Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Mirror Has Been Held Up. Are We Brave Enough To Look?

This is the text of the entire service held Wednesday evening, February 28, 2018.  It was to have been a service celebrating the 75th Anniversary of the Founding of the Congregation -- there was to have been a time for families together, a community dinner, a service of celebration, and ... cake!  A racist event which took place earlier in the week demanded a change of plans.  Simply, how could we sit around together, eating cake, when something like this happened within, and from within, the very community we were to be celebrating?  The celebration has not been canceled, but it has been postponed, because congregational leadership recognized that what we really needed at this time was an honest look at what happened, and what it says about our community.  [I will be reflecting on these themes further in my sermon this coming Sunday.]

Good evening.  This was to be a celebration of the anniversary of the founding of this congregation.  But then, just three days ago, on Monday morning, our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera, was doing her job, going through the mail that had accumulated over the weekend.  Along with the bills and the solicitations there was a plain piece of paper which said,
“quit your whining.  it’s always about racism with you.  you have a job to do do it.  we went into debt for your full time and now you complain?  your kids must be so proud at least they are just half and maybe they are learning from their dad.  you should be thankful and get to working.”
Someone had had those thoughts about a member of our staff, a fellow Unitarian Universalist, about another human being, and that person apparently thought that it was okay to type those thoughts up, print them out, and place them, anonymously, into the mailbox on Chris’ door.  It seems virtually certain that whoever did this is a member of the congregation, and it appears likely that they committed this undeniably and inexcusably racist act on Sunday.  With the knowledge of this hateful incident swirling around us, this just doesn’t seem like the time to be celebrating.
Yet our history is not irrelevant to what’s happening now.  75 years ago today 15 women and men declared that they wanted to be – that they were – a church.  The woman who started it all by placing a classified ad in The Daily Progress had been told that it was unlikely a town as small as Charlottesville was then would be able to create and nurture a Unitarian congregation.  She was, in fact, discouraged from trying to do this.  Yet, as she said at the time in a letter to a friend, “I am not easily discouraged and we can see what we can do.” 
Carrie Baker was not easily discouraged, and throughout the 75 years of our existence this congregation has shown time and time again that we are not “easily discouraged” either.  It hasn’t always been smooth sailing – there have been times when events in the wider world or right here in the congregation have caused real uneasiness and distress; times when the ordained minister or the lay leadership were taking the congregation in a direction not everyone wanted to go; times when support (financial and otherwise) dropped off precipitously; times when even beloved members felt the need to break off their connection to this place and these people; times when we have disappointed one another, hurt one another, damaged one another and it seemed that the fabric of the community was being damaged, too … perhaps damaged beyond repair.  Yet in looking back over the history of this congregation it is clear that while we have no doubt been discouraged more than a few times, we have yet to be so discouraged as to truly give up on one another.


Adam Slate, the President of our Board of Trustees, likes to say that he looks at this church as a family.  What we witnessed this week is not how families – is not how healthy families – behave.  It’s not who we say we are, or want to be.
Each Sunday morning we say with one another Words of Welcome that are intended to describe the kind of community we wish to be, a community that, as I often say, “welcomes all who would work to make this a world in which all are welcome.”  So I’d invite us to say those words together now:
Whoever you are, Whomever you love,
However you express your identity;
Whatever your situation in life,
Whatever your experience of the holy,
Your presence here is a gift.
Whether you are filled with sadness,
Overflowing with joy,
Needing to be alone with yourself,
Or eager to engage with others,
You have a place here.
We all have a place here.
We all are welcome here.                                      


We kindle a flame of power, illuminating the Holy in each of our faces.
We recognize in the flame a passionate commitment to our shared faith.
We are held and carried from day to day, week to week, in the shining of the light.
This flame is mine, as well as yours.
We are brought together on this day, called to growth, to expansion, within its glow.
What does your heart know while beholding this holy fire?
Adrian L.H. Graham
I invite you to think about that question as James plays our Prelude, to think about what your heart knows while you behold this holy fire here tonight.


