Monday, February 20, 2017

Can You Be Anybody You Want to Be?

This is the text of the sermon I delivered on Sunday, February 19, 2017 with the congregation I serve, Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist.  As always, you can listen to the podcast, but it should be noted that there were differences between the two services.  This, the sermon I preached at the second service, benefited from feedback I received after the first -- feedback which helped me to see that I had originally expressed my thoughts in a way which was less clear than I'd thought and, so, was easy to misinterpret my intent.  (Thank God for editors!)

We’ve been saying the same words of welcome to and with one another for several years now.  “Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity … you have a place here.  We all have a place here.  We all are welcome here.” 

At the end of this morning’s service we’re going to sing together Fred Small’s beautifully moving song, “Everything Possible”:

You can be anybody you want to be,
You can love whomever you will
You can travel any country where your heart leads
And know I will love you still

This song – which never fails to bring a whole lot of us to tears whenever we hear it – and our welcoming words express the sentiment that so many of us believe is the beating heart of our Unitarian Universalist faith – ours is a tradition in which everybody, anybody, is welcome.  All are welcome here.

But is that true?  Is everybody welcome here?  The classic challenge to this idea is asking whether a card-carrying, sheet-wearing member of the KKK would be truly welcomed into this community.  Just this past Friday night one of our members was talking to me about this very thing – he raised the question of whether someone who was wearing, with no sense of irony, a “Make America Great” tee shirt would find a warm welcome here. 

Just as our tradition is often incorrectly described as one in which, “you can believe anything you want to,” the idea that “everyone is welcome here,” is equally lovely sounding, and equally untrue.  I’ll come back in a moment to ask if we’d actually want it to be true, but first I want to look at some of the reasons it might be said so often.

The Unitarian and Universalist traditions – the “parents,” if you will, that gave birth to our modern Unitarian Universalist faith – have a long history of valuing and reaching out to traditionally marginalized communities.

One of the founders, in 1784, of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery was the Universalist Benjamin Rush, and in 1785, one of the signers of the founding compact of the first Universalist congregation in the United States – then called the Independent Christian Church and now known as the Gloucester Unitarian Universalist Church – was an African American man named Gloster Dalton.  Although our history also includes the Unitarian President Millard Fillmore, who in 1850 signed into law the odious “Fugitive Slave Act,” it also includes the Unitarian clergyman John Haynes Holmes, who was a founding member of NAACP.

Universalists Lydia Ann Jenkins and Olympia Brown were the first two ordained women in the United States whose ordination was recognized by a full denominational authority (in 1858 and 1863, respectively).   Suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are part of our Unitarian heritage, and although their focus on women’s rights came at the cost of attention to, and support of, the liberation of people of color, we also are descendants of people who understood the connections, such as Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and the Rev. Theodore Parker, a radical on women's rights and slavery, who often wrote his sermons with a handgun on his desk, ready if necessary to defend the lives of the runaway slaves who were staying that night in his cellar on their way to Canada and freedom.

Dorothea Dix, who was an early, and tireless, advocate for the rights of people with mental illness; Octavia Hill, who, was a pioneer in the areas of housing and education reform for the working class; and Lydia Maria Child who, among other things, was a proponent of Native American rights – they were all led to their convictions and their activism for social justice by their Unitarian faith.

In this century, the first ordained minister of a major religious group in the U.S. or Canada to come out as gay was UU Minister James Stoll in 1969.  (Although, to be completely transparent, after coming out he never again was called to serve a congregation.)  Unitarian Universalism was the first denomination to accept openly transgender people as full members with eligibility to become clergy, and in 1988 it was a Unitarian Universalist congregation that ordained the first openly transgender person in the United States.

Although our faith tradition, and those that preceded it, do not have a 100% sterling history, we have often been in the forefront of advocating for people who were marginalized and rejected by other faith communities, and by the wider US society.  Our Universalist ancestors avowed their belief in, “the supreme worth of every human personality,” a way of looking at and understanding the world which lives on, today, in the UUA’s first principle, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”  The French fashion designer and oft-quoted figure Coco Channel famously said, “A girl should be two things:  who and what she wants.”  Our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors, and our present Unitarian Universalist tradition, would only disagree with the gender limitation in her sentiment.

“Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity … your presence here is a gift … we all are welcome here.”  “You can be anybody you want to be … and know I will love you still.”

