Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Be Here Now

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

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

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

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

what's a person to do? (part 1)

I recently heard the idea that there is about a three to four week window of time during which the white left will be highly motivated.  Although people of color have been telling us for decades about the country we live in, Donald Trump's victory shocked and stunned a lot of people.  

The different reactions was the root of the now viral Saturday Night Live "election night" skit in which the characters Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock play laugh out loud when one of their white liberal friends says, "This is the most shameful thing America has ever done."  In his opening monologue, Chappelle put it another way:
You know, I didn’t know that Donald Trump was going to win the election. I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls and yet — I know the whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.
Stunned, shocked, surprised, sorrowful, scared -- however we may be reacting (and here, now, I'm not just limited my "we" to people who look more or less like me) we need to keep in mind that that window is closing.  It was about a week or so ago, now, that I heard about the three to four week window.

So, what can we do?  While there are lots of things that need doing, and lots of people, and groups, and efforts calling out for support, there's also a lot of running in circles.  And a lot of people feeling impotent -- what can we do?  Well ... here are some ideas.  I do not claim that this is anywhere near a comprehensive list, nor do I imagine that everything on it will appeal to everyone.  Nor can I write anything else without first noting that I'm focusing on ideas I've seen and heard from people of color.  The myth of the "white savior" is alive and well -- even if only in the subconscious -- and it must be actively resisted.

I do not know Mateo Guadalupe, who penned these words, but I do know Julica Hermann DelaFuente who posted them on her Facebook page, with an encouragement to repost.  I did so on Facebook, and I'll do so here, adding links to the groups Mr. Gudalupe highlights:
"Alright, white friends. We need to talk. I'm seeing a lot of you talking about donating to 'anti trump' causes and huge white-led orgs like aclu and planned parenthood right now. Some of you are putting a lot of money and energy into 4-fucking-day old organizations and facebook groups started by other white people feeling compelled to 'do something about trump.' 
But the thing is, there are already brilliantly strategic, robust, multi-pronged efforts being led by those most impacted by this regime of white supremacy. People of color, especially black women & queer folks, have been leading the fight to dismantle racism and white supremacy ALL ALONG. This shit might be new to you, my blue state comrades, but this has been the lived reality for a lot of people for a long long time. 
Please reconsider where you are placing your coins and energy right now. POCs already have the solutions and the strategies to win liberation. FUND THEM. INVEST IN THEM. 
Give money to Black Lives Matter. Give money to black & brown lead resistance in red states, like Southerners On New Ground and SisterSong. Give money to latinxs leading the fight against deportations like Trans Queer Pueblo and Not1MoreDeportation. Fund platforms for black brilliance & critical thought like BYP100 and Echoing Ida. Support a radical funder like Third Wave Fund. This is a time for you to LISTEN to people of color, FOLLOW our lead, and INVEST in our liberation. 
Take a seat, and open your wallets."
This is not to say -- or, at least, I do not mean to say --  that groups like ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or NOW should be repudiated.  They do good and incredibly important work -- work that is going to be needed more than ever in the days to come.  What I hear in Mr. Gudalupe's post is a reminder to white liberals (like me) that the (traditionally white-led) liberal organizations are not the only groups doing things.  There are organizations that are doing just as good, just as important work that need more visibility and more support.  

If I am really committed to the work of racial justice, I need to place myself with those who are living day-to-day under the oppressions of the racist systems I say I want to help dismantle.  My instinct, though, in this as in so many other things, is to go where it's "safe" for me, where I'm "comfortable," and where, whether I'm conscious of it or not, that "safety" and "comfort" derive at least in part because the "face" of these organizations look a whole lot like mine.

Before clicking "publish" I went to the websites of each of these groups and joined and/or made donations,  (Yes, including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and NOW.  I also sent an extra donation to the NAACP.)  I know that I cannot be everywhere.  No one can.  But because of the privilege of having a well paying job I am able to support those who are in places I can't be, doing things I can't do.

For some time now my closing salutation has been, "Pax tecum," which is Latin for "peace to you."  As of today it becomes, Esse confido ... fortis esse.  (Be bold ... be strong)

Esse confido ... fortis esse!


