Monday, March 19, 2018

Living Dayenu

This is the text of the reflection I offered on Sunday, March 28, 2018 at the congregation I serve in Charlottesville, VA.

The poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, makes quite a bit of “smiling” as a spiritual practice.  “Breathing in, I relax body and mind,” one of his breath prayers goes, “Breathing out, I smile.”  “Smile, breathe, and go slowly,” is his advice on how to live.
A woman came up to him during a retreat to ask him how she was supposed to do all of this smiling when she had some real grief and pain she was going through.  He told her, essentially, that she was being like a television set that thought it was NBC29 just because that was the station playing at the moment.  She thought that she was grief and pain because that’s what was “playing” in her life at that time.  But a TV isn’t just one thing, isn’t just whatever channel happens to be on, even if that channel is on most of the time, making up the background of our lives.  All the other channels are always broadcasting, too.  Yes, there was a lot of grief and pain in this woman’s life, but it wasn’t the only thing, and he told her that she could choose to tune into the Smile Channel, if you will.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that when you find this Smile Channel the Grief-and-Pain Channel has gone off the air.  This isn’t the all-too blithe assertion we should just think “happy thoughts” when things are bad, and all the bad things will go away.  Whenever I hear someone say that I think, “Oh yeah.  I'm just supposed to pretend to be happy.; I'm just supposed to act like everything’s great.  But when I'm done, all my very real problems are still going to really be here, so what’s the point?”  What Tich Nhat Hanh’s television metaphor reminds me is that all too often I pretend, I act like everything’s going wrong, focusing only on my problems and my pain.  I forget that my very real joy is also very much really here.
What makes Tich Nhat Han’s “smiling” a spiritual practice, a spiritual discipline, is that it’s both really simple, and nowhere near as easy as it seems.  It takes work to “change the channel.”  Not like today.  When I was a kid, if you wanted to change the channel you had to actually get up out of your chair, walk across the room, bend down, and turn that clicky little dial.  Now you don’t even have to exert yourself to pick up the remote, you can just say into the air, “Alexa, please change the channel and put on Grey’s Anatomy.”  Changing channels used to be a bit of work; changing “spiritual channels” still is.
But why do it?  And why do it even in times like these?  Cypress asked some really good questions in her Opening Words:  “Is it appropriate to sing “Dayenu!” [she said] when it seems that so much is going wrong in the world?
Our Chalice Lighting, from the American Jewish World Service’s “Global Justice Haggadah” explicitly reminds us that sometimes is simply is not enough.
And a couple of weeks ago, and a month or so before that, we said together a litany which its author, Viola Abbit, titled, “The Promise That Binds.”  Repeatedly we lamented that, “the promise of our faith, which was enough to bring us together, should have been enough to bind us together in love.”
Sometimes, apparently, and perhaps obviously, it is simply not enough to smile and say “Things as they are are enough.  Things as they are, the way the world is, the way my life is, is enough.”  Not at all.  Sometimes, as Dr. King said, we need to be “maladjusted” to the way things are.
And yet … (And there’s that “and yet” I love so much.)
And yet it can be so easy to get caught up in those things, to get lost in them, to forget that the world is not just ugly, and brutal, and mean (in both the sense of nasty and base).  Said another way, it's so easy to think that the world is FOX News, forgetting that Rachel Maddow and John Oliver are both broadcasting, too. 
The  problem here is that when we get so caught up in what is wrong with the world, when we forget that it’s also beautiful and good, we can easily drown in the pain, and become cynical, overwhelmed, and, eventually, numb to it all.  When we see only what is not “enough,” pay attention only to what isn’t okay, we too easy to crawl into a false comfort, pretending that everything is okay.
If we want to really be alive to the full experience of Life, then we need we need to be able to see both Life’s pain and its promise, its beauty as well as its brutality, its grotesqueries and its glory, both.
Which brings us back to smiling, and brings us back to dayenu.  The spiritual practice of living dayenu is not at all about pretending that everything’s okay even when it’s not.  It is about realizing, recognizing, remembering that even when everything’s not okay, something is.  Recognizing that “something,” realizing that there is always something to smile about, remembering that some things are “enough,” grounds us when the maelstroms of malevolence which makes up so much of life threatens to render us mute and impotent.  Living dayenu can give us strength when otherwise our strength might be sapped; can give us hope “when hope is hard to find;” can give us a reason, and a means, to “keep on singing.”
Many of us today have no doubt come here in some sort of pain, worried by some kind of problem that seems pervade every corner of our lives.  Our congregation is right now in the midst of the kind of turmoil it hasn’t seen in a long time, a disorienting dis-ease that some are calling a crisis.  And our country?  Well, I don’t think I need to say too much about that.
But there is so much that is good, and beautiful, and inspiring in the United States – just look at the youth who are taking to the streets and the hall of power.  And there is so much that is well worth celebrating in this congregation – just think about all the loving ways we have reached out and touched one another’s lives, been touched ourselvesand the community around us.  And no matter how it might look to you in this moment, you have had, there are now, and there always will be things in your life to bring a real smile to your face.
I want to end these reflections with a way of practicing dayenu, a tool, if you will, to assist in the changing of our channel when our channel needs to change.  I’m going to teach those of us who don’t already know it the song “Dayenu.”  Not all 15 verses, but even if the chorus is all you know … well … dayenu.  It will be enough.