This is one of the great gifts of our faith to the world.  I remember the day, going on twenty years ago now, that I received a call from a woman who wanted to know if I would officiate her wedding.  She wasn’t a member of our congregation, she wasn’t even a Unitarian Universalist, but she had been calling churches all morning to find one where she could be married to the love of her life.  As soon as they found out that the love of her life was also a woman, though, church after church hung up on her.  One even laughed before doing so.  When I told her that I’d be honored to celebrate their love, she wept.

It has been, and is still, often virtually impossible to simply, and freely, and openly be “who and what [you] want.”  Often it’s not even a matter of who you want to be.  Our multiple and intersecting identities are most often not a matter of choice – it’s who we are.  The only choice is whether or not to be open and out about it, and too often that’s not really all that much of a choice, either.  Simply put, it simply isn’t safe to simply be who we are in so many places.  We know, we’ve been taught, we’re reminded in ways both large and small, both implicit and explicit, that we can’t be both who and what we are, if who and what we are deviates in any way from the straight, white, cis-male, well-educated norm.

So it is, I believe, one of our missions in the world, as Unitarian Universalists, to create safe haven for those who have found themselves unsafe in so many other places.  If South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu is right that the religious community should be “an audio visual aid for the sake of the world,” showing the world how it could be, then it is one of our missions as a religious tradition to show the world that each and every “human personality,” each and every person is born with worth and dignity – whoever we are, whomever we love, however we express our identity.  The way the world should be is one in which each and every one of us is welcomed, and celebrated, for who we are … who we really and truly are.

And here’s the rub:  we can’t really be this welcoming place if “everybody’s welcome here.”  It is an paradox inherent within much liberal thought that “liberal” implies an expansiveness which includes everything.  If we’re really a liberal community, then everybody should be welcome here, right?  Even that non-ironic wearer of the Donald Trump tee shirt.  Right?

Well … no.  Not right.  At least, not necessarily.

I’ll bet some of you may be feeling your stomach knot up a bit when you heard me say that.  Maybe your heart’s beating a little more quickly, this is such a challenge to our usual self-understanding. Others may be feeling a sense of relief that we don’t have to wrestle with how to be welcoming to people that are hateful or those who are actively trying to hurt others.

You might be feeling all sorts of things, but check in with what you’re feeling when you hear me say that we absolutely should not even try to welcome everyone.  That we should, in fact, intentionally exclude some people.

One of the things that can be hard about being who and what you really are, is that it means being clear about who and what you’re not.  To really and truly, fully authentically be ourselves we have to resist the temptation to try to be everything to everyone.  This is true for individuals, it’s true for communities, it’s true for nations.

Look at our congregation and you can see how hard it is.  We want to be welcoming.  We think that means we should strive to be welcoming to everyone … no matter what.  But we can’t.  We shouldn’t even try.  We shouldn’t even want to.  Because there’s a reason not every place feels safe and welcoming to people who have traditionally been marginalized – because many places are full of the very people who have perpetuated and protected that marginalization. 

Do such people have “inherent worth and dignity?”  Of course.  They, too, descend from the stars and are intimately interrelated with all that is.  And there is a difference between a person and their behavior … their actions.  We could make this distinction to say that every one is welcome here, but not every kind of behavior is.

Still some people have so bonded their beliefs and their actions that they are indistinguishable.  With some people you can’t separate the to, and those people are not welcome here; those people should not be welcome here.  Because if we do extend our welcome to them, we’ll be closing it off to others.  (Or won’t feel themselves to be welcome, which is really the same thing.)

I know longer say, “all are welcome here.”  Instead, just about every Sunday I say, “We are a Unitarian Universalist congregation that welcomes all who welcome all.”  Semantics?  Perhaps.  But words matter, and thinking carefully about what you say and the impact your words may have is, itself, a step toward greater justice.  If we are to be true to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values, then we need to be a congregation that is sure enough about who we are what we stand for, that we can be equally clear about who we are not, and what we will not stand for.  Not everyone should be welcome here, because not every kind of behavior should be welcome here, and sometimes you just can’t discern a difference.  You can’t be anybody you want to be here, because there are some ways of being that are anathema to who we are, because we’re committed to being a safe and nurturing place for those for whom there are so few, a place where we can sing that song that for far too long was rarely sung, and rarely very loudly. 

If you have felt unwelcome because of who you are, whom you love, how you express your identity, your situation in life … if you wish to make this a community that strives to invite the uninvited … then we have a place here.  Ours is, ours needs to be, a community that welcomes all who welcome all.

Pax tecum,