put out the fire that we ask, out of curiosity, in an effort to get to know one another better, only then do we ask about belief.  And some will say that it’s their belief that we are all children of a loving God that puts them on the line.  For others it’s their belief in our shared Buddha-nature.  Still others would say that they believe that there is nothing beyond the world that we can see, taste, and touch, and so if anybody’s going to put the fire out it’s going to have to be us.  So many different beliefs can inspire people to be part of that bucket brigade.  And when the house is on fire – and would anyone disagree that our house is on fire? – when the house is on fire we shouldn’t care all that much about who is next to us with a bucket.
The beauty of IMPACT is that it is, in a sense, such an incredibly Unitarian Universalist thing.  There’s often a critique, as Adam said, that it’s an overly Christian thing, but I think everyone’s been missing the point.  IMPACT is Unitarian Universalist to its core!  See … people aren’t asked their beliefs about vicarious atonement, or transubstantiation, or whether infant or adult baptism is more efficacious.  People are only asked, “Do you want to see real improvement in the lives of real people?”  “Do you want to see inequities addressed?”  “Do you want to see justice increased?”  If so … show up to the Action; with your body, make your voice heard.  We can talk about our differing beliefs while we’re cleaning up after the fire’s out.

I know, many of us have a cause that’s particularly important to us—combating climate change, for instance, or addressing racism, or the ever needed encouragement toward peace between nations.  There is hunger, there is homelessness, there are a thousand and one things that need our attention, a thousand and one fires burning in our home.

So why IMPACT?  For one thing, it’s practical.  Adam and I have already lifted up some of IMPACT;s successes.  As IMPACT’s Lead Organizer said to me once, “There are people in this community – in politics, in business – who could address these problems if it were a priority for them.  IMPACT’s job is to make it a priority.”  And we have.  And I say “we” because IMPACT is nothing but us, and all those other congregations joined together.

We may still feel a little segregated at the Action, as Adam said, each congregation sitting separately in its own section.  But I can tell you that that’s not what the people on the stage see.  They see the representatives of 27 diverse faith communities in one place, and for each person in a seat they know that there are probably ten more people in a pew who are also urging action.  That’s powerful.  That’s power.

Would it be great if we could mix it up and truly be an intertwined and interconnected sea of people where you couldn’t tell who belonged to what congregation because, in truth, we all belonged together?  Absolutely.  But that’s not IMPACT’s job.  That’s our job.  IMPACT’s job is to mobilize communities of faith to act to make a real … well … impact for justice in our community.  And they do that.

Our job is to take advantage of this opportunity to make community, to build on this first step, and to find and make meaningful connections.  Because working together is not only helpful when there’s a fire to put out.  It helps when bridges need to be made.  And we’re in need of a whole lot more bridges in this world.

Adam’s right.  Diversity – of whatever kind – is “not something to tolerate, but an opportunity to do better, to find more love to accept other people.”  As Rev. Prose of All Souls said: “We must love each other or perish.”  We must learn to stop writing protest letters to one another because of our differences but, instead, write love letters celebrating our common humanity.

On Thursday, April 30th, at the Nehemiah Action at the John Paul Jones Arena, we have the opportunity to join with thousands of other folk from all across the Charlottesville area to demonstrate solidarity of purpose.  We need residential treatment facilities here, in Charlottesville, to help women and men who are struggling with addictions and co-existing conditions.  Our community needs this – we need this – and together we can make this a priority for those who have the power to make it a reality.

Yet on April 30th we also have the opportunity to more fully live into our Unitarian Universalist faith and to practice the writing of love letters – love letters to all of those people whose faiths are as important to them as ours are to us; love letters to those who make sense of the world through their own lived experiences just as we do ours; love letters to those who, for whatever reasons, have also put themselves on the line, not caring who’s next to them with a bucket.    Or the blueprints for a bridge.