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Can Love Have Limits?

This is the text of the reflection I offered to the congregation I serve here in Charlottesville, Virginia on Sunday, March 4, 2018.  It is a continuation of my response to a blatantly racist note delivered anonymously to our Director of Administration and Finance, Christina Rivera.  Here is a link to the immediate response of senior congregational leadership (which includes a photo of the note), as well as a link to my sermon from the special evening service we held two days later.

Opening Readings

From Jack Mendelson.  Being Liberal in an Illiberal Age:  Why I am a Unitarian Universalist
“I made my fundamental choice long ago.  I wanted freedom.  Freedom to think, express, question, examine, grow, and change.  But freedom without a firm foundation of faith in action and a sense of history is fragile….I knew from the beginning that I did not want to go it alone.”

Forrest Church quoted in the UU Pocket Guide.
“We Unitarian Universalists have inherited a magnificent theological legacy.  In a sweeping answer to creeds that divide the human family, Unitarianism proclaims that we spring from one source; Universalism, that we share a common destiny.  Unitarian Universalists are neither a chosen people nor a people whose choices are made for them by theological authorities—ancient or otherwise.  We are people who choose.”

I love that hymn.  I would sing it, for what often seemed like hours, as I rocked one or the other of my children to sleep.  I wanted them to hear that message, from before they could even understand the words.
It seems to align so well with particularly the Universalist side of our Unitarian Universalist faith.  After all, the theological assertion embedded in the name “Universalism” is that God’s love knows no bounds, that no one will be condemned to eternal damnation, that “Mother, Father God,” as some of our prayers at that time said, loves each and every one of their children, from the most angelic to the most  … not-so-angelic.  God’s love is universal.  So universal, in fact, that our Universalist ancestors said that God is Love.
And while for many of us that particularly theistic language doesn’t work, the underlying assertion still does.  That’s no doubt why some people were, and are, both confused and upset that I would stand here and say something like, “the person who wrote the blatant, despicable, anonymous racist attack on Christina Rivera, a member of our staff and of our community, is not welcome here.”  I said that during the special service on Wednesday night, right here – I was clear and unambiguous:  if you wrote that note you are not welcome here.  What I didn’t say then, but will say now, is that if you agree with the racist sentiments expressed in that note, you really don’t belong here either. 
We all agree, I hope, that such behavior has no place in the loving community we strive to be (and so often are).  This is a community comprised of extremely lovely and loving people.  I also believe that we all agree that we can – and that we ought to — say that such behavior will not be tolerated.  But what, exactly, do we mean when we say that?  The word “tolerate” means, “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something (that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.”  Saying, then, that we will not tolerate the kind of racist, hateful attack – and it was an attack – means that we will not “allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of” things like this.
But what does that mean if we say to the person who did this, “you’re still welcome here”?  What does it mean to say, “you’re still a part of this community”?  What does it mean to say that we won’t tolerate such behavior and then, in effect, demonstrate that we will tolerate it.  I don’t understand that.  I simply don’t understand that. 
Whoever did this is way outside of our covenant, perhaps particularly because because it was done under the cloud of anonymity, extending the damage as suspicion spreads, with people wondering, “could it have been them?  How about them?” (I’ve had several people tell me that they’re convinced they know who did it, and others have said that they feel like they can’t trust anybody right now because they just don’t know.)  This content of the note, as well as the way it was delivered, is antithetical to our Unitarian Universalist principles and values, and is, I think we’d agree, is in stark contrast to the expectations of human decency.  Please make no mistake, please do not minimize or deflect – this was not just some “unfortunate” thing that happened.  Although there was no overtly threatening language in the note, can’t you see that there was a threat there?  That note was intended to intimidate, intended to hurt, and it certainly seems to me that there was an implied “… or else” in it  
