Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? The song we just heard by the choir asks important questions. Would you offer a safe harbor to just about anyone who needed it? What does it mean to harbor someone? Do we always have to say yes when someone is seeking sanctuary? Is everyone really welcome at the table of this congregation? Do we want to open our doors really wide? What would that mean? How would it change us?
These are practical questions, but they are also spiritual ones. The practical ones are difficult enough, but the spiritual can be even harder.
Today is Transgender Remembrance Day. As was explained in the reading, it is a day when we are asked to remember those who have been murdered in the last year because of their real or perceived gender identity. We are going to do that now. It is important.
2017 has already seen at least 25 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means just in the United states. The world-wide total is much larger. Most are people of color.
I will now read the names of a few of those precious souls. Please hold them in tender care, knowing that each name represents at least hundreds and probably thousands of others.
- Mesha Caldwell, 41,a black transgender woman from Canton, Mississippi, was found shot to death the evening of January 4.
- Sean Hake,23, a transgender man in Sharon, Pennsylvania, died after he was shot by police responding to a 911 call from his mother.
- Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28,an American Indian woman who identified as transgender and two-spirit, was found dead in her apartment in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
- JoJo Striker, 23,a transgender woman, was found killed in Toledo, Ohio, on February 8.
- Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier,24, a transgender woman of color, was fatally shot in Chicago on the morning of February 21.
- Chyna Gibson, 31,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed in New Orleans on February 25.
- Ciara McElveen, 26,a transgender woman of color, was stabbed to death in New Orleans on February 27.
- Jaquarrius Holland, 18,was shot to death in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 19.
- Alphonza Watson,38, was shot and killed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 22.
- Chay Reed,28, a transgender woman of color, was shot and killed on April 21 in Miami.
- Kenneth Bostick, 59, was found with severe injuries on a Manhattan sidewalk, he later died of his injuries.
- Sherrell Faulkner, 46,a transgender woman of color died on May 16, of injuries sustained during an attack on November 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
- Kenne McFadden, 27, was found in the San Antonio River on April 9. Police believe she was pushed into the river, which runs through downtown San Antonio.
- Kendra Marie Adams, 28,was found in a building that was under construction and had burns on her body on June 13.
- Ava Le’Ray Barrin, 17,was shot and killed in Athens, Georgia on June 25 during an altercation in an apartment parking lot.
- Ebony Morgan, 28, was shot multiple times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early morning of July 2.
- TeeTee Dangerfield, 32,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed on July 31 in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Gwynevere River Song,26, was shot and killed in Waxahachie, Texas, on August 12.
- KiwiHerring, 30, was killed during an altercation with police on August 22 during an altercation with her neighbor.
- Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28,was fatally stabbed by his partner on September 5.
- Derricka Banner, 26, was found shot to death in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 12.
- Scout Schultz, 21, was shot and killed by Georgia Tech campus police on September 16.
- Ally Steinfeld, 17,was stabbed to death in Missouri in early September.
- Stephanie Montez, 47, was brutally murdered near Robstown, Texas.
- Candace Towns, 30,a transgender woman who was found shot to death in Georgia.
May their spirits rest in love and in peace. Let us hold their memory in a brief time of silence.
Why did these individuals and so many others like them die such violent deaths? Did no one harbor them? Could no one, even those that loved them, provide enough protection?
One of the ugliest aspects of human social behavior is the tendency we sometimes have to treat people who are different in cruel and often violent ways.
I am not sure why that is, really. Maybe it is fear. People who are different can challenge our own identities, our sense of security, and our ideas about the way the world works. We like to divide the world into binaries: male and female, black and white, religious and secular, theist and atheist, us and them, and right and wrong.
People who identify as transgender challenge that simplistic and dualistic way of looking at the world simply by living their authentic lives. The world is more than black and white. There are all the colors of the rainbow in nature, and gender expression can be just as diverse. In many indigenous cultures, people who cross traditional gender boundaries are honored as being two-spirited and often are given roles of religious leadership.
In cultures with more rigid gender roles, in cultures where crossing the gender line can threaten the patriarchal power structure, such people are instead disparaged and abused. Ours is a patriarchal culture.
Things were slowly beginning to change for the better, but we are now in the midst of a serious backlash. Transgender people were attacked early with the president wanting to ban them from serving in the armed forces, but so many people with marginalized identities of all types are at increased risk by not only the current administration, but by the forces of hate, bigotry, and division that have always been with us, but have been given new life and energy. Nazis are marching in the streets of our cities, shouting the vile slogans of racism and anti-Semitism.
Will the candles we light be brighter than their torches? Will our love be enough to save us?
How can we live with the despair we feel when we faced with so many tragedies, day after day, after day? Our hearts are weary with listening to the long lists of those lost; we weep over the names and faces of the victims of violence and hate. So much is painful these days. How can we stand to live in a world with such horrifying and rampant gun violence, with the frightening impact of climate change which has made the storms and fires so much worse, or with the deep knowledge that sexual assault is woven into the fabric of our culture when virtually every woman alive is crying out, me too, me too?
Can we find a safe harbor for ourselves? Can we provide one for others?