PS -- please add in the comments any other groups you think should be joined and supported!

Monday, November 14, 2016

fair isn't always fair

In response to the protests following the election of, now, President-elect Trump I have heard two assertions over and over again.  The first is that Donald Trump was elected "fair and square" and is the legal President.  The second is that the election of other Presidents has caused a portion of the citizenry to be afraid of what the new administration would bring (and that those fears turned out to be largely unfounded).

Let's begin with the last one.  First of all, whether or not those fears were unfounded is a matter of perspective.  The average white American may not have seen the worst of those fears realized, but communities of color, and other marginalized groups, would certainly tell a different story.

But let's even, for the sake of argument, say that those fears were unfounded in previous  transfers of power from one President to another.  Would that mean that fears about a Trump administration are also likely overblown?  I think not.  Candidate Obama never said that he was going to come and take everybody's guns.  He never said that he was going to establish sharia law.  He never advocated any of the extreme positions that those who were feeling fear named as the cause of that fear.  Candidate Trump has said that he intends to deport 11 million people who live in the United States, no matter how long they have been here as a part of our society, no matter whether it breaks up families to do so.  He said this; it is not conjecture nor projection.  He called for a ban on Muslims entering the country, and the registration of Muslims who currently live here.  This is not a fear based on what we assume he might do; these are things he has declared he will do.  And he has -- subtly and not-so-subtly advocated for violence and intimidation among his supporters, going so far as to say that he would pay the legal bills of supporters who beat up people who opposed his candidacy.

There are not groundless fears.  They are direct responses to things he has actually said he will do.  This is different than in previous elections, in which people feared what might happen.

The fears people are expressing today are born not only from things he has said, but also from things he has actually done.  Over and over throughout the campaign -- throughout his public life -- he has demonstrated a remarkably thin skin and vindictive attitude.  He has not only promised to punish people who have opposed him, he has a history of trying to do so.  His behavior betrays a man whose primary concern has been himself, and who is willing to lie and cheat to improve his "brand."  And he's not just been accused of sexual assault by several women, he has bragged about getting away with it.  And these are just a few examples of actual behavior which, elevated to the office of the Presidency, are incredibly frightening.

These are not groundless fears being expressed.  This is different.

As to the point that he is our fairly and legally elected President ...  I would simply note that Jim Crow laws were fairly and legally established; that our current practice of racially disproportionate incarceration is based on laws that were passed "fair and square;" and that it was at one time perfectly legal, and by many considered a good thing, to enslave Africans, to prevent the so-called "mixing of the races," and to deny the right to vote to women and people of color.  All of these were legal and, in their own day, considered not only fair but right and just.

The #notmypresident movement is not just a case of "sore losers" who aren't able to accept an election outcome with which they disagree.  It's a declaration of respect for the ideals of our country, and a commitment to the strides that have been made to make true our founding credo that "all ... are created equal," and a dedication to the work that still needs to be done.

Pax tecum,


Wednesday, November 09, 2016

What's Possible: now the eyes of my eyes are opened


It’s not possible,
I said,
When I heard the news
Of the White Police Officer
The Unarmed Black Man
Whose arms were raised
And whose back was turned.

It’s not possible.
It must have been a mistake.

It’s not possible,
I said,
When I it happened again.
It must be an aberration.

It’s just not possible,
I said,
When it happened again,
And again,
And again.

It isn’t possible
For it to be
What it seems
To be.

It’s not possible,
I said once more,
As Donald Trump
Over and over again
From things that would have brought down
A greater man.

It’s not possible
That his candidacy will be taken seriously.

It’s not possible
That he’ll get the nomination

It’s not possible
That he’ll come even close to being elected.

It’s not possible
That he is our President-elect.

I live in such a protective bubble.
Some call it
White Privilege.
I’ve heard it called
White Innocence.
This morning
I’m calling it

Because …

Of course it’s possible!

This is the United States of America,
Where it was once fashionable
For some people
To believe they
Other people,
And to treat those people
Like property;
Where a childhood
Could become simply
A slave
When you reached your majority.