And the note was not just directed toward Chris.  Whoever wrote it brought her kids and her husband into it.  The person not only dismissed Christina’s humanity, denied her “inherent worth and dignity,” but also attacked her kids, her husband, and the sanctity of their family.  If someone had spray painted this on her car, or thrown a rock through the window with the note tied to it, or had come into her office while she was working here at night, come into her office with a robe and hood on and said this to her face … would any of that really make a difference in terms of the severity of this offense?  I have heard so many people this week say, “Oh, that was awful, but …”  “… but we shouldn’t make too big of a deal out of it,” “… but we should have still gotten together to eat cake and have the party we’d planned to celebrate the congregation’s 75th anniversary,” “… but this was an isolated incident and doesn’t say anything about who we are as a community.”
Immediately after the service on Wednesday, and certainly since then, I’ve heard from people who, as I said, are either confused about how an ordained UU minister – or any UU, for that matter – could say the things I’ve been saying, or are really angry that I have.  I have heard from many people who disagree with me — well-meaning people, good-hearted people, people who are really trying to apply our liberal values.  “Aren’t we supposed to welcome everyone?” people have asked. “It’s likely that whoever wrote that note has some kind of mental illness,” some have said, “and aren’t we supposed to be compassionate toward people with mental illnesses?”  “What about our affirmation of ‘the inherent worth and dignity of every person’?  Doesn’t even the person who wrote that note have worth and dignity?”  “Should we judge someone – and in judging, reject someone – because of what might be the worst of their actions?”  ”Shouldn’t we reach out to them and try to, as we promise to do in our covenant, ‘lovingly bring [them] back into covenant?”  I’ve heard all of these things this week, and I don’t for a moment doubt the sincerity, or the heart, of the people who are asking these questions.  I just disagree.  I just strongly disagree.
Over the years I’ve heard repeated nearly word for word the same question from people who want to better understand our commitment to welcoming everyone:  “What about Hitler?,” they ask.  “Did Hitler have ‘inherent worth and dignity’?   If you really do ‘welcome everyone,’ shouldn’t Hitler have a place in your community?”  I’ve been asked this not only from non-UUs; I’ve been asked this by a whole lot of UUs over the years.
So what about this Universalist thing?  What about our commitment to “welcome all?”  Well … I don’t think we really ought to be welcoming to all people.  God’s love, as our Universalist ancestors would have put it, may be unending and unconditional, but our human love needs to be.  Yes, I’m saying that human love needs some kind of limits, some kind of boundaries, if we are to be healthy and whole.
Consider a woman in an abusive relationship.  She loves her husband, and when he’s not beating her he is contrite and demonstrative.  Yet who here would seriously suggest that she stay in that relationship because, after all, there shouldn’t be any limit to our love?  Is that really what we’d say, or would we tell her that she should get out of that relationship as fast as possible and never look back?  Wouldn’t we tell her — or him, since men are also abused — that their safety takes precedence over any commitment to compassion? 
I don’t mean that we can’t be — should’t be — compassionate. We can understand that the abuser was very likely abused themselves as a child and is, then, also a victim. We can hope that they get the treatment that they need.   And that doesn’t preclude our saying that for their own safety they need to sever those ties, break those bonds, and end that relationship.  And we’d no doubt tell them that any time, every time, their abuser came back to them bearing roses and remorse, they ought to say, “I may still love you.  I may still care about you.  But you are no longer welcome in my life.”  Isn’t that what most of us would do?
And what about that prescription for health and happiness we’ve all heard, which says that we shouldn’t surround ourselves with people who disrespect us, put us down, do what they can to crush our spirits and our sense of self-worth?  Such people are “toxic,” we’re told – or, in my favorite description, “psychic vampires.”  For our own well-being (and, really, safety), this philosophy council’s that we should disassociate ourselves from such people.  Once again, we can understand the psychological conditions that have probably affected the way they act in the world.  We can have all sorts of compassion for them.  But would we invited them over to hang out and sleep in our guest room?  I don’t think so, and I don’t think it’s a betrayal of our Unitarian Universalist values for us not to.