What does it mean to harbor someone? Is it just giving physical shelter or is it more? I think it is a lot more. It is the spiritual promise we make when we affirm our first principle: to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Harboring is welcoming, really welcoming with open arms, hearts, and open doors. We say it often on Sunday mornings, when we welcome everyone with a whole laundry list of just who that welcome includes. Repeating that list is important because when some churches say “we welcome everybody” they only sort of mean it.
They welcome everybody who is willing to accept by faith the beliefs of that particular religion. Some even ask people to change who they are. We try to practice a more radical kind of welcome here. Yes, we have some rules. You can’t smoke during the service. If you go around screaming at other people, we will ask you to be quiet or leave. We expect people to be kind and respectful of other people. But smoking and screaming and being unkind to others are behaviors, and behaviors can be changed, and we are all works in progress. Part of the mission of a religious community is to help us learn to be our best selves.
Churches are sanctuaries, spiritual sanctuaries, but also legal ones. The state is not supposed to interfere with what happens in churches. That is part of the first amendment. I love the first amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first amendment is in trouble now. The free press is being dismissed as fake news, facts are optional, the truth is whatever serves the purpose of those with the power. 1984 has come and gone and is back again.
Offering sanctuary, harboring someone is always risky business.
Some of our states have passed laws that make it a crime to even give a ride to someone who is an undocumented immigrant. Need a ride home from church? Show me your green card.
The Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker, is said to have written his sermons with a pistol beside him because he had fugitive slaves hidden in his cellar.
In Nazi Germany, if you harbored a Jew, you could be sent to a concentration camp where you could be tortured and killed.
Would you harbor me if you put your own life at risk to do so?
Not an easy question to answer, but it is one we should all be thinking about.
Even if we don’t risk death or imprisonment, really harboring someone is still risky business. What would happen to this community is we took the risk to create the kind of congregation that truly welcomed all? What would happen if we decentered the white middle-class culture that permeates almost all that we do here? What would happen if we actually welcomed Christians with the same warmth and care that we offer to those who have been hurt by Christianity?
I do believe there is hope, it is part of my faith to believe in hope. I have to keep singing, singing for all of the precious lives who need a sanctuary, who need a place to renew their spirits, a place to get the energy to go out and keep working for positive change. This community can be that kind of place, an open inclusive space, where different cultures, beliefs, and ways of being are respected, honored and celebrated. We are almost there, you have been working on it and do so much well. It will never be perfect, because nothing is ever perfect. But the stretching, the experimenting, the trying, the continual opening and reopening of our hearts and minds to a wider vision of a welcome table, that effort will help us create a beloved community that will be a true sanctuary for all who are seeking one.
Hold me, harbor me, I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Say it to yourself, say it to each other.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Now say it now to someone you don’t know, someone who isn’t here, someone maybe that you may never meet. Say it to all the hurting searching souls.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the door of a church, signaling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Because of the printing press, invented around 1440, he was able to read the Bible for himself and he took different meanings from it than what had been the orthodox view. In 1531, Michael Servetus also read the Bible for himself and then published a pamphlet called the Errors of the Trinity and our Unitarian Faith was born.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. This is reaffirmed in our 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
First, let me ask you a question, do you ever cry in church? A lot of people cry in church, and that is usually a good thing. Tears can be good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when are hearts are touched, and our services should touch our hearts.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They are told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. It is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some of the misunderstandings about the Bible. Much of what we have been told is simply wrong. This sermon today might help some of you dialogue with or resist anyone who might be beating you about the head and wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek word, euangélion, and means quite literally “good news.”
It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned, although the word has taken on that meaning in our language today.
In ancient Greece when a city-state was at war, and soldiers were far away engaged in combat, the people at home worried, just as we do today when our sons and daughters are at risk in foreign lands. After a battle, a runner raced back home, hopefully to bring the word of victory, to spread the gospel, the good news. That is the earliest evidence we have of how the word gospel was used.
When the early Christians were writing in Greek, they used the same term with the same meaning because they believed that the message of Jesus, the message of a loving God, of hope for the poor and oppressed, was very good news indeed.
Now we all want good news to be true. There is nothing so upsetting as to think something wonderful has happened and to find out there was disaster instead.
You know that feeling when you have struggled to park in the last tiny spot on a crowded street and then while walking away, you discover a small sign that tells you it is street sweeping day? We want good news to be true. We want to park our cars, our lives, someplace good, and not have to move them again. We don’t want to be required to read the fine print.
So it is with the Bible. If you read the fine print, if you study it, you will find that while it may contain good news, and much wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a delightfully droll Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Bible, he said, is a collection of the stories of a people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of stories, many of which were originally oral traditions, and almost of which were edited and changed over time.
The word Bible actually means library and comes from the name of the town Býblos, a Phoenician port where papyrus was prepared. And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books in three divisions: the law (or Torah), the prophets, and the writings. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently in order to make theological points about Christianity. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the protestant version; containing 15 additional books also known as the apocrypha, which means literally “hidden away”. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
The official version of the bible and the books included in it is often referred to as the canon.
Most of the individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions. The Torah, what Christians call the Pentateuch, is composed of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
They are referred to as the J, D, E, and P versions; P is for priestly and the style is rather dry and formulaic. The D source is found mainly in Deuteronomy.