Of course it’s possible.

This is the land where people used to gather
To picnic
And photograph
The mutilated bodies
Of Black Men
Who were still hanging,
Sometimes smoldering,
From the lynching tree.

Of course it’s possible.

This nation was built
On stolen land
And the spilled blood of
The people who’d lived here
For 10,000 years
Whose cultures
Were a marvel
Yet who were seen only as

We used to say
That a Black woman could be
To care for your child and your home
But could not be
With respect
Or the use of the same bathroom.

This is a land
Where The Other
Is vilified,
And sent out
With the
Of the people
Placed on their

Of course it’s possible.


I know
Not all of those
Who supported
Donald Trump
Shared his
His fear of
The Other.

Yet the language he used
Was the language of
And those who supported
At least tacitly


Only the
Can still say
“It’s not possible”

Only the
Can believe that
Good will
And a return to
Is all that’s needed.

Only the
Have the luxury
Of being


There's too much to do ...

The Election of Donald Trump: a response

I went to bed early last night, fully confident that what has happened couldn't possibly happen.  But it did.  And now we -- as individuals and as a nation -- have to live with it.

For many of us, this outcome has been inconceivable.  We never truly imagined that it could happen.  I've seen friends posting on Facebook that they had spent so much time and energy railing against the realities of the Trump campaign that they never spent much time at all imagining a Trump Presidency.  For many, fear and despair are rushing in to fill that gap.

Blame is not close behind.  If only the millennial had turned out to vote.  If only the FBI hadn't acted as it did.  If only there weren't so many bigots in the country.  If only people hadn't voted for third party candidates, or had simply shown up to vote at all.  If only they -- whoever "they" might be for us -- hadn't done whatever it was the did (or didn't) do.

Friends, we won't get through this mess, and certainly won't get out of it, with blame.  You might say that blame is one of the things that got us into it.  A large portion of the United States citizenry has for some time now felt frustrated, angry, hurt, forgotten and uncared for, displaced, disparaged and discarded, scared -- more so than many of us knew.  Or, to be honest, really cared to.  And for many of them all of those feelings had to go somewhere.  So they blamed immigrants, and African Americans, and women, and educated "elites," and "political correctness," and ... well ... anyone and everyone who seemed to be getting more care and attention than they were.

Most people do this in our own ways.  When things are hard we look for a reason -- something or someone to blame.  Donald Trump excels at taking this very human tendency and directing it to the traditionally most marginalized among us.  Yet as they say, fighting fire with fire doesn't really work. Meeting blame with blame doesn't, either.

To those of us who are horrified and terrified by the realization that our country not only could elect someone like Donald Trump, but actually has, I would say this:  we must try to resist our own tendency to blame.  Instead, we are called on to find a way for love to win -- not only in our nation and our world, but in our own hearts.

A lovely piece was published earlier on the Huffington Post, What Do We Tell The Children?  It's author offers several suggestions for how educators can respond.  I think that each of us could use these suggestions for our own responses, whether we have children in our lives.  Those of us who are stunned and disbelieving need comfort and reassurance, too.  The author writes:
Tell them [the children in your school] that we have democratic processes in the U.S. that make it impossible for one mean person to do too much damage. Tell them that we will protect those democratic processes ― and we will use them ― so that Trump is unable to act on many of the false promises he made during his campaign. 
Tell them, second, that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated ..."
I have heard people make apocryphal predictions for what our future holds.  I say that we must refuse to cede our role in making that future.  People are saying that this election makes a mockery of all of the gains many of us thought we've achieved, yet I believe that we can use this as fuel to increase the fire of our commitment to making this nation and this world truly live in to, and out of, the vision that "all ... are created equal."  That ideal still shines before us, beckoning us onward.  We can (re)dedicate ourselves to following its light.

No one said any of this was going to be easy.  No one said that there would be no setbacks.  And all of this is relatively easy to say from my position of privilege as a white, cis-male, heterosexual, with lots of education and a comfortable income.  I know that many of my friends, and a great many people I don't know, have a lot more "skin" in the game than I do.  