In the first sermon delivered here, in the then brand-new building, the Rev. Malcolm Sutherland said this:
You are invited to draw your attention to the fact that in all its simplicity and its beauty, this building is not a church.  It was designed to serve a church.  It was designed to make more effective a church.  It was designed to inspire a church.  But it is not a church.
You are the church .  […]
So we are not opening a church this morning.. We are opening a home for our church.  This physical home is fully worthy of our highest aspirations.  The question is simply – can we prove ourselves worthy of our new home?
If it is to be a beautiful church – as beautiful as its home – it will be because you are living beautiful lives.  And how we need beauty today:  there is ugliness and distortion enough. 
How we need beauty today:  there is ugliness and distortion enough.
He said in that first sermon that to be a church worthy of this beautiful home we would need to be strong, significant, courageous, fearless, and devoted.  In his last sermon here he said that the congregation needed to ask itself (as each of us individually needs to ask ourselves, he was quick to point out):  Why is it so damned hard to live up to and out from our values?  Again and again he returned to the question, “Why don’t we?”   Why don’t we do the things we know we should do?  Why aren’t we being the kind of people we know we want to be?  Why don’t we take the kind of risks we know our faith calls us to?  Why don’t we really, deeply trust each other more than we do?  Why don’t we recognize how much we, ourselves, have to change, instead of focusing so much of our attention on the ways other folks are falling short? 
I’m not even necessarily talking about the “big things” here.  The obvious things.  The things we can justifiably say we are doing, or which we can honestly say simply aren’t possible for us to do.  I’m really talking about all of the little ways we betray ourselves, betray our values, don’t do the something that we could have done.  Why don’t we do those things?  But all of these questions really boil down to one: Why don’t we live our faith?
I don’t know how any of you would respond to that question, but I know that I am chastened, humbled.  And I know that it really gets real when I stop myself from asking these questions of the vague “we” and, instead, force myself to ask them only of myself.  Why don’t I?  Because it’s easier not to.  Why don’t I?  Because I already feel overstretched, and my life can be hard enough as it is.  Why don’t I?  Because I figure someone else is going to do it, and it’s not really my problem.  Why don’t I?  Because I’m not so bad, right?  I mean, other people are a lot worse than me – look at those guys over there!  Why don’t I?  Because I’m afraid that I’ll be rejected somehow if I do.  Why don’t I?  Because I’m comfortable the way things are, and I know – I know – that if I do I’ll be less comfortable.  Why don’t I?  That’s a question worth pondering. 
The last words of Malcolm’s last sermon to this congregation were the question:  “Why don’t we?”.
The person who anonymously wrote and then delivered that hateful (and hate-filled) message to Chris has done something reprehensible – and they dragged Christina’s two incredible boys and her lovely husband into it.  What this person did is inexcusable, and I cannot say clearly or forcefully enough that such behavior will not be tolerated – can not be tolerated if we’re who we say we are.  The person who sent that message has placed themselves so far outside the boundaries of our covenant that I can’t imagine how they can say the words “Beloved Community,” or “inherent worth and dignity,” without bursting into flame because of the blaspheme of their hypocrisy.
Yet I need to say with equal clarity and conviction that the rest of us are not without responsibility for what happened this week.  Each of us, all of us – and I do mean “us,” myself no less than anyone else, maybe even more so because of my role here – we all have to recognize our complicity, because some how we have allowed a climate, an atmosphere, an environment to exist in which something like this can happen.  A climate in which one of us could believe this violent racist act was okay.
What happened this week is the most egregious, yet it’s not the only example of what we have allowed to grow in our community.  I talked several weeks ago at some length in my sermon about how upset some members of the congregation were about my January report to the Board. I shared that several of the people who were upset had contacted the Board and/or the Committee on the Ministry to share their feelings, as well they should have. You may or may not know, however, that someone else created an anonymous email account, and then sent an anonymous email, seemingly for the express purpose of directing a select group of congregants to check out that report, and then, after sending that email, immediately closed the account.  Let me be clear – the anonymous nature of this act was not okay.  Sharing my Board report and encouraging others to read it – fine.  Essential to the honest life of our community, actually.  It’s doing so anonymously, having no accountability and taking no responsibility – that is what’s out of covenant.