J and E refer to two different Hebrew names for God. Scholars are still arguing about which source came first and the actual number of different sources, but they are in full agreement that the Torah was not written by Moses.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church.
If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
The New Testament section of the Bible was created in a similar fashion. It is a collection of stories and letters about Jesus and the early Church, some of which are repeated and many of which are inconsistent with each other.
Most scholars agree that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written earlier than any of the actual Gospels. They agree that Mark was the first gospel written; at least of the ones included in the canon, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark when they wrote their versions of the life of Jesus. Many believe that they also had copies of another text, possibly older than Mark, which contained various sayings of Jesus. That document is referred to as “Q”.
There was much controversy in the early church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around for the first four centuries, as well as very different oral traditions. People argued about what should be included and what should be left out. Even as late as the protestant reformation Martin Luther argued that the book of James should not be included in the canon.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them. Many of these texts were found in modern times.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which David read a portion of earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, more than 52 ancient Christian writings were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings, that are still being studied by scholars, give us a lot of clues about the diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to believe what Mary is saying.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them.
I haven’t even gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that literal translations often result in distorted meanings.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some questions. What is your holy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true. But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls around engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?
Amen and Blessed Be.
You can’t run from this pain
The fire burns in your bones
Lungs thick with smoke
Mouth tasting of ash
The trees are all gone
No homes for the birds
An echo of madness
Fills you with rage
You stop drop and roll
It is all you can do
Put your face in the dirt
Grab onto the earth
Heartbeat by heartbeat
You struggle to stand
With trembling legs
You begin over again
We gather here together each Sunday, but what are we doing? Why do we do what we do? Some of what we do is simply based upon traditions.
I really do appreciate that most of you listen to the sermon, but it really is only a small part of the worship service. Every element, from the welcome, to the music, to the readings, the prayer, the chalice lighting, the offering, and yes, the coffee hour, compose together what is hopefully a meaningful worship service.
Our earlier reading explains some of what worship does, but what is worship and what is its goal? The root of the word “worship” is “worthship”, considering things of worth. “Religion” (religare) means to bind up, to reconnect, to get it all together. To participate in worship, in this sense, does not require one to have an image of a God. Atheists get to play too.
So what is the point?
According to a document prepared for the Unitarian Universalist Association the aim, the goal, of worship is to, I quote:
“Help order the religious consciousness in the individual and the group. It is to help us know and feel how we relate as individuals to ourselves, to the world, to the totality of being.
The aim of common worship is to help us face up to our individual and collective limitations and failures, to open us to sources of creative, healing, transforming, and renewing power. It is to help us discover how that which transcends our narrow individual existence can move us, challenge us, inspire us, stimulate us to think, feel, act, and be. It is to help us declare, celebrate, rejoice in those things we have discovered to be “of worth.”
Leading the Congregation in Worship incorporated a previous document by the Commission, Common Worship: Why and How, which was written on behalf of the Commission by Frederick E. Gillis (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1981).
For the last two weeks, I have been doing a series of sermons on theology based upon a book called, “A House for Hope.” If you missed them you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. Our location is our eschatology, how we envision the end of the world and our concept of heaven or hell. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The walls our ecclesiology, and are what gather us into a collective space. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices.
We covered eschatology and soteriology in prior weeks. This week we are going to talk some about pneumatology. We’ll have three left after today: theology, ecclesiology, and missiology. Hopefully I will get to those later in the year, because I think it is important that religious communities engage the theological questions common to all human experience. That engagement is what makes us different from social clubs and social justice organizations.
Are you ready for pneumatology? Don’t stress, pneumatology is not as scary as it might sound. The word comes from the Greek pneuma, which means breath or wind. Rebecca Parker says that,
“Within (a religious community)… there breathes a sense of the Holy, a response to the Sacred Spirit or Spirits present in life, inspiring creativity, compassion and social action. Worship, art, ritual, and music shape religious community, infusing the atmosphere of its environment, making space for people to breathe.”
Take a breath. Is this a place you can breathe?
I hope so, I hope this is now or will become for you a place where you can breathe in and breathe out, a holy place, where your spirit can be restored.
Our Unitarian Universalist worship practices reflect our theologies. Practices vary from congregation to congregation, but some are common to almost all.
Music is critical in worship, because music stirs something that is beyond words, it is the real language of the soul, if the soul has a language at all.
We listen to music or we sing and the music resonates with our bodies and the space inside our lungs. The breath, the spirit begins to move within us and around us. We sing and give voice in word and music to our hopes, our dreams, and sometimes to our fears. Depending on the song, we might move or clap.
As Unitarian Universalists, we do not believe that the body or the pleasures of the body are sinful. When we sing or dance, we loosen up a bit, get out of our heads and become connected to our whole selves. One of the hymns in our hymnal contains the line, “body and spirit united once more.” That, too, is part of our theology. We sing together often during our worship services.
If a formal welcome is done, we welcome everyone because we believe that every person has inherent worth and dignity and because those of us that believe in God know that God loves everyone, no exceptions. We use the time of the announcements to invite people into the community, to engagement.
Chalice lighting words remind us of why we are here together, of the values of our faith and what our faith requires. It connects us to other congregations and the denomination as a whole.