Earlier today -- yesterday, I suppose -- I posted a video of the singer Rene Martin performing her rendition of the national anthem.  The story behind it is that in 2008 she'd been asked to sing at an event in Denver, but while she sang the expected melody, she replace the words with those of the hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing."  This song 
was publicly performed first as a poem as part of a celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12, 1900, by 500 school children at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida. Its principal, James Weldon Johnson, wrote the words to introduce its honored guest Booker T. Washington. The poem was set to music soon after by Johnson's brother John in 1905. In 1919, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed it "The Negro National Anthem" for its power in voicing the cry for liberation and affirmation for African-American people.  (According to its Wikipedia entry.)
It has also been said that this was the favorite hymn of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I'm going to close this response by again posting the video of Ms. Martin's performance.  I do so because it gives me hope.  It gives me hope of a day when "we the people" really includes all of the people who make up the rich mosaic known as the United States.

I encourage you to listen to it.  Then to listen to it again.  Then weep if you must.  Rail if you will. Reach out to the people you love who may need to weep and rail, too.  Reach out to those you don't know, yet who you know will be feeling deeply hurt and scared right now.  And if you're not yet ready or able to reach out to those whose votes have sent Donald Trump to the White House, then at least try to avoid doing anything that will widen the divide that so clearly exists.  Because we will need to reach across it if we are to have any hope of healing it.

Pax tecum,


Monday, November 07, 2016

Reflections on an Election Day Eve

It has been a long, grueling Presidential campaign.  I often think of how much worse it is for the candidates who are running than for those of us in the bleachers watching.  This time, though, I gotta say that it's been pretty hard on us in the stands, too.  And tomorrow it's all over.  Tomorrow the voting will take place, and while there will still be absentee ballots to count it's usually been clear enough by the end of election day to declare one of the candidates the winner.  Not always, but usually.  Perhaps we'll know by the end of the day how this long, grueling Presidential campaign will end.

Except, of course, most people know that what we've been through for the past 596 days isn't going to simply stop and go away once the results have been tallied.  I'm not thinking so much about the possibility of  one of the candidates refusing to accept those results and declaring the election fraudulent and the winner, illegitimate.  That might happen, of course, and there may well be suits and counter suits to go through before a final decision can be certified.  But that's not what I'm thinking about.

There is a divide, a rift in our nation that has perhaps never before been so vividly clear.  It's easy to portray either side in cartoonish caricature.  "We" think "they" are ignorant, racist, misogynistic, xenophobic bigots who can't even recognize their own self-interest when it's being threatened before their very eyes.  "They" think "we" are overly privileged fools who don't have any real understanding of how the world works and who are more concerned with being "politically correct" than about remaining true to bedrock American values.  Each "side" thinks the other is blatantly lying about nearly everything they say, and that their supporters are so blinded by ideology that they can't see it.

I recently wrote a piece about an essay I'd read, titled, "How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind."  It's author, a man named David Wong who self identifies as having grown up in "Trump Country," opened my eyes to a different understanding of who "they" are and what motivates their support of Donald Trump.  Some, he notes, are what the caricatures are drawn from, but not all.  He helped me to see these people not as stick figures or straw men, but as real people who's politics grow out of real pain, real fear, and real frustration. 

The bitter ugliness that has characterized so much of this "election cycle" will not fade into a chorus of Kumbaya on November 9th.  Very real fears and pains have been exposed, like a raw nerve, and will not be so simply salved.  In fact, they may very well be exacerbated -- the loss of Donald Trump to Hilary Clinton could well be seen, for instance, as just one more proof that the system really is "rigged" against them.  That's why I say that this won't be over when the results have been tallied.  There is a lot to be healed in this country -- wounds both generations old and newly formed.

I have hope, though.  The experiment that is the United States of America is still young.  Make no mistake, it is an experiment -- what we've been trying to do here has never been done in quite this way before.  And while 240 years may seem like a pretty long time, it's worth noting that this past Rosh Hashanah celebrated the start of the year 5,777 for the Jewish people, and Chinese culture can trace back nearly 8,000 years.  By comparison, the U.S. is barely even a toddler.