People expressed their dismay over this person’s behavior, of course, yet it really shouldn’t have been too surprising.  We think it unfortunate, yet accept, that there are groups of congregants who get together informally to talk with each other about their concerns and complaints.  They do this outside of any committee or leadership structure – which is why these have often been called “parking lot conversations.” And because they do this “offline,” as it were, there is no accountability to the larger congregation.  None of this is secret, yet no one calls them back into covenant – and they are out of covenant because they rarely, if ever, actually try to reach out to the people they’re concerned or complaining about.  Please make no mistake, we give this behavior our tacit approval each time one of us says that we really wish this kind of thing wasn’t happening but we engage in it ourselves, or see others doing it, and do not say directly and forthrightly that such behavior is out of covenant, that it’s not constructive, that it’s destructive and has no place in our Unitarian Universalist community.
Please hear that I am not saying any of this to divide us, to make this about any kind of “us” and “them.”   My goal, instead, is quite the opposite – I’m saying what I’m saying because I want to help us be more unified, with a clearer and deeper understanding of just what it means, and just what it takes, to be who we say we are and want to be.  That’s my job here.  So I’m going to take this a little further, knowing that I’ll upset some people.  (Knowing that I already have.)  We show our tacit approval of anonymous notes in people’s mailboxes every time we insist that members of the congregation must have the option of giving feedback anonymously in surveys, questionnaires, and communications with the Committee on the Ministry.  I’ve heard the argument that some people are afraid to attach their name to their opinions, that they won’t feel comfortable or safe if they have to sign their name.  But if that’s really the case, our community has much greater problems than whatever it is the person’s complaining about. 
If we have not created a community in which people know that it’s safe to express themselves, no matter who they disagree with; a congregation in which we hold one another – and want to be held, ourselves – accountable for our behavior; in which we can be clear that there are things antithetical to our values and our visions, that not everything is welcome – then we have created a community in which someone can feel okay about leaving an anonymous note that a Klansman would be proud to have written in the mailbox of one of our staff members.
Back in Divinity School I learned that the Biblical word Christians translate into English as “sin” is actually seven or eight words, each with its own meaning.  One is, “sitting down when I should have stood up,” and I know that I am guilty of that.  And I’ll say without hesitation or apology, that I know everyone else in here is, too.  Can anyone honestly say that they have never let pass a racist joke, or some behind-their-back gossip, or some subtle or not-so-subtle bullying behavior, or someone shutting someone else down, or any other kind of behavior that you knew was not what we’d be doing as a community if we were at our best?  If we’re really honest with ourselves, how can we not recognize that we all share culpability?
I am sure that some of you may be feeling castigated, attacked, reprimanded and chastised.  I understand because, remember, I’ve also been talking to and about myself this whole time.  I haven’t laid anything on any of you that I haven’t also laid on myself.  And even as I’m saying this I’m feeling uneasy and a little bit defensive.  But I have learned that sometimes – maybe even often – the umbrage we feel when someone points out our flaws and failings is an incredibly effective deflection device.  I get angry at you for saying harsh things about me rather than taking the opportunity to listen with an open mind and heart, and then to ask myself, deeply and sincerely, if there might be any truth in what you’ve said. 
Oh that’s hard.  That’s really, really hard.  It is so much easier to just write you off.  But we can’t write this off, friends.  Our covenant doesn’t call on us to be so kind to one another that people believe – even unconsciously – that they can get away with saying or doing just about anything.  Our covenant calls us, as Malcolm Sutherland said that first morning in this space, to be “strong, significant, courageous, fearless, and devoted” to the values and visions of our faith.  A mirror has been held up for us to look at ourselves.  My questions is whether we are brave enough to look at what it shows us.