The flaming chalice itself is a symbol that was created during World War II when our service committee was working to rescue people from Nazi Germany. When that flame is lit, our history, our present, and our future are combined during that brief moment.
In this congregation, after the chalice lighting, it is traditional to read the affirmation together. It is also our history, present and future combined. Some congregations read their mission statement instead. Both are reminders, and both define the purpose and intention of why we gather in worship.
After the opening hymn, here at UUP we call the children up to recite a greeting in both English and Spanish.
I haven’t seen this done in other congregations, but it is a nice touch, a way of more inclusive welcoming. The greeting and the story are both ways of reaffirming the commitment to children and families that has been a part of UUP from its beginning.
Our readings are sometimes the sacred texts of the various world religions, but more often they are more secular. Poetry and prose are both used. Wisdom, we believe, can be found in many places. There is little we are unwilling to examine for whatever truth or meaning might be found. Readings from our hymnal can connect us to our wider faith tradition and to the diversity it contains.
We sometimes pray together because prayer helps.
Many of us find comfort in prayer, from giving voice to our pain, from sharing the awareness that we are not alone, that if nothing else, compassion can draw us closer together. Some of us pray to the Holy, however we define that term. For others, prayer is simply a way of expressing our hopes for a better world.
Unitarian Universalist sermons, unlike many other traditions, do not follow a lectionary. The subject matter, other than around holidays, is pretty much up to the preacher and we have what is called a free pulpit and a free pew. This means, basically that the minister is free to say what they feel needs to be said, and those in the pews get to decide whether they agree or not.
The purpose of the sermon is to open up hearts and minds to something that might not have been felt or thought much about outside of church. Hopefully, it sometimes changes your mind and maybe even your heart.
If a sermon should do that, I don’t believe it is just because of the speaker or even what was said. Instead, it is pneumatology, the spirit working in the interaction and space between the words spoken and what is heard. Yeah, pneumatology is pretty mystical.
Our offering is a ritual as well, and an important part of our theology and worship service. It is partly practical of course, we need money to keep this church going, but frankly, the Sunday morning plate provides for only a small fraction of the resources we need. Instead, the offering is about acknowledging our connection, that giving and receiving is what sustains our lives as well as our spirits. We breathe out, and the plants breathe in. No one is really separate and no one is really alone. Whether you drop in a dollar, a twenty, or a hundred, you are acknowledging that this community is worth something. Remember the definition of worship, “Worthship,” considering things of worth.
The offering is not an admission charge or a fee for service, but an opportunity to participate in something that is worthwhile. I encourage you to approach the offering as the ritual it is, and to put something in the basket each and every week.
The closing words, and in smaller congregations, sometimes a closing circle, signals the end of the service and the benediction is usually a “sending forth,”, a charge to go out and act with courage to live your values. The chalice is extinguished but its light still shines.
If it worked well, a worship service will have recharged our spiritual batteries and given us the energy to better face the coming week and all the complexities of our lives.
The worship committee did a survey recently, essentially asking individuals what parts of our services they found most meaningful. Members will get a report of the results soon, and some action items resulted, but as expected, there was also a great deal of diversity of opinion.
You might want to consider later today, when you reflect back on this service, what parts spoke to you. Was it the welcome, the music, the candle lighting, the prayer, the sermon, or one of the readings? Was it simply sitting in the company of other human beings? Was it how everything flowed together or didn’t? How was the pneumatology for you today?
Then go a step further. Ask others what they found meaningful.
Maybe it was something that didn’t really speak to you as an individual. If that is true, try to just listen with curiosity, and without judgement. Remember that the whole is always greater than the parts, another aspect of our theology and our understanding of the interdependent web of life.
Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that…That which dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful about what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming.”
If the worship experience can help inspire us to create more peace and justice in the world, if it can move us to compassion and to forgiveness, if it can comfort us and give us hope, then it is worthy, it is worthwhile. Blessings on all of you.
Pirates and Rabbi’s, Meg Barnhouse and Bob Marley, I love those combinations. It is funny how a mistake, like hearing a word wrong, can lead to an insight you might not have had otherwise. Sermons work like that sometimes. There is the one I write, the one I actually speak, and then there are all of the sermons that each of you hear, none of which are exactly the same. The saying goes that people hear what they want to hear, but I also think that just as often we hear exactly what we need to hear. We all need different things at different times. If the spirit is moving as it so often seems to be in this room on Sunday mornings, the possibility of that happening is increased. Open your ears, open your heart, and let the sun shine in.
Last week, I shared some insights that I gained from a class I took by the authors of “A House for Hope.” If you missed it you can read my notes online on my blog.
Briefly, the book uses the metaphor of a house to talk about theology. The foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
Last week we talked about Eschatology.
That sermon introduced the concept of radically realized eschatology is that heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and with respect. The kingdom of God is among us.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. Some of you remember that, right? If you don’t or weren’t here last Sunday, don’t worry.
Today, we are going to check out the roof of Parker’s theological house, see how the shingles are doing, and notice if there are any pirates about. What keeps us warm? What keeps us dry? What saves us? What can shelter us from life’s hurricanes? Are you ready for another new word? Soteriology is the theology about salvation. Another way to think about it is; “What delivers us from evil?”