I think often about the foundations on which this experiment was built.  One aspect, of course, was a brutal sense of colonial entitlement.  The people who had lived on this continent for over 10,000 years were consciously and intentionally exterminated, their lands stolen.  This "new" nation was literally built by the blood and the sweat, first, of Africans stolen from their homes and reduced to a chattel existence and, then, by wave after wave of minority immigrant.  The toxin of white supremacy (and, to be more precise -- white,cis-male, heterosexual, property owning, educated supremacy) has permeated the fabric of this nation since its "founding."

At the same time, though, there has been an antidote to that toxin -- a vision of freedom and equality that even those who espoused it did not fully understand.  In 1969 the band Steppenwolf personified this vision in their song "Monster," a song that is still extremely relevant.

I like the idea of that vision, that spirit, as being alive.  Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us another metaphor.  He referred to the stirring words about equality Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence as a "promissory note" that had now come due.  I've always liked that, too.  Jefferson may well have consciously intended to exclude from his "all men" anyone other than white, cis-male, landholders, but he was, to speak poetically for a moment, not writing on his own but channeling a larger vision, one which we have continued to grow into during our mere 240 year history.  The rancor of this election has laid bare how far we have yet to go, should anyone have not known it.  But although the road may be stony and hard, I do believe that we are treading it still.

Whenever I want -- or need to --  be in a patriotic mood, I turn almost immediately to the rendition of the song "America the Beautiful" that Ray Charles recorded on, Message from the People.   Charles had resisted recording the song for many years, but finally did so on this album.  I came across a fascinating paper (essay?  sermon?) titled, "The Soul of America:  Ray Charles Sings 'America the Beautiful,'" in which David Clyde Jones, Professor Emeritus of Theology and Ethics and Covenant Theological Seminary puts a rich context for Charles' decision.  It's worth reading.  In the liner notes to Message from the People, Charles commented, "I tried to describe the things that were out of tune in America ... I was saying, "Listen.  You need to clean up your shit, America ... but I still love you."

Maybe that's where my hope is rooted.  For all the shit, there is a lot to love.  Whatever the outcome of the election, I intend to play Ray's rendition of this patriotic song, to remind myself that there's a lot to love.  And then I'll remind myself that love is rooted in understanding, and I will strive to really understand those whose convictions have been so contrary to my own.  And I will pray that we continue living into that dream, that vision, that spirit.

Pax tecum,


Of Judgement and Truth

This is the text of the sermon I preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday, November 6, 2016 as part of a pulpit exchange with their Pastor, Lehman Bates.