The ideal of “welcoming all” is laudable, it comes from a good place.  Yet the reality of our lives is that we often we find that our ideals can be in conflict with one another.  The conviction that we be welcoming to everyone, for instance, can be in direct opposition to our conviction that we create a safe place for the most vulnerable in our society.  Take a look at the Words of Welcome we say each week.  We say:
Whoever you are, whomever you love, however you express your identity, whatever your situation in life, whatever your experience of the holy, you presence here is a gift.
That is a welcome particularly to people who do not find themselves welcome much of the time.  It all boils down to this:  if you have been marginalized in any way, if your identity has been diminished or denied, in this place you are seen as a gift.  If the dominant culture is unsafe for you, we strive to be a community in which you will be safe. 
That’s why, for the past several years I have not been saying in the greeting, “ours is a congregation that welcomes all.”  I’ve been saying that “ours is a congregation that welcomes all who want this be a world in which all are welcome.”  I say that now, because I’ve learned that the warm and enthusiastic welcome and embrace of everyone — including the victimizers, the oppressors of our society — makes this an unsafe place for those whom the wider society has oppressed and victimized.  To say that we should welcome absolutely everybody is to directly contradict and undermine our saying that here we are striving to be a place where those who have been historically marginalized can find safe haven.  As much as our ideals may think that there should be a “both/and” here – and you know how I have always preached the theology “both/and” – there is just no practical way, no way on this earth, for this to be anything but an “either/or.”  As South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”  This is hard for us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks to hear – especially us well-meaning, good-hearted liberal folks who identify or are identified as white. 
I can hear people still saying, nonetheless, that it goes against our Unitarian Universalist values to tell someone that they’re not welcome.  Our bylaws have no provision for the removal of someone from membership, only for a person withdrawing on their own.  So let me rephrase what I’ve been saying about the author of that letter, and those who agree with its sentiments not being welcome here.  Let me try saying that a different way:
To the person who wrote that note:  you have, by your actions, effectively and clearly demonstrated that you do not ascribe to our covenant, and don’t agree with our vision and our values. And as Unitarian Universalists our communities are not bound together by creeds, but by covenant, and shared vision and values.  So by your own behavior you have shown yourself to be someone for whom this community and all that it stands for is not the kind of place you want to belong.   Because of what we say about ourselves, because of who we are and have committed ourselves to being, the kind of behavior you have demonstrated is intolerable, and by thinking that what you did should be tolerated, should be accepted, you have effectively demonstrated that this is not the community for you.  You have, effectively, withdrawn yourself from membership in this community.  I’m not asking you to leave, I’m just making it clear that you already have.
Yet even with that framing, I feel certain there will still be resistance.  I know, I am certain, that there are people who are hanging on to their hope, their faith, that we can “all just get along.”  I have no doubt that there are people who think this because they truly and deeply believe in that ideal of all-embracing love and the power of both forgiveness and redemption, and I ams sure that there are people who simply resist any kind of limit to their freedom, chafe at any assertion that some things are beyond the pale, rebel against there being any expectations or demands put on them, perhaps especially in a UU setting.  Yet whatever reasons, whatever motivation, I know that there are people who staunchly believe that this ought to be a place in which everyone – absolutely everyone – is welcome without exception.  That no one should be left out of our circle.
As a person who identifies as white, one of the things I’ve learned — and will not doubt keep learning — is that I have grown up unquestioningly in a society that is steeped in racism.  It’s in the very foundations of the dominant culture.  It’s seeped into the beams, the flooring, the walls.  It is in the air I breathe.  It is, and always has been, all around me, and it’s there in so many ways, part of the systems and structures that make up our culture, and I so often simply don’t see it.  Can’t see it, really, because it is all around me and it just seems like “the way things are.”  Even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy — the culture in which white people, and all things connected to “whiteness” are kept in a “supreme” position — even after years of trying to unlearn what the dominant culture of white supremacy has taught me, I continue to be amazed at what I don’t see.