Anne Lamott says there are only two really sincere prayers, which are: “Help me, help me, and thank you, thank you.”
Some folks may be uncomfortable with the term “salvation.” It might help to think of it as the answer to that “help me help me” plea that I believe most of us have felt at some of the hard times in our lives.
Just as there are a variety of eschatologies, there are different soteriologies, and the two are linked in interesting ways.
Some people see salvation as an individual way to escape the punishment of hell. Many conservative Christians believe that. Evil came into the world when the devil tempted Eve in the garden. We are all tainted by this original sin.
In various stories in the Bible, God punished people by floods and other disasters and then finally sent Jesus to die on the cross. If you believe in Him, you will be saved and will go to heaven after you die or after the world is destroyed in the final days.
The response to evil in this soteriology is to defend against it, to avoid evil doers, to try and convert them if possible, and to perhaps punish them in this life as God will in the next.
There is a lot of evil in this world view, everyone is a sinner and deserves punishment. Only by the grace of God can we find a salvation that we don’t really deserve.
I frankly find those ideas pretty creepy. Salvation is defined as being saved from God’s wrath.
God is not a loving force in that soteriology, but a being that punishes by sending earthquakes and hurricanes, and sending everyone to hell if they don’t believe just the right things. It also lets humans off the hook for dealing with the real evil that is in our world and damages life.
Luckily, there are other options.
This week, we are in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days where the faithful review their thoughts and actions and try to make amends for the harm they have done. It is about getting right with the world, with yourself, with God, and beginning the New Year with your soul refreshed and restored. That is a form of soteriology. There is also been the belief that what we need to be saved from is not the wrath of God, but the consequences of human sin and human evil, that salvation comes not from holding a specific belief, but from the powers of life, love and goodness that are all around us. In more liberal Christian theology, Jesus saves by the example of his life and work. His death was not a sacrifice demanded by God, but the result of the oppressive Roman Empire. His resurrection, which does not have to be taken literally, is evidence that the powers of life and love can counter and even, at times, defeat evil.
But what is evil? What is sin? Two more tricky concepts. Some define sin as a rebellion against God. The liberal theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch, rejects that notion. He says when theologians speak of rebellion against God, it reminds him of despotic governments which treat every offense as treason.
“Our universe is not a monarchy with a despotic God above and humans down below, but a spiritual commonwealth with God in the midst of us.” For Rauschenbusch and others, sin is not the betrayal of God’s rules, but the betrayal of one another. Sin of that sort destroys life giving relationships of love and justice.
Rebecca Parker says that evil is that which exploits the lives of some to benefit the lives of others.
Evil is not just what individuals do, it hides in systems of oppression, in racism, in anti-Semitism, in sexism, in homophobia, and in economic systems that do not include any protection for those with less power and less money. Salvation is also not individual. We save ourselves when we work for a world of justice where everyone is saved. This fits in well with the social Gospel eschatology of building the Kingdom of heaven here on earth.
It also fits well with Universalist eschatology where we will all end up in heaven together – so it only makes sense to try and get along now.
I don’t think I have told you the story of the tourist who was taking a tour of heaven? No? Maybe some of you have heard it.
“An angel takes the tourist around, showing that everything is beautiful and varied. Some people are chanting in a park, some are sitting in silent meditation by a river, some are laughing and dancing on a hillside. The tourist then notices some walls that reach up to the sky. What is that? It is the section for those that wouldn’t be happy if they thought anyone else was here.”
Universalism – everyone gets to heaven, even those who want to be alone there.
So far we have covered three theologies of salvation. One says only some are saved. The criteria can vary depending on the particular group. Another says that salvation is collective not individual and that when we create a just world with a healthy and sustainable planet we will be saved. The third says that everyone is saved.
There is one other soteriology that I want to describe.
It, as far as I know, hasn’t been called radically realized soteriology, but I think it should be. In this one, the hope for salvation isn’t deferred to another life or tied to success in building a better world, but is realized in the here and now. Salvation can be defined as what we long for, what we need to feel like our life has meaning. What do you long for? What would be your salvation? What is the metaphorical roof over your life that keeps you from harm. For me, it is very simply being fully alive, engaged with each other and with the world, staying “woke,” if you will. It is trying to resist evil with patience and wisdom and it is also taking the time to celebrate all that is right with the world. It isn’t neat; it isn’t particularly easy, but for me it is what being alive is about. We don’t have to lose everything and we don’t have to be kidnapped by a pirate in order to appreciate what is most important. It isn’t money and it isn’t clothes, it isn’t a job or a house. You know that. It also isn’t a dream of an otherworldly paradise, particularly if your vision of such a paradise causes you to be less than kind to others who may not share your specific vision.
“Old pirates, yes, they rob I.” They rob you too. But we still sing songs of freedom, redemption songs. We sing them together. That can be our collective salvation. Blessed be.
We’ve got a feast for the spirit here, and a feast for the mind. Mango thoughts and jalapeno talk. There is nothing bland about the Unitarian Universalists of Petaluma, right? Oh, yeah.
But church should be more than interesting dishes on a potluck line. A church should be a sanctuary, a place for respite from a sometimes painful and frightening world, and a place to give us the energy to live our lives in ways that can make a meaningful difference in the world.