It begins with a stoning and it ends with a stoning, and in between there are some important teachings about truth and judgement, and there’s one big challenge.  That's my 15-second synopsis of the 8th chapter of the Gospel of John, the passage my friend, and your pastor, suggested that each of us preach from this morning.
It all starts with what’s come to be known as “the story of the woman caught in adultery.”  We’re told that a woman had been caught in the act of adultery, and that the "teachers of the law and the Pharisees" brought her to Jesus to ask him what they should do with her.  It seems that they wanted to test him … to trip him up. 
Now, the Law of Moses was very clear -- she should be stoned to death.  But Jesus had a reputation for being merciful and compassionate, and of saying and doing things that weren't necessarily in accord with what the Law of Moses taught. 
They must have been feeling pretty proud of themselves, because it could seem that no matter what he said, they'd have him.  We’re told that he had just sat down in the temple courts to teactea and a crowd had gathered, waiting to hear his words about God's love.  So, if Jesus said that the woman should be stoned in accordance with the law, he'd look to the crowd as if he was flip-flopping on his whole "compassion thing."  But if he said that they shouldn't stone her -- said that here in the temple courts, no less -- he'd prove that he was not the good, observant Jew he claimed to be. 
Now, before we go any further I want us to be clear about what was at stake.  When someone is stoned -- as people still are in some parts of the world today -- a group of people take rocks of various sizes and throw them at someone until the cumulative effect of all that blunt force trauma leads to that person's death.  It could take minutes; it could take hours.  However long it takes, though, stoning is an extremely awful way to die. 
In all of the ways we humans have devised to kill one another, crucifixion, of course, is unimaginably brutal.  The lynching tree is hardly better.  Being shot while playing with a toy gun by a police officer who'd arrived on the scene less than two seconds before he fired and who then refused to offer any first aid to your twelve-year old self is right up there.  One thing these all have in common is that they not only accomplish their intention of killing the person, they also send a message.  They're not just a means of execution, they're also an example.  They're an expression, and a reinforcement, of the power dynamics at work in a society.  And they’re all legal.  That's another awful thing ... not only could somebody do these things, but according to one reading of the law, at least, they’re supposed to.  
So that was the trap.  Jesus either had to condone such a heinous act, respecting the law but betraying his values, or refuse to go along, staying true to his principles but breaking the law.  Well, Jesus was too smart to be so easily trapped by so simplistic a seeming dichotomy.  He didn't answer the question they asked.  Instead, he gave them the answer to the real question at hand:  who gets to judge.
Who are you, who am I, who are any of us to judge?  Who, here, hasn't made a mistake at some point in our lives?  Who here hasn't done something we wish we hadn't done, wish we could take back, wish we could go back in time to un-do?  In other words, who among us here, today, right here and right now, has not done something for which we, ourselves, could be judged?
That's the question Jesus answered that morning in the temple courts, with a crowd around him waiting to hear his teachings, and people who wanted to test him and prove him wanting, and that poor, frightened woman who could have been any one of us.  He didn't answer the question of whether or not it was right to follow the law.  He answered the question of who has the right to judge another.  No one.  Not one of us. He answered by saying that the person who had never sinned should be the one to cast the first stone, and we're told that one by one -- starting with the oldest, the scripture points out -- the people in that crowd, that mob, that had gathered to murder that young woman they had not only judged but condemned, dropped their stones and walked away.  Every single one.  And when they had all gone, Jesus asked the woman a question, "Does no one judge you?"  "There's no one here," she said.  "I don't judge you either."  Jesus replied.  "Go and sin no more."
That’s the first stoning of the two stonings, and the first teaching about truth and judgement.  The truth is that none of us is free to judge another, because each of us has our own things for which we could be judged.  No one can cast that first stone.  But we know this, don't we?  I mean, you and I, we've heard this before.  We've probably even said it to people.  Maybe we've even tried to live like that a little bit, from time to time.
But seriously now ...  how are we supposed to go through life not judging?  We're in the final days of the Presidential campaign, and it all comes down to a choice between two major party candidates, and a handful from third parties.  But how do we choose among them if we don't judge -- judge their words and their deeds, judge their temperament, their character?  How do we choose who gets our precious vote if we don't judge them?
And if you pay even the slightest attention to the news, you hear day in and day out of terrible things happening -- in our world, our country, even right here in Charlottesville -- things that seem to cry out for a response.  But knowing which ones to respond to, and how to respond, often requires us to judge.  To judge who is the victim and who is the perpetrator; to judge the impact as well as the intent.  How can we not judge?  And even in our families -- I'll bet some of you are thinking, "especially in our families" -- it would be impossible to avoid all judgement.  And it's not just that sometimes we can't help it; it's that so much of the time we seem to have to. 
In verse 15, Jesus says something interesting:  "You judge by human standards; I pass judgement on no one."
Huh.  "I pass judgement on no one.”  What are we supposed to make of that?   "You judge by human standards [but] I pass judgement on no one."
There are a lot of commentaries written about this passage, written by all kinds of scholars, with all kinds of points of view.  I know.  I looked at a bunch of them as I was writing.
But what I want to say to you this morning is not something I red in any of those commentaries, but something that I heard as I was meditating on the text itself.  It came to me that every time we judge something, someone, we're expressing an opinion.  You judge me to be a kind person, because everything you know or have heard about me leads you to think of me that way.  But you can't really know, can you?  How often have we heard the neighbors of a serial killer being interviewed, saying something like, "he always seemed like such a nice person."  So when you or I judge someone to be a kind person, or a not-kind person, we’re not stating a fact as much as we are offering an opinion.
But Jesus says that he "pass[es] judgement on no one."  I think what this means is that he doesn't have opinions about who a person is.  He knows, really knows -- he can see, really see -- who we are.  He doesn't have to judge.  The beautiful 139th Psalm says:
1 You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
    and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
    too lofty for me to attain.
I think that Jesus is saying that he doesn't have to judge, doesn't have to rely on mere judgement, because the One he calls Abba, Father, knows us better than we know ourselves.  And he knows the Abba, he knows God, with such intimacy that what God knows, he knows.  "... I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me," Jesus says in verse 28.  "The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone ..."   That's verse 29.  Jesus doesn’t have to pass judgement because he knows God, and God knows us.
This is where we get to that big challenge.  Jesus not only says that he doesn’t need to judge because he knows, he also says, essentially, that those who are judging him are doing so because they don’t know. 
Your Pastor told me that he said something of the sort from this very pulpit not that long ago.  It is so much easier to know about God, than to know God.  It is so much easier to embrace the concept than to make the connection.  Far, far, far too often religion becomes focused on the rules, when it’s really about the relationship.
42 Jesus said to them [and this is still from John 8], “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you?  […]   47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