There is no question – the work of building Beloved Community is hard.  It’s dirty.  It’s bruising.  We’ll hunger and thirst.  Yet it is the work we have committed ourselves to doing; it’s the work we have been called on to do.  But it’s not work we can do in the head alone, and there have been a lot of words tonight (and there are still a few more to come).  So why don’t we now, as we do each Sunday, take a time for silence, a time for letting go of the words, letting go of the thoughts, and getting down into the feelings.  After a time I will invite the chime to sound, and some of us may feel the urge to come forward to light Candles of Hope and Remembrance, or write in the Sands of Forgiveness and Atonement.  Others may choose to stay right where you are now, continuing to hold the silence and the stillness in your body as well as your heart.  Through all of this, James will play, and when this time is done, we will move directly into singing together the hymn so many feel as a prayer, “#123, “Spirit of Life.”

HYMN:  #123, “Spirit of Life”


About a month ago we joined with Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country in designing our worship experience so that the voices of black Unitarian Universalists were centered, so that the experiences of black Unitarian Universalists could be heard, without comment or qualifiers, without interpretation, within the discomfort which that caused for many of us – us UUs who identify as white who’d never experienced our faith in those ways.  Who’d never imagined that it could be experienced in those ways.  Many of us left that service stunned, saddened, and unable to un-see or un-hear what we’d heard and seen that morning.

One of the elements of that service was a litany written by Viola Abbitt which she calls “The Promise That Binds.”  I would note that there are three different responses in your Order of Service.  Each is subtly different, and those differences are important.  (We’ll say the first response several times, and I’ll give you a visual clue when it’s time to change to the second, and then to the third.)

Loving inclusion has been an elusive goal within our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
 Many hearts have been, and often continue to be, broken, time and again.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The names of many of those of us who helped to make this denomination great were erased, their existence forgotten.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
The pulpits and pews which should have been warm and welcoming, were instead sometimes cold and unforgiving.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
People who were considered pillars in their communities, were sometimes considered pariahs within the walls of our congregations.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.
Many of us straddle two worlds: one of filiation and one of faith.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
Our beauty is that we are all different, and yet not different from one another.  None of us should be considered exceptions, nor should we be subjected to baseless assumptions.
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should be enough to bind us together in love.
The future of this faith is reliant on and belongs to all who embrace religious liberalism. Let us never forget that…
We are a covenantal people, and the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, is enough to bind us together in love.


If we really want to make a difference, if we really want to see real change so that we can become who we know we need to be – as individuals, as congregations, and as a movement – then we need to not only appreciate those who have for far too long been marginalized members of our communities, we have to actively support them.  Our offering tonight – and again this Sunday, as well – will be dedicated to helping a newly formed organization within our Unitarian Universalist Association: the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective.  As a national ministry for and by black-identified Unitarian Universalists, BLUU embodies a liberating community of all ages. A community that lifts up the lives, and stories and the leadership of those who have been marginalized and silenced. A community that brings hope, when hope is hard to find. And a community that calls us to wrestle with the gap between our theology and our practice in the world.
In October of 2016, the UUA Board of Trustees made a bold $5.3 million commitment to fund black leaders in Unitarian Universalism, and to support ministry to black-identified Unitarian Universalists. In the late 1960s, our Association was asked to take steps to address the silencing and marginalization of Black Unitarian Universalists. Though there was an initial affirmation of this commitment, it ultimately went unfulfilled and the promise was broken.  This commitment of the UUA Board is, in part, an attempt to fulfill that promise.
Tonight, I am asking you to help fulfill this promise. This effort needs your help.  Please be as generous as you can.

We accept these gifts with gratitude.
May we use them wisely, and for the highest good.

HYMN:  #1, “May Nothing Evil Cross This Door”

Each Sunday our Benediction begins, "Go out into the world in peace."  But I can't say that tonight.  Dr. King said that there are some things to which we all should be maladjusted.  So ... Go out into the world maladjusted.   Have courage.  Hold on to what is good.  Return to no person evil for evil, strengthen the fainthearted, support the weak, help the suffering, and be who you know you should be, and help us be who we know we should be.  There is so much ugliness and distortion in the world.  Blessed Be.


This came to one of us, from one of us.  We MUST do better!

Pax tecum,


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