 A month or so ago one of our Sunday services was designed entirely around the words — the stories, the experiences — of people of color.  And many of us were amazed at what a different experience UUs of color have had, and continue to have, from the ones those of us who identify as white have had.  That service provided us an experience of what we white folks who want to see the end of racism have to learn how to do — listen to people of color.  Really listen to what they’re saying about how the world looks to them.  Really listen — and really hear — what they need in this struggle for our mutual liberation, and not keep imposing our ideas of how things are supposed to be.  Because whether we know it or not, whether we want it to be or not, many of our ideas of how things are supposed to be keep things they way they are.
I saw this post on Facebook the other day, written by DiDi Delgado.  It’s an expression of how our (white) commitment to embracing absolutely everyone is experienced by people of color.  (With apologies, I’ve edited it a bit.)
Can 'allies' please stop trying to "get through" to racists and change their minds.  […] That's not why we confront white supremacy.  When we debate and argue with racists with the intent of saving them from themselves and/or changing their minds, we're centering the oppressors and not the oppressed. [,,,] The reason you're arguing with racists, confronting Nazis, challenging your xenophobic grandma, and ruining Thanksgiving dinner is to uplift and center the voices of the marginalized and situationally make being a racist as uncomfortable as being a person of color. […] The goal should be advocating for and defending the oppressed.  Anti-racism work isn't about changing the minds of racists. It's about changing the environments that allow them to practice their racism freely.  It's about speaking up for the voiceless.  If prioritizing the mental and emotional growth of oppressors is your reason for intervening, you've already lost.
If we’re going to change the culture from a paradigm of white supremacy — a paradigm which privileges people with white skin in hundreds and thousands of ways and penalizes people of color to at least the same extent — if the dominant, racist culture we say we want to undue is ever going to be transformed, then those of us who identify as white are going to have to give up some of our privileges.  I’ve been saying it here for years — we are going have to become uncomfortable. We may even have to come to see that some of our benevolent, compassionate, well-meaning values, are not as wonderful as we think, and actually cause people harm.
This attack on Christina was not just an attack on her.  The perpetrator also did real harm to every person of color, and every multi-racial family, who have called this place their spiritual home, and those who might.  To me it’s no question whether to align myself with those who have been harmed or those whose actions caused it.
You all called me here and loaned me this pulpit, asking me to speak the truth as I understand it, and I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to choose, as Forrest Church said, to be a people who choose — choose to ally ourselves with those who have been historically cast off, even if that means I must let go of my conviction that the lion should lie down with the lamb.  If I care to listen, the lambs will tell me that that’s never really worked out too well for them.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us to choose to not accept the unacceptable, to nor tolerate the intolerable.  I believe that our Unitarian Universalist faith demands that we sometimes choose not to do the thing we’re conditioned to do, perhaps even convinced we must do, instead doing the thing that brings us into the Beloved Community we say we we’re working toward.  It’s nothing less than a new world we’re trying to build, and that’s never easy.  Our Unitarian Universalist faith is not easy.  But if our 75 year history here, and the thousand year history of our Unitarian and Universalist faith, tell us anything, it’s that we UUs are strong enough, committed enough, and loving enough, to take the harder road, which is the only way to get where we know we need to go.

Parting Words
In his letter he wrote while incarcerated in the Birmingham jail, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had this to say:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice […]  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Pax tecum,


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,