While I was in seminary at Starr King, I studied both preaching and theology with Rebecca Parker. Several years later, I took a class taught by both Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens, a former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We discussed the instructors’ recent book: “A House for Hope, the promise of progressive religion for the twenty first century.” If you are interested in reading it, you can order it online from the UUA bookstore.
Their book contains some serious and meaty theology, and presents, I believe, some critical understandings of Unitarian Universalist theology, a theology that help us hold onto both hope and purpose in these challenging times. It is important enough and complex enough, that I am going to do a sermon series on it. For three weeks in a row, we are going to dive fairly deep into theology. I hope you are ready for the ride.
Parker and Buehrens use the metaphor of a house to explain the theological basis of progressive religion, including, but not limited to, Unitarian Universalism.
This metaphorical house has a foundation and is built in a particular place. It has walls and rooms, a roof and a doorway. All of these correspond to categories in systemic theology, which is simply an organized way to look at the different aspects of various religions.
Briefly, because this might give some of you a headache, the foundation is how we understand God and the relationship of humans to the divine. This is theology. The walls are what gather us into a collective space. This is ecclesiology and includes how our religious community is organized and governed. The rooms are how we create a welcoming home for the spirit: pneumatology, which includes our rituals and worship practices. The roof is what protects us from harm: soteriology, the theology of salvation, is what saves us from evil. The doorway is how we engage with the world: missiology, our mission or reason for being. Finally, there is our location, which is obviously here on this earth, this planet, but how we see this earth, especially the end of the earth, the end of time, is eschatology.
We are going to start with the last one: Eschatology, our location and relationship to the earth, the end of the earth, the end of time.
But first, some context:
There is a lot to Unitarian Universalism. We have our seven principles and six sources. We read the principles earlier, and both the principles and our sources are in the front of the grey hymnal.
The sources help to explain who we are and where we come from, and the principles are good guides for living. But neither the principles or the sources are actually theology.
Some folks confuse theology with creeds, so let me clear that up immediately. As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t have a creed, no one tells us what we have to believe. As the song goes, we welcome atheists and redneck Hindus, as well as Pagan Buddhist Jews. That is part of what we offer to those who would join us. No one needs to check who they are and what they believe at the door.
I know that is very important to many of you. It was to me when I first found Unitarian Universalism.
We don’t have a creed, but we do, my friends, have some particular theological perspectives that influence how we interact with each other and with the world.
These perspectives are made up of the various parts I mentioned earlier: theology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, soteriology, missiology, and eschatology.
If you can’t remember the definitions of those words, don’t stress. Think about a house with a foundation, walls, rooms, a roof, and a doorway.
Just like a house, none of these theological parts can stand alone.
How we conceive of the divine affects how we organize our churches. How we see salvation affects how we determine our mission. How we worship together reflects all of the above.
Let’s start with how we see the world and the ultimate purpose of existence. The most common eschatology in our wider culture here in the United States is the one that goes something like this: God created the world and in the end humanity will meet its maker, be judged and end up in either heaven or in hell. The end of the entire world will come at the end of a cosmic battle between good and evil called Armageddon. The world will be destroyed, but the faithful will be saved and taken to a new paradise. This is not what most Unitarian Universalists believe. As it said in the song, in case of Rapture, pack a snack, ’cause we’ll be left behind.
The major problem with that eschatology is that this world, this life, has meaning only so far as it gets us to heaven. If we believe that, we don’t have to worry about degradation of the environment as it will all be destroyed anyway. The pain and suffering in our own lives, the oppression so many are forced to live with, doesn’t matter because the rewards will all come after we die.
Most Unitarian Universalists don’t believe any of that. We do worry about the end of the world, more at some times than others, but our fears are about climate change, war, and other disasters, and not the wrath or judgement of some God.
There are three eschatologies that can be defined as liberal, all of which have been around at least since the beginning of Christianity.
Briefly, these three can be defined as Social Gospel, Universalist, and radically realized eschatology.
All are fairly popular within Unitarian Universalism and many are also shared by other faith traditions. As I go through, think about which one fits what you believe.
Quite of few of our hymns reflect the social gospel eschatology. “We’ll build a Land” is one of the more obvious.
We are here to build the Kingdom of God here on earth where justice shall roll down like waters and peace like an ever-flowing stream. This social gospel eschatology is also very popular with Methodists and many Catholics. The only problem with it is that building heaven on earth is hard work. You have to feed all of the hungry people in the world, end all oppression, and probably be extremely nice all the time too. It can also be frustrating when the arc of the universe seems to be bending away from justice. The approach can be inspirational, it can feed the spirit, but if it the only dish served at the church potluck it can also be overwhelming.
The second of the more liberal eschatologies is Universalism, which holds, basically, that “God’s love embraces the whole human race: another line from one of our hymns. If God loves all of us, then we should try to get along. The Universalist faith is in a God of Love who works to bring all into relationship with the divine.
The third liberal eschatology is radically realized eschatology. It is radical, because it says heaven is right here and right now. This world and this life are sacred. We stand on holy ground. Our task is to recognize that fact and to treat each other and the earth with gentle care and respect.
Jesus said, the kingdom of God is among us. Moses was told to take off his shoes for the ground he stood on was holy.
With this understanding, we are drawn to repair and heal what is broken, not because it will bring about some perfect future world, but simply because the dance we are doing here is a holy dance. As Rumi says, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Personally, I like some of all three of the progressive eschatologies. I still dream of a better world and want to help that come about. I believe in a God, a sacred source of love and compassion, that loves each and every one of us. But for my house of hope, I want to live in the radically realized vision, because with that one, heaven is already pretty much here. Yes, there is pain and suffering, but life is also to be enjoyed and treasured. Let it be a dance we do, another line from our hymnal, reflects this attitude.
As I said earlier, the parts of a theological house need to fit together. I am not going to go as deeply into the other parts today, simply because there isn’t time. We will do more in the next couple of weeks
But briefly, some of what we try to do in our worship services relate directly to radically realized eschatology. We have fun. We sing joyful songs and we recognize that life itself is a blessing, that it can be simply awesome. And yes, we can work hard for justice in so many ways, but we also have fun while we do it. It affects our mission, how we organize ourselves, and how we see God. It helps us figure out how to “let nothing evil cross this door.
It tells us that heaven can be right here, that comfort and healing can be found, not in some far-off place, but right here, right now.
That is the hope, a hope that is here because we can feel it among us when we gather together. We all know about hell. We all see the damage that is being done by those who believe that this life doesn’t matter, who don’t really care about protecting our planet because they think God will destroy it anyway.
We also know heaven. We see it in the sparkle of our children’s eyes. We see it in the tenderness of our caring committee. We feel it in our chalice circles, where we share our stories from deep inside.
Rebecca Parker and John Buehrens say that to thrive, hope requires a home.
The fire rains down across the west
Choking smoke and flames
The water rises with the wind
Drowning out our southern lands
The drums of war beat loudly
Behind the Nazi chants
Dreams turn into nightmares
None of us are safe
I don’t believe in Armageddon
That’s not my kind of God
This horror is not holy
And prayers are not enough
Breathe deep with battered lungs
And sing into the howling wind
Beat your hands in time to music
Keep heaven in your heart
The roots of love run deep
A taproot to our souls
Be like the mighty redwood
Staying strong amidst the flames.
Snap your head
Back over your shoulders
Though it might seem
The world has gone insane
No time for dreaming
Lost in the clouds
Of a sweet fantasy land
Where reason might rule
Break open your hands
Dig in the dirt
Find the lost souls
Buried in fear
Wind up your wisdom
Carry your load
Speak when you’re able
As loud as you can
The rain is still falling
The flood waters burn
With the acid of lies
From clouds of despair
Pack up your troubles
And lend me a hand
If we stay woke
We might witness the dawn
Some words by Jonipher Kwong, a poem entitled
They say faith without works is dead
So I worked for equality
Next to my queer friends who wanted to get married
And I worked for religious freedom
Next to my Muslim friends who were accused of being terrorists
And I worked for racial justice
Next to my black friends whose lives were affected by police brutality
Yet I didn’t feel fully alive even after working myself to death
Until I let my work become a spiritual practice
Until I let go of my attachment to the outcome
Until I stopped chasing after political issues, one after another
I still believe faith without works is dead
But works without faith is just as lifeless
I was an activist before I was religious, and those words ring true for me. Without some type of faith, political engagement can really suck the joy out of life. There are always defeats and disappointments, hard fought progress is stopped or, worse, reversed. Despair, frustration, and bitterness can grow until one can forget to treat even friends with kindness. Infighting and misplaced righteousness has torn many a positive movement apart.
I have experienced that, I have seen it and I have lived it. Many of you have lived it too. Sometimes it even happens in churches.
I was worried when I went to New Orleans in June for our Unitarian Universalist General Assembly. A pattern of white supremacy within our association had been called out by brave Unitarian Universalists of color. There was defensiveness and some serious mistakes by some of our leadership which resulted in some significant resignations, including that of our national President. Our well-respected Moderator was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer and he died within a matter of weeks. Both of our two nationally elected offices were vacant.
What was going to happen? Would our faith be torn apart by the same forces that were tearing apart our country and the whole world? Would we find the courage and wisdom to resist not only the forces of evil that surrounded us, but also the fear that lived inside of us?
So, I was very worried. I knew what was happening within was in part the result of what was going on in the world. After the election, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities of all kinds, people who identify as Jewish or Muslim, immigrants, felt even more vulnerable than they had before. The list goes on to include everyone who is marginalized in some way, even women who are a majority in numbers but not in power, and of course that list includes all of the people that love someone whose very worth and dignity, whose actual life in many cases, is under direct attack.
So no wonder, so no wonder, that folks became more sensitive to instances of white supremacy, of sexism, of all the “isms” that afflict our culture, even the culture of our faith tradition.
I worried, but I shouldn’t have. I should have had more faith that who we are as Unitarian Universalists would help us through even this hard time.
My experience at both General Assembly and Ministry Days was simply amazing, and renewed my faith and my commitment.
Our national board named three African American co-presidents who led with grace, compassion, and courage. The Minister’s association’s worship included voices of ministers of color and other marginalized groups who spoke their truths as clearly as they described their visions. Co-moderators were appointed who led the business portions of our meetings with humor, transparency, and a flexibility that was a real joy to witness.
We tackled white supremacy in numerous workshops and in healing spaces reserved for people of color.
That work is far from done – Let me share an example of something I learned in one of the workshops, something that I don’t think was a part of the lesson plan. The workshop was described as a place to sing some of the music in our hymnal that comes out of the African American heritage. The room was crowded and it was clear there weren’t going to be enough hymnals for those sitting in the back. As often happens, there were plenty of seats up front. The workshop leader asked those in the back to move up front so they could share a hymnal. And then, a white woman in the back questioned this, saying it would be much better if some of the hymnals were handed to those in the back.
It was subtle, it was likely unconscious, but it was a clear example of how white supremacy can function in a religiously liberal setting. I caught the eye of the African American woman sitting next to me who also noticed the sense of entitlement that seemed to prompt that demand. The facilitator simply said no, we aren’t going to do that. Too often white folks think we know better and that our needs and ideas should take priority, even if we are late to the party. Listening, really listening, to the stories and experiences of a very diverse Unitarian Universalism was an important part of that week in New Orleans.
It was a joy that our youth from this church were there to experience it as well. Next week, they will be sharing some of their experiences with you.
I could go on about general assembly, it was a full and fruitful time.
But our world keeps turning, and there is going to be an eclipse of the sun – tomorrow, yes?
What a metaphor a solar eclipse is. Especially for us, who light our chalice each week for the light of truth, the warmth of love and the energy of action. We cannot let that light go out. We cannot let the forces of hate and bigotry, we cannot let fascism, because that is what it is, we cannot let it blot out our sun or dim our chalice. The symbol of our chalice, as most of you know, was created during WWII when we, as a faith, took a stand against the Nazi regime and all it stood for.
Many Unitarian Universalists were in Charlottesville last weekend, including Susan Frederick Gray, our newly elected national president, the first woman to ever serve in that position. Arm in arm with her were other clergy, including Jeanne Pupke, who had run against Susan in one of the pleasantest elections I have ever witnessed. Many were trained, many were veterans of non-violent resistance actions. Facing armed Nazi’s screaming racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic curses at them was a very different experience than they had ever had before. What courage that took. What faith they had.
They were not safe. They could have, and almost were, beaten. They could have been killed. Heather Heyer was murdered that day and many others were hurt.
During WWII no one was really safe from the Nazis, and I believe no one is safe today. They have come for the immigrants already. They have attacked Mosques and synagogues, they have burned down the houses of gay activists as happened in Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
What is happening is frightening; it can be overwhelming; and it can freeze our souls to numbness and despair.
We need to resist this evil with all that is in us, and we can do so with joy, rejoicing in the fact that we are not alone in this struggle against hate. We can do so with faith, knowing that as long as we remain true to our values, with our tradition as a guide, and the power of love as our engine, the forces of evil will not prevail. Our spirits will be renewed and our world restored.
I will end with these words by Anne Barker. She names the pain and she names the love that abides:
When the Unimaginable Happened
When we heard the news, saw the wreckage, felt the paralyzing blow…
Our hearts broke open – and spilled out – into our hands
And there we were
Watching our Love seep between our fingers
Watching our fragile Love pour out all over us.
Watching our Love seem to slip away.
When the unimaginable happened,
The ache we felt-
As if Love was being lost
Was the ache of Love’s despairing truth.
This is the Love that no one chooses,
the loss so out of order, so profound,
the Love we did not ever want to know.
And yet, the source of this despair,
the reason our hearts cleave and flow,
is because they know the fullness.
This is the Love of truth and beauty,
Love that spans the web of being,
Uniting each of us within its timeless form.
When we heard the news,
Our hearts broke open, spilled into our hands
And there we stared at Love, lamenting,
“What am I to do with this?”
And with these raw and tender yearnings
We will – beat after precious beat-
Seek wholeness once again
It will take time to find our balance
To grieve, if we will make the room.
Remember, friends, this is the right thing
This ache within our deepest beings.
Know that all these things are normal
To feel disrupted, empty or undone.
Our hearts broke open and the Love that is still true
Draws us once again together, story by story, step by step,
Into places of tender knowing, remembering
To restore us, mend us, piece by broken piece.
This is the Love that runs between us,
Sustaining force of restoration,
The Love that nourishes and feeds us,
Binds us, each, to our collective core.
We grieve…and march….and weep….and sing
And through the pain – but not despite it –
Love will repair us, not the same, but stronger in some places,
Honoring memories like treasures,
Living out our lives’ potential
In the shadow of the trespass
In the warmth of one another
In the light of what, restored, we will become.
May it be so, Blessed Be.
Sometimes when I wake
I am not sure
Where I have been
Dreams are like that
A soft focus
An imagined universe
Where the rules
Never quite apply
Sometimes when I stop
Doing whatever it was
That kept me busy
I am not sure
Where I am
What kind of world is this?
A harsh light
Batters my eyes
And I awake
To the suffering
All around our world
Hold me in a dream
Bring me home
To that land
Love and justice thrive
Peace at last
A soft focus
A sweet dream