It’s a good thing that Jesus doesn’t pass judgement or he might have had even more to say!
But that’s the thing.  If I look at myself honestly in the mirror, I have to acknowledge that this isn’t a mere judgement.  It’s not just an opinion.  It’s the truth.  I don’t know God with the fullness God invites me to.  I don’t tend to, care for, cultivate a relationship with the Nameless One such that I, too, might call God “Abba.”
There’s an old joke that a great place to hide from God is in church; the best way to hide from God is to become a minister.  I have so much “sacred” work to attend to that I can run out of time for the holy communion with God that gives that work Life.  (Have you ever noticed that if you rearrange the letters in the word “sacred” you get the word “scared”?) 
You probably have your own version of this same problem.  There’s so much to do taking care of the kids, trying to make ends meet, caring for grandkids (or grandparents), making a plate of something for someone in need, dealing with the courts, struggling with an addiction, trying to make a difference in the world, trying just to get by.  There’s so much to do that we’re often more Martha than Mary.  And if you’re anything like me, you judge yourself – and maybe judge yourself harshly – for that.  The funny thing is, that judgement can become one more thing in the way of deepening our relationship – the guilt that we’re not as intimate with God as we know God wants becomes a stumbling block to really knowing God at all.
In the little time I have left I want to offer some good news.  That’s what preachers are supposed to do, right?  It’s in this chapter of the Gospel of John that Jesus says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  The fact that we don’t know God as deeply, as richly, as God would like is only part of the truth.  The other part is that God’s okay with that.  We judge by human standards, we live by human standards, because we are humans, and God knows that.  God doesn’t expect any more of us than that.  God is patient and kind.  God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.  That’s good news.
And that good news, that truth, can set us free from the guilt and shame that holds us in bondage because God tells us – God promises us – that there is no one here who can judge us, tells us that there are no stones ready to fly, because there is no one who can cast that first stone.  And through the eyes of Jesus God looks at us just as Jesus looked at the poor, frightened woman, and says, “I don’t judge you either.  Go and sin no more.”
One last thing.  I said that this chapter begins with a stoning and that it ends with one.  It seems that the folks Jesus was talking with that morning in the temple courts didn’t like the truth he showed them about themselves, didn’t like being told that they knew more about God than they knew God directly.  So they did what we humans so often do when we don’t like the message we hear, they judged, and condemned, the messenger.  John tells us that that crowd picked up stones with the intention of stoning Jesus.  But while they were gathering their weapons, Jesus disappeared.
And, apparently, this didn’t deter in him the least.  He went right back with his mission of spreading God’s love.  John’s 9th chapter begins with Jesus healing a man who’d been blind since birth.  May we pray that our blindness might be healed, so that we might drop the stones in our hands and stop fearing the stones in the hands of others, so that we might focus our hearts on the God who sees us, and knows us, and